Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. (He had previously set out to be a historian.) Now, he boasts thirty years of eclectic journalism experience. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Press.

Currently, he is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade...in addition to his work at Michigan Radio.

Throughout his years of journalism experience, his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled.

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Commentary
11:50 am
Wed October 26, 2011

John Conyers: Running for Congress

When you talk to State Senator Bert Johnson about running for Congress next year, the first thing he’ll tell you is that “this is not about John Conyers,” the man he‘s taking on in the Democratic primary next August.  That‘s true, in a sense.

The newly configured Thirteenth Congressional District is slightly more than half Detroit; the rest is mainly blue-collar Wayne County suburbs. Conyers, who has been in Congress since nineteen sixty-five, doesn‘t live in the district, not yet, anyway.

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commentary
11:08 am
Tue October 25, 2011

New Detroit Bridge: Legislative Breakdown

There now seems to be an increasing likelihood that Governor Snyder may bypass the legislature and find another way to build a new bridge across the Detroit River. Late last week, a spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge Company said that would be outrageous.

He said it would be a perversion of the process to build a new bridge after the legislature said no. If that were the case, he might have a point. But that’s not at all what happened.

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Politics
11:16 am
Mon October 24, 2011

Sex Offender Registry: First, Do No Harm

For months, I’ve been corresponding with a lady named Virginia Hernandez, whose twenty-three year old son Elio is on Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry. He was accused of accosting a minor for immoral purposes, and pled guilty on the advice of his court-appointed counsel. His mom believes he is innocent, and was pressured into a plea. She says his attorney told him that he was poor, uneducated, and black, and a jury would never believe him.

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Auto/Economy
9:53 am
Fri October 21, 2011

Keeping An Eye On Chrysler

There was a fair amount of anxiety in automotive circles over the new contracts hammered out between the United Auto Workers union and Ford and General Motors. GM remains the largest Detroit automaker, and this was the first post-bankruptcy contract.

The pact didn’t give workers as much as some had hoped for, and it did nothing to eliminate the new two-tier wage system that many old-time union members especially hate.

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Commentary
10:38 am
Thu October 20, 2011

A New Detroit River Bridge: Bump in the Bridge Bills

So what happened yesterday?

For months, everybody interested in the possibility of a new bridge over the Detroit River had waited for the State Senate Economic Development Committee to take a vote.

Not that this would settle much of anything -- except to decide whether to let the full senate decide whether to vote. Most of the committee members have taken political contributions from the owner of the ancient Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun.

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Commentary
10:59 am
Wed October 19, 2011

A New Bridge Across the Detroit River: Conflict of Interest?

Here’s something you may not know about journalists: We have a pretty high standard of integrity, especially when it comes to conflicts of interest. We normally don’t cover any events in which we have any kind of personal interest -- especially economic interest.

Any time we even suspect we may have any conflict, we are obliged to tell our bosses, and our public. There are some gray areas, but I can tell you this. If I did a commentary urging you to support someone who gave me thousands of dollars, I’d be fired.

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Commentary
10:53 am
Tue October 18, 2011

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley: Speaking Frankly

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley issued more formal opinions about the constitutionality of various Michigan laws than any attorney general in history.

Of course, that’s partly because he served longer in the office than any attorney general in the history of this or any other state-- thirty-seven years. He was elected ten times, and retired before he had to. Now nearly eighty-seven, he is mostly cheerful, healthy, and enjoying life from his home on Lake Lansing.

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Commentary
11:08 am
Mon October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Where does it go from here?

I drove into downtown Traverse City on Saturday afternoon, and to my surprise, found an Occupy Wall Street demonstration occupying both sides of Front Street, the town’s main drag.

Well, it was actually called an “Occupy Traverse City,” demonstration. The protestors, who numbered perhaps fifty or sixty, seemed more cheerful than angry. The weather was brisk but pleasant; it was a nice day to be outside.

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Commentary
12:01 pm
Fri October 14, 2011

Michigan Student Dropout Rates, Schools as Communities

We’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out how to fix our schools, which don’t seem to be working. Some people think the best solution is to essentially abandon the public schools, and turn things over to various sets of for-profit charter schools.

Others are dubious about that, even though it is clear that the public schools aren‘t working for a lot of kids.

Well, I was someplace earlier this week where they are trying something different, and it may be worth thinking about here. I was in Toledo, Ohio, just a long fly ball from the Michigan border.

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Politics
10:39 am
Thu October 13, 2011

Michigan Campaign Finance Reforms, So Close and Yet?

They came so close and I was really hopeful for a while. But in the end, they just weren’t good enough.

I hope you were disappointed too. Wait a minute -- did you think I was talking about the Detroit Tigers?

I don’t know whatever gave you that idea. What I‘m talking about are the campaign finance reforms unveiled yesterday by Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

I have been complaining for a long time about our campaign finance laws. It’s bad enough that it often costs several times an official’s salary to run for office.

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Commentary
10:02 am
Wed October 12, 2011

Romney’s Biggest Problem

You don’t have to be a cranky old man like me to think that presidential campaigns start far too early these days.

The next election is still more than a year away, but the campaign already has been going on for months and months.

Some candidates, like Minnesota’s Tom Pawlenty, have already dropped out of the race. Former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native Mitt Romney said recently that he thinks it is too late for someone new to get in, and he is probably right.

It takes too much money to run a winning campaign today, and much to the cash available has already been sewn up.

Compare this to the way things were in nineteen sixty eight, when Robert Kennedy didn’t even get into the race until the middle of March and might well have been nominated, if he hadn’t been killed.

But if it is too late for someone new to start a campaign, it is also too early for anyone to have any idea who is going to win.

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Commentary
9:43 am
Tue October 11, 2011

Expanding Charter Schools

We usually think of Franklin D. Roosevelt today as the quintessential liberal, big government president -- and in today’s polarized politics, both sides look back at his New Deal as the time when things either started going right or wrong, depending.

However, FDR didn’t think of himself that way. Once, when asked about his ideology, he said something like, “I try something, and if it doesn’t work, I try something else." Those who were really on the far left in his day mainly hated him. They understood what he was trying to do better than the right wing did.

As author Gore Vidal put it, “He saved capitalism. Whether it should have been saved or not is a different question. But he saved it, all right.”

I was reminded of this today by the ongoing, ferocious debate going on in Lansing over charter schools, which are independent, for-profit, public schools. A new package of bills would lift virtually all restrictions on charters, which are now limited to areas where public school performance is below average.

What bothers me is that so much of the ongoing debate over these schools is ideological or self-serving. And too few of the lawmakers debating these proposals are asking any version of FDR’s classic question, which in this case should be put this way:

What is the best way to make sure these children are being educated? Common sense means that we should all be in favor of any system that gets that job done, by any means necessary.

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Commentary
11:01 am
Mon October 10, 2011

Gary Peters, Gearing Up

When Gary Peters runs for Congress next year, there’s one vote he has no chance of getting.

His own. Thanks to redistricting, he lives just barely outside the district he plans to run in. Over coffee yesterday, he told me that his daughter will be a high school senior, and out of consideration for her, the family plans not to move until after she graduates.

There’s nothing illegal about that. Congressmen don’t have to live in their districts. But it highlights the general insanity of the redistricting process. Peters, who has served two terms in the House of Representatives, will be one of two candidates for Michigan’s biggest, toughest and most exciting race for Congress next year.

But that race won’t happen next November. Nor will Peters be facing a Republican. This battle will be fought out next summer, and settled by the August primary. There, the two youngest and most vibrant members of the Democratic delegation will be forced to try to end each other’s career.

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Commentary
12:09 pm
Fri October 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice? Not So Much

When your local state legislator campaigns for reelection next time, or runs for some other office, they may remind you of how they helped save the state by gallantly giving up their retirement health care benefits.

When and if they do, you might want to remember that this is mostly a form of horse exhaust. With a very few exceptions, they didn’t vote to give up their benefits at all.

They voted to deny benefits to other people who haven’t been elected yet, and who could theoretically change the law back.

As for our current band of elected leaders - they are mostly keeping their benefits, thank you very much.

Here’s what’s really going on. Retired Michigan legislators have, in fact, been getting taxpayer-subsidized health care benefits since the nineteen-fifties. By the way, it was a solidly Republican legislature that first voted to do this. Contrary to some propaganda you may have been hearing, the benefits aren’t completely free, and they don‘t kick in till the ex-lawmakers reach age fifty-five.

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Commentary
11:02 am
Thu October 6, 2011

Train from Detroit to Chicago, time out for good news

AccuWeather, the  respected private weather forecasting service based in Pennsylvania, is  predicting this will be a horrible winter, worse even than the last one. This  news came on the very day it became certain that it will
soon be faster to  escape to Chicago.

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Auto/Economy
11:06 am
Wed October 5, 2011

Ford and the UAW

There’s a fair amount of grumbling in union ranks over the new four-year contract the United Auto Workers reached with Ford.

Some workers are unhappy that they failed to gain back concessions, and that there is nothing new for the retirees, who overwhelmingly outnumber those still working on the line.

Ford workers also thought they deserved more than those at GM and Chrysler, mainly because their automaker was the only one not to declare bankruptcy. They get a little more, but not much.

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Commentary
10:51 am
Tue October 4, 2011

Detroit sports teams doing well, what about Michigan politics?

If I were a politician and had something embarrassing I knew I would have to reveal, I know exactly when I would do it.

I’d wait to see if the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees tonight, and if they do, I’d immediately make my confession.

Why is that? Because almost no one would notice. Everything in life is a matter of timing, and we can handle only so much news at once. Here’s something baffling about that.

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Politics
10:57 am
Mon October 3, 2011

Best government money can buy?

Once upon a time, I was in a social studies class in eighth grade, and we were studying how our system of government works. We were told that in America, we had free elections.

Candidates ran for various offices, and in each case the people decided which had the best ideas and seemed to be the best qualified. We then voted, and the candidate who convinced the most people they were the best man or, occasionally, woman, won.

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Politics
11:39 am
Fri September 30, 2011

Mark Gaffney: Worried About the Workers

On Monday, Mark Gaffney, who has been president of the state AFL-CIO for a dozen years, will turn over the job to Karla Swift, a longtime staffer for the United Auto Workers union.

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Politics
11:32 am
Thu September 29, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

A while ago, somebody asked me what the biggest thing was that I had learned from a lifetime in journalism.

What instantly popped into my mind was this: Common sense is a very uncommon thing. And that keeps a lot of journalists in business. You don’t need fancy degrees to know that it risky, not to mention wrong, to steal money, tell lies that can be easily uncovered, or cheat on your dying wife when you are running for president.

However, that doesn’t stop brilliant, well-educated people from doing such things and self-destructing, all  the time.

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