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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Politics
11:04 am
Thu August 25, 2011

Local Control and Health Care

As you may know by now, the Michigan Legislature passed a bill  yesterday limiting how much local governments and schools can spend to provide health care for their employees.

The new law, which Governor Snyder is expected to sign, says local governments can contribute a maximum of fifty-five hundred dollars an employee, or fifteen thousand dollars a family.

Their only other option is to split health coverage cost with the employees, as long as the workers pay at least twenty percent.

Local governments can opt out of these requirements, but it won’t be easy. They’d have to do so by a two-thirds vote of their council or school board, and take a new vote every year.

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Politics
10:56 am
Wed August 24, 2011

Governor Snyder, Going to China

The other day, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office announced he would be going to China next month. Actually, he will be going to both China and Japan, on a whirlwind, week-long trip that will begin with his attending a trade association meeting in Tokyo.

This will be a high-powered trip. Along with him, the governor will be taking Mike Finney, the director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, known as MEDC; the state agriculture director, and four other economic development officials.

The reason for the trip, the governor’s communications director said, was to talk about why investment in Michigan is a good idea, and also to promote our state’s farm products.

Politicians often get criticized for taking junkets abroad -- sometimes rightly so. But not only is this trip a good idea, it is terribly necessary and way overdue.  In Toledo, just to our south, Chinese businessmen have spent millions to buy land along the Maumee riverfront, which they plan to develop for a variety of uses.

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Economy
10:42 am
Tue August 23, 2011

The Future of Michigan Railroads

A few weeks ago, I talked about efforts Michigan is making to improve passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago, efforts which include buying and upgrading a portion of the track.

That prompted some enthusiastic response from people who said they were eager for more passenger rail service.

Not just to Chicago, that is, but everywhere. Some were older listeners, who had fond memories of Pullman cars and traveling the nation by rail back in the day. Others were romantics or environmentalists or people not in love with automobiles.

There do seem to be a lot of us who are tired of fighting roads and traffic jams and paying four dollars a gallon for gas. This got me to wondering whether railroads are in fact mostly a part of our romantic past, or an important segment of our transportation future.

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Commentary
11:44 am
Mon August 22, 2011

Odd Man Out

There’s a game of musical chairs going on right now to determine which congressman will end up without a job a year from January. Yesterday, the likely outcome became a little more clear.

First of all, a little background: Michigan is losing a seat in congress because of national population shifts. The legislature redrew the boundary lines, and since Republicans control everything in Lansing, they made sure it would be a Democrat who lost out.

The only question was, which one? When the proposed new districts were revealed, it seemed at first that Oakland County’s Gary Peters would be the certain loser. The area in which he lives and fellow Democrat Sander Levin lives wound up in the same district.

The two men could run against each other in next August’s primary, of course, but on paper, Peters wouldn’t stand a chance.

Most of the new district is territory Levin has been representing, so he has home field advantage. Sandy Levin is also a sort of an icon. He was first elected to the state senate before Peters was six years old. He’s completing thirty years in Congress.

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Commentary
11:03 am
Fri August 19, 2011

Tourism’s Bright Spot

Nobody needs me to tell them that this has been a rough decade for Michigan’s economy. The roughest since the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties.

And, as the stock market plunge indicates, a return to the prosperity we used to take for granted is nowhere in sight.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few bright spots, and one of the brightest has been tourism. A few weeks ago, I spent an hour with George Zimmerman, who runs Travel Michigan the official state tourism promotion agency.

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Commentary
10:22 am
Thu August 18, 2011

Should there be fewer judges in Michigan?

Does Michigan need fewer judges? The chief justice of the state supreme court thinks so, and so does the governor.

Yesterday, a new study by the state court administrative office recommended eliminating forty-five of the almost six hundred trial judges in Michigan, and also getting rid of four appeals court judges.

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Commentary
10:52 am
Wed August 17, 2011

Children in Poverty

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan has more than half a million kids in families whose incomes are below the poverty level. Half a million. That’s according to reliable figures provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan League for Human Services.

Every year, they bring us something called the Kids Count Data Book, a demographic survey of children’s well-being, funded by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This year’s study shows that almost one in four Michigan kids is poverty-stricken. That’s as of two years ago, and the situation probably worsened last year. That’s more significant than it seems: Poverty-stricken children all too often grow up to be poor, unemployed and sometimes unemployable adults. They seldom get the education they need to be successful in the modern economy.

Additionally, kids who live under economic stress also tend to have more health problems, according to Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Kids Count in Michigan project.

That should bother you even if you have a heart of stone, because society is going to end up paying a tremendous economic as well as human cost as a result. We won’t see the full effect of the recession on our children for years.

And, there are things we could do to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, according to the experts, we seem to be choosing policies guaranteed to do exactly the opposite. Michigan, by the way, isn’t the worst state in the nation when it comes to child poverty, though we are worse than most.

We’ve fallen a few notches to thirtieth out of fifty states. But while child poverty went up nationally by 18 percent since two thousand, it increased in Michigan by a staggering 64 percent.

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Commentary
11:15 am
Tue August 16, 2011

Sense of Decency

Back in the nineteen-seventies, Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Swainson, a former governor, was accused of having accepted a bribe. He was acquitted of that, but convicted of perjury.

There are plenty of people, including his biographer, Lawrence Glazer, who think Swainson was actually innocent of anything other than bad judgment and trying to be his own attorney.

But after the verdict, Swainson didn’t spend his life whining to the press about the injustice of it all.

The former governor, an authentic war hero who had his legs blown off in the Second World War, resigned from the court, lost his law license, did his time, and disappeared into obscurity.

Years later, he worked hard and diligently at rehabilitating himself, and became a highly respected head of the Michigan Historical Commission before he died in nineteen ninety-four.

I mention all this because I thought of him yesterday, when splashed across the papers were long stories about a self-justifying interview disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick gave on an AM radio station yesterday morning.

Kilpatrick, you may remember, just got out of prison for violating probation. He is facing a new trial on a vast array of corruption charges that could send him to federal prison for thirty years.

Nobody disputes that his lies cost his impoverished city nine million dollars, or that he still owes nearly a million in court-ordered restitution. Nevertheless, the press feel compelled to give him a forum to criticize the present mayor, an indisputably honest man.

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Commentary
10:27 am
Mon August 15, 2011

Congressman Hansen Clarke: Shaking Things Up

There was a time in Hansen Clarke’s life when the thing he wanted most in the world was to be a Congressman, back when he was twenty-five years old or so.

This year, that happened. He beat Detroit incumbent Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary a year ago, and then won an easy victory in his district, centered on his native east side of Detroit. Ever since, he’s been going a mile a minute.

“You know everybody told me that I needed to get experienced Washington staffers,” he said. But then “I found out what they knew how to do was tell me why things couldn’t be done and tell me I shouldn’t try.”  Clarke’s an easygoing guy.

But he has small patience for that kind of attitude. Early on, someone told him that drafting and developing a complex piece of legislation could sometimes take up to a year. “I don’t have a year,” he told me.  “Neither does Detroit or the nation.”

But Clarke told me he had learned an important lesson. He said he was now getting things done because he didn’t know that he couldn’t do them. This happened last month with the administration’s Homeland Security budget. The budget zeroed out funds for Detroit.

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Commentary
10:28 am
Fri August 12, 2011

A Senate Surprise

Well, yesterday was not a great day for Pete Hoekstra, the former congressman from Holland. Two days ago, he was seen as the all-but-certain Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate next year.

With the nation’s economic crisis continuing, and more and more voters worried about the future, there seemed to be a growing chance that incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow may be vulnerable. Hoekstra, who got into the race last month after initially declining to run, thought he had a clear shot.

There were a few minor candidates, but they lacked funding or name recognition. But then yesterday, three longtime Michigan GOP heavyweights staged a coup of sorts. Two former state party chairs, Betsy DeVos, wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos, and Saul Anuzis, joined former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham in endorsing a candidate.  And it wasn’t Pete Hoekstra.

Matter of fact, it wasn’t even someone who is formally in the race yet, though that will quickly change. The Big Three came out strongly for Clark Durant, a Grosse Pointer who is the founder of Cornerstone Schools, a group of charter schools in Detroit.

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Commentary
1:10 pm
Thu August 11, 2011

Parents: The Forgotten Element

The world will probably little note nor long remember a meeting a legislative committee held in Lansing yesterday. But it should.

The subject was education reform, something that’s been a hot topic for the last few years - especially perhaps in Michigan.

What everybody agrees is that for many students, our schools no longer seem to work. In some places, notably Detroit, many fail to graduate from high school. Others graduate, but lack the skills to make a living or to get more education.

We don’t really like to think about the implications of that. But the bottom line is that we are turning out hundreds of thousands of  young people who have essentially no chance at legitimate jobs that will pay enough to allow what we think of as a decent lifestyle. Think about what that means for society.

In the modern economy, these folks’ future would be pretty hopeless even when times are good. Our politicians have been focusing on what’s wrong with the schools.

But what gets discussed too seldom is something that has little to do with what happens in the schools themselves. Even the best educators are terribly handicapped if they don’t have solid support from the students’ caregivers at home.

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Culture
11:33 am
Wed August 10, 2011

The Legacy of Eleanor Josaitis

By now, everybody knows that Eleanor Josaitis lost her battle with cancer yesterday, and that she, with the late Father Bill Cunningham, was one of the founders of Focus Hope.

Focus Hope is that rarest of social welfare organizations; one  praised by liberals and conservatives alike. It started out as a private food distribution program in the aftermath of the horrendous Detroit riot of nineteen-sixty-seven. They still provide food to tens of thousands. But that’s not primarily what they are about.  Focus Hope takes the poor and uneducated, the unskilled and under skilled, and does its best to give them what they need to support themselves.

They trained hundreds of machinists, and when demand for machinists started to slip, they diversified. These days, their biggest program by far is Focus Hope’s Information Technologies Center, which is on their forty-acre campus of beautifully restored industrial buildings in Northwest Detroit.

Focus Hope has saved thousands of people and given them the ability to lead productive and meaningful lives. Hopefully, the men and women who run it will go on helping many more.

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Commentary
10:45 am
Mon August 8, 2011

Congressmen in Crisis

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to soon sign the redistricting plan passed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature. Assuming  he does so, and there are no last-minute changes, the future careers of four Democratic congressmen will suddenly be thrown into doubt.

Since last December, everyone has known that at least one Michigan Democrat would lose his job. The state is losing a seat in Congress as a result of national population shifts. Since Republicans control the process, everybody knew the odd man out was bound to be a Democrat. And as expected, they threw suburban Detroit Congressmen Sander Levin and Gary Peters into the same district.

If the two men do, in fact run against each other in a primary. Levin is almost certain to win. He has one of the most famous names in politics, and has been in Congress far longer.

Additionally, eighty percent of the new ninth district is territory that Levin has been representing up to now. But strange boundaries in two other districts have added other complications.

There have long been two seats represented by African-Americans and based in Detroit. But redistricting radically changed those districts. Freshman Congressman Hansen Clarke was given new boundaries that include slightly more than half of Detroit, and a collection of mostly blue-collar down river suburbs.

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Auto/Economy
10:40 am
Fri August 5, 2011

Technology's Role in New Fuel Efficiency Standards

Last week, when the government announced the new fuel efficiency standards for 2025, I heard a number of Detroit auto buffs snort that they were unrealistic, utopian, and impossible.

“There’s no way they can get a corporate fuel economy average of fifty-four miles a gallon, no way,” one man told me.

Well, my technical knowledge of cars is limited to knowing where to find the owner’s manual when one of those warning lights comes on. But I do know something about the history of technology, and the general pattern is this:

If the experts say something is going to happen in five years, that usually means it is happening somewhere, right now, and will be widespread within a year and totally triumphant in eighteen months.

If they say that something is technically impossible, that means that the first practical application may not appear for a year or so. There are exceptions, of course.  But just consider this:

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Commentary
9:49 am
Thu August 4, 2011

Debt debate aftermath

Well, the great battle over the federal debt limit is over, at least for now. For the last several weeks, most of us seem to have been arguing over this, whether or not we understood it.

This came just months after the great battle in Lansing over Governor Snyder’s budget cuts. Now that these momentous issues have been decided, we can move on to more interesting debates.

Such as, for example, how long it will be before Justin Verlander pitches another no-hitter. But seriously, there’s a tendency to think that now that all these budget cuts have been passed we don’t have to worry any more.

The unpleasant truth is that the effects of all these changes haven’t really started, on either the national, state or local levels.

We’ll begin to see some of the consequences this fall, when our kids go back to public schools with fewer teachers and fewer programs. Some of my students at Wayne State are already howling over their higher tuition and fee payments.

We don’t have any idea yet of the social costs of cutting people permanently off welfare. If the governor’s tax cuts produce a fast bumper crop of new jobs, and some of these long-term unemployed are hired, great. If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll all be in trouble.

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Commentary
11:48 am
Wed August 3, 2011

School Accreditation Based on Standardized Test Scores?

The Detroit Tigers may win the American League pennant this year, and I don’t like that one bit. It reminds me, in fact, of one of the reasons that our schools are so screwed up.

If that doesn’t seem to make any sense, hang with me for a moment. First of all, I grew up a huge Tigers fan, and can still remember everything about the World Series-winning 1968 team.

But this year, while Detroit has been in first place for much of the last month, it doesn’t mean as much. The teams are divided into many divisions now, so there can be more winners.

It is likely that the second-place team in the more powerful Eastern division will end up winning more games than the first-place team in the Central. To me, that isn’t right, and means a tainted first place finish. Now, what does that have to do with our schools? Simply this. Virtually all Michigan public schools are accredited by the state.

Accreditation ought to mean some guarantee that a school is doing what it should, that you can put your child in it and  expect that he or she will get a proper education.

Provided, of course, you do your part as a parent.

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Commentary
10:11 am
Tue August 2, 2011

Today is Election Day

You may not know this, but today is Election Day in many places in Michigan. There are primary elections for municipal offices in a wide scattering of communities.  In Sharon Township in Washtenaw County, there’s an effort to recall a couple local officials over a bad hiring decision some residents think they made.

And you owe it to yourself to find out what’s on the ballot where you live, and then go to the polls and vote.  Most people who are eligible won’t do that today, so your vote will have more influence than it would in some elections.

Local elections sometimes have more impact on our lives that elections that get more press. And if you live in the Oakland County suburb of Troy, today’s election will have the biggest impact of all.

Last year Troy, a mostly affluent, white-collar suburb, voted to abolish its library. Granted, the ballot proposal was somewhat confusing, but that is what they did. Now, they have one last chance.

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Commentary
10:47 am
Mon August 1, 2011

Carrying the Bridge North

For some time, I have been baffled by Governor Rick Snyder’s difficulty - make that, inability - to get the legislature to okay construction of a new bridge across the Detroit River.

His Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and last spring they okayed virtually everything the governor wanted, including a politically difficult proposal to tax pensions.

But he’s run into a wall with his proposal for a New International Trade Crossing over the Detroit River.

Now we know part of the reason the governor is getting so much resistance. Matty Moroun, owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge, makes a lot of money by operating what amounts to a trade monopoly. The Moroun family has donated lavishly to the campaigns and causes of many legislators, mostly Republicans. He has also launched a considerable TV advertising campaign running new anti-bridge ads that independent analysts have called misleading, or just plain lies.

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Commentary
10:12 am
Fri July 29, 2011

What Are Michigan's Education Priorities?

These are tough times for teachers.

Actually, this is an even tougher time for education. Yet the  way in which all sides have been approaching this major and growing statewide crisis is, at the very least bizarre.

Take the Michigan Education Association, for example. It is by far the state’s largest teacher’s union, and has been around since before the Civil War. It proudly proclaims “the mission of the MEA is to ensure that the education of our students and the working environments of our members are of the highest quality.”

That sounds good. But if you watch what they do, rather than what they say, you might conclude their charter statement really says: “The MEA’s mission is to prevent our members’ salaries and benefits from being cut by any means necessary.”

That’s really what the union is about. I was reminded of this yesterday by the revelation that the MEA spent $25,000  dollars to try and get Paul Scott, a state representative from Grand Blanc, recalled. Why the union is doing this isn’t clear.

Except out of sheer vindictiveness. Scott, who chairs the House Education Committee, voted this year to slash elementary and high school funding by twice as much as was actually cut.

I wouldn’t expect the union to support him for reelection. But recalling him would in no way change the balance of power in Lansing. If you are a teacher in Holly, say, you might wonder,“Is that what I pay several hundred dollars in dues for?"

That doesn’t mean the education community should be pleased with government. Most members of the Republican majority in Lansing would enthusiastically agree  that this state needs a much better educated workforce. However, most are entirely capable of uttering in the next breath that we need to cut teacher salaries and, especially, benefits and pensions.

What is especially puzzling is that so few people see this as a contradiction. These days, Republicans control every branch of state government, and have been energetically cutting  spending on education, to give business large tax breaks instead.

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Detroit
11:11 am
Thu July 28, 2011

Detroit Works Project, Mayor Bing's Plan to improve the city

Nobody can dispute that Detroit doesn’t work very well anymore. There is vast poverty, unemployment, and blight. Plus a litany of other problems, most of which are well-known.

The question is, what do we do about them? What can anyone do about them? Within the last few years, the city has also been forced to face another unpleasant truth. There are too few people.

Too few, that is, for a city of Detroit’s physical size. You could tuck Manhattan and Boston within its borders and still have room left over. Once, Detroit was a bustling city of nearly two million people.

They weren’t packed together like sardines, but were spread out, largely in well-maintained single-family homes. That was sixty years ago, and pretty much everything is different now.

The census showed that there are barely seven hundred thousand people left. In some cases, one of two families remain on blocks otherwise filled with vacant or burned-down homes. There began to be talk about “shrinking” or “consolidating” the city.

People talked about ways to get people to move from the worst areas to more hopeful neighborhoods, to make it easier to provide city services. The mayor announced that his team would identify four to ten stable neighborhoods as part of a project he called “Detroit Works,” and then build up and further strengthen them.

This all made good, sound logical sense.

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