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
10:21 am
Thu March 24, 2011

The UAW’s Dilemma

You may not have noticed, but the United Auto Workers union has been holding its bargaining convention in Detroit this week.

Every four years, union leaders get together to plan and map out their strategy for negotiating a new contract with the automakers. Once, this convention was an enormous deal, intensely covered by both local and national labor media.

The big question every time was - which company would be the strike target?

Years ago, the union came up with the concept of “pattern bargaining.”  One company - Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler, would be selected as the target. Union officials would then try and hammer out a contact with that automaker first.

Sometimes they’d have to go on strike to achieve that; sometimes not. Meanwhile, the workers at the other companies would keep working under the old labor agreements.

Once the new contract was finally hammered out, the unions would then go to the other two automakers and say -- “okay; this is what we negotiated with them; this is what you need to agree to as well.  No fooling around; take it or leave it; sign or we walk.”

That’s how it’s been done for many, many years. In the past, there were sometimes historic strikes which led to historic settlements that gradually won the workers everything from paid vacations to profit sharing to dental care, on top of high wages.

But as all the world knows, excesses and globalization caught up with the auto companies. General Motors and Chrysler nearly went out of business less than two years ago. They survived in part because the union was willing to make major concessions.

New hires, for example, now make half of what a longtime autoworker  does -- $14 an hour, or $29,000 a year. The union decided that and other sacrifices were  necessary to keep their employers alive.

Well, the world is different now. Ford and General Motors are now making profits in the billions. Chrysler is believed close to profitability, and at any rate, has a new owner with deep pockets.

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Commentary
2:52 pm
Wed March 23, 2011

Devastation

Hilary Flickr

Detroit expected to get grim news from the U.S. Census bureau. But the results are, in fact, far worse than expected. They paint a picture of urban devastation unlike any in our nation’s history, a snapshot of the depopulation of a major American city.

Consider this: Since the Republican National Convention in 1980, Detroit has lost half a million people. In the thirty years before that, it lost even more -- another seven hundred thousand.

For years, the term “white flight” had been synonymous with what was happening.  Today, it’s mostly about black flight. The black population of Detroit declined by more than one hundred and eighty-five thousand people during the last decade.

What that indicates is that the middle class of both races has given up on the city, in large part because the schools are perceived as being so bad. There have been a number of stories in recent months speculating that, for the first time, the census would find that the percentage of Detroiters who are white was increasing.

Optimists believed that the city was attracting a new generation of young urban pioneers, who were returning to Detroit from the suburbs, living in lofts and creating an artistic and urbane lifetstyle.

The census shows that this was a complete fantasy. Sure, there may be a few kids doing those things. There are also a few people who vote for the Socialist Workers’ party. But both groups are statistically insignificant. Nearly half of what white population remained in Detroit in 2000 vanished over the next decade.

There are now only about fifty-five thousand people in Detroit who identify themselves as white. Sixty years ago, when the city celebrated its 250th anniversary, that figure was one point six million.

That means that more than ninety-five percent of the white population has disappeared.  That’s not to say that Detroit’s troubles are solely due to the fact that the whites left. In fact, one-quarter of the black population left over the last decade as well.

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Commentary
3:03 pm
Tue March 22, 2011

Mergers and Acquisitions

There’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth statewide over the new proposals the governor outlined in Grand Rapids yesterday, the ones especially that will affect local governments.

He proposes to hold back one-third of the revenue sharing money communities get from the state, and release it only if cities, villages and townships adopt certain reforms. Those would include putting all new hires on a pension plan based on what they and their employer put in, a so-called “defined contribution plan.”

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Commentary
2:26 pm
Mon March 21, 2011

Shortchanging the Future

Macomb County Commissioner Phil DiMaria is angry about Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to tax pension income, and he’s doing something about it. He’s launched a statewide petition drive to oppose the tax, which is key to the governor’s proposed budget.

DiMaria, who has been on the county commission for twenty years, thinks the governor is badly out of touch. “He’s rich. He’s never going to be an old person who has to pinch pennies to try and get by, try and buy milk and bread,” he told me yesterday.

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Commentary
2:54 pm
Fri March 18, 2011

Unpopular Votes

For the last two months, Michigan has been consumed with debate over Governor Snyder’s proposed new budget --  and with a number of his other deal-changing priorities as well, such as the just passed tough new Emergency Financial Manager law.

But there are other issues, and a lobbyist for one showed up in Lansing yesterday to urge the legislature to vote to change the way we elect presidents. Tom Golisano, a millionaire businessman and philanthropist, is the spokesperson for a group called National Popular Vote, which is beginning to have some success.

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Commentary
2:05 pm
Thu March 17, 2011

Carping Criticism

Remember the Asian carp, which migrated up the Mississippi, into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and which experts feared were about to get into Lake Michigan?

That’s where things stood when I first talked about this issue here more than fifteen months ago. Since then, traces of carp DNA has been found in Lake Michigan, though there is no evidence that a permanent breeding population has been established there.

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Commentary
2:45 pm
Wed March 16, 2011

You Never Can Tell

The governor’s made some decisions that are wildly unpopular. Unions are upset. Taxpayers are upset. His own party isn’t too sure he is right.

Behind closed doors, leaders of the opposition party are rubbing their hands in glee. They think they know a one-term governor when they see one.

That’s what’s going on right now in Wisconsin, to be sure, and also, to a lesser extent, in Lansing. Democrats are convinced that if Governor Snyder indeed manages to tax pensions, cut education, and end the Earned Income Tax Credit, he’ll be toast.

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Commentary
11:54 am
Tue March 15, 2011

Glimmers of Hope

I know we’re just a week or so away from the beginning of spring, but it’s hard right now to feel especially hopeful. It’s been a long and grinding winter, and we all know we haven’t seen the last of the snow and ice yet. And while unemployment is down, most of us know people who have been out of work, or still are.

But I can’t help but think of something inspiring that happened at the start of this winter. The American Civil Liberties Union of  Michigan ran a high school essay contest.

Students were asked to read Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, the one that includes the famous line, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free.”

Then, they were to write about how their experiences as a part of this melting pot had defined their American identity.

The contest was sponsored by a friend of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a humanist and community leader in the Detroit area who was tragically killed in a car accident in Morocco three years ago.

I was a friend of the rabbi, and since I supposedly know something about writing, I was asked to be the final judge. Frankly, I wasn’t too optimistic. This is a busy time of year, and for many students, reading and writing aren’t top priorities.

But I have to say, I was blown away. The ACLU asked me to pick the best two. But four were so good I insisted they honor all  their authors. When I judged them, I didn’t know who the writers were. But when I met the students, I had a pleasant surprise.

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Commentary
10:57 am
Mon March 14, 2011

Saving Newspapers

It’s hardly a secret that newspapers aren’t doing very well these days. Over the decades, they’ve been gradually replaced as the nation’s universal mass medium by television.

Newspaper’s biggest economic blow came, however, with the flight of advertising revenue to the Internet. This, combined with an ever-more busy public bombarded by more and more media choices, has badly wounded what was once a thriving industry. And, left us in danger of being dangerously uninformed as well. Ann Arbor, for example, no longer has a daily newspaper at all.

The problem is perhaps most acute in Detroit, where, twenty-five years ago, the Detroit News and Free Press sold a combined total of one point three million newspapers every day.

That number has declined ever since. Audited figures show that as of last September, they were down to a combined circulation of less than four hundred thousand, a number that has dropped further since then.

To save money two years ago, Detroit’s newspapers embarked on an experiment in which they would deliver the papers only three days a week, and asked consumers to read them online or go to the store and buy it the rest of the week. This really hasn’t worked.

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Commentary
11:40 am
Fri March 11, 2011

Wacky Weather

You don’t need me to tell you this, but we’ve had a rough winter. Not nearly as tough as they’ve had in New York, or almost anywhere on the eastern seaboard. But it’s been cold and snowy.

How snowy? Well, in Detroit, we are already in the top dozen winters of all time, with more than sixty inches. Last month was the third snowiest February in recorded history.

But it could always be worse. If you have any interest in the weather, by the way, there’s a fascinating little book that just came out last year: Extreme Michigan Weather: The Wild World of the Great Lakes State, published by the University of Michigan Press.

Author Paul Gross is a longtime meteorologist who now works for WDIV-TV in Detroit.  His book looks at the strange and constantly changing weather we have in this state, or, as he puts it, everything from heat waves to bitter snows, ice storms to tornadoes to floods.

We don’t, however, have hurricanes, and his book will tell you why. (Not having any tropical ocean waters around here is a big part of it.)  Ice we do have -- in abundance.

Ice and snow. But if you are feeling so tired of snow you can’t stand it, consider this. We lucked out today. Grand Rapids once got almost seven inches of snow on March 11. In Flint, it’s been as cold as seven below zero this day, which I found in Paul Gross’s book.

He includes all these tables for fun in Extreme Michigan Weather. So, just in case you were burning to know, it was once twenty below zero on this date in Ironwood.

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Commentary
1:25 pm
Thu March 10, 2011

Emergency Financial Managers

Nobody in Lansing was neutral yesterday when the Michigan senate completed passage of new, tougher Emergency Financial Manager legislation on a straight, party line vote.

State Senator Phil Pavlov said this is needed to maintain “vital services, such as public safety and education,” when a city or a school district is in desperate financial straits.

This reform, he said, is necessary to allow steps to be taken “to protect public interests and the public’s money and strengthen local control and accountability.” His fellow Republicans all agreed.

But if you talked to any of the Democrats, they sounded like this was the equivalent of Mussolini seizing power.  “An unfair and unjustified power grab,“ Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer called it. One of her colleagues said it went way too far, “and was going to damage our communities and our schools.”

Well, you could say that it is nice to see that our time-honored tradition of bitter partisan divisions is alive and well, but I think the opposite. We’ve had four sterile years of that in Lansing. I think we’d all be better off if this could have been a bipartisan bill.

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Commentary
11:45 am
Wed March 9, 2011

Funding Education

Mike Simeck, the superintendent of schools in Berkley, Michigan, has something in common with Governor Snyder -- or at least, with the way the governor ran his businesses:

He believes in proven results. “I run an organization that is the largest employer in our city, where I would hear from our client base immediately if we begin to fail,” he told me last night at ten o’clock, after each of us had put in more than a full day.

“I run this thing based on empirical evidence, on data and results, and as a result, we’ve been successful.”

That‘s no idle boast. Berkley is a small but diverse district with a little less than five thousand students. Roughly speaking, they are two-thirds white; one-quarter black, one eighth Hispanic and Asian.

He has affluent kids from Huntington Woods, working and middle class kids from Berkley, poor kids and Orthodox Jews from a slice of Oak Park. They run lean and mean and get results.

Want proof? More than four out of every five Berkley students who apply to the University of Michigan get in. Their ACT scores are way over the national average. Simeck, who’s been in his job for four years, says this is no accident. When other school districts outperform Berkley, they study them and make changes.

That’s helped lead to Berkley High being recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s “public elite”  high schools.

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Commentary
9:02 am
Tue March 8, 2011

Taxing Credibility

Two plus two equals four. Simple, right? That’s math even a journalist can understand. Unfortunately, the legislature and a large section of the general public doesn’t quite seem to get it.

State government is currently on course to run a huge deficit for the next fiscal year. State budget deficits are illegal, under Michigan’s Constitution. That budget has to be balanced by September 30.

Four months ago, we elected a ton of Republicans to the legislature who pledged they wouldn’t vote for any new taxes, no matter what. We elected a Republican governor who said he was going to deeply cut taxes on business, because he believed that was the only way to attract new jobs and industry to this state.

So we voted for no new taxes of any kind, less taxes on business, and we‘ve got a big budget deficit to start. And now we are shocked, shocked, that the governor is insisting on making huge cuts in state spending.

Well, we shouldn‘t be.

We voted for this. And, we tolerated the last governor, and several different past legislatures, refusing to deal with our problems. We put things off till we couldn‘t do it any more.

And now, we have to fix it. What‘s worse, we have to do this when we are still mired in the effects of the worst recession since World War II. Yes, I know the recession is officially over.

The economists say so, anyway. But hard times are not even close to over in Michigan. The auto industry is never coming back the way it was, and we need a new economy.

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Commentary
10:54 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice?

If you want to see why this recession was different from others in recent history, spend a little time over at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.

They’ve been seeing and feeding people they’ve never seen before, people who never imagined they’d need help.

The other day, I went to see Dr. Chad Audi, the mission’s President and CEO. Not only is their caseload flooded, he said, “more and more we are seeing the working homeless.”

These are people who have jobs, but still have no place to live. The Rescue Mission does what it can to get them into housing, but the need is far greater than it used to be -- and for many, the ability to give is less.

Incidentally, there are some who think of the mission as just a soup kitchen, possibly because of their mass appeals for help with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless. A soup kitchen was pretty much what it the mission was when it was founded a century ago. Founder David Stucky kept people alive with food from his own pantry during the worst of the Great Depression.

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Commentary
11:12 am
Fri March 4, 2011

Primary Problem

If you haven’t been traumatized enough by this seemingly endless winter and the governor’s budget proposals, I’ve got something that may really give you nightmares.

It’s presidential election time again. Now, you may be saying wait a minute. Wasn’t the last congressional election only four months ago? Well, yes. But the presidential election is next year, and the candidates are already out campaigning, though none of them are calling it that. I am aware that people who don’t know each other yet will meet, fall in love, and have babies before we finally get around to voting a year from November.

But presidents have a far longer gestation period. And one sure sign that the election season is on is that the leaders of our two great political parties are once again attempting to screw up the Michigan primary.

They’ve gotten pretty good at this, and last time, the Democrats managed to make themselves the laughingstock of the nation, by holding a primary that was both ruled illegal and invalid and which did not have a guy named Barack Obama on the ballot. 

Early indications are that they’ve learned nothing from their mistakes. Here’s the problem. For many years, the election calendar has worked like this. Iowa goes first, with a set of caucuses which pick that state’s delegates in January. Then, New Hampshire follows with the nation’s first primary election.

Then a couple other small states follow in February, and after that, the other states can do whatever they want. This is a good system, because it allows candidates without much money to be seen and tested in small states where you don’t need millions.

Iowa and New Hampshire are also now swing states that switch sides frequently in November. But Michigan party leaders are jealous. They want to go first. Last time they broke party rules and held a January primary which was a farce.

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Commentary
11:08 am
Thu March 3, 2011

Unpopular Stands

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively overturned a Michigan law -- and undoubtedly angered and outraged the vast majority of the nation’s citizens.

The nation’s highest court said that the obnoxious protests that members of the Westboro Baptist Church stage at military funerals are fully protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Chief Justice John Roberts decreed that our nation’s fundamental commitment to free speech requires full protection of, quote “even hurtful speech on public issues.”

Now if you need reminding, the Westboro Baptist Church is a small group from Topeka, Kansas that mainly consists of the members of one large extended family. They believe homosexuality is evil and America deserves divine punishment for tolerating it.

Accordingly, they’ve been traveling the country picketing at military funerals, waving signs that say things like “God Hates America,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Somehow, they believe our war casualties are fitting punishment for tolerance.

Michigan passed a law five years ago that was squarely aimed at the Westboro group. It essentially prohibited any such conduct within five hundred feet of a funeral.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruling essentially makes it all but certain that the Michigan law will be struck down as unconstitutional, if prosecutors attempt to use it.  Now ever since the 1960s, conservatives have often complained that out-of-touch liberals on the nation‘s highest court were improperly distorting the Constitution.

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Commentary
8:47 am
Wed March 2, 2011

Glenn Beck and Detroit

Detroit was in an uproar yesterday, not because the schools are in crisis, or because the governor’s budget promises to make the city’s short-term fiscal problems even worse. 

Nor were Detroit’s leaders openly concerned about the effect the political crisis sweeping the oil-rich Middle East is having on gasoline prices and the auto industry.

No, what had them upset was the latest rant by the entertainer Glenn Beck, who holds forth on the Fox network. On Monday, Beck,  compared Detroit to Hiroshima, saying that today, Hiroshima is in far better shape. Beck said Detroit’s devastation is due to what he calls “progressive policies,” combined with corrupt government and labor unions. He said these forces combined to bail out the auto industry, which he thinks should have been allowed to die. I heard about this rant, and so reluctantly, I watched it, or most of it. It was, as I expected, classic Beck: Shallow, hate-filled, and full of half-truths.

Once upon a time, there was a rule about commentary. You could spout opinions, but your facts had to be accurate. Glenn Beck has never cared about facts, and the disgrace of Fox and whoever employs him is that nobody else requires him to do so, either.

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Commentary
9:07 am
Tue March 1, 2011

Why Libraries Matter

Predicting the future can be a dangerous thing. When I was a child in the early nineteen-sixties, I used to watch a television show that predicted how we’d live in the far-off world of 2000.

By then, I was told, our homes would be heated by mini-nuclear power plants in the basement and we’d take our private helicopters to work. Nobody, however, saw the coming of the Internet.

Futurologists have gotten somewhat more cautious since then, but there is something most of them do agree on, which is that days are numbered for libraries as we have known them. Printed products have been  moving rapidly to servers and Kindles. While most are still published on paper, this is widely seen as a temporary measure which will last only as long as it takes the old fuddy-duddies to die off.

And priorities are shifting. Last week, the Detroit Public Library announced the layoff of a fifth of their entire staff, or eighty-three employees, at the end of March. The far more affluent suburb of Troy has already voted to close its library. Other libraries across the state are threatened with huge cuts or extinction.

The economy is bad, but why do we feel that we can live without libraries?  Here’s what one reader posted on the Detroit Free Press website, spelling several words wrong in the process: “Library’s are fast becoming a thing of the past due to rapid access and information that can be had via the Internet.”

Or, in other words, why would we possibly need a place where books are kept and stored when we’ve got Google? Those who defend libraries mainly do so on the grounds that everybody doesn‘t have a computer at home. The newspaper‘s story about the layoffs talked about all the poor people who come to the library to print resumes and scan the internet for job openings.

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Commentary
8:53 am
Mon February 28, 2011

A Natural at the Game

Governor Rick Snyder is not a “politician.” He would tell you that himself. I first heard he wasn’t a politician from a bunch of  political reporters more than a year ago, who felt he was wasting his money on what they felt was a catchy, but ultimately silly commercial.

This was, of course, the famous “tough nerd” commercial that first aired during last year’s Superbowl. Tim Skubick, the dean of, Lansing political reporters, thought it was likely to backfire.

This is a tough, blue-collar state, he said. Not a place where people voted for guys who called themselves “nerds.”

I didn’t know what to make of all this myself, till I saw Snyder skillfully and with scalpel-like precision, separate himself from the rest of the pack during the primary campaign. Like a veteran racehorse he ran third much of the way, then shot ahead in the final stretch, winning by nine lengths and a hundred thousand votes.

The general election wasn’t even a contest. But there was a lot of skepticism as to how the new governor would actually do with the hurly-burly of governing.

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Commentary
12:18 pm
Fri February 25, 2011

General Motors Wins a Star

Two years ago, when President Obama decided to spend billions to prop up General Motors, and then to guide it  through a cushioned, “soft landing” bankruptcy, there were a lot of doubters. Many thought nature should have been allowed to take its course, and that the once-mighty General should have been allowed to die.

At the time, a commentator on NBC News said “As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency.”

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