Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. 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 and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among 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 mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

I don’t know Jim Stamas personally. He is a state representative from Midland who will be the majority floor leader when the new legislature takes office next month.

He’s a fairly conservative Republican, and I’d guess that on some policy issues we might disagree. But he did something this week I thought totally appropriate. He is bringing back a dress code for the legislature. He thinks members ought to wear business attire when they are doing the people’s business.

Well, we finally have the official census figures, and for the first time in history, Michigan lost people in the course of a decade. Worse, we’ll have fewer members of Congress.

Over the last thirty years, we’ve lost five seats in the House of Representatives. That’s equivalent to losing the voting power of the entire state of Connecticut. Put another way, we’re now back to having only one more representative than a century ago.

One thing is for sure. If Michigan is going to get out of the hole it is in and lay the foundation for future prosperity, lots of us are going to have to move out of our economic and political comfort zones.

Unions are going to have to realize that employers and governments can’t afford the same kind of health care and defined-benefit pension plans as when we had full employment at high wages and the Big Three dominated the global automotive economy.

Chambers of Commerce are going to have to realize that there is more to attracting new jobs and business than low taxes.

And everybody is going to have to realize that without a modern, well-functioning infrastructure, we haven’t got a chance.

We are living in interesting times. Yesterday, the Detroit Lions won their second game in a row, and their first game on the road since what seems like soon after the Civil War.

Marilyn Kelly, who is now Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, has given her life to Michigan’s legal system.

Now in her last term on the bench, she doesn’t like a lot of what she has been seeing lately. Besides deciding cases, Michigan’s Supreme Court is charged with overseeing all the other courts.

And she fears that the public is losing respect for the judiciary, in part because of the way judges are chosen. Especially higher-level judges, those who sit on appellate and supreme courts.

We‘re in the middle of the holiday season, and in many ways, these aren’t terribly festive or inspiring times. We haven’t shaken off the effects of the Great Recession. Most of us know people who are out of work, in a time when there are too few jobs to be had.

We haven’t seen a lot of cooperation or willingness to work together from either our state or national governments. However, I was inspired by something this week. The American Civil Liberties Union of  Michigan ran a high school essay contest.

Who are Michigan’s most powerful people in Washington? For decades, the same names have come to mind. First, Dearborn’s John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in history.

For many years, Dingell was either the chair, or ranking Democrat, of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Then come the Levins. Younger brother Carl is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Older brother Sandy this year became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Then there is John Conyers, who has chaired the House Judiciary Committee for the last four years. These men are icons. 

But they are aging icons, and when the Republicans take over  the House next month, Conyers, Dingell and Sandy Levin will lose power and status, because they will be in the minority.

But Michigan will have two newly powerful representatives in key positions, men who are far less well known statewide -- but whom we ought to get to know better.

- Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's Political Analyst

This is the season when Charles Dickens is again in style, or at least his Christmas Carol. We’ve all been grappling with our own versions of Mr. Scrooge all year, and we all need a happy ending.

But I’ve been thinking of a different Dickens character this week: Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, who said in response to some idiotic legal ruling: “If the law supposes that, then the law is an ass.”

What made me think of that was the Wayne County Circuit Court ruling Monday. Judge Wendy Baxter ruled that Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Schools, had no right or power to make academic decisions.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Governor-elect Rick Snyder has begun to appoint his new administration in Lansing and there are some familiar faces among the new appointees. Snyder chose current Democratic Speaker of the House, Andy Dillon, to be the state's new Treasurer. Snyder also appointed Dick Posthumus, former lieutenant governor under John Engler, to be his senior advisor.

Terry Johnson / Flickr

Last night I presided over a fascinating meeting in Grand Rapids, the second in Michigan Radio’s “Issues and Ale” series designed to stimulate public discussion.

The main event was a look at this year’s campaign advertising by two members of the “Michigan Truth Squad,” John Bebow, director of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, and Susan Demas, perhaps the best columnist in Lansing.

Photograph courtesy of www.060.housedems.com

State Representative Robert Jones was an enormously popular former mayor of Kalamazoo who was in an intense battle to win a seat in the state senate. Intense, but not nasty.

But two days ago, Robert Jones suddenly died in his home, throwing the race into chaos and elections officials into a tizzy.

Newspapers aren’t doing well these days, though the companies that own them are still making money. Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry says the result is being played out in Detroit.


Thirty years ago, I worked for the publisher and owner of a family-owned newspaper in Ohio, a somewhat crotchety gentleman  in his early seventies who I came to know pretty well.

Jean Klock Park

Apr 21, 2008

The city of Benton Harbor is deeply divided over the future of Jean Klock Park. And like many things in America, this is, not far below the surface, a story about race and class, and history.

Yet there is also an element of Victorian romance here. My guess is that most of the people fighting over the issue don’t know much about the man behind it.

John Nellis Klock lived a classic Horatio Alger story. He was born in upstate New York the year the Civil War ended, into a family so poor he had to go to work full-time as a typesetter at age eleven.