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
10:54 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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Commentary
1:06 pm
Thu February 24, 2011

Emergency Financial Managers

If you had any doubts about how difficult the situation is for local governments these days, consider this. Even before they tackle the budget, our lawmakers in Lansing have been working hard on new emergency financial manager legislation.

Yesterday, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a package of bills designed to make it easier to appoint emergency financial managers to run troubled cities and school districts.  The legislation also gives those managers broad new powers. The Senate is expected to easily approve this as well.

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Commentary
12:30 pm
Wed February 23, 2011

State of Detroit

You may think I am a little crazy, but while I was listening to  Mayor Dave Bing’s State of the City address last night, what kept running through my head was an ancient rock and roll song.

An early hit called Chantilly Lace, by a now half-forgotten artist called the Big Bopper, whose main claim to fame is dying in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly more than half a century ago.

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Commentary
1:13 pm
Tue February 22, 2011

Sins of the Fathers

Something happened this week which will, unless something changes soon, have the effect of finishing the job of effectively destroying the Detroit public schools. And maybe, Michigan’s future.

The state department of education has ordered Detroit to put in place a financial restructuring plan that would close half the district’s schools within two years. That would result in an  average high school class size of sixty-two students.

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Commentary
10:35 am
Mon February 21, 2011

Budget Alternatives

Well, it’s been four days since Gov. Rick Snyder presented his so-called “atomic bomb” budget, and opposition has started to harden. There are those who are concerned about the poor, largely because of the repeal of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

For example, Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson said yesterday that this amounts to a “government-sponsored shift of capital away from the most needy citizens to those who are already more comfortable.”

Senior citizens’ groups are upset because the governor wants their constituents to have to begin paying Michigan income tax on their income, just like everybody else does on theirs.

The film industry is screaming about the potential loss of the film credits. The education community isn’t happy with the cuts they’d have to take, though they seem to be bearing them with more grace.

But the interesting thing to me is that none of these groups seems to be offering any kind of alternative plan. They want what they want, but don’t have any kind of broader vision.

Yet something radical does have to be done. The state is running an enormous deficit that has to be gotten rid of, and our old automotive-based economy doesn’t work anymore, not the way it did.

So the question for the critics is, if you don’t like the governor’s plan, what are you going to offer instead?

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Commentary
1:16 pm
Thu February 17, 2011

The Budget

Well, the governor’s budget has landed, and people are  shocked. They shouldn’t be. This is what we bargained for. This budget is, in part, a legacy of the last thirty years.

Starting with Ronald Reagan, we’ve been told repeatedly that taxes were bad. Not that they were sometimes too high, but that they were bad, period. So we cut them, and cut them again.

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Commentary
3:32 pm
Wed February 16, 2011

Two Plus Two

 Tomorrow, Governor Rick Snyder will present to the legislature his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The state is currently running a deficit of close to two billion dollars.

The governor also wants to make changes to the business tax system that would further add to that deficit. Keep in mind that by law, a balanced budget has to be enacted by September 30th.

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Commentary
12:49 pm
Tue February 15, 2011

Grappling With The Budget

I was looking at President Obama’s proposed next year’s budget yesterday, trying to get some clues for how all this would affect Michigan. Suddenly, I was hit by a revelation.

Nobody really understands this budget, I thought. Nobody understands this budget because nobody really can understand it. It is too big, too vast, has too many contours and moving parts.

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Commentary
3:13 pm
Mon February 14, 2011

Valentine for Michigan

Well, it’s Valentine’s Day, and Mother Nature has shown Michigan a little love, at least. The temperature this morning was about forty degrees warmer than just a few days ago.

That makes a considerable difference when you have a puppy who wants to go for a mile and a half walk every morning, regardless of the weather. Nevertheless, Michigan needs all the love it can get.

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Commentary
8:47 am
Fri February 11, 2011

Michigander: The Backstory

I realize there are a few other things going on today, such as the mess in Egypt, and the aftermath of President Obama’s historic trip to Marquette, where they gave him a Stormy Kromer hat.

There’s also a major story the media missed last night. Governor Rick Snyder spoke briefly at a Michigan State University political leadership forum in Livonia, remarks that included a sensational announcement.

Mr. Snyder said he would remain in office until the Lions appear in the Super Bowl. Which means he pretty much declared himself governor for life. The Lions last won a world championship the year I entered kindergarten, a year before Governor Snyder was born.

Maybe that’s an approach Hosni Mubarak should have tried, telling his people that the second the Lions won, he’d be history.

Anyway. I need to get on to the really important story of the day, which is the new poll by Resch Strategies that showed that by a margin of fifty-eight percent to twelve percent, citizens of this state prefer to call ourselves Michiganders, not Michiganians.

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Commentary
12:24 pm
Thu February 10, 2011

Detroit Public Schools

Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public Schools, came to Lansing yesterday to ask for something he has to know he’s probably never going to get.

He wants the legislature to give what amounts to a loan guarantee to the company that insured the schools’ last round of borrowing. If that firm, Assured Guaranty Municipal Corporation, doesn’t get that assurance, it may block the schools from borrowing more money? Why? Because it worries DPS will go bankrupt.

Which would leave Assured Guaranty holding the bag. And it’s a pretty unpleasant bag, The schools are hemorrhaging money and students. Bobb came in two years ago, full of confident promises to eliminate the deficit. But it has only gotten worse.

Assured Guaranty insured a loan for a little over a quarter of a billion dollars the schools borrowed in 2005. Now, the schools need more. They have a new deficit of $327 million dollars.

That’s more than half their entire general fund budget. To make ends meet, Bobb says he needs to borrow $219 million next month.

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Commentary
11:41 am
Wed February 9, 2011

State of Desperation

Earlier this week Wayne State University’s Alumni Association invited me and Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, to have a frank discussion with their members.

The theme was “Michigan at a Crossroads,” a look at the challenges facing our state today. I think some people expected a bitter debate. After all, Finley runs an opinion section which is profoundly conservative. My reputation is that of some sort of moderate liberal, though I prefer to think of myself as a common sense pragmatist with a bias towards things that work.

But people expected a verbal slugfest, they were disappointed. Oh, Nolan and I have our differences. I think a graduated income tax would be a good idea; he doesn’t, and I‘d be comfortable with a higher level of taxation, if the revenue were to be used for the right things, like education, roads and bridges.

Fifteen years ago, our views probably would have been far further apart. But now, Finley and I were virtually united in recognizing that the first thing we all must do is understand how big our predicament is. Michigan is engaged in a race to the bottom, in more categories than anyone would care to count.

We’ve gone from being a relatively rich state to a poor one.

Still, we have to somehow get competitive for the jobs and growth industries of the future. And that’s hard to do when we have crumbling roads and bridges and crippling deficits.

That’s even harder to do when school systems are failing, and when cities fail to meet their obligations and slip into emergency financial manager status, the equivalent, in the political world, of bankruptcy and receivership. Treasurer Andy Dillon said recently that five communities soon won’t be able to pay their employees.

This may be only the tip of the iceberg, and speaking of icebergs, there are other monstrous ones ahead. We both agreed that one of the most uncovered stories in this state is the fact that state pension funds have a staggering $15.5 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities.

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Commentary
11:29 am
Tue February 8, 2011

Save the Children

We could argue endlessly over who is responsible for the state of Michigan’s economy. Some people blame globalization. Others, the short-sightedness of the domestic automakers. Some say, Jennifer Granholm‘s failure to lead.

Some say it was the callous selfishness of the Republican Party, and on and on. But one thing is clear: today’s toddlers aren’t to blame. Neither is any child. They didn’t make the policies or the mistakes. But they are suffering as a result of them.

That’s not only unfair to them, but sabotages all of our futures, and that of Michigan. If we live long enough, our destinies will all be in the hands of people much younger than us. And right now, we aren’t serving them well. Certainly not well enough.

That’s the clear message emerging from a document released today, The Kids Count Data Book. This is an annual, joint project of two non-partisan, non-profit institutions, the century-old Michigan League for Human Services, and the newer Michigan’s Children.

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Commentary
11:25 am
Thu February 3, 2011

Border Wars

Well, the worst snowstorm in recorded history turned out not to live up to its billing, and civilization seems likely to go on.

Funny, but every year we always seem to forget a basic fact of life in Michigan. Which is: it snows in the winter. We are pretty far north, you know. So much so, that a sizable chunk of Ontario is south of us. You remember Ontario, yes?

It is one province of a vast country called Canada which we know is there, but somehow, mostly forget to notice.

Canada is, by far, our biggest trading partner. The economies of Michigan and Ontario are tightly linked, so much so that if something happened to stifle trade between our two countries, we would instantly be plunged into the mother of all depressions.

Most of us know this, but we seem somehow to have an amazing sense of collective amnesia about Canada.

Incredibly, much of the debate in Michigan about whether or not to build a second bridge over the Detroit River has completely ignored that any proposal needs the willing participation of a completely independent foreign nation, known as Canada.

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