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.

For years now, we’ve heard it said that Rick Snyder isn’t really a politician. Well, that’s nonsense. He’s been a supremely skilled one, especially in selling the people on voting for him. Four years ago, he came out of nowhere to easily win the Republican nomination for governor, then won election in a landslide. This year, despite some very unpopular decisions, he won again.

He’s never lost an election. But the jury is still out on whether he’s an effective leader when it comes to governing.

Well, we are about to find out. The key issue is, as it has been, the roads. We spend less per capita on roads than any state in the union, and as a result, we have almost the worst roads in the nation. Given that we are the automobile state, and that we depend on transportation for our jobs and future, this is nuts.

My parents have been dead for a long time, but I feel I owe them a long-overdue thank you for saying no half a century ago, when I wanted an air rifle, otherwise known as a BB gun.

I had read about them in Boys’ Life, and believe I had ambitions of shooting birds in the backyard.

Today, I would be horrified at that, but young people can be insensitive. My mother’s refusal to let me have a gun probably had, however, little to do with birds, and more to do with Larry, an older kid in the neighborhood. Larry once had a friend with a BB gun, and as a result, Larry had a glass eye.

Well, our representatives in the Legislature, or at least those who give them campaign money, apparently would have thought my momma a spineless wimp. They are seriously considering an eight-bill package that would dramatically loosen restrictions on pellet guns, or other weapons that power a bullet by gas, spring or air.

Currently, it is illegal for anyone under eighteen to have a BB gun unless they’re with an adult. That’s something that seems common sense. But that’s not how the National Rifle Association sees it. They want that law repealed – and the Michigan House has already done so. Now, it’s up to the Senate.

What I can’t understand is why anyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all the arguments for rifles and handguns. Those who support what they call gun rights say we may need them to defend ourselves, against criminals or an evil government.

There are those with some understandable skepticism about political junkets to other countries in search of jobs. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm was forever jetting off on trade missions to Sweden or Germany, say, and then announcing with great fanfare that some company had agreed to create maybe a dozen new jobs in Michigan.

This raised a number of questions, such as, would those jobs have come here anyway? Incidentally, I’m not sure anyone ever followed up to see if the promised jobs actually happened.

On top of that, you had to wonder if the governor’s time and energy might better have been spent elsewhere.

Especially when you saw stories about a handful of new junket-generated jobs next to other stories about hundreds of domestic jobs being eliminated through plant closings or downsizings.

Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss what to expect from the Legislature’s lame duck session, repercussions from Ferguson, and a fund to help Detroit pensioners.


Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Members of the LBGT community – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered – have wanted the Legislature to take up expanding the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

They persuaded themselves that the Republicans who have majorities in the state Legislature would, in the lame-duck session next month, expand its protections to include them. Some took this as a given, although they were worried that the bill might include sexual orientation and not gender identity.

Yesterday, one Michelle Fox-Phillips wrote and asked me to tell people that excluding transsexuals from any expansion of the civil rights act would be wrong.

Well, it became clear yesterday that she has been living in a dream world. Most Republicans have absolutely no interest in expanding civil rights protections to the non-heterosexual. They are either part of the religious right, or depend on it for money and votes.

Thanksgiving always has reminded me of the famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Some of this goes back to my childhood, when President Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving, and a gloom hung over the nation in a way now hard to imagine.

Add to that the fact that I seem to be deeply un-American in that I would rather do almost anything other than spend hours trapped in front of a TV watching football.

Unless, that is, it involves that form of mass hysteria known as holiday shopping. Last week I overheard two excited women sharing the news that they weren’t going to have to wait till Black Friday. This year, the shopping malls will open on Turkey Day itself.

Vacant lot in Detroit.
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss Gov. Rick Snyder’s Asia trip, the financial status of Michigan’s schools, and a new plan to sell Detroit land.


There’s a century-old red brick building that used to be a convent in Detroit, in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

It’s next to the city’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s. Inside that church is a rough-hewn box holding the bones of an immigrant who arrived without papers, a priest by the name of Gabriel Richard, one of the founders of the University of Michigan.

Inside the old convent are 40 living undocumented immigrants from 18 different countries, people who fled torture and murder, fled for their lives, and are here seeking asylum.

They are in less fear of deportation than most of our nation’s eleven million “illegal” immigrants. This is a place called Freedom House Detroit, and for more than 30 years, it has helped such folks win asylum in the United States and Canada.

That has become harder in recent years, and the refugees, who are usually destitute, are not allowed to work while they await a decision on their fate. But the ones in Freedom House nearly always win asylum in the end.

Our Constitution firmly establishes the right of victims of persecution to asylum.

I saw a poster the other day on the Internet that I really wish I could have framed and put on the wall. It said something like “Illegal immigrants refuse to learn our language, yet still get food assistance.”

What it showed was the first Thanksgiving.

What it could have added was that those same undocumented aliens were often guilty of tremendous violence against the native population.

Today, the descendants of those illegal immigrants have been wrestling with what do to about those who followed in their footsteps, centuries later.

The fact is that there are millions of so-called undocumented aliens in this country, maybe 100,000 in Michigan, and that our economy depends on them.

These immigrants, by and large, do the jobs nobody else wants, working hard for little money. When they do become legal, they tend to be tremendous job creators. Gov. Rick Snyder knows this; that’s why he has asked Washington to make more visas available for immigrants with special skills to come to Detroit.

There are legal immigration routes, complex and bureaucratic. But there are also millions who came without papers, or were brought here as children.

When it comes to maintaining trust in government, possibly the most important thing is the integrity of the courts. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with government, but today I want to talk about something that seems to work pretty well, which is the relationship between the press and the people in charge of our justice system.

Surveys show that people don’t hold journalists or lawyers in very high esteem, to put it mildly. Judges do better, but in recent years the bench has also been touched by controversy and scandal, from the Michigan Supreme Court justice who went to federal prison to the Wayne County judge who had sex in his chambers.

Recently I presided over two panels, completely open to the public, that were designed to explore how the press covers the courts. The sessions were mostly on the record, no holds barred, and were jointly sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan and the Society or Professional Journalists.

Last week’s panel featured two of Michigan’s top prosecutors, Barbara McQuade, the federal attorney for the eastern half of Michigan, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Last night, it was U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over the long and media-intense Kwame Kilpatrick trial. Topic A was what they thought of the press and how they felt the press covered the legal process and the courts.

US Supreme Court

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss a Michigan couple whose case could determine constitutional same-sex marriage rights, a challenge to Michigan’s right-to-work law, and a Republican-proposed plan for changes to the Electoral College.

The elections were two weeks ago today, although it somehow seems longer. Yesterday, I spent a little time with Lon Johnson, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He’s been getting a lot of criticism about what happened.

Johnson is a statistics-crunching data freak, a man who plays politics largely by the numbers. He pinned the party’s hopes this year on turnout, on getting Democrats to the polls.

His operation identified nearly a million Democratic-leaning voters who sat out the election four years ago. They were targeted by his team, urged to vote, and sent absentee ballot applications.

The weekend before the vote, he was convinced that Mark Schauer was going to win the governor’s race. But in the end, his candidate fell short by a little more than four points. Democrats lost ground in the Legislature, which few thought they would do.

You’ve probably heard that the state Senate passed a bill last week that would finally raise some significant money to fix Michigan’s terrible roads. Most of us who ever have to leave the house and drive were happy about this.

For years, the roads have gotten worse, and our lawmakers have done virtually nothing about them.

However, there are a number of important things to know about this bill and this issue. First of all, this is not a done deal. The state House of Representatives won’t even take this up until next month. While there is a lot of pressure to do something about the roads, there is no guarantee they will pass the Senate bill in its present form – or indeed, pass any bill at all.

But here’s something else you may not have read elsewhere. The bill passed by the Senate is really a pretty lousy way of coming up with money for road repair. The formula it uses is very hard to understand, and provides no guaranteed amount.

What Gov. Rick Snyder proposed, and what usually happens when more road repair money is needed, is that lawmakers raise the gas tax by a certain number of cents on the gallon. Driving habits vary, but not by very much.

Transportation experts can calculate pretty closely how much new revenue, say, a 10-cent-a-gallon increase would bring. But that’s not what the Senate is proposing.

Get ready for more potholes this upcoming spring season.
User _chrisUK / flickr.com

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a move to fix the state’s roads, the most recent ruling involving same-sex laws, and a new standardized test for Michigan’s public schools.


Our political system may be flawed, but one of the great things about it is that it provides for the peaceful passage of power. We sometimes forget how revolutionary that was.

The world marveled back in 1800 when President John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. Adams didn’t even think of trying to pull a coup or call out the army to hang on to power.  

He just left town and Jefferson, who had won more electoral votes than he had, took over.

That’s the way it has been ever since.

Gov. Rick Snyder probably is not a big fan of Mitt Romney. Snyder wasn’t eager to campaign with him in Michigan this fall, which probably made political sense.

After all, Romney lost Michigan badly two years ago; Snyder has now been elected governor twice.

But I’m afraid that three years from now, Snyder may wish he had followed Romney’s lead on something. Twelve years ago, Republican Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. He got much of his program through the Legislature, most notably his version of something that looked like the Affordable Care Act. But Romney then did not run for reelection.

This may have been because he felt he was unlikely to be reelected or because he intended to run for president. But he walked way undefeated and politically more or less undamaged.

For the next few weeks, the Michigan Legislature will be meeting in what is called a “lame-duck” session, since a third or more of its members are leaving afterwards, voluntarily or otherwise. Term limits will  end the careers of about a third, and a few others were defeated or are voluntarily moving on.

There’s more interest than usual in this year’s lame duck, in large part because the next legislature is likely to be even more tea-party driven than the last one. In other words, if there is any hope for actually coming up with new money to fix the roads, or extending civil rights protections to gay citizens, it may be now or never.

Governor Snyder is hoping, when it comes to the roads, that some lawmakers who were afraid to do the right thing before the election will be more willing now. My guess is that there is a reasonable chance of coming up with some road revenue, though probably not enough, and not much chance of expanding civil rights.

But what I find sad is that nobody is even talking about doing something to both invest in the future and help our neediest and most vulnerable citizens, people in trouble through no fault of their own.

Namely, our state’s children.

Marijuana plant.
USFWS

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss whether the legislature will be able to come up with a plan to fix Michigan's roads before the end of the year, a challenge to a Grand Rapids law decriminalizing marijuana, and what’s next on Detroit’s road to recovery.


Pretty much everybody in Michigan knows that Gerald Ford was our state’s only president. We also know that Ford was the only man to become president when his predecessor resigned.

But quick – who was Ford’s vice president? If it took you a while, don’t feel bad. Most people today don’t remember. What’s ironic about that is that he was a man who for most of his life was far more famous than Gerald R. Ford.

It was Nelson Rockefeller – an heir to the famous fortune, flamboyant governor of New York, and for years a serious contender for the presidency who could never get the Republican nomination. He was a riveting and polarizing force – and a man who so far has defied definition. That is, until now.

Richard Norton Smith, who specializes in big biographies, has written a spellbinding book: "On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller."

Smith will be talking about his book and signing copies at seven tonight at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, and tomorrow at the Ford Library at the University of Michigan.

Yesterday I talked with the author, whom I first met 14 years ago when he was director of the Ford Museum. He’s been working on this book ever since, writing and rewriting each beautifully written passage as many as 50 times.

Whenever surveys are taken as to which professions are the most trusted and admired, journalists are pretty near the bottom. We used to beat out used car salesmen, but I think that thanks to regulation, they are in better standing these days.

Today, journalists and lawyers usually take turns at being the least admired. I don’t propose to talk about why lawyers are so unpopular; after all, I don’t want to be sued. But I do know why reporters are held in such low repute.

Part of it is our own fault.

As in, when a TV reporter sticks a microphone in the face of somebody whose child has been murdered and asks, “how do you feel?”

But even when we do our jobs well, we make people dread us. We tell you that the system doesn’t work, and the politicians are corrupt, and the water is tainted, and the priest is embezzling from the parish - things like that.

That’s what we are supposed to do.

We seldom show up just to tell you good news. Maybe the best thing we can say about our society is that decent behavior still isn’t news.

Except - in some contexts.

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