Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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.

Ways to Connect

I had dinner last night with John Hertel, who runs SMART, the efficient and cost-effective bus system for suburban Detroit. This hasn’t been an easy spring for John; his younger brother Curtis Hertel Sr., a revered former speaker of the Michigan House, died unexpectedly five weeks ago.

The Hertels were members of a species now rare in politics.

Last Thursday, there were huge headlines that Dan Gilbert, the billionaire who has bought much of Detroit, wants to invest a billion dollars to build a major league soccer stadium and complex in the city’s downtown.

I’m well aware that the Flint crisis is still going on, that the roads aren’t fixed and that while things are better in Detroit, the city still has too few jobs and too much blight.

  And I’m sure I will talk about some or all of those problems next week. However, it’s the start of a weekend in Michigan, and it might just be warm enough to sit on the porch and read something that isn’t about failure, incompetence or corruption.

The nation was enchanted by little Amariyanna Copeny, Mari for short, who calls herself “Little Miss Flint.”

Mari, an absolutely adorable eight-year-old, had written President Obama and asked to meet with him when she came to Washington.

That didn’t happen, but clearly some savvy staffer saw her letter and realized this might be a perfect backdrop for a presidential visit to Flint.

A number of people, including me, have been surprised that the President did not visit the afflicted city before.

It now seems nearly certain that one of our major political parties is going to nominate a presidential candidate who has pledged to deport every undocumented person in this nation.

Experts say that’s about 11 million people.

This has struck terror into the heart of one woman I know, who is not from Mexico, but Eastern Europe, who cleans houses and takes care of her husband and little daughter

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about the state health director's statement that Ebola concerns distracted from a Legionnaires' outbreak in Genesee County, two bills on hold in the Legislature that would affect Michigan historic districts, and a report that says one in 10 Michigan kids has a parent who is or was in prison.

There are a couple of stories today you may have missed that I think are profoundly significant, but which won’t get a fraction of the attention they should.

Last month, the State Board of Education did something that was right and courageous -- and which I felt certain at the time was bound to be misconstrued. 

Board President John Austin announced they were considering a new set of voluntary polices to help make gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students feel safe in school.

On Earth Day eight years ago, General Motors and Detroit were in bad shape and getting worse. Detroit was still suffering under Kwame Kilpatrick, the most corrupt mayor in its history, even as events were beginning to unfold that would send him to prison. 

Soon, the city would add a council president who would later vanish into thin air after he was accused of trying to seduce a high school boy.

Yesterday, while we were waiting to see who would face criminal charges in the Flint water crisis, I asked a friend if he thought that would be a real, no-holds-barred investigation.

“That depends on whether the indictments stop at Hunt, Liddy and the Cubans,” he said.

Anyone who knows Ismael Ahmed knows he is one of the most remarkable people in the Detroit area. He co-founded ACCESS, the nation’s largest Arab-American private human services organization, while he was still a student at the University of Michigan Dearborn.

That was 43 years ago. Today, ACCESS, which he ran for many years, offers more than 90 programs and reports nearly a million client visits a year.

I have to confess I rolled my eyes when I heard yesterday that Governor Rick Snyder went to a Flint resident’s home and drank their filtered tap water in front of two reporters.

Publicity pictures were taken, and the governor, who left with several gallons of the stuff, pledged to drink Flint water for the next 30 days.

Several nasty thoughts entered my head. One was to wonder if this was one of the houses that didn’t have lead pipes.

Have you ever noticed how often people invoke the Founding Fathers whenever anybody doesn’t like anything about government?

Yes, they like to claim that the Framers of the Constitution would be spinning in their graves if they only knew that someday the nation they created would become a socialistic welfare state -- or a military-industrial complex -- et cetera, et cetera.

The Prison Blues

Apr 15, 2016

What’s being called a major battle over the state’s prison budget is taking shape in Lansing. To save money, John Proos, the chair of the relevant state senate subcommittee, wants to close two prisons, and lease and operate a now-private prison in Baldwin.

However, those who run the Department of Corrections don’t want to close any of the state’s 35 prisons, and say they need them in case the state prison population ever rises again.

I assume there are probably some real issues facing the voters in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, which is anchored by Lansing in the bottom middle of the state.

After all, a lot of folks here used to work for Oldsmobile, which was, you may remember, a mighty division of General Motors before going extinct a dozen years ago.

Only about 10% of the population is black or Latino, which puts Democrats at a disadvantage, but there are a lot of government workers and suburbanites trying to put their kids through school.

Here’s a little secret about those of us who cover news: We don’t like to admit it, but to a great extent, we begin what we do by being stenographers for the institutions of society.

We tend to divide news into little silos: Police news, political news, business news, sports news, entertainment and society news, etc. Then we divvy up coverage that way.

Journalists sometimes have difficulty with stories that don’t fit neatly into one silo or another, and sometimes they miss them altogether.

I was prepared to give Gov. Rick Snyder credit for having agreed to speak at a Pancakes and Politics breakfast in Detroit Monday.

This is a traditional Detroit political ritual sponsored by the Michigan Chronicle, the state’s African-American newspaper.

However, this particular session was held in the serious old-money atmosphere of the Detroit Athletic Club, few of whose members actually live in Detroit. There, the governor for the first time fingered a culprit for Flint’s water crisis.

He said it was “career bureaucrats” who had an “absolute lack of common sense,” because they didn’t add corrosion control chemicals to the water.

This explanation may get a sympathetic hearing in some circles. After all, “career bureaucrats” are mostly Democrats, right?

The other day, after watching the latest spat of televised nastiness between Donald Trump and whomever, I thought of something political I had also seen on television.

Something from another world long ago.

That time the speaker was a Michigan man, in every sense of that term, and he was also a politician who had survived a battle we then thought was the nastiest and most bizarre of our lifetimes. Virtually everyone was watching when he said:

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our Great Republic is a government of laws and not men.”

By now you may have come to realize that the best interests of the citizens is not what the Michigan legislature cares most about. For years, the voters’ top priority has been fixing our state’s terrible roads. The lawmakers refused to fix them.

Finally, they passed a disgraceful bill that raises our taxes and cuts essential services but won’t generate any serious new money for the roads for years.

I was struck this morning by two stories dominating the front page of today’s Detroit News. Newspapers are on the decline in this nation, and the News, which once sold almost 700,000 copies every day, now sells far fewer than a hundred thousand.

That means even most people who live in the Detroit area don’t see it. If they did, I wonder how many people would notice the odd contrast between these two things:

Roman Gribbs was pretty much a forgotten man, politically at any rate, the first time I went to see him almost seventeen years ago. He was respected in the legal community, and coming to the end of an almost twenty-year career as judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals.

But apart from that, he spent forty years as the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last white mayor of Detroit? By the turn of the century, many people had forgotten. 

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talked about Flint's struggling water and sewer fund, while Wayne County has its first budget surplus in eight years. He also talked about the life of former Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs, who passed away yesterday.

Well, it’s supposed to be spring, but when I woke up this morning it was 19 degrees and there was ice on the forsythia. Flint’s water is still unsafe to drink, and Donald Trump is still the likely winner of the Republican presidential nomination.

Late Saturday afternoon I was in Lansing, driving to an awards ceremony at the state Library of Michigan, when I started hitting a whole bunch of potholes near the Capitol.

“Don’t the legislators drive on these roads?” my sweetheart asked. My flip answer was that I didn’t think most of them went to the library very often.

State Senator Tom Casperson, a Republican from Escanaba, wants the voters to send him to Congress next year. He’s served almost twelve years in the legislature, and ought to know something about Michigan and its problems. And, he hopes to do something about one of them before he leaves Lansing.

You might think our major problems were things like Detroit’s collapsing schools and the unaffordability of higher education, or our bloated and hugely expensive prison system. There’s the fact that our roads are still falling apart despite the legislature’s passing a grossly inadequate scheme to fix them last year.

And then there is Flint, and the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

If you are a Michigan Democrat, I’ve got good news. If Virgil Smith Jr. is as good as his word, there soon won’t be any Democratic state senators in jail.

That’s because Smith, according to his lawyer, has promised to resign by tomorrow. This comes nearly a year after the senator stood naked on a crowded residential street, firing shot after shot into his ex-wife’s Mercedes, wrecking the car but not killing her.

There are those in Lansing who say, perhaps not so openly, that the people who run Detroit Public Schools can’t be trusted, that they are incompetents and thieves, and that to give them more money and free them from emergency management is to court disaster.

Yesterday, we learned that the federal government is accusing a dozen present and former principals of doing their part to prove that Detroit Public School administrators deserve to be held in contempt.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about Republican pushback on the State Board of Education's new LGBT guidelines, an alleged bribery and kickback scheme now plaguing Detroit's struggling school district, and State Sen. Virgil Smith's jail sentence.  

I’ve got some good news about this year’s presidential campaign. For the first time in what seems like forever, there are no primary or caucuses to obsess over today. We only get a one-week reprieve, however, Wisconsin votes next Tuesday.

What I am selfishly hoping this means is a brief break from the junior high school locker room fight otherwise known as the Republican nomination contest.

Last week everyone, including me, talked about the devastating report issued by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force. It laid the blame squarely on the state for the crisis that ruined the city’s water and put thousands of children at risk of lead poisoning.

This is one of the most pointed government documents I’ve ever seen. I had a chance to really read it over the weekend – and it is, frankly, riveting.