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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Opinion
10:16 am
Thu February 6, 2014

Snyder's budget seems to get better reviews from Democrats than Republicans

Here’s some pretty safe advice: If you go to a party and see someone who looks interesting, try not to say,

"Have you studied the details of Gov. Snyder’s latest state budget proposal?"

Unless you are with a bunch of politicians in Lansing, it's a pretty sure bet that you’ll end up talking to the potato chips.

Gov. Snyder’s budget is interesting, however, in a number of ways. There are two important things to remember, however. First, this is clearly the budget of a politician running for reelection.

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Opinion
11:04 am
Wed February 5, 2014

Stabenow proves her mettle with passage of farm bill

Eight years ago, Republicans were smirking with glee. They thought they finally had an image to destroy U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. They posted video on YouTube showing an unflattering picture of her in the senate, standing next to a sign reading "Dangerously Incompetent." It was followed by all sorts of sniggering comments,many of them essentially misogynistic.

Stabenow, they claimed then, was one of the most ineffective members of the U.S. Senate. I talked to smug Republicans at the time who felt sure she was going down.

Well, that fall she won reelection by 600,000 votes. Suddenly, Democrats were in the majority in the Senate. Soon Stabenow, the daughter of a car salesman from Clare, was chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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Politics & Government
8:49 am
Wed February 5, 2014

Governor's race, budget proposal and farm bill make political headlines

michigan.gov

This Week in Michigan Politics, Christina Shockley and Jack Lessenberry discuss the governor’s race, Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal and farm bill.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 2/5/14

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Opinion
9:38 am
Tue February 4, 2014

We are starving our future in Michigan by not investing in higher education

Yesterday, I talked about the challenges the University of Michigan’s new president faces. One of those is, of course, the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to afford an education.

That provoked a lot of reaction, and I was surprised by the tone of a lot of it.

Specifically, many people feel that especially with the lagging economy, it makes no sense for students to study things that won’t clearly pay off in a job.

"There's nothing wrong with art appreciation. There are plenty of books, DVDs and YouTube clips out there," one man said. But he thought it was outrageous that someone would spend a vast amount of money on something "that will turn out to be a nice hobby," and then "complain about the lack of job opportunities."

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Opinion
10:39 am
Mon February 3, 2014

U of M is out of reach for most Michiganders - can new President help?

Listen to Jack's commentary here.

It’s been ten days since the University of Michigan announced that Mark Schlissel would be the school’s new president.

I did not comment then, because I did not know enough to have an opinion, and because I knew Michigan Radio’s news department would do a superb job covering the selection and the new president himself.

I should say, by the way, that while Michigan Radio is a part of the University of Michigan, I am not an employee of the university, and I neither speak for the university or the station management.

But I can tell you that in the 10 days since the new president was announced, I have talked to, or been talked to by a lot of people about it. Roughly speaking, they had two main areas of concern.

The biggest was the rising cost of an education.

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Opinion
10:26 am
Fri January 31, 2014

It's irresponsible for Michigan lawmakers to push for a tax cut now

Last night I talked to Mary Lou Zieve, who is well known in Detroit as a marketing executive and supporter of the arts. I found out that we had something unpleasant in common.

During the last week, we’ve each had a tire destroyed by a pothole. Not on some unpaved road out in the country, but on suburban surface streets. I was driving forty miles an hour on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak or Birmingham, when – bang.

This cost me $250.

Our roads and streets are bad and getting worse, and our lawmakers have refused over and over again to appropriate money to fix them.

But they are now eagerly signing up for something that from a good government standpoint is the height of insanity. They want to give us a tax cut, which means the state will have even less money to do the things it is failing to do.

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Opinion
10:12 am
Thu January 30, 2014

He protected Detroit pensions in the '60s and now worries about DIA

Jack Faxon was a 24-year-old government teacher in Detroit back in 1960, when the state voted to call a constitutional convention.

Partly egged on by his students, he ran for delegate, and surprisingly, won. When the convention began, he was the youngest member. Republicans had a two-to-one majority, but that didn’t matter so much, Faxon, still trim, fit and healthy, told me. 

“Things weren’t like they are now. Actually, there were really three parties – the old guard Republicans, the progressive Republicans, led by (George) Romney, and we Democrats.” 

Faxon may have been a very junior delegate, but said he played one key role. Early on, he was approached by the head of the Detroit teachers’ retirement system. 

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Opinion
11:38 am
Wed January 29, 2014

Our voting system needs repair

This is an election year, and if you haven’t noticed, you'll soon be engulfed by an inescapable tidal wave of advertising that will make that clear. Last night’s State of the Union speech was, in one sense, a campaign platform.

So were all of the various Republican responses. We’ve seen precious little bipartisan cooperation in Washington or in Lansing these last few years, and unless the martians invade, you can probably count on even less this year.

But regardless of your politics, there is one area in which we need to cooperate to make changes. Not in for whom we vote, but in the mechanics of how we vote.

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Opinion
10:41 am
Tue January 28, 2014

Why Michigan's Democratic leaders aren't happy with a minimum-wage ballot campaign

Jack Lessenberry

There’s a new group called the Economic Justice Coalition which is seriously considering trying to get a proposal on the ballot to raise the minimum wage in Michigan.

You might think that would make Democrats happy. Their gubernatorial candidate, Mark Schauer, came out in favor of a minimum wage hike two months ago.

But Democratic leaders aren’t thrilled with a ballot campaign, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Now, it’s not that they don’t want a higher minimum wage.Virtually all of them do. Schauer said if elected, he would try to raise Michigan’s from the present $7.40 an hour to $9.25 an hour over three years.

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Opinion
11:52 am
Mon January 27, 2014

Can Democrats win the Michigan House?

Jack Lessenberry for Monday Jan. 27, 2014

The last three years haven’t been great ones to be in the legislature – if you are a Democrat. Republicans are in control, and they’ve rammed through bills whose passage would have been unimaginable five years ago. Right to work, for example.

Two years ago, Democrats hoped to win control of the state House of Representatives, to gain some leverage. They did gain five seats, thanks in part to a large turnout and President Obama winning Michigan by nearly half a million votes. But they still fell short, thanks in part to redistricting. More than 400,000 more votes were cast for Democrats, but gerrymandering meant when the dust had settled, Republicans had 59, Democrats, 51.

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Politics & Government
9:48 am
Fri January 24, 2014

Why Snyder's immigration plan may be his best yet

Jack's essay for January 24, 2014.

Thirteen years ago, a friend who runs a political PR firm urged me to meet a man he saw as a visionary politician who he was going to be elected mayor and transform Detroit.

His name was Kwame Kilpatrick. We all know how that turned out, but nobody did then. What was the same then and now, however, was Detroit’s need for jobs and money.

Over the years, I had learned one thing: If you want to jump-start an economy, what you need are immigrants. Driven, motivated, immigrants who want a better life.

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Opinion
9:35 am
Thu January 23, 2014

Odds are against Snyder's attempt to save Detroit pensions and art

Jack's essay for Thursday Jan. 23, 2014

There was a lot of rejoicing yesterday at the news that the governor had signed on to a so-called “grand bargain” to help save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detroit is, of course, going through bankruptcy.

Creditors want as much as possible of the money owed them. Those counting on city pensions want to make sure they get their money, even if the DIA’s world-class collections have to be sold.

Selling the art would be devastating not only to art lovers, but it might deal the city a cultural blow from which it could never recover.

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Opinion
10:20 am
Wed January 22, 2014

An increasing and scary sense that government is fatally broken

The good news is that there seems to be increasing interest in mental health issues at all levels of government.

Yesterday, the Michigan Health and Wellness Commission released a new report on improving mental health services in this state. This was a special, bipartisan commission including four legislators, chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

The study, “Improving Quality of Life by Supporting Independence and Self-Determination” is available online.

It is short, straightforward, and easy to understand.

It calls for legislative action, and calls on all of us to reassess the way we view, as well as treat, those with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

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Opinion
11:02 am
Tue January 21, 2014

L. Brooks Patterson slammed for comments about Detroit, and he probably loves it

Jack's essay for Tuesday Jan. 21, 2014

I’ve been a faithful subscriber to and reader of The New Yorker for years, though I have to confess that some weeks I only have time to look at the magazine’s wonderful cartoons.

But if you had asked me last week who in Michigan was most likely to be profiled in The New Yorker, I’ll bet I would have offered 20 names before I came up with L. Brooks Patterson.

Patterson, who has been a fixture in Oakland County for more than 40 years, is being raked over the coals today for his Detroit-slamming remarks in this week’s New Yorker interview.

He is quoted as saying:

“Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit-basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough *bleep*.”

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Opinion
5:19 pm
Mon January 20, 2014

Mass transit no closer to reality in metro Detroit

  Today, of course, is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And if you know your history, you know that the event that brought him to prominence was the boycott ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the only form of mass transit available to the working poor in many places then. What’s shocking is that nearly 60 years later, metropolitan Detroit lacks any kind of reliable transportation system. Detroit has bus service, but it is not very reliable.

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Opinion
10:41 am
Fri January 17, 2014

Governor Snyder tries to convince Michiganders he's worth their vote

Think for a minute and tell me what you remember about the governor’s state of the state speech last year.

Don’t feel bad. I don’t remember much either, and I write about these things for a living.

Actually I do remember that last year Snyder proposed spending $1.2 billion on the roads to keep them from falling apart.

The Legislature did nothing.

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Opinion
8:34 am
Thu January 16, 2014

Detroit insights from a numbers man

Lessenberry commentary for 1/16/14

I have a lot of respect for Joe Harris, a man who knows the numbers, does what needs to be done and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the facts. He isn’t much of a politician, and he knows it. He tells it the way he sees it.

Harris, now 69, was one of the first dozen or so black CPA s in the state of Michigan. He quickly gained professional respect, and a major accounting position at Domino’s Pizza in Ann Arbor. Then, back in 1995, Harris became auditor general of the City of Detroit. That’s an appointed position which lasts 10 years.

Harris very quickly saw vast inefficiencies and people doing things in outmoded ways. “They weren’t bad people,” he told me over lunch last week. They, and their bosses, had never worked anywhere else. There was no incentive to change.

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Opinion
9:17 am
Wed January 15, 2014

The Legislature needs to focus more on Michigan citizens

Lessenberry commentary for 1/15/14

I have to wonder sometimes how our elected leaders in the Legislature sleep. They spend vast amounts of money getting elected to jobs, the whole purpose of which is to serve the citizens. Then they don’t do that –selling out to special interests, or pandering shamelessly to voters – so they can cling to power for another couple years.

If they were in Congress, I still wouldn’t approve, though it would be easier to understand. Congressmen, after all, can stay in office until they are legally dead, accumulating power and seniority. But if you are a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, you can serve six years maximum, for life. State senators can serve a maximum of eight years.

Now – if you are going to be gone anyway soon, why not do the right thing while you are there? Sadly, that isn’t the way most legislators seem to think. I’ll give you one huge example:

Forget anything morally controversial, like abortion insurance or wolf hunting. Forget anything where there is a legitimate public policy debate, like what to do about failing schools. Instead, let’s talk about the most obvious example: Our roads.

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Politics & Government
9:03 am
Wed January 15, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

A day after Governor Snyder delivers his "State of the State" address, he plans to go live on the web with an "online town hall." The event is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday. Details can be found on the Governor's Facebook page.
"Rick Snyder for Michigan" Facebook Page

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley talk about Governor Rick Snyder's upcoming State of the State address, a new effort to save Detroit pensions and the Detroit Institute of Arts, and how abortion right advocates are backing off efforts to block a law that requires women to buy a separate health insurance rider to cover abortions.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 1/15/14

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Opinion
10:47 am
Tue January 14, 2014

It's time for Snyder to fight for the DIA

Lessenberry commentary for 1/14/14

Ever since Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was announced last summer, there has been one major concern in the art world.

What will happen to the Detroit Institute of Arts and its world-class collection, something previously assumed to be untouchable and priceless? When emergency manager Kevyn Orr said the collection needed to be inventoried and appraised, it caused greater shock in some circles than the bankruptcy itself.

At first, I assumed this was a bluff, possibly designed to demonstrate how deep the city’s crisis really was.

But it quickly became clear that the creditors want their money by any means necessary. And for many, art takes a back seat to their stomachs. One former council member, a highly educated woman and a single parent, told me “I am tired of hearing that the pension I worked for is less important than your right to drive down here and see a Van Gogh.”

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