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
8:42 am
Mon September 30, 2013

Michigan's story of same sex adoption

Lessenberry commentary for 9/30/13

If you’ve ever read Oliver Twist, or maybe even if you haven’t, you may remember the famous quote about a kink in the judicial system. “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot.” Dickens wrote those lines in another country 175 years ago. But things aren’t much different here and now, and as evidence, consider two nurses in suburban Detroit.

Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer are Michigan-certified foster parents, and the state is lucky to have them. DeBoer is a nurse in an NICU unit: Neonatal Intensive Care. Rowse, in an emergency room.

They indicated they were willing to foster the hardest cases, babies born premature, drug-addicted, who were either abandoned or taken away from the women who bore them.

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Opinion
8:23 am
Fri September 27, 2013

Do we lack a ‘common core?’

Lessenberry commentary for 9/27/13

My guess is that 30 years ago, the so-called Common Core education standards wouldn’t have been controversial at all.

As State Board of Education President John Austin told me yesterday, Common Core is not a curriculum. It doesn’t dictate what classes are to be taught. It doesn’t come from the federal government, and it is not being imposed by the federal government. Nor does it allow Washington or the United Nations to track students, or give outsiders any say in their education. 

Common Core is merely a set of standards designed to try to make sure that students in Michigan get both an adequate education, and approximately the same education as students in Florida or Indiana or Oregon.

The Common Core standards actually grew out of conservative, standards-based ideas. They came about because of widespread realization that many schools were just not doing the job, and were graduating students who weren’t adequately prepared for modern jobs or any kind of higher education.

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Opinion
8:26 am
Thu September 26, 2013

Good news for baseball and health care

Lessenberry commentary for 9/26/13

The Detroit Tigers won their division championship last night, and there’s good news for Democrats in that. This year, they can root for the team to win the World Series. Last year, that wasn’t the case.

You see, there’s an odd quirky way in which baseball correlates to national elections. When the American League wins the World Series, that‘s generally good news for the Republicans. National League wins; good for the Democrats.

Detroit‘s last two World Series triumphs came in 1968 and 1984, years when the GOP won presidential elections. The Tigers lost the World Series seven years ago, and less than a month later Democrats recaptured Congress. When the Tigers were humiliated in last year‘s series, we knew it meant curtains for Mitt Romney.

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Politics & Government
9:03 am
Wed September 25, 2013

Snyder's not running (yet), but his ads are

Lessenberry commentary for 9/25/13

Governor Rick Snyder has begun airing a sixty second commercial that, to anyone with an IQ exceeding that of a hamster, is clearly a campaign ad aimed at getting the voters to reelect him next year. It touts all the governor’s supposed accomplishments of the last three years, and hints what he wants to do in a new term.

Snyder says the message is: “simply put, we said it and we did it.”  Actually, the commercial is a shorter version of a five-minute video shown at last weekend’s Mackinac Island Republican conference. That version openly referred to “another four years” with Snyder and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley in charge.

Standard campaign commercial fare. But there are two things odd about this. For one thing, it is highly unusual for any candidate to run such a commercial more than a year before the election. After all, this stuff is terribly expensive. When politicians do things like this, as a friend used to say, “it just goes to show you what God could have done if he had just had the money.’”

But here’s the really odd thing about all this. Snyder is pretending he is not yet running for reelection, and to an extent, the media are letting him get away with it. “I’m not an announced candidate,“ the governor told reporters yesterday. “I’m happy being governor. I’m focused on being governor,” he said.

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Politics & Government
8:18 am
Wed September 25, 2013

The week in Michigan politics

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Week in Michigan politics interview for 9/25/13

This week in Michigan politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley talk about why the Obama administration will be in Detroit this week, how a federal government shutdown could affect Michigan's poor, Democrats plan to turn around Michigan schools, and Governor Snyder's ad campaign.

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Opinion
10:54 am
Tue September 24, 2013

The first CEO to bring a company back to Detroit

Lessenberry commentary 9/24/13

These days everybody in Detroit is in awe of Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who moved his operations from the suburbs to downtown, and has been buying up millions of square feet of city real estate. Some have joked that the cure for Detroit’s problems is just to get through bankruptcy and sell him the rest.

But we sometimes forget that before there was Dan, there was Pete. Peter Karmanos Jr, that is. Ten years ago, he was the first Detroit-area CEO in modern history to move a major corporation downtown -- Compuware, which he founded with two other guys forty years ago, and built into a powerhouse.

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Opinion
8:25 am
Mon September 23, 2013

Why Michigan Republicans could start winning more elections

Lessenberry commentary for 9/23/13

There’s no denying that some elements in the so-called Tea Party have been scaring moderate and independent voters away from the Republicans. But if Democrats think it is going to be easy to defeat Governor Rick Snyder, and make big gains in next year’s statewide elections, they may be guilty of self-deluding themselves.

I didn’t go to the Republican Party’s annual leadership conference on Mackinac Island last week, though I followed it closely. And I think that there were hints at Mackinac of two major stories emerging on the horizon.

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Politics & Government
8:30 am
Sat September 21, 2013

Week in review: unemployment, regulating drugs, pot for potholes

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Week in review interview for 9/20/13

This week in review, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss Michigan's rising unemployment rate, the possible regulation of the state's drug compounding center, and a plan at the state Capitol called "Pot for Potholes."

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Opinion
8:26 am
Fri September 20, 2013

Tea Party follies

Lessenberry commentary for 9/20/13

If you’ve been following politics, you know the Tea Party, or various people who say they represent the Tea Party, have had their sights on throwing Lt. Gov. Brian Calley off the Republican ticket next year.

Three years ago, Calley, now still only in his mid-30s, was seen as one of the more conservative members of the legislature. Conservatives were in fact happy when Rick Snyder chose him as lieutenant governor. Now, however, they want him off the ticket. Why? Because he’s supported Governor Rick Snyder’s policies.

Well, supporting the governor is what lieutenant governors are supposed to do, just as it is what vice-presidents do. Like presidents and vice-presidents, governors and lieutenant governors are elected on the same ticket. Governors, like presidents, traditionally get to pick their lieutenant governors. But there‘s been a move to force next year‘s GOP state convention to dump Calley.

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Opinion
10:48 am
Thu September 19, 2013

Auto bailout saved the government money

Lessenberry commentary for 9/19/13

Probably everybody in Michigan knows that the federal government saved General Motors and Chrysler less than five years ago, by pouring $80 billion in cash into them to keep them afloat. Afloat, that is, till both went through cushioned bankruptcies. They were soon reborn as leaner, meaner, and now highly profitable companies, though Chrysler is now part of Fiat.

The so-called government bailout was highly controversial at the time and bitterly opposed by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Two presidents went around them, however, and it is worth remembering that the bailout was begun by former President George W. Bush, though President Obama continued it.

Well, the bailout turned out long ago to be highly successful, and a lifesaver for the state and regional economies. The folks at the non-profit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor have numbers to prove this; their estimates are that had there been a total collapse and a bankruptcy liquidation of GM and Chrysler, that would have meant the loss of more than 1.3 million jobs in 2009 alone. That never happened.

The bailout was so successful that the government, which at one point was the major owner of GM, is now close to selling off the last of the shares the treasury owns.

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Opinion
8:26 am
Wed September 18, 2013

Hamtramck Preserved

Lessenberry commentary for 9/18/13

Just about everyone has at least heard of Hamtramck, the little, deeply Polish-American enclave city embedded within Detroit.

When you ask people what comes to mind when they think of the town, they say “Packzi,” the giant jelly donuts everyone eats on Fat Tuesday. They remember the triumphant day twenty-six years ago, when Pope John Paul II came to visit and say mass.

Old-timers remember legions of workers, lunch buckets in hand, trudging to jobs at the now-vanished Dodge Main or Poletown plants. Some even remember when Hamtramck was a wide-open town, with gangs and bordellos, and it was common for residents to make their own whisky in basement stills, a practice that continued long after Prohibition. Back then the Bowery was the happening nightclub, and you were liable to bump into anyone from Jimmy Durante to Sophie Tucker if you hung around into the night.

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Politics & Government
8:06 am
Wed September 18, 2013

The week in Michigan politics: Medicaid expansion, violent crime, Detroit bankruptcy mediation

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Week in Michigan politics interview for 9/18/13

This week in Michigan politics Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the Medicaid expansion, crime rates in Detroit and Flint and the mediation of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

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Opinion
8:14 am
Tue September 17, 2013

More people than the state reports have fraudulent car insurance

Lessenberry commentary for 9/17/13

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson yesterday announced a new effort to crack down on car insurance fraud. Specifically, she, with the head of the State Police and Michigan’s Financial Services Director, are going after those who sell or use fake insurance.

Evidently this turns out to be a far bigger problem than anyone imagined. The state chose one day -- in this case, July 31st -- and reviewed all the paper insurance certificates it collected. In Wayne County, where nearly one fifth of all Michigan residents live, more than one-fourth of all insurance certificates were phony.

But before you say, “What else would you expect from Detroit?” consider this: In far-way Chippewa County, in the Upper Peninsula, 60 percent of certificates were fraudulent. Statewide, the figure was 16 percent on that day.

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Opinion
8:36 am
Mon September 16, 2013

An effort to give more bloggers journalistic ethics

Lessenberry commentary for 9/16/13

Doctors and lawyers can’t practice medicine without a license, and plumbers and electricians have to be certified.

But anyone can call themselves a journalist. There are no rules, licensing or regulations, and anyone who understands the First Amendment to the Constitution knows it has to be that way.

Journalists are free to write and publish, thanks to the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.“ In other words, nobody can legally define who is a journalist or who can call themselves one.

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Politics & Government
8:28 am
Fri September 13, 2013

Saving Detroit’s last Synagogue to help rebuild Detroit

Lessenberry commentary for 9/13/13

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, begins this evening. Half a century ago, that would have meant thousands of Detroit’s Jews streaming into temples and synagogues in the city, but then the modern exodus began. 

Most Jews, like most other whites, fled the city. The last home of Temple Beth El, the city’s oldest congregation, is now the site of an African-American church. Other former synagogues have long since been converted to other uses or torn down.

There are few Jews left in the city itself. But one house of worship remains: The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Griswold, which once had hundreds of members and catered to Jewish businessmen who might end up in the city on Shabbat or during the High Holidays.

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Opinion
8:35 am
Thu September 12, 2013

Good news in the Michigan Supreme Court

Lessenberry commentary for 9/12/13

There’s a little good news both from and about the Michigan Supreme Court. Yesterday, the court announced it is ordering all courts in the state to provide interpreters for people who have limited or no English-speaking skills.

This was followed by a joint press conference starring Chief Justice Robert Young, one of the state’s longest-serving and most conservative justices, and Justice Bridget McCormack, who is both the court’s most recently elected member and one of its most liberal.

Though they have often voted differently when deciding cases, the two justices clearly had a warm camaraderie yesterday, and that was notable. There have been times in recent years when some justices have launched personal public attacks against each other, which did nothing for the court’s reputation.

The order to provide certified translators is a huge step in the right direction, especially given our ongoing influx of Spanish-speaking and Middle Eastern immigrants.

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Opinion
9:12 am
Wed September 11, 2013

How Detroit is impacting the rest of the state’s finances

Lessenberry commentary for 9/11/13

A few days ago, Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek reported a story worth thinking about. The market for municipal bonds has nosedived since Detroit announced its intention to file for bankruptcy in July.

Now, if you would like a clear and concise explanation of how the bond market works … good luck with that. But essentially, communities sell bonds to raise money, bonds they pay off gradually with interest over time. They are a traditional and time-honored way of raising money for civic improvements.

There’s also been an understanding, at least since the Great Depression, that money owed to bond holders -- especially the holders of general obligation bonds -- was sacrosanct. No matter how hard things were, the bond holders had to be paid. Well, that’s not happening in Detroit, which, as all the world knows, has filed for bankruptcy.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr isn’t honoring Detroit’s general obligation bonds. And that has investors across the state spooked. Battle Creek and Genesee County have pulled back from plans to sell new bonds. So has affluent Oakland County. In fact, the value of all the municipal bonds sold in the state last month was the lowest in ten years. Something is clearly going on.

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Politics & Government
8:41 am
Wed September 11, 2013

The week in Michigan politics: Detroit bankruptcy and bonds

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Week in Michigan politics interview

This week in Michigan politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss Governor Rick Snyder's agreement to answer questions about the Detroit bankruptcy filing to union lawyers, how the bankruptcy has affected borrowing abilities in other Michigan cities and a new investment program to impact social programs.

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Opinion
9:12 am
Tue September 10, 2013

The fastest cultural attitude shift is over LGBT rights

Lessenberry commentary for 9/10/13

There’s something fascinating about the period in which two cultures or technologies clash. Usually, it is clear after a few months or years which side is going to win. But there are always holdouts. Sometimes these struggles are intense, short and complete, as when the VHS format for videotapes defeated the Betamax technology back in the early 1980s. It took somewhat longer for DVDs to beat out videotapes, but it was again clear which would win.

Sometimes the old technology hangs on, at least with a small minority or a set of hobbyists. People still ride horses, and there is somewhat of a retro boomlet in vinyl records. Print is clearly giving way to online, but I suspect some dead tree publications will remain.

Interestingly, much the same sort of thing happens in terms of culture. There is little doubt that marijuana for recreational use will eventually be completely tolerated, if not legalized.

Those of us over 60 can remember when it was scandalous for a young couple to live together before marriage. Today, it’s widely seen as normal, outside some conservative religious circles.

But I don’t think I have ever seen a faster sea change in terms of cultural attitudes than in issues involving human sexuality.  Nearly one-fifth of all Michiganders now live in communities with ordinances protecting LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) citizens from housing or employment discrimination. Nearly all have done this in the last few years, and more are certain to follow before this year is out, according to a report in the Gongwer News Service yesterday.  

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Opinion
8:39 am
Mon September 9, 2013

The key to Detroit’s success after bankruptcy

Lessenberry essay for 9/9/13

Detroit is in the news a lot these days, and will continue to be, for obvious reasons, as the city goes through the agony of the bankruptcy process while simultaneously conducting an election. An election, that is, for a new mayor and City Council who will be essentially figureheads until Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr leaves, something that will probably happen a little over a year from now.

But while the media is concentrating on the bankruptcy itself, I sense that we aren’t asking the really important questions. For me, the most important of all is simply this: What happens after bankruptcy is over?

There are streets in Detroit that bear an uncanny resemblance to Germany at the end of World War II. The shells of red brick buildings stand, most of them burned out, roofless, some with homeless and destitute people squatting in the ruins.

Looking at a street like that the other day, I was struck by the thought that throughout the last year of the Second World War, as vast armies raged across Europe, there were teams of planners in Washington and elsewhere working on how to govern the conquered nations after the war; How to lead them on an eventual path to a return to normalcy and democratic self-government.

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