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
10:47 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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Opinion
8:45 am
Mon January 13, 2014

Detroit's City Council might prolong state control

Lessenberry commentary for 1/13/14

If you own a hotel, this is a good week to be in Detroit, where thousands of journalists and auto industry people are flocking to town for the North American International Auto Show.

Hopefully this will bring some good publicity for the city, which badly needs it. Last week was a setback, especially in terms of city government. But I think most people don’t realize how damaging it was. More on this in a moment.

But first, this will be the first time ever that the auto show will be in a Detroit where the mayor is not the most powerful figure. Today, that would be emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

A week ago, we would have figured this was an anomaly, and that next year, Mayor Mike Duggan would be ready to welcome the auto buffs to a normal city where the elected officials were fully in charge. Now, however, that’s not so certain.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat January 11, 2014

The week in review

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Week in Review interview for 1/10/14

In this Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller talk about the state's budget surplus and what lawmakers want to do with taxes, how Michigan could lose a seat in Congress because of a loss in population, and a bill to encourage employers to hire parolees.

Opinion
9:25 am
Fri January 10, 2014

Decide what to do about Asian carp

Lessenberry commentary for 1/10/14

Destroying things is easier than building them. It takes months to build a house, but you can destroy one in an afternoon. What’s baffling is that we always seem more willing to destroy than to build.

It is far easier to get lawmakers to approve money for war than to build things. For example, we spent at least $2 trillion on our 10-year war in Iraq. It would be interesting to try and explain what we got for it, other than about 200,000 dead people.

Congress easily approved that money. But imagine trying to get our elected representatives to approve anything like that sum to rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges and major cities. No one would even dare try.

I am mentioning all this because of a report released this week – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the options for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. If you don’t remember, we are talking about two species of fish, bighead carp and silver carp that escaped into the Mississippi River more than 20 years ago.

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Opinion
8:02 am
Thu January 9, 2014

State officials' salaries skim the cream from the top

Lessenberry commentary for 1/9/14

Well, it is an election year, and there seems to be something of a state budget surplus, or so projections show. Now, if you’ve been around, and have lived through a crisis and a recession or two, you know that January surpluses can disappear faster than forsythia blossoms in spring.

But politicians, including Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, are falling all over themselves to bellow that the billion-dollar surplus is a good excuse to give voters a tax cut. To his credit, Gov. Rick Snyder isn’t one of them. At least today, that is.

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Opinion
8:40 am
Wed January 8, 2014

Why you don't hear about some presidential candidates

Lessenberry commentary for 1/8/14

Two years ago, there were three truly national presidential candidates on the November ballot. Two were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But who was the third? Give up? It was Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.

Like Obama and Romney, he was on almost every state ballot, except Oklahoma and, ironically, Michigan, where more than 7,000 people did write in his name. Part of the reason most of us don’t remember Johnson is because, in the end, President Obama got about 66 million votes. Romney got about 61 million. Gary Johnson got a little over a million and a quarter, or just under one percent.

Why did he do so poorly? Were his ideas that repellent? My guess is, not really.

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Politics & Government
8:33 am
Wed January 8, 2014

Lessenberry talks Asian carp, the polar vortex and new Detroit leadership

cncphotos flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley talk about a plan to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, the polar vortex and what the new leadership on Detroit City Council will mean for the city.

Week in Michigan Politics interview

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Opinion
8:37 am
Tue January 7, 2014

Chilling new leadership in Detroit City Council

Lessenberry commentary for 1/7/14

Most people in Detroit yesterday were understandably focused on the bone-chilling cold, on attempts to get the streets cleared of snow, and to get those without heat to warming centers.

But something else happened that sent a chill through those trying to manage the city to a brighter future. The newly elected City Council chose its two top leaders yesterday.

I can tell you that virtually without exception, those trying to remake the city counted on Saunteel Jenkins being elected City Council president. Saunteel knows politics and people.  She came from the mean streets, where her 14-year-old brother was shot dead by someone stealing his jacket.

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Opinion
8:45 am
Mon January 6, 2014

A weather disaster can devastate political careers

Lessenberry commentary for 1/6/14

If you haven’t noticed that much of our state has been semi-paralyzed by the snowstorm, then I assume you are reading from Florida. That actually happened yesterday. Someone called while I was shoveling to ask if we had any snow. When I sputtered with amazement, it turned out my caller was in Naples, where it was 82 degrees.

He had once been in politics, and while my hands froze, we talked briefly about politics and the weather and a man few remember today, Michael Bilandic. He had been elected mayor of Chicago in 1977, after the legendary first Mayor Daley dropped dead.

He was at first very popular, and his political future seemed assured. But exactly 35 years ago this month, Chicago was hit by a record blizzard. Think what we’ve got is bad?

Chicago was hit with more than 20 inches in less than two days, and the city wasn’t up for the challenge. Snow wasn’t cleared, people couldn’t get to work, and the mayor couldn’t keep his promises to clear parking lots and keep the airports open. Unfortunately for him, he had to face an election that spring, and with the weather disaster as the main issue, he lost.

I thought of him because Gov. Rick Snyder also mishandled a weather situation last month, when hundreds of thousands of people lost power, light and heat. The governor was nowhere to be seen.

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Opinion
9:38 am
Fri January 3, 2014

Where were the leaders while you were in the dark?

Lessenberry commentary for 1/3/14

There was a lot of attention yesterday to the fact that when tens of thousands of Lansing-area customers lost power for days at Christmas, the head of the capitol city’s utility got going.

To New York City, on vacation. Yesterday, J. Peter Lark, the president of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, finally apologized for leaving when his customers were freezing.

Lark, whose compensation is more than $300,000 a year, said “There are times when we are called upon as leaders to make personal sacrifices in the line of duty,“ and then admitted he didn’t do that. He said. “I humbly and sincerely apologize.” Did he offer to resign?  No, no, no.

Does he think his utility needs more oversight? Why, of course not!  However, he said he might have some “community forums” to get consumer input about this. And he added, “I am prepared to ask the commission for a rate increase,“ evidently so the suffering people can pay even more for lousy service. 

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Opinion
9:32 am
Thu January 2, 2014

What’s ahead for the New Year

Lessenberry commentary for 1/2/14

Well, the good news is that we’ve all survived to see another new year. The days are slowly getting longer, and we can now at least say confidently that spring will come this year.

Of course, it is still cold and dark in the morning, there are mountains of snow, and the holidays are officially over. Some of have to worry about getting back on our diets and all of us have to face the fact that this is an election year. Which means campaign commercials soon will be coming to a TV set near you.  

Regardless of your politics, for a number of reasons, this is bound to be a fascinating year.

Consider this: While we don’t know how it will all turn out, Detroit is going to go through bankruptcy. Before this month is over, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr will file his proposed “plan of adjustment” with the federal court.

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Opinion
9:56 am
Tue December 24, 2013

What Michiganders are getting for Christmas

Lessenberry commentary for 12/14/13

Well, I would like to take this opportunity to stage a preemptive strike and wish everybody a Merry Christmas. If you aren’t Christian, don’t be offended; neither am I. However, I do believe in honoring any holiday that is a good excuse to eat and celebrate with people you care about.

There are also the less fortunate, which this year, sadly includes tens of thousands of Michigan families who lost power in the ice storm and apparently won’t have it back before Christmas.

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Opinion
9:34 am
Mon December 23, 2013

An effort to help the mentally ill

Lessenberry commentary for 12/23/13

My guess is that we think too much about football and not enough about mental illness, especially perhaps at holiday season.

But the fact is that millions of us are trapped in our own private hells. According to a report last year from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, about one in every five Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness. For 5% of us, the suffering is severe.

The association estimated that more than eleven million adults suffered from severe mental illness in one recent year. Nearly nine million had serious thoughts of suicide, and a million actually tried to kill themselves. Yet we tend to take insufficient notice of the mentally ill, at least until someone walks into a school and begins shooting.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat December 21, 2013

The week in review: GM investment, state benefits, part-time legislature

David Defoe flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss General Motor's investments in the state, the fate of state employee benefits, and the part-time legislature debate.

Click here to listen to the interview

Opinion
8:31 am
Fri December 20, 2013

Cutting benefits for Christmas

Lessenberry commentary for 12/20/13

Well, Christmas is almost here, and 43,000 Michigan citizens are getting a very unwelcome present this week. The state is notifying them that their extended unemployment benefits run out in eight days.

Since many of these folks have dependents, this is likely to be a huge blow to something like 100,000 people who are struggling to keep food on the table and the heat and electricity on.

This isn’t the result of a state policy, but a national one. There’s been considerable celebration over the recent federal budget deal that will avoid the threat of another government shutdown over the next couple of years. But that deal did not include any extension of federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

There’s no way they can reconsider this before the New Year, since the U.S. House has gone home. This is going to mean considerable hardship for more than a million people nationwide.

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Opinion
10:18 am
Thu December 19, 2013

Finding the hidden and fascinating stories in Detroit

Lessenberry commentary for 12/19/13

A few years ago, I had a student named John Carlisle who graduated and got a job as a reporter and then editor for a bunch of weekly suburban newspapers. He was very good at it, and he was also bored. So in his spare time, he began roving around Detroit, boldly going to places where nice suburban white kids have almost never gone before.

He met a guy called Jay Thunderbolt who had his own personal strip club in his house. He met a blues musician who kills and eats raccoons, and a civil rights icon who runs her own chicken farm in the old Irish neighborhood of Corktown.

Carlisle was fascinated. These stories had no place in the little newspapers he edited, so he began writing them for the Metro Times, an alternative paper in Detroit. To avoid any conflict with his day job, he wrote them under the pseudonym “Detroitblogger John."

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Politics & Government
9:02 am
Wed December 18, 2013

Lessenberry talks child well-being, renewable energy in Michigan and looks ahead to 2014 politics

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the state of child well-being in Michigan, and look ahead to Governor Rick Snyder's energy plan he'll announce Thursday. They also take a look at legislation likely to be taken up in early 2014.

Week in Michigan politics interview

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Opinion
8:49 am
Wed December 18, 2013

The most radically right-wing state Legislature in living memory

Lessenberry commentary for 12/18/13

Yesterday, the Democratic leader in the Statehouse held a news conference that convinced me his party is basically decent and civilized. And if they keep it up, they are going to lose next year’s  elections.

Here’s what I am talking about. Over the past three years, Republicans have been doing things that once would have caused people to march on Lansing with pitchforks.

They have rammed through Right to Work. Cut and starved higher education, and did their best to undermine public elementary and secondary schools as well. Within the last week, the Republican majority enacted a new law forbidding insurance companies from automatically writing policies that protect women’s right to have an abortion in the case of rape, incest or a dangerous pregnancy. 

They passed a bill doubling the amount fat cats can openly give to political campaigns. Worse, the same law says special interest groups can secretly spend unlimited amounts on so-called “issue-oriented ads,” taking away any accountability in campaign spending.

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Opinion
8:27 am
Tue December 17, 2013

Do we care about our kids?

Lessenberry commentary for 12/17/13

If you pick up either Detroit newspaper, you will find story after story about the fact that the city’s mediocre football team lost to another mediocre football team last night. This insignificant event is analyzed as if it were a major peace treaty in the Middle East.

But buried deep in those papers are a few paragraphs on a story that the editors thought much less important. Which is, that hundreds of thousands of Michigan children are hungry, impoverished, and living in families investigated for abuse and neglect. Hundreds of thousands, and the number is increasing.

Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy released its annual Kids Count report. The results show a devastating and persistent pattern. The number of young children qualifying for federal food aid has jumped by more than 50% since 2005, Nearly two-fifths of all children now qualify for nutritional help because their families are so poor.

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Opinion
9:15 am
Mon December 16, 2013

Michigan Senate didn’t do anything to bust scrap metal thieves

Lessenberry commentary for 12/16/13

The Michigan Legislature passed some dramatic bills before adjourning for the year last week, bills that got a lot of attention.

There was the so-called “rape insurance” law, which prevents health insurance from automatically covering abortion even in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health.

There was also a highly controversial campaign finance bill that doubles the amount the rich are allowed to give to political candidates, and allows special interest groups to spend vast amounts on so-called ‘issue ads” without disclosing the source of their funding.

But there were also things the lawmakers did that got lost in the shuffle. And the state senate did something guaranteed to help criminals in Detroit, and keep destroying the buildings that are left. They destroyed a bill that would go a long way to thwart scrap metal thieves, who are an immense problem.

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