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
8:39 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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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat September 7, 2013

The week in review: Medicaid expansion and Bentiviolio's primary challenger

Week in review interview

This week in review, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the Medicaid expansion and Kerry Bentivolio's primary challenger.

Opinion
8:27 am
Fri September 6, 2013

Is ranting in university classrooms free speech?

Lessenberry essay for 9/6/13

One of this week’s more sensational stories involved a Michigan State University professor who was removed from teaching after delivering an inflammatory rant to a large lecture classroom, remarks somebody videotaped.

When the video surfaced, Republicans went ballistic. Many demanded that William Penn, a tenured professor of creative writing, be fired. Michigan State officials didn’t do that, and probably couldn’t. Originally, the whole point of tenure was to prevent someone from being fired for unpopular opinions.

However, State did yank Penn out of the classroom. He will continue to be paid, and presumably expected to continue his research and committee work, but someone else will teach his courses. The question is, how should we feel about this?

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Opinion
8:49 am
Thu September 5, 2013

Upping the fines to fight teenage smoking

Lessenberry essay for 9/5/13

Tobacco, somebody once said, is the only product that, when used as directed, kills you. Though smoking rates have declined, more than a 150,000 Americans each year die of lung cancer, nearly all directly killed by smoking.

That doesn’t include the thousands who die of other smoking-related diseases, from heart failure to emphysema.

We also know that with rare exceptions, smokers start the habit -- addiction, really -- while they are legally too young to smoke. Have you ever met anyone in their 30s who spontaneously decides to start?

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren knows this; like many of us, he has seen relatives die in great agony as a consequence of smoking. Unlike most of us, however, he is in a position to try to do something about it. He’s introduced a bill to double the penalty to anyone selling tobacco to a minor to $100 for the first offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses.

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Opinion
8:57 am
Wed September 4, 2013

Corruption meets incompetence in the Detroit election scandal

Lessenberry essay for 9/4/13

They finally certified the result of the Detroit mayoral primary election yesterday, almost a month after the vote.

Unfortunately, what went on demonstrates conclusively that neither the county nor the city can be trusted to run elections. The state, if not the federal government, needs to come in and run Detroit’s general election in November.

The primary result itself was stunning, as we learned on election night. More than half the voters wrote in the name Mike Duggan. For any candidate to win as a write-in is almost unheard of.

But in this case, Duggan is a white man who moved into a nearly all-black city to run for mayor. I figured his ego had gotten the better of him. But I was wrong, and the most inspiring thing is this: Detroiters proved all those who said they were incapable of rising above race prejudice are dead wrong.

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Politics & Government
8:33 am
Wed September 4, 2013

Week in Michigan politics: Medicaid expansion, Snyder in China, Duggan wins Detroit mayoral primary

cncphotos flickr

Week in Michigan politics interview for 9/4/13

It's Wednesday, the morning we speak with Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry about what's going on in state politics.

This week Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the approval of a Medicaid expansion in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder's trade mission to Asia, and Duggan becoming the official front runner of the Detroit mayoral race.

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Opinion
9:01 am
Tue September 3, 2013

More of us are on welfare than we think

Essay for 9/3/13

During the debate on Medicaid expansion, one of the program’s biggest foes said something worth consideration.

State Senator Patrick Colbeck of Canton is a Tea Party favorite who is about as firmly anti-government as anybody. Especially, that is, when it comes to the federal government.

Colbeck firmly opposes any tax increases for any reason, including fixing our roads. He not only wanted to stop extending Medicaid, he wanted to get the state out of that federal program altogether.

He proposed a state-financed version that would cost the state more and insure fewer people. Even most of his fellow Republicans voted against that.

But one of Colbeck’s objections is worth thinking about. Of Medicaid expansion, he said, “If this goes into effect, 30 percent of our population is going to be on Medicaid, and then 70 percent is going to be paying for 30 percent.“ 

Indeed, that is a version of the nightmare that has haunted conservatives for decades: That our nation is becoming a place where a shrinking group of hard-working, self-sufficient Americans are cruelly taxed to support a huge parasite class. 

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat August 31, 2013

The week in review: Detroit Public Schools, Washtenaw County ID cards, Detroit mayoral race

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Sarah Hulett Michigan Radio

Week-in-review for 8/31/2013

 This week, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the Detroit Public Schools student quota, Washtenaw County’s identification card plan that includes undocumented immigrants, and the continuing campaigns of Detroit mayoral candidates Benny Napoleon and Mike Duggan.

Detroit Public Schools trying to meet enrollment goal

The Detroit Public School district is depending on enrolling 5,000 more students for the 2013-2014 school year.  If the district doesn’t meet its goal, they will lose millions of dollars in funding from the per-pupil-allowance from the state.  Jack Lessenberry says that Detroit used to enroll almost 200,000 students thirteen years ago.  They now only enroll 46,000.  Lessenberry says “they’ve been going door-to-door trying various gimmicks, of course those are sort of dubious too, to get kids to come back.  But it’s all about how many bodies they have in seats on Count Day.”

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Opinion
9:46 am
Fri August 30, 2013

Declining unions and Michigan's paycheck blues

Lessenberry commentary for 8/30/2013

  There’s a bumper sticker I occasionally see that says: Unions: The People Who Brought You the Weekend. For most Americans, that is certainly true. Unions created not only the weekend, but the modern middle class, something we tend to forget these days.

Yes, unions became complacent and some became corrupt. Some did not do enough for women or minorities. But all in all, they did far more good for America and the American worker than harm.

Unions are, however, widely unpopular with a sizable section of the public these days, and an even larger percentage of politicians.

The Republican majority in the Michigan legislature seems to have essentially declared war on unions, especially public sector unions. Unions have been in a long membership decline, something that may accelerate as the effects of becoming a Right-to-Work state kick in.

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Opinion
9:47 am
Thu August 29, 2013

The astonishing hypocrisy of Medicaid opponents

Lessenberry commentary for 8/29/2013

You know by now that the Michigan Senate has finally voted to approve expanding Medicaid benefits.

The vote, which came Tuesday night after months of struggle, means that eventually nearly half a million of our citizens will have at least basic health care, people who don’t have it now.

The cost to the state itself will be nothing for three years, and only a pittance afterwards. The benefits in terms of human decency and a healthier workforce, enormous.

Those who opposed Medicaid expansion said they didn’t think we should burden future generations with another “entitlement cost.” Many of them also admitted their opposition was based on their hatred of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which they continue to oppose even though it was passed by Congress, passed Constitutional muster with the Supreme Court, and essentially ratified by the voters in last year‘s presidential election.

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Opinion
11:00 am
Wed August 28, 2013

Medicaid reveals split among Michigan Republicans

Lessenberry commentary for 8/28/2013

Something historic happened last night. The Michigan Senate finally cast a vote that means that nearly half a million citizens without health care will be able to have it. And they will be able to do so at no cost whatsoever to our state for three years, and only a pittance afterwards.

I thought of the former students I know with chronic pains they have to ignore because they can’t possibly afford a physician. Some of these people now clog our hospital emergency rooms for problems they should be taking to a neighborhood doctor.

You might have thought there would be dancing in the streets. But no. Most of the attention went to Tea Partiers and other sore losers snarling bitterly over “Obamacare,” which is not what this is.

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Politics & Government
9:57 am
Wed August 28, 2013

Week in Michigan politics: Medicaid, Governor Snyder, and the Tea Party

The Michigan Senate chamber. Democratic Party leaders will name a replacement tonight for their 20th district candidate.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

Week in Michigan politics for 8/28/2013

This week in Michigan politics Christina Shockley and Jack Lessenberry discuss Medicaid expansion, Governor Rick Snyder's political status, and the Michigan Tea Party.

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Opinion
10:00 am
Tue August 27, 2013

MLK's dream has both succeeded and failed

Jack Lessenberry's essay

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gave what would become one of the most remembered speeches in American history.

We know it, of course, as the “I have a dream speech,” and many of us in Michigan also know that he gave an earlier version in Detroit just two months before. They celebrated the anniversary of the more famous version in Washington last weekend.

To me, the most significant celebration of that speech came on the anniversary five years ago, when another powerful young black orator recited parts of it before an TV audience. That time it was not the quarter of a million people who heard it in 1963.

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Opinion
9:32 am
Tue August 27, 2013

Consider more carefully who we quote on questions of law and policy

Jack Lessenberry's essay.

I just learned something important I thought I should share with you. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” is unconstitutional after all.

Yes, I know that the United States Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was constitutional, and that they have the ultimate legal authority to decide that.   But Joan Fabiano says they are wrong, and some media outlets think her views are worth repeating.

Fabiano, who is often described as a “prominent Tea Party activist,” isn‘t exactly a lawyer.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat August 24, 2013

The week in review: Detroit primaries, ACLU racial mapping case, 'fee-for-service'

Sarah Cwiek Michigan Radio

Week-in-review for 8/23/2013

This week, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the certification of Detroit’s mayoral primary results, the Detroit ACLU’s case against the FBI, and a union’s “fee-for-service” for employee grievances.

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Opinion
8:49 am
Fri August 23, 2013

There are better investments than replica Civil War cannons

Lessenberry commentary for 8/23/2013

State Senator Bruce Caswell of Hillsdale is a military buff – he attended West Point for a couple years, before transferring to Michigan State – and he’s a former high school history teacher.

Now, he has a new project he would like people to donate money for. If you are about ninety, and spent a lot of time at the State Capitol when you were young, you may remember there used to be two old Civil War cannons out front.

Otherwise, I suspect you never heard of the so-called Loomis cannons. They weren’t especially famous cannons; they didn’t batter down the defenses of Richmond, and people in the 1940s thought so little of their importance that they were apparently melted down during a World War II scrap metal drive.

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Opinion
9:19 am
Thu August 22, 2013

The farce of presidential impeachment

Lessenberry commentary for 8/22/2013

I was a college student almost forty years ago when the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. I watched those proceedings and hung on every word.

Many, perhaps even most people did. I remember crowds clustered around television sets in department stores at particularly dramatic points in the testimony. When the members finally voted to recommend impeachment, many of them did in voices breaking with emotion. They knew this was an almost unimaginably huge step.

The congressmen knew that only one other President had been impeached in history – Andrew Johnson, more than a century before. They also knew that history had judged very harshly those congressmen and senators who supported removing that president, and praised those who managed to stop his conviction.

Impeachment, those congressmen knew, was the nuclear option in American constitutional democracy. In the end, President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, convicted, and removed from office, as he surely would have been.

I thought that would be the only attempt at impeaching a president I would ever see, and I was, of course, wrong. Twenty-five years later, the house actually impeached President Clinton for what really amounted to lying about sex. The senate never came close to convicting him, and the entire episode was seen as low farce.

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Politics & Government
9:28 am
Wed August 21, 2013

Week in Michigan politics: Detroit mayoral election, bankruptcy and Pontiac's finances

State lawmakers have passed bills allowing the city to keep taxing at certain rates. The legislation awaits Governor Snyder's approval.
Bob Jagendorf Flickr

Week in Michigan politics interview

This week in Michigan politics Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss ballot issues that have emerged in the Detroit mayoral race, the objection filings to Detroit's bankruptcy and Pontiac coming out of emergency management.

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Opinion
8:58 am
Wed August 21, 2013

Systems failure leads to election confusion and stalled road funding

Lessenberry commentary for 8/21/2013

Lily Tomlin and Oliver Cromwell have nothing in common, as far as I know.  But I thought of both this morning when I was considering the news from Detroit and Lansing.

Tomlin years ago came up with a perfect line to describe the latest twist in the Detroit elections mess.  “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”

That was exactly the case when the Wayne County Board of Canvassers met to certify the totals in the Detroit mayoral primary election two weeks ago. There should have been no mystery about the results. Mike Duggan had been ruled off the ballot on a technicality, but won in a write-in landslide.  He got nearly twice as many votes as his closest competitor, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. But Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett yesterday announced she was throwing out nearly half of Duggan’s votes, because poll workers merely recorded them, rather than make a hashtag mark next to them.

Not only did this cavalierly disenfranchise twenty thousand voters, it looks and smells highly suspect. Cathy Garrett is the sister of Al Garrett, a prominent union official who is one of Benny Napoleon’s biggest backers.

Now her decision would not have changed the lineup for the November runoff. It will still be between Duggan and Napoleon. But Garrett’s maneuver would have allowed Napoleon’s backers to claim he “won” a primary he actually lost.

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Opinion
9:25 am
Tue August 20, 2013

Michigan Republican ignores history and dismisses compromise

Jack Lessenberry commentary for 8/20/2013.

Five months ago, Michigan Republicans nearly unseated their state chairman, Bobby Schostak, at their state convention.

Schostak is a successful fundraiser and commercial real estate developer. Until recently, he would have been seen as a hard-core conservative. But he wasn’t hard-core enough for 48 percent of the delegates to their annual state convention.

Those delegates voted for Todd Courser, an accountant and tax attorney from Lapeer. Courser lost that election, but if you saw the public affairs show Off The Record this weekend, it was clear he believes fervently in his own righteousness, and means for his troops to take over the GOP.

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