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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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

Flickr user borman818

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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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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