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Jack Lessenberry

Daily essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry. Subscribe to a podcast of his essays here. Learn more about Jack here.

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John Engler at the final MSU Board of Trustees meeting of the 2017/18 school year.
Kate Wells / Michigan Radio NPR

Whether you liked his policies or not, there’s no doubt John Engler was an enormously effective governor a quarter-century ago. He knew the Legislature and how it worked.

He also knew virtually all of its members personally – their strengths, their weaknesses, what they wanted and needed. That was partly because he’d spent 20 years in the state house and senate before being elected governor in a tremendous upset in 1990.

That reputation for getting things done is why Michigan State trustees chose Engler as their interim president at the end of January. 

The Michigan legislature is unwilling to properly fix the roads or repair the rest of our crumbling infrastructure. But there is something they are eager to do: Make life more difficult for poor people who qualify for Medicaid under the Healthy Michigan plan. 

Michigan State Spartans
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

You might think the worst was now over for Michigan State. Larry Nassar is in prison, presumably for life. The university president who failed to get control of the scandal has been driven out of office, and one of the most powerful political figures in Michigan history is in charge of cleaning up the mess and moving on.

Apart from school board seats and state Supreme Court judges, there are only four Michigan officeholders elected statewide: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. We choose major party candidates for governor in the August 7 primary.

That is, if we bother to vote, which most of us don’t. Whoever wins the gubernatorial nomination gets to choose a lieutenant governor, so we have no say there.

That leaves secretary of state and attorney general. When you think of it, for most of us, the secretary of state may be the most important position. 

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in what seems certain to be the highest-profile case it will hear this year.

The question is whether the state’s public schools can, regardless of what the legislature says, outlaw or otherwise restrict guns in schools. Currently, state law allows someone with a concealed pistol permit to enter a school with an openly holstered gun.

I don’t read a lot of blogs and bloggers, partly because I don’t have the time and partly because in many cases, I know what they are going to say before they say it.

But one I do read regularly is Chad Selweski’s commentary Politically Speaking, at PoliticsCentral.org. His motto is “a country that loses its values, its principles, has lost its heart. A country that loses its sensible center, its common ground, has lost its mind.”

Elissa Slotkin
Cheyna Roth / MPRN

Elissa Slotkin was twenty-five and in her second day of graduate school in New York City the day the planes slammed into the towers, and, her life, like so many others, was changed.

“I felt I had to do something in service to my country,” she said. That led to the Central Intelligence Agency and three tours of duty in Iraq, where she served with the soldiers and eventually married Colonel Dave Moore, an Apache helicopter pilot.

The MDEQ's Bay City Business Center
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

There’s little doubt that the most appalling part of the Snyder administration has been the laughably misnamed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

You have to give the MDEQ this: It never misses an opportunity to show that it doesn’t care about the environment, or what the citizens of Michigan think, unless they happen to be executives of large corporations.

profile shot of Gretchen Whitmer
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Four years ago, I went to see Mark Schauer, then the Democratic nominee for governor. He had rightly criticized the Republicans for letting the roads fall apart, and vowed to fix them.

But when I asked how he was going to get the money for that, he really didn’t have an answer. My guess was that he didn’t want to risk losing votes by saying he was going to raise taxes. I left wondering if he deserved to win.

RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel holding a microphone
www.migop.org

George Romney was only governor of Michigan for six years, but he was one of the most important figures in our modern political history. He was the moving force behind our current State constitution. He had the brains to recognize that a modern industrial state needed a state income tax, and the guts to fight to get one enacted.

I was struck by something buried in an article in the Sunday New York Times that began by noting that students who go to Princeton often marry each other.

Elites, in other words, tend to marry elites.

This was not exactly a world-shaking revelation. People have always tended to marry people they grow up with, work with and live among, and despite the movies, of pretty much the same socio-economic and,
increasingly, educational status.

Comerica Park
Kevin Ward / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1f2P1w6

Yesterday was supposed to be the Detroit Tigers’ opening game, except that it was rained out. Well, of course it was. This is March in Michigan and trying to play baseball here and now is an abomination unto the Lord.

I had an intensely painful lunch earlier this week with a woman who is a mid-level executive of one of the auto companies. She used to be concerned about the future of the auto industry. She is also deeply religious, and is appalled by what was going on in Washington.

Appalled in theory, that is. In reality, she no longer cares. For her, life as she knew it has been destroyed by a growing epidemic you may never have heard about.

Dr. William Strampel
Michigan State University

In a way, the news that the longtime dean of Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine has been charged with criminal sexual conduct may be even worse than the revelations about Larry Nassar. MSU’s line all along has been that Nassar, the former sports medicine doctor who molested hundreds of women, was an anomaly.

One of my morning rituals is that after I have written for a while, I wake up my Australian Shepherd and we engage in a vigorous game of tug of war while I watch the headlines on CNN.

When I did this yesterday, the screen was filled with Anderson Cooper, one of the best interviewers in journalism today, with an excerpt from his interview the night before of a porn star. He was asking her whether her most famous contact had used a condom during their sexual encounter, and as she said no, I turned the TV off.

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Congress passed a budget that gets us through the summer, Donald Trump has signed it, and it contains good news for all of us. For one thing, it means we have again dodged a government shutdown, at least till September.

For another, for the second year in a row, Congress has mostly reversed all the bad things the Trump administration wanted to do to Michigan. That would have included eliminating funds to protect the nation’s most important source of fresh water, a $300 million dollar program called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
Michigan House Republicans

Once upon a time, there was a Republican governor of Michigan who enthusiastically endorsed his lieutenant governor as his successor. The governor was very popular.

His lieutenant governor was also respected and well-liked. He was good-looking and had an impressive background as a lawyer, FBI agent, and president of Eastern Michigan University.

Roads
Wikimedia Commons

Governor Rick Snyder was all relentlessly positive smiles yesterday when he signed a bill adding $175 million dollars to this year’s state’s road repair budget.

“There are roads that actually will get fixed because of this investment. You are going to see a lot of barrels in every corner of Michigan because of this,” the governor added.

Thousands of students in Michigan walked out of their classrooms last week to protest gun violence. They don’t want guns in schools, and they especially want assault rifles banned.

Personally, I would probably go even farther. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to own an assault rifle, except if it were kept under lock and key at a shooting range.

But the tragedy of the student protests is this:

Nobody wants to say this, but they aren’t going to go anywhere. The lobbyists of the NRA can count votes. They are mostly silent now, except for the stupidest among them.

 

Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879. He died, after a lifetime of discoveries that transformed the world, in 1955.  National Public Radio wasn’t around in his lifetime, but I have to believe he would have loved it. After all, he spent his later years searching vainly for a “Grand Unified Theory” that explains everything.

Michigan Radio, with support from its national partner, does indeed try to explain everything, or at least everything we can, to our listeners.  

Twenty years ago, John Engler was by far, the biggest figure in Lansing, and perhaps the most powerful governor Michigan has ever had. He understood the legislature better than anyone, largely because he had been in it for twenty years before becoming governor.

He was both respected and feared, and lawmakers in both parties thought twice before taking him on. Times have changed, however, and yesterday Engler, now interim president of Michigan State University, found himself testifying before a skeptical senate subcommittee.

FOIA
Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

There’s nothing wrong with having principles. Not everyone does; back in the bad old days, there was a U.S. Senator from the South who supposedly used to tell audiences, “Well, them there’s my positions, and if you don’t like ‘em – well, I can change ‘em.”

David Bonior at podium
John Edwards / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

You don’t have to be that much of an old-timer to remember that August night 20 years ago this summer when President Bill Clinton addressed the nation and admitted that he had engaged in behavior with Monica Lewinsky that was “not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.”

Congressman David Bonior, then the House minority whip, had just loaded up his Chrysler van back in Macomb County and was starting to drive back to Washington when his primitive, clunky car phone rang. A labor leader told him the news, and also that at least one top member of the House Democratic leadership was suggesting they abandon the President.

Repair trucks on a Michigan road.
Michigan Municipal League / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

I’ve always been leery of people obsessed with a single issue, who see the world entirely through some narrow prism. Marxists tend to be like that, if there are any left.

Single-issue people tend to be terribly boring. But I find that I too am becoming more and more obsessed with a single issue, and I think you should be too. I’m not talking about the coming workers’ revolution, however, but something else: Michigan’s infrastructure. 

Our legislators in Lansing have just enacted a tax cut that will be relatively meaningless for most, great for the rich, but which will leave our cash-strapped state with less revenue.

That wasn’t much of a concern for our lawmakers, all of whom will be gone within a few years, thanks to term limits. It ought to be more of a concern for citizens who have to worry about their kids’ educations, or dodge potholes the size of Lake St. Clair. We also know that our neglected infrastructure is fast falling apart, something we try hard to ignore.

Rashida Tlaib
Rashida Tlaib for Congress / via Facebook

Nobody gave Rashida Tlaib much of a chance when she decided to run for the legislature ten years ago. She was a Muslim whose mother had been born in Palestine.

Most of the voters were Black or Hispanic. Very few were Arab or Muslim. The outgoing state representative had been Jewish. But Tlaib worked hard, knocking on doors, sometimes with her toddler in tow. She won a solid victory in the Democratic primary.

But not a majority -- and that bothered her.

A pothole in downtown Flint.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller almost always calls it as she sees it. She’s deeply conservative, but mostly doesn’t let ideology get in the way of common sense.

So I wasn’t surprised yesterday by how she summed up the $175 million road funding bill just passed by both houses of the state Legislature.

The bill, she said, is “just a drop in the pothole.” 

As far as I know, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan isn’t a gambler, but if he were, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against a horse he was backing. Yesterday, when he endorsed Gretchen Whitmer at her headquarters in his city, it was a clear indication that the Democratic nomination for governor is now hers, unless she makes some kind of cataclysmic mistake.

Though the primary is still five months away, Duggan, to an extent, was ratifying the obvious. Whitmer, a former minority leader in the state senate, has been the front-runner ever since she announced she was running 14 months ago. 

U.S. Marine Corps. / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1f2P1w6

Governor Rick Snyder said something remarkably sane earlier this week. Actually, the fact that people noticed it is a sad indication of how sick our society is.

“I don’t think having more guns is a good thing,” he said, meaning guns in schools. This remark ought to be in a class with “the sky is blue.” Or, “if you are caught in a thunderstorm, you may get wet.” Guns in schools are a bad idea, period.

Last weekend, Ohio Governor John Kasich became the latest to say it: “We may be beginning to see the end of a two-party system,” he said on an ABC public affairs program, adding

“I’m starting to wonder if we are going to see a multi-party system at some point … because I don’t think either party is answering people’s deepest concerns and needs.”

Those remarks might have been self-serving. Kasich, who two decades ago was seen as just another conservative congressman, has become the symbol of a supposed moderate Republican Party, or at least a rational and sane alternative to what we have now.

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