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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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Governor Rick Snyder gave his annual state of the state speech last night. If you missed it, don’t feel bad. There was virtually nothing to miss. I’ve seen five different governors deliver these annual speeches over the last 40 years.

None of them will live for the ages. Years ago, after one, a reporter for United Press International turned to me and said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself, and another speech next year.”

From left to right: Macomb County County Executive Mark Hackel, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, and Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller
From left to right: Macomb County government, City of Warren, GOP.gov

Metro Detroit's infamous Macomb County might be "the most politically craziest county in Michigan, if not the planet."

Michigan Radio's senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry wrote that in a column for the Toledo Blade.

The state's third most populous county has produced one outrageous headline after another: from a sheriff who went to prison for rape, to corruption surrounding a waste-hauling company, to the racist and sexist recordings plaguing Warren mayor Jim Fouts, and the list goes on and on.

So what is wrong with Macomb County? 

Lessenberry joined long-time Macomb County reporter Chad Selweski on Stateside to try to make sense of the "weirdness" that goes on in the county.

Governor Rick Snyder will deliver his seventh State of the State address tonight. My guess is that not many people will watch or listen; with this speech, they hardly ever do.

Abraham Lincoln famously said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”

Lincoln was as wrong as he could be about his own words.

For many Americans, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. means mostly that they get a day off from work or school, a day in which the banks are closed and the mail doesn’t come.

They may also know him as a one-dimensional icon of the civil rights movement, who repeatedly said “I have a dream,” during some famous speech a long time ago, and also said, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land,” and then got shot.

Detroitsound.org

You could argue that the biggest Michigan story of the last decade was Detroit – the fall of its famously corrupt mayor, the city’s descent into bankruptcy, and its reemergence and renaissance. Nobody would have believed 10 years ago that downtown Detroit would be booming today, or that Midtown near Wayne State University would be a trendy place to live.

Today, Detroit’s streetlights are all on again, and a balding and plump white guy from the suburbs is the most popular mayor in years.

Ten days from now we will have a new President, and in time he will name a new justice to the Supreme Court, and eventually a nominee is likely to be confirmed.

I teach college students, mostly seniors and graduates, journalism history and law. And sometime after the new justice takes office, one will ask me when they’ll have to run for reelection. They don’t, of course; they are selected for life.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed a judge looking down at a defendant and asking, “So – just how much justice can you afford?” Judges never say things like that, or at least I hope not. But the system sort of does, whether we admit it or not.

If you doubt that, consider this: Let’s say some state agency went after Dick and Betsy DeVos and accused them of defrauding the taxpayers out of money. They were not only ordered to pay it back; they were then assessed a fine four times the size of what they got…

By now, millions of people have been horrified by the great Macomb County sinkhole, which has destroyed at least three modern houses in the suburb of Fraser.

Imagine waking up on Christmas Eve, as one couple did, to the sounds of the foundations of your house popping as it sank into the ground.

Milton Mack, who was chief probate judge in Wayne County for many years, is probably the state judiciary’s top expert in the problems of prisons and the mentally ill.

Mack, now state court administrator, has long maintained that we could significantly reduce both our state prison population and its costs if more of our mentally ill could be put on medication instead of being locked up. But efforts at reform have too often been stymied by politicians who were more concerned about looking “tough on crime.”

A long time ago, a graceful man named Adlai Stevenson ran for President against Dwight D. Eisenhower, the much-beloved national war hero. The campaign was hopeless.

When he conceded defeat, full of charm and wit as always, a reporter asked if Stevenson planned to run again in four years. The candidate looked startled, and then broke into a broad grin. “Examine that man’s head!” he said, laughing. Stevenson would eventually run again, but he knew that nobody in the country wanted to think about another political campaign for a while.

Except for a few brief years in the 1960’s, it has never been fashionable to care about the desperately poor in this country. John F. Kennedy did challenge us to do something about poverty in his inaugural address:

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

But today, we have a President-elect who said:

“Benefits should have strings attached to them."

Happy New Year!  Since Michigan Radio graciously allows me to express my opinions, I thought I’d start by asserting the holidays were a very nice break, but that they didn’t last long enough. Well, that may be the least controversial thing I’ve said in a while.

We are in a new year, about to have a new administration in Washington, and I thought I might start it out by talking about the nature of journalism and what I try to do.

It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what voters really want. But that’s clearly not true when it comes to one thing: Hunting wolves. Michigan citizens want that outlawed.

Every poll has shown that.

Two years ago the people overwhelmingly voted to outlaw wolf hunting by a nearly two-to-one margin. This would be off the table for now in any event, because the federal government has declared wolves an endangered species.

I was recently tempted to bludgeon one of my students into recognizing that interesting things had happened, even before he was born, back in the ancient early 1990s, say.

We were discussing the origins of the World Wide Web, the invention that actually made wide-ranging use of cyberspace possible. Having considered this, he said prior to that, I must have actually had to find things in books.

When I learned yesterday morning that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette had charged two Flint former emergency managers in connection with the water crisis, what popped first into my head was an image long ago of a young senator from Tennessee.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Howard Baker had asked on national television more than 43 years ago, when Rick Snyder was in high school.

The country tore itself apart over the next 14 months over this, and we all know how Watergate turned out.

There is a leaked audio tape that has caused a sensation in political circles in the Detroit area. The language is raw, shocking and horribly vile, and, for once is not about sex.

A voice that sounds very much like that of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts complains that quote, “while on Fridays in the past I would be going to meet some women, tonight I am meeting with a group of retards. Tonight is retard night.” 

If you’ve been following politics, you’ve probably heard that the Electoral College is meeting today, and is expected to formally ratify the election of Donald Trump as President.

Well, that statement isn’t really true. The Electoral College never “meets” in the sense of everybody going to a central location. What happens is that electors from each state go to their state capitols, including Lansing, and fill out ballots casting two separate votes, one for President and the other for Vice-President.

Well, regardless of your politics, you can’t say nothing good came out of the aborted Michigan recount.

Chris Thomas, the state’s longtime elections director, said last night that Detroit will get new voting machines before the city elections next year.

Mark Twain once said that “no man’s life, liberty and property are safe while the legislature is in session.” 

He’s been dead for more than a century, but I’m sure he wouldn’t be the least surprised to learn that things haven’t improved in the slightest.

Actually, they’ve gotten worse, in Michigan at any rate, thanks to term limits, which have served to vastly increase the power of the lobbyists.

Well, as you may have heard, the final days of the lame duck session are winding down, and not nearly as many bills have been rammed through as I first thought might be the case. Lawmakers,for example, gave up early on plans to slash teacher pensions, and “reform” retiree health care for municipal employees in the state.

I’ve been wrong about a number of things this year. I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the presidential election, but then again, almost nobody did.

More recently, I didn’t think there would be anything startling if there was a statewide recount of Michigan’s votes. I was partly right about that. They did manage to recount a little more than 40% of the vote before the recount was stopped.


I respect most people who go into politics, and have admired some. But with a very few exceptions, I’ve never been in awe of those I’ve met, including Presidents.

They were highly accomplished people, occupying an institution I revered, but people still the same. But that’s not how I felt on a cold March morning almost thirty-four years ago, when I climbed into a small plane in Washington headed for New Hampshire.

Well, the chaotic mess of Michigan’s off-again, on-again recount battle is apparently finally over.

The reason I say “apparently” is that absolutely nothing has been certain this year, and it is still possible, though unlikely, that more courts could intervene.

Essentially, everyone connected with this looks like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, right down to Mark Goldsmith, who appeared to be a flip-flopping federal judge. The Republicans look worst of all, however. 

Ottawa County is a pretty lovely place on the western shore of Lake Michigan, a little south of Grand Rapids. I know it primarily for two things: the tulip festival in Holland, and for being the most Republican county in Michigan.

Ottawa last voted Democratic for president in 1864, when the local farmers decided they’d had enough of the Civil War and wanted their boys home. Since then, it has been as Republican as they come. Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t carry it, nor could Lyndon Johnson.

One of the most frightening, haunting and horrible stories I heard this year had nothing to do with politics. In September, an eight-year-old autistic child in Lake Orion was supposedly misbehaving in class.

So his teacher locked him in a padded room by himself for three and a half hours – a barbaric, medieval punishment called “seclusion and restraint.”

On Election Night it seemed clear the Republican candidate had won an upset narrow victory in Michigan. But some people wouldn’t accept it. They fought to get a recount.

The Republicans opposed it. But when a recount was finally ordered, irregularities and mistakes began to turn up. Figures had been transposed. Soon, the lead changed.

Pretty much anyone who ever amounted to anything has been inspired to success at some point by a teacher, usually in elementary or high school. Which makes the Michigan Legislature’s running war on teachers somewhat hard to understand.

Yes, I understand the Republicans hate teacher unions, primarily the National Education Association, because they often contribute to Democratic campaigns. 

Tim Greimel, the outgoing leader of the Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, put it this way:

“I’ve talked to thousands of voters, and never had a single one say we’ve needed more money and less accountability and less transparency in politics.” 

I have no doubt that’s true.

The state officially certified Michigan’s election returns two days ago, and though the focus was on the extremely close presidential race, there was something I found even more troubling in another result, one that’s drawn very little notice.

That would be the vote for the state board of education. John Austin, who is now the board’s president, courageously rallied his colleagues to support the rights of transgender students. 


As you may have heard, Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, is asking for a recount of the vote in the three key states that decided the election – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and our own state of Michigan, which was the closest of all.

The Clinton campaign, or whatever remains of it, doesn’t hold out any real hope that the outcome will change, but supports the recounts, on the ground the public ought to be assured of the integrity of the process. 


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