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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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gretchen whitmer
Michigan Senate Democrats

For more than a year, the sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University has been simmering in the background, a ticking time bomb that was certain to explode with devastating consequences for the university.

That this would have a political dimension was also certain.

prison bars
Flickr user FatMandy / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

For many years I’ve admired Milton Mack, who is about as authentic a Detroiter as they come. Two of his ancestors arrived with Cadillac when they founded the city in July 1701.

I don’t know how long it was before those French voyageurs built their first prison stockade. But today, Michigan has tens of thousands of people in prison, which costs us almost $2 billion a year. Mack, who spent years as chief probate judge in Wayne County, has studied our prison system for years and made recommendations for improving it.

Larry Nassar at a hearing in Michigan earlier this year
Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

Last week I talked about the sexual assault scandal involving sport doctor Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and its possible effect on next year’s campaign for governor. 

There’s only one safe prediction about next year’s elections: Millions will be spent on broadcast commercials for the various candidates for office.

Millions more will be spent on commercials attacking these candidates, many paid for by secret, so-called “dark money” funders that are disgracefully legal in Michigan. But so far, the ad that has gotten the most attention is a well-produced but low-budget spot posted on YouTube a couple weeks ago. It’s an ad featuring Dana Nessel, who is attempting to get the Democratic nomination for Michigan attorney general.

Many years ago, a lonesome, newlywed army officer was sent to Detroit, and on a day in late April – his birthday – he wrote his wife Julia a hopeful letter. He had managed to rent what he called “a neat little house” in the same neighborhood as a couple of his friends.

“In the lower part of the house there is a neat double parlor, a dining room, one small bedroom and kitchen. There is a nice upstairs and a garden filled with the best kind of fruit. There is a long arbor grown over with vines that will bear fine grapes.”

There is, to put it mildly, a lot going on these days, with the biggest story being the ever-mushrooming national sexual harassment scandal.

But there is another sex scandal of a different sort that is already a big deal and which seems almost certain to become much bigger and take on many more dimensions. I’m speaking about the events at Michigan State University, involving former sports medicine Dr. Larry Nassar, who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing at least 125 women and girls.

US capitol building
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

U.S. Representative John Conyers announced his resignation yesterday. Several of the 88-year-old's former staff members have accused him of sexual harassment. His supporters held a rally in Detroit Monday urging Conyers to stay in office. 

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss his decision to step down immediately instead of finishing his term. 

I’m not running for Congress, even though my congressman and two nearby ones have announced they are going to retire. As I have said many times in many parts of this great state, I am not a candidate for anything; and never intend to be.

Editors' note: Rep. Conyers announced his resignation Tuesday morning, after this story was published. Read more here.

It seemed last week that the career of Congressman John Conyers was coming to an end. Many women had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.

The 88-year-old congressman came back to Detroit from Washington and had to be hospitalized, evidently for stress. We had conflicting signals from his aides, but some of them at least hinted that he might soon resign from the office he’s held for more than half a century.

Congressman Sandy Levin announced his retirement over the weekend, ending a political career that lasted more than half a century and was utterly free of any taint of scandal.

By the time his term ends, he will have served 36 years in the House of Representatives, matching the 36 years his younger brother, Carl Levin, served in the Senate.

Someone once told me you should leave any job about a year before people want you to. Well, as I speak these words, I have no idea how long Congressman John Conyers will be in office.

But I can tell you this: When he does leave, few will wish he had stayed longer. Half a century is probably more than long enough for any job, and Conyers has been there longer than that.

https://housedems.com/chang/

One morning earlier this week, I was in a donut shop on Vernor Avenue in southwest Detroit, in a neighborhood where you hear far more Spanish than English.

In fact, everyone in the shop was speaking Spanish except me and the woman I was drinking coffee with – state Representative Stephanie Chang, who represents this area, and about 90,000 people. Chang’s territory also includes the land where the Ambassador Bridge stands as well as the place where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is to be built.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
(photo by Laura Weber/MPRN)

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has announced that he is, indeed, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor next year, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

In fact, he has been expected to get in for so long some were starting to think that maybe he wouldn’t run after all.

There’s something curiously similar in the way Governor Rick Snyder handled negotiations for the new Detroit River bridge at the beginning of his administration, and the proposed deal announced yesterday with Enbridge on the future of Line 5, the oil pipeline that runs under the Straits if Mackinac.

In both cases, he seems to have decided the legislature was essentially dysfunctional, and went ahead and made his own deal. That assessment was certainly accurate in the case of the bridge. Whether that’s true in the case of Enbridge isn’t clear, but what this agreement does do is allow the governor’s office to keep control of the process during the next few stages.

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Last week, Detroit Congressman John Conyers became one more powerful man caught in a sexual harassment scandal. It was revealed he’d reached a settlement with a former employee a few years ago. The woman was paid more than $27,000, evidently with taxpayer funds.

Rev. Harry Cook
Desmond & Sons Obituary

Forty years ago or so, Harry Cook, an Episcopal priest turned newspaper reporter who later worked as a priest again, landed perhaps the last interview ever with Father Charles Coughlin, the famed radio priest whose open anti-Semitism and flirtation with Nazism led the Vatican to silence him during World War II.

The University of Michigan Regents
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

I have never been more proud of the University of Michigan than I am today, because it showed last night that it believes that our Constitution is stronger than our enemies.

In a rare public meeting, the regents voted not to forbid Richard Spencer, a man who is essentially a Nazi, from speaking on campus. Trustee Mark Bernstein was the most eloquent in explaining why. “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus is stopping him from being on campus,” he said. Bernstein knew that if the university failed to live up to America’s bedrock values of free speech and free expression, it would play right into Spencer’s hands.

Men in late middle age are capable of daydreaming. For most of us, these dreams are fairly pedestrian. Maybe, just maybe, we might be the first 60-something to suddenly break into the major leagues. Maybe that one lottery ticket I buy every Thanksgiving will turn out to be a big winner and I’ll be able to quit my job.

Those are fairly typical fantasies. But things change for those few of us who actually do have a whole lot of money. Some do things like acquire a 24 year old girlfriend, whether they are already married or not. Others buy large boats, or perhaps a Maserati.

John-Morgan / creative commons

There’s a lot that can be argued about the Republican tax bill that has passed the House and still faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.


Don Haffner is a witty and smart guy in his late 60s who grew up in Downriver Detroit’s working class town of Allen Park. Growing up, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, except not to become one more cog on the assembly line.

So he went to tiny Albion College, until one day in 1972 when he was about to graduate and got a letter asking him if he might want to consider serving in South Korea in the Peace Corps. He did, and it changed his life. South Korea is prosperous now, and the United States hasn’t sent Peace Corps volunteers there in 35 years.

But that wasn’t the case in the early 70s, less than a generation after the entire country was devastated by the Korean War. The experience was, indeed, life-changing. Don, who I’ve known slightly for years, was sent to a town then called Mukho only about 40 miles from the infamous 38th parallel, where he taught English in middle school.

I talked yesterday about two bills before the legislature that would make it more difficult for hospitals to honor “do not resuscitate” orders, especially if an individual was unconscious and their stated desire to allow someone to die was opposed by a family member.

This made me wonder about who legally has the right to make decisions in such cases, especially when there is some question about someone’s soundness of mind. Since Michigan closed most of its state hospitals in the 1990s, mental health care in this state has sometimes resembled the Wild West, with a patient’s fate dependent on a particular probate judge.

Jack Kevorkian.
UCLA

For years, I covered the assisted suicide crusade of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who became internationally famous in the 1990s. Today, we tend to remember his outlandish antics –his bizarre suicide machine; the battered Volkswagen van, and the strange Mutt and Jeff combination of the wacky aged physician and a young, brash, and outrageous Geoffrey Fieger.

But we tend to forget that Kevorkian was fulfilling a need. Medical science can now prolong people’s existence far beyond the point when they have any quality of life.

People were being made to endure horrific suffering with no possibility of relief. Others just wanted to be freed from the prison of lives that no longer held any promise of happiness.

Mackinac Bridge
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

This week, Enbridge Energy reported the protective coating has worn off of it's Line 5 pipeline in more spots than previously revealed. Line 5 is the oil and gas pipeline that runs under the straits of Mackinac. The new report says there were 8 spots of bare metal and seven of them will be repaired before winter sets in. A state commission has called Enbridge to testify next month.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about possible solutions.

I never really knew Irving Tobocman, the world-renowned architect who lived in Birmingham and designed buildings all over the state and the world.

I knew his work, which evoked the best of the Bauhaus movement and Frank Lloyd Wright, and I have often been amazed that Detroit has been home to what seemed a disproportionate number of great architects –Tobocman, Minoru Yamasaki, and back in the day when the auto industry was exploding, Albert Kahn.

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

The principle a doctor is supposed to follow in dealing with patients is, “first, do no harm.” The most valuable natural resource this state and region has is undoubtedly the Great Lakes. They contain twenty percent of the world’s surface fresh water. They mean billions of dollars every year in recreational boating and fishing and other activities.

Paul Weaver / Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

As a firm believer in the ideology of rational behavior, I have plenty of problems with the Democratic Party on both the national and state level.

Nationally, all of their three most often mentioned presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and even Elizabeth Warren – are extremely old, by political standards.

Were any of them to take office in 2021, they would be the oldest new president ever to be inaugurated. 

President Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This week’s elections are over, and Republicans did badly. GOP leaders are now saying openly that they need to pass a tax bill or face losing the House of Representatives next year.

Well, a year can be a long time in politics.

Thirty-five years ago, in Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election, Democrats made huge gains, and the experts predicted Reagan might be a one-term president. Instead, two years later, he won 49 of the 50 states.

So you never can tell. But I am more interested in what President Trump’s tax bill would mean for all of us. So I turned to Economics Professor Charles Ballard at Michigan State, a man who for many years has specialized in the Michigan economy.

A year ago today, Michigan and the nation stunned the world by electing a President whose platform essentially repudiated a bipartisan legacy of steadily increasing international ties on issues from military affairs to the environment to trade.

graffiti saying "vote"
Flickr user H2Woah! / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou, and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss some of yesterday's election results.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Today is Election Day, though less than one-fifth of eligible Michigan residents are likely to vote. Most of all, I am morbidly curious to see whether Detroiters will elect Virgil Smith Jr. to their city council. He’s the former state senator who recently did time after he physically attacked his ex-wife and shot up her car in a residential neighborhood.

There are also a few mostly one-sided mayoral races and a whole bunch of local millage elections. There’s a special election to fill the seat of one Democratic representative who resigned after being convicted of many felonies, and a hotly contested contest in the Upper Peninsula, to replace another state rep who tragically killed himself this spring.

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