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.

Ways to Connect

Once upon a time there was a Republican politician who took office at a time when the nation was bitterly divided over social issues.

He knew this was not the way things should be.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” he pleaded with his people. He told them he was optimistic that America would do better, and that our hearts would be touched by “the better angels of our nature.”

Two days after the killings of five police officers in Dallas, there was an editorial in the Detroit News that began “The last thing we need in this country is a race war.”

Well, just about everybody who is sane would agree with that. But there are a lot of black people who could tell you that a race war has been going on for centuries. 

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics; they have lives instead. They go to work or practice their professions; raise their kids, spend time on their hobbies.

Many of them do get somewhat interested every four years, when the time comes to pick a new president. Slightly more than half of them actually vote, which doesn’t happen in other elections.

Yesterday, I talked about how Lake Erie is endangered by pollution from factory farms, which dump hundreds of millions of gallons of animal waste onto the ground every year.

This is far too much for the soil to absorb, and a considerable amount gets into the lake. There, the nitrates and phosphorous it contains help spur huge toxic algae blooms.


You might remember two years ago, when people in Toledo couldn’t drink the water for a couple days because it had been poisoned by toxic cyanobacteria in Lake Erie.


Well, the Fourth of July is over and it is now, emotionally as well as officially, summer. The presidential primary season is over too. That, unlike even a Michigan winter, seemed to last forever. 

But we now know – with all due respect to the Libertarian and Green party candidates – either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be our next president. The only excitement remaining is to find out who they will select as their vice presidential candidates.

Dogs as Weapons

Jul 1, 2016

To me, one of the most horrific stories over the last year came in December, when a lady named Lucille Strickland was walking her five-year-old son to kindergarten in Detroit.

Suddenly, a pack of four pit bull-type dogs appeared, grabbed the child, pulled him under a fence and into their yard and killed him. Neither the child nor his mother had done anything to provoke the dogs.  Police came and killed the dogs, but were too late to save the child.

This has been a surprising political year, to put it mildly, and there are still more than four months to go before the actual election. Whatever happens, it is safe to say that nobody a year ago really thought Donald Trump would be the Republican Presidential nominee.

Hillary Clinton was expected to be the Democratic choice – but nobody imagined that a grumpy old socialist named Bernie Sanders would do as well as he did. In fact, the biggest upset on the Democratic side this spring was Sanders’ stunning victory in the Michigan primary.

Detroit is commonly and correctly thought to be doing better than it has been in a long time. There’s a sense of hope again. The streetlights are back, and the bankruptcy’s over.

 There are still more problems than solutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made some controversial decisions this term, including Monday, when the nation’s highest court struck down a Texas law designed to make it harder for women to get abortions, something that is now a long-established constitutional right.

But the court also did something that was entirely predictable and scarcely controversial at all. They declined to hear yet another appeal by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of his public corruption conviction. That means that unless he comes up with yet other grounds for appeal, he is in federal prison until August 2037.

Earlier this week, I received a couple indignant emails from friends who had learned that Rick DeVos, the founder of the magnificent international competition ArtPrize, was willing to pay three people $500 each to redesign Michigan’s flag.

Well, I was indignant too, but not for the same reason. They were upset because DeVos, one of the heirs to the Amway fortune, was offering so little.

“He can afford a lot more than that,” Becca said.

“Like his family hasn’t tried to buy the state already,” Tom chimed in.

Well, I don’t think that’s fair.

For years, one of the nation’s most sinister figures was Roy Cohn, best known as the young chief counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy’s crusade to expose Communists in government.

McCarthy and Cohn never uncovered a single Communist agent, though they ruined lives and careers and greatly worsened the climate of suspicion and fear called the Red Scare.

Most religions have some basic creed all members are supposed to profess. Many political parties do as well.

I’m not sure what that would be for Democrats these days.

But for today’s Republicans, one basic article of faith is bitter opposition to the Affordable Care Act, perhaps better known as Obamacare.

Virtually every Republican running for federal office has vowed to work to repeal Obamacare.

Actually, they usually say “repeal and replace,” though they are usually pretty vague about what, if anything, they’d replace it with.

On Friday, I was sharply critical of Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley for a statement he made last week in an interview.

The lieutenant governor, who is supporting Donald Trump, indicated he was doing so mostly because he was concerned about the next several appointments to the United States Supreme Court.

Like most people, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Brian Calley, Michigan’s lieutenant governor. Generally speaking, there’s a quiet understanding that lieutenant governors are standby equipment whose job is to stay out of the limelight.

They break ties on important legislation before the Senate, represent the governor at all sorts of second-tier functions, and preside over the state when the governor is off on trade missions. Calley, who is 39 but looks younger, is even more invisible than most.

They said goodbye to Gordie Howe yesterday, after funeral ceremonies that seemed more appropriate for a former head of state than a hockey player. Howe was more than a mere athlete, of course; he was a touchstone; a link to our history.

He was a memory of consistency and class, of a time when players stayed with one team most or all of their careers, before steroid scandals and when Detroit was one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Part of all this was baby boomers and those older mourning a bygone era and their own pasts.

If you don’t like being on the road, don’t run for Congress in Michigan’s First Congressional District. It is geographically huge, because so few people live up there. The district spans the entire Upper Peninsula, and about the top quarter of the Northern Lower Peninsula.

That amounts to 44 percent of Michigan’s total land area. That’s two and a half times the entire state of Massachusetts – and it includes only about 700,000 people.

For many years I’ve predicted, so far incorrectly, that one of these years the Libertarian Party would achieve a breakthrough on the national political scene.

Not that they would elect a president, but that they would become a serious force to be reckoned with. After all, the Libertarians have a message that ought to resonate with both the millennials and many of us aging, self-obsessed baby boomers.

State Senator David Knezek, a 29-year-old Democrat from Dearborn, has the kind of background most young politicians would envy. His dad was a cop; his mother, a school lunch lady. He got out of high school, walked into a U.S. Marine recruiting station, and ended up doing two tours of duty in Iraq, with a sniper platoon.

 He was promoted to sergeant.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was as angry as I’ve ever seen him late last week.

For months, members of both parties in the state Senate had worked with the governor to forge a rare bipartisan compromise to save Detroit Public Schools.

They came up with a figure needed to wipe out the debt and manage transition costs, and agreed to establish a Detroit Education Commission that would decide where any new schools, conventional or charter, could open.

The idea was to maintain balance and not have destructive competition in some areas while leaving other areas underserved.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who you might call the woman who saved the children of Flint, was only given 15 minutes to talk at the Mackinac Policy Conference, a brief space sandwiched between other events Wednesday, called a “Mackinac Moment.”

But it was by far the most compelling session of the conference. She showed a picture of one of her young patients she recently examined, a child who had been drinking lead-contaminated water until quite recently.

“Her mom asked me, ‘Is she going to be okay?’

I ran into John Rakolta late Tuesday afternoon, as he was arriving on Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference.


Something happened yesterday that left me flabbergasted.

Federal, local and state officials ganged up on Governor Rick Snyder and told him his efforts to investigate the mess in Flint were hampering their attempts to do so, and told him to knock it off.

For most people, May is one of the best months. The flowers are blooming; it’s pretty clear that it isn’t going to snow any more, and summer is coming. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan Democrats start regarding May with a shudder. For two years in a row, the party has been embarrassed in May by one of their own. Last year it was State Senator Virgil Smith Jr., one of the legislature’s dimmer bulbs.

Richard T. Cole, who most people know as Rick, is a remarkable man who’s had several careers, sometimes simultaneously. I was first aware of him when he was press secretary and chief of staff to Governor Jim Blanchard in the 1980s.

Later, he was a senior executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and worked with Mike Duggan back when the man who became Detroit’s mayor was overhauling the Detroit Medical Center.


The governor and the legislature are currently fighting over how to rescue the Detroit public schools from financial collapse. There’s a general recognition that this has to be done, if only because the consequences of not doing so would cost the state even more.

The state constitution requires Michigan to provide an education for all children.

 A long time ago, when VCRs were state of the art technology, Ronald Reagan became President, and his captains proclaimed a new economic philosophy:

We’ll give massive tax cuts to everyone, but especially corporations, and that will cause them to create millions more jobs. Formerly unemployed people will become productive taxpayers, and even though they pay lower tax rates, the revenue will come flowing in, and governments too will have more money than ever before.

Every so often it comes home to me that we really live in multiple worlds. The “official” one is what we see presented by the media on radio, television, newspapers and online.

Michigan has very minimal requirements for gun sales. But you need to get a permit before buying a pistol, and there are a few people who aren’t allowed a license, mainly those with a possibly dangerous mental illness or a criminal conviction.

State Representative Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, introduced a bill last week that seems pure common sense. He wants to require gun licensing agencies to notify police and prosecutors when someone applies and fails the background check.

If you’ve been around for a while, it isn’t hard to be cynical about Michigan government in general and the legislature in particular. As I’ve said a few million times, a combination of term limits, gerrymandering, and a dogmatic anti-tax ideology has prevented our lawmakers from taking care of our needs or preparing for the future.

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