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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.

Ways to Connect

A year or so ago, one of my students saw me talking with Kathleen Straus, a longtime member of the state board of education.

Later, he asked me who she was. When I told him, he said he hadn’t known there was such a board and asked me what they did.

I certainly haven’t been thrilled with the moral leadership shown by the leaders of the Michigan Democratic Party. None called for former State Senator Virgil Smith’s resignation after he shot up his ex-wife’s car on a residential street.

That was last year, and Smith is finally in jail now. Nor did any leading Democrats call on voters to reject another embarrassing creature, State Representative Brian Banks, who won a primary last week despite having been convicted of eight felonies.

Donald Trump started his week off by coming to Motown and delivering a traditional Republican speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the spiritual home of successful old-school businessmen.

I wasn’t there, though I later read the speech and watched a portion of it on one of my perpetually glowing glass screens. My first thought was that the media and hard-core fans of the raw Donald had to be disappointed. Trump behaved pretty much like a normal conservative candidate for President.

William Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, and a man who has the Republican Party woven into his DNA, is announcing today his choice for President.

He will vote for Hillary Clinton. There are those who have said for years that Milliken is no longer a real Republican. They have called him a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

For years, those who know how badly our economy needs a new bridge over the Detroit River have waged an epic battle with Matty Moroun, owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge.

For a long time, Moroun, the 89-year-old-billionaire holder of the 87-year old bridge managed to thwart any attempt to build a new bridge at what is America and Canada’s most economically important border crossing. Billions of dollars in trade cross over it every week.

For years, hardworking, far-seeing people from both parties have been trying hard to come up with a mass transit plan that makes sense for metropolitan Detroit.

This is not, incidentally, something that’s been pushed primarily by environmentalists, though they are enthusiastically supportive. Intelligent, enlightened business interests know how badly the area needs a better way to get people to jobs.

Today is primary election day across Michigan, and whenever there’s an election, there are always a number of bizarre things going on. The best one I can remember happened sixteen years ago not in Michigan, but in Missouri, where a Republican United States Senator named John Ashcroft lost his reelection battle to a Democrat named Mel Carnahan.

Losing your seat is always humiliating, and it was made more so by the fact that Ashcroft’s party’s nominee for President, George W. Bush, carried Missouri that year.

Michigan’s statewide primary elections are tomorrow, and most of us probably won’t bother to vote.

And that’s too bad. Too bad for us, that is. Our first statewide primary was the presidential one in March, and it set an all-time turnout record. More than two and a half million people voted.

If I had young adult children I might have called last night and told them, “I’m sorry, but Metropolitan Detroit is hopeless. You should start planning to move somewhere like Chicago.”

That’s because yesterday, two selfish and short-sighted men sabotaged perhaps our last best hope to bring decent 21st century mass transit to a region that largely operates on a 1955 model with worse roads.

If you have a sense of history, try to imagine this: Cast your mind back to 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy was running for President against Richard Nixon, at the time the nation’s vice president.

What if JFK had publicly suggested that the Soviet Union try to steal Nixon’s private foreign policy memos and release them to the press?


Telling All

Jul 27, 2016

Well, after a rocky first day, the Democratic National Convention seems to be on course to doing what the Democrats wanted it to do. Certainly Hillary Clinton supporters can’t complain about Bernie Sanders; he’s been extremely gracious.

This convention, by the way, has inadvertently proven his longtime complaint that the process was rigged against him; the famous leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee made that perfectly clear. It also seemed unfair that states like Michigan cast a majority of their votes for Clinton, when Sanders actually won the primary here.

Shortly after the Democratic National Convention got started Monday morning, I got a phone call from a near-panicked Clinton supporter. “The convention is in chaos!” she said. “Bernie Sanders’ own supporters booed him when he told them to support Hillary.”


There are thousands of journalists in Philadelphia today, covering the opening of the Democratic National Convention. I don’t want to give anything away, but the Democrats are going to end up nominating Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

Remember, you heard it here first. But there are fewer print reporters than there used to be, and they will return to newsrooms that have a small fraction of the staffs they once did. Increasingly, so-called dailies don’t deliver every day, or cover nearly as many stories.

Something happened in a courtroom in Detroit Thursday that may have more impact on the November elections in Michigan than anything at the Republican convention.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the legislature outlawed straight-ticket voting in all elections in Michigan. They gave a lot of phony excuses for why they did this, but the real reason is clear. Straight-ticket voting tends to help Democrats, especially for offices that are less high-profile, like board of education seats.

It would be easy to watch the terminal narcissism unfolding in Cleveland this week and conclude that politics have nothing to do with real life. I was half-tempted at one point to call Dr. Mona, the hero doctor of Flint, and ask her how important the question of Melania Trump’s plagiarism was to the poisoned children and desperate parents of Flint.

Then I realized I couldn’t justify wasting even a few seconds of her time that way. But that doesn’t mean everyone who runs for office is an egomaniac.

Thirty-two years ago, I watched President Ronald Reagan give a speech in Michigan in which he attacked Democratic nominee and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.

“If his administration had been a book,” Reagan said of the man running against him, “you would have had to read it from back to front to get a happy ending.”

The bottom line, Phil Power told me recently, is that our future is all about the schools.

Power isn’t exactly a wild and crazy left-wing radical. He ran for the U.S. Senate once as a moderate Democrat nearly 40 years ago, but lost the primary to a fellow named Carl Levin.


Several weeks ago, I was rushing to a meeting at Wayne State University, distracted and speeding on the freeway. Suddenly, I saw the flashing lights and was soon pulled over by a black policeman, who took my license and registration and went back to his car.

I expected a ticket and points on my record, and I indeed deserved them. But he eventually came back, gave me a warning, and said I had better slow down and be careful.
 

I was astonished and grateful. But today I am scared.

Remember the Onion, that crazy satirical newspaper people couldn’t get enough of in the 1990s? It’s still around, but these days, I think real life has gotten better than art at being utterly absurd. Certainly that was the case in Michigan yesterday.

I mean, can you imagine a better Onion headline than “Governor whose aides poisoned children appoints oil industry lobbyist to head environmental agency?”

Governor Rick Snyder did something sensible Wednesday – he asked the Michigan Supreme Court for an opinion as to whether it is legal under the Michigan Constitution for the state to use taxpayer dollars to provide aid to private schools.

In a sense, this is actually putting the cart before the horse, in that Snyder signed an education budget last month that includes a two and a half million dollar appropriation for private schools. At the time, he was urged to use his line-item veto to prevent that from happening, but he declined, saying he believed this was legal.

I never met Julie Plawecki, the state representative from Dearborn Heights who died unexpectedly last month while hiking in Oregon. By all accounts, she was a hard-working legislator and someone who virtually everyone liked and respected.

And she had the sort of background I’d like to see more lawmakers have. Too many are lawyers or real estate agents. Plawecki, who was 54, had worked in medical technology, but spent most of her life as an elementary and high school math and science teacher.

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.

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