Jack Lessenberry

Opinion
1:20 pm
Tue June 24, 2014

People need to stop using political slogans as a substitute for critical thinking

I noticed something familiar yesterday after I talked about a new investigative series in the Detroit Free Press on charter schools. What I said drew a fair amount of comment. Virtually none of the comments had to do with anything I said.

People mainly reacted based on opinions they already had about charter schools. Some of the comments weren’t even about schools at all, at least not directly.

One writer declared that “our leaders” want to pay executives a lot, screw over the workers and “choose to not believe in science and mathematics.” I’m not clear exactly what that has to do with charter school administration.

Another said that burglar alarm companies are really an outrage since our taxes pay for the police. Okay.

Finally, somebody who plainly didn’t read the charter school series said it was all dictated by the teachers’ union, and accused me of wanting “more government insight into all phases of our lives.”

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Opinion
10:01 am
Mon June 23, 2014

Why Michigan charter schools need more regulation and oversight

There are those who say newspapers are dead, a relic of journalism’s primitive days before Google, before phones in our pockets connected everyone to everyone else.

Well, there is no doubt that the traditional economic model that allowed “dead tree journalism” to flourish is in trouble. There’s little doubt that lots of us no longer have the reading habits needed for so-called “long-form” journalism.

But there’s also no doubt that this is a tragedy, because at their best, newspapers do something other media can’t. That’s on display this week in the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper spent a year investigating Michigan’s charter schools and how the state oversees them.

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Opinion
10:09 am
Fri June 20, 2014

State Rep. Rudy Hobbs says he may be the underdog, but he's not going to lose the primary

Yesterday, I talked about Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who is in a tight race to win the Democratic primary in Michigan’s wildly gerrymandered 14th Congressional District, which stretches from the affluent Grosse Pointes, through the worst parts of Detroit, through Oakland County suburbs.

Most polls say the front runner is either Lawrence or former Congressman Hansen Clarke, who lost the primary here two years ago.

Clarke dropped out of sight after losing to Gary Peters, who is now moving on to run for the Senate. But, he resurfaced at the last moment this year to try to reclaim a congressional seat.

Surveys show a tight contest between Clarke and Lawrence, but virtually all the big endorsements have gone to a third candidate young enough to be their son.

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Opinion
5:24 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

Brenda Lawrence has done well for Southfield. Would she do the same if elected to Congress?

I discovered something bizarre when Brenda Lawrence first ran for mayor of Southfield 13 years ago.

Back then, Southfield, a suburban business center and bedroom community just north of Detroit, had just become a majority African-American city. Lawrence was challenging a white mayor who’d been in office almost 30 years.

When I talked to some of the 70,000 residents, I found white voters who were excited about her candidacy and who wanted to get rid of the longtime incumbent. But I talked to upwardly mobile black voters who emphatically did not want a black mayor.

They told me that every community that elects a black mayor soon became an impoverished ghetto. Lawrence vowed that wouldn’t happen. She won, and it hasn’t. She has been in office ever since.

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Opinion
11:44 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Some Michigan Republicans have changed their minds and now support gay marriage

When Rick Johnson became Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, I was a little dubious.

He was a dairy farmer who had only gone as far as high school, and I worried what this might mean for 

higher education.

But as it turned out, while he was Republican to the core, he was generally a reasonable, open-minded man. Not, however, on the issue of same-sex marriage, which he opposed.

That was 10 years ago, and he wasn’t alone. A large majority of Michiganders who went to the polls that year voted to amend the state constitution to outlaw same sex marriage forever.

But forever didn’t last. Across America this year, judge after judge has overturned state prohibitions against same-sex marriage.

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Opinion
10:16 am
Fri June 13, 2014

Detroit pulled off a miracle during WWII; can it do the same thing today?

For months, we’ve been embroiled in Detroit’s bankruptcy and attempts to save what there is worth saving.

It is hard to pick up any national publication without finding stories about Detroit, few of them good. There are a spate of new book titles too, which mostly chronicle the city’s decline and fall.

Yet I’ve just been reading an utterly fascinating and inspiring new book about a time when Detroit really did save, or at least help save, the world.

The book, just published by Houghton Mifflin, is The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Ford Motor Company, and Their Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.

This is a book with characters larger and more bizarre than life. It tells the story of a Detroit-based triumph that the experts said was impossible. And every word in it is true.

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Opinion
10:22 am
Thu June 12, 2014

Thank God the Michigan Legislature is spending time passing laws about beaver traps

It is not exactly true that the Michigan Legislature can’t get anything done.

For example, our lawmakers did pass a bill to allow a fur dealer to hold a license to trap beaver.

Don’t you feel better about that? The governor signed it yesterday.

On the down side, they completely failed to get done the voters' most important priority, fixing our terrible roads.

You see, fixing the roads would cost money.

It would also require making hard choices, which many elected officials seem allergic to, especially in an election year.   

Some of our lawmakers seem dead set against raising any taxes, even though polls have shown this is the one thing voters are willing to pay for. Some can’t see past their narrow ideological blinders enough to simply get the job done.

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Opinion
9:58 am
Wed June 11, 2014

Someone needs to be blamed for Detroit Public Schools' Head Start funding loss

I woke up this morning feeling sorry for someone I admire, the distinguished and dignified educator Glenda Price, a woman who didn’t even live in Michigan till late middle age, but who has made immense contributions to this community.

Last year, Price gallantly agreed to take on leadership of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, which tries to raise money to help the city’s terribly troubled public schools.

That’s a fairly thankless task, and one that just got a lot harder. We learned this week that thanks to incompetence, laziness, stupidity or most likely all three, the district failed or forgot to apply for federal Head Start funding this year. That is absolutely mind-blowing.

Head Start is perhaps the best anti-poverty program the federal government ever invented. And it is needed in Detroit more than almost anywhere. Almost 80% of Detroit School children live in poverty. They are unlikely to be ready for school. Early intervention is crucial, and Head Start has been vital in giving a boost to hundreds of four-year-olds every year. But not this year.

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Opinion
11:29 am
Tue June 10, 2014

Some aspects of the marijuana issue deserve more thought

Over the years, people have asked me why I haven’t taken a position on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. One man told me it was my patriotic duty as a baby boomer to do so.

I should have told him that all my patriotic fervor was invested in making sure that the music of Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder would never be forgotten. But unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough.

But I do feel that there are a couple aspects of the marijuana issue that deserve more thought. Personally, I don’t have any particular feeling about it one way or another.

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Opinion
10:17 am
Mon June 9, 2014

Why some Detroit pensioners' votes are worth more than others in the 'grand bargain'

Surprisingly, perhaps, the so-called 'grand bargain' to solve Detroit’s bankruptcy sailed through the Legislature.

Now, there is nothing to do but wait.

Remember election nights in the old days, and staying up all night to find out who had won?

Well, we’ve got something like that again where Detroit is concerned, except this election night will last more than a month.

The Detroit bankruptcy settlement now depends on the votes of 32,000 city workers and retirees. We won’t know the final result until July 11 or later. These folks are being asked to agree to have their pensions cut, and promise not to sue.

Many retirees are also being asked to pay back some annuity savings money they were improperly credited with.

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Opinion
11:07 am
Thu June 5, 2014

What about fixing Michigan roads?

OK, let’s say I asked you two months ago which of these things our conservative Republican lawmakers would be most likely to do:

1.  Approve using state money to help beef up Detroit’s pension finds and vote to raise the minimum wage by almost $2 an hour over the next few years.

2. Or, agree to fix our totally awful roads.

My guess is you would have thought fixing the roads most likely, and boosting the minimum wage an impossible pipe dream. Well, guess what, raising the minimum wage was the first thing they did, followed by helping Detroit.

But they still won’t fix our horrible roads, even though that’s what voters want. What’s worse is that our bizarre Legislature seems to be drifting further away from dealing with the problem.

Democrats, by the way, control nothing. Their main role is to break ties between the different factions of Republicans.

Here’s what’s happening: Two Republicans are showing principled leadership.

First of all, Gov. Rick Snyder, who for years has called on lawmakers to do the right thing and come up with the money needed to fix our roads. Two years ago, he said that would cost at least $1.2 billion a year in new revenue for the next 10 years. Lawmakers did nothing. But after last winter, voters are up in arms. They want the roads, fixed, period, and they have a new champion: Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville of Monroe. He hasn’t always been a leader here.

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Opinion
10:38 am
Wed June 4, 2014

Good things happened in Michigan yesterday, because lawmakers acted like adults

Yesterday was largely a good news day for our state, and how often can you say that?

The really big news, of course, was the state Senate’s remarkably fast passage of the so-called "grand bargain," the deal that gives Detroit a chance to emerge from bankruptcy without threatening the city’s art museum or utterly destroying the lives of the retirees.

And, in a development understandably overshadowed, the U.S. Coast Guard finally issued a permit for the building of the New International Trade Crossing bridge, meaning all that’s left now is for Washington to come up with money for the customs plaza.

That will be essential for Michigan’s economy in the future.

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Opinion
10:59 am
Tue June 3, 2014

Auto industry union's future remains to be seen

The United Auto Workers union is holding its big convention in Detroit this week. Like America’s two major political parties, the UAW has a convention once every four years.

The union’s convention resembles national political conventions in another way, too. Everything is mostly decided ahead of time.

Once, conventions were the place where party and union members waged titanic battles to determine their next leaders.

Now, presidential nominees are determined long before the first and only ballot, and the same is true in the UAW. Dennis Williams, the union’s current secretary-treasurer, will be overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term as union president tomorrow.

That will follow what seems certain to be their first dues increase in many years, though it isn’t clear whether rank and file members would agree if they had a vote.

Union “democracy” tries to avoid dissension, on the theory that the workers are best served by solidarity at all levels.

Yet there is a major difference between the UAW and the political parties.  What isn’t clear is whether the union can survive, or more to the point, remain relevant.

The UAW is now far less important than it once was. They are trying to put a good face on it, but outgoing union president Bob King’s four years in office were pretty much a failure.

King wanted to be the next Walter Reuther, and lead the union to a new era of greatness. The key to that was going to be organizing “transplants,” foreign automakers manufacturing cars in America, mostly in the south.

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Opinion
11:38 am
Mon June 2, 2014

Carl Levin not coasting through his last few months in office

I didn’t stay on Mackinac Island during the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s conference last week.

For a number of reasons, I’m glad about that. One of which is that I took the ferry over one morning with Sen. Carl Levin and his wife, Barbara. There was a reason he didn’t stay on Mackinac, and it had nothing to do with not finding a room.

There was another conference about the Mackinac Conference 55 miles away in Charlevoix.

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Opinion
10:11 am
Fri May 30, 2014

Lessenberry: Detroit Mayor Duggan impressive at Mackinac conference

There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin that popped into my head this morning. When Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention back in 1787, a woman asked him, “What kind of government have you given us?”

He said, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” He meant, keep it from reverting back to a tyrannical monarchy.

Every year, the state’s business leaders and politicians flock to Mackinac Island. The media happily go too, because there are hundreds of targets of opportunity under the same roof.

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Opinion
11:21 am
Thu May 29, 2014

Terri Lynn Land shows she's not ready for prime time at Mackinac

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce may not like to admit this, but their Mackinac Policy Conference’s official agenda is not the reason the vast majority of those who attend go to the island. Many who pay the steep registration fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 come for the incredible networking opportunities.

Mackinac in May is unique because for three days, you have virtually all the state’s top business and civic leaders and politicians in one building on an island without cars. They can’t easily run away; they have to talk to each other, and those beguiling possibilities attract hordes of media, too.

Yes, the conference spent a lot of money this year to bring in education and business experts like Jim Clifton and Joel Klein. But during their sessions, most of the businessmen seemed to be huddling with each other. And the media tend to focus its attention on politics, especially in an election year, and on the One Big Story of the day, in this case, Detroit.

This year’s conference was no exception. This has been something of a love fest for Gov. Rick Snyder, who is frankly adored by the vast majority of those here.

Though there is one protestor wearing a giant paper-mache Snyder head outside the hotel, inside, Snyder is viewed as a cross between a rock star and a conquering hero. His only competition in the charisma department came, perhaps surprisingly, from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

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Opinion
11:25 am
Fri May 23, 2014

Detroit "bailout" bashers target the DIA's millage

Last week it seemed anything but certain that the package of bills authorizing state money for the Detroit “grand bargain” would pass.

And nobody expected they would pass by margins as high, in one case, as 105 to 5.

Which just shows once again that real life is usually stranger than fiction.

There is lingering bitterness over one bill, however: the one that prevents the Detroit Institute of Arts from asking for a renewal of its millage when it expires.

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Opinion
10:00 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Why MSU is what every university should be like

There was a time when it wasn’t unusual for university presidents to stay in their jobs for twenty years or more. These days, however, that seldom happens. The average college or university president lasts barely seven years.

It actually may be a wonder that any last that long, given the intensity of issues from rising costs to affirmative action to athletics. Not to mention that everything happens these days in the pressure cooker and under the microscope of the 24-hour news cycle.

Two of Michigan’s three major universities have new presidents; Wayne State’s Roy Wilson has been on the job less than a year. The University of Michigan’s Mark Schlissel takes office this summer. But in January, Lou Anna Simon will celebrate ten years as president of Michigan State University.

In fact, to say she’s been on the job for a decade severely understates her involvement with the institution. She’s been there ever since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970.

Since then, she has held a wide variety of academic and administrative jobs, which is not to say she is set in her ways. I had a chance to have a long conversation with her this week.

She told me tradition is important, but added, “If you don’t have leadership committed to change, but only to defending the status quo, you have the wrong leadership.”

Michigan State is often referred to as the nation’s pioneer land grant university, and that is more than a piece of historical trivia. The school was founded with the idea that it would study and seek out knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. They still take that mission seriously.

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Opinion
10:20 am
Wed May 21, 2014

Just fix the damn roads

I think the low point in my faith in democracy came late this winter, soon after I had lost one tire to a pothole. I got home after nearly losing another on the lunar surface of a suburban Detroit mile road, just in time to hear a state senator claiming we needed another tax cut.

Well, I thought, I am now living in a Third World country. But guess what? That senator heard from his constituents, big-time. Before long, he was retreating from his tax-cut talk, legislative tail between his legs. Why?

To quote the leader of his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville R- Monroe, “I’ve heard the message loud and clear that the roads are messed up, and I think the most common phrase I’m hearing from back home is 'just fix the damn roads.'"

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Opinion
11:24 am
Tue May 20, 2014

Minimum-wage war could backfire on Michigan GOP

Here’s a three-part prediction for you:  First, the minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law – not in anything like the way it looks now.

Second, there will be a minimum wage proposal on the ballot, though no one can say if it will pass and what happens if it does.

And finally, what looked like a triumph for the Republicans a few days ago could well backfire – and end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on. As you probably know, a group called Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would gradually raise the minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10.10.

So far as I can tell, it looks like they will have more than enough. Business interests don’t like this, of course; they never like being told they have to pay their workers more money. And what they really don’t like is that this bill would also gradually make the minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant servers, equal with everyone else.

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