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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

Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

William G. Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, turned 95 yesterday. The weekend before last, a couple other friends and I got together with Milliken and his son for a private little pre-birthday dinner at his home.

The governor – I find it hard to call him anything but that – is recovering from breaking a small bone in his foot, but hasn’t lost his interest in state affairs or his sense of humor.

Rian Saunders / Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

As you probably know, the Republican Party is in control of all three branches of Michigan government – executive, legislative and judicial. Republicans also control both houses of Congress and the Presidency.

Democrats are, naturally, not happy about this.

Jocelyn Benson stood in line for two hours waiting to vote last November, holding her five-month-old son Aiden all the while. “I had to put him down and change his diaper twice,” she told me, smiling. Benson lives and votes in Detroit, where there are often too few voting places and machines for large turnout elections.

A cyanobacteria bloom on Lake Erie in 2013.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Last night I drove almost a hundred miles into Ohio to preside over a discussion with huge implications for Michigan. The topic was the future of Lake Erie, the warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes and a major source of drinking water for 11 million people.

I was ten when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth fifty-five years ago. We were all mad for science then, and if you’d asked any of the kids I grew up with what we thought life would be like in 2017, we would have been sure we’d have colonies on Mars.

When it comes to ethics and integrity in government, Michigan is a disgrace. That’s not just my opinion. A little over a year ago, the Center for Public Integrity ranked our legislature worst among the fifty states in an analysis of state government transparency and accountability. We have few restraints on legislative behavior.

Michigan voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. But you would never know that from the budget he sent to Congress. You might think instead that we were a hostile nation at war with the United States, which therefore deserves to have its economy and its environment destroyed.

This is a more anti-Michigan budget than I could have imagined. It would not cut, but instead completely eliminate, funding to clean up and restore the Great Lakes and their environment. It would also slash funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Barbara McQuade, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School.
Courtesy of the University of Michigan Law School

With considerable fanfare, the Trump administration last week ordered every remaining Obama-appointed federal prosecutor, formally known as U.S. District Attorneys, to resign.

They will now gradually be replaced by new Republican appointees. Michigan has two federal prosecutors. Patrick Miles, who was in charge of the western district, announced his resignation in January and left the same day President Obama did.

But Barbara McQuade, the U.S. District Attorney in Detroit, stayed on the job. And by common consent, she did a superb job during the more than six years she was federal prosecutor.

As you almost certainly know, there’s a Republican-backed bill before Congress that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known to most people as Obamacare.

Republicans control both houses of Congress, and if they stay united on this, the bill should become law, perhaps within weeks.

If that happens, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that within nine years, the number of people without health insurance in this nation would grow by 24 million.

Many years ago, I taught a course in specialty publications at a small university in the Detroit suburbs. One of the students was a woman who was an executive secretary at General Motors.

She was nearing retirement, and she and her husband’s shared passion was a game called tabletop shuffleboard. Their dream was to publish a tabletop shuffleboard magazine.

Many people I know would find it easier to understand someone who is transgender than someone who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s just a statement of fact. And emotionally, I have to confess that I feel the same way. I can understand that one might feel trapped in a body and within a gender that feels wrong. I’ve known people in that predicament, and my heart went out to them.

Christoper Sessums / Flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

For the last couple days, I, together with a million or so of my fellow Michiganders, have been living a sort of 19th century life.

By that I mean that we’ve been living without power, electricity or heat, thanks to the freak windstorms that whipped through much of our state.

Now, we’re not quite in the same boat as Abraham Lincoln. He didn’t have Double-A batteries, nor could he go to a motel with internet access, which is how I am broadcasting today.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

I have an idea. This should especially appeal to everyone who either didn’t like President Obama, or thought there were flaws in his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Let’s get even by taking health care away from 650,000 Michiganders with lower incomes.

Now, granted, this will have repercussions.

For years, David Bonior was one of the biggest figures in Congress. A Democrat from Macomb County, he served for more than a quarter century, managing to win reelection time after time, even in years when the so-called “Reagan Democrats” voted Republican.

Bonior saw his mission as fighting for the downtrodden, regardless of what toes he stepped on. He tangled with presidents of both parties, sparring with Bill Clinton over NAFTA and Ronald Reagan over his wars in Central America. He rose to achieve considerable power.

Courtesy Nan Palmero / Creative Commons -- http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last Friday, a number of university researchers and state and county public health professionals were supposed to have a meeting – actually, a conference call – with state officials.

The group is called the Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership, and the subject was their preliminary analysis of the reasons behind a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint. More than 70 people got the disease during 2014 and 2015, when the city had been switched to water from the now-infamous Flint River.

History through fashion - at the 2015 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.
Historical Society of Michigan / Facebook

People sometimes ask me, “How do you find something different to talk about, every day?” Well, if this were North Dakota Public Radio, it might be hard. But I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever run out of topics in Michigan.

We’ve got around 10 million people, more than the entire country had 200 years ago, more geography than some European countries, a diversified economy and a far richer ethnic mix.

Pontiac, Michigan. The Pontiac Commercial Historic District.
Andrew Jameson / wikimedia/GNU Free Documentation License

It’s no secret that many Michigan cities are in trouble, economically and otherwise. The drama of Detroit has played out on a national stage. The entire nation also knows something about Flint, thanks to the horrendous water tragedy.

Other towns, such as Hamtramck, have their own form of gritty cachet.

But then there is Pontiac, a city that seems to be defined by things that are dying or just not there anymore.

Six years ago, Governor Rick Snyder found a way to conclude a deal with Canada to build a new bridge across the Detroit River, something vitally needed if Michigan’s economy is to prosper in the years ahead.

As of now, we are completely dependent on the almost 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which shows clear signs of wearing out, and which wasn’t built for today’s massive tractor-trailers. About $2 billion in trade moves across that bridge every week, mainly heavy industrial components that can’t go through the tunnel.

I took my friend Guy to lunch last week, the same day the President of the United States declared that members of my profession were “enemies of the people.”

Guy is one of the most amazing people I know, and I wanted to know what he was thinking. He told me that after the election turned out badly, his father talked to his family at the dinner table.

Some years ago there was an effort to boost enrollment at Wayne State University, where I teach. One administrator told me that they were admitting "anyone with a Pell Grant and a pulse." Unfortunately, the result wasn’t what everyone was hoping for.

Some of these students weren’t intellectually ready or able for college, and soon dropped out or flunked out. Others weren’t emotionally ready, and had no idea what they wanted to do.

The other night I had dinner with John King, not the one on CNN with the election maps, but Detroit’s own John King, one of the city’s most colorful and eccentric personalities.

John, whose ancestry is mainly Lithuanian, owns the city’s biggest bookstore, John King Used and Rare Books, housed in a huge former glove factory along the Lodge Freeway.

I’m not often astonished by the things legislators do, especially since our politics have been afflicted by the disease of term limits, a condition that means virtually none of those in leadership positions have enough experience to properly do their jobs.

While one Democrat from the Upper Peninsula supported it, a dozen Republicans thumbed their noses at the Speaker and voted "no."

When I learned about this, I had to check to make sure the world was still spinning on its axis and I was actually awake.

Well, at first glance it might look like the legislature came to its senses yesterday, at least so far cutting the state income tax is concerned. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The lawmakers did drop the infantile notion of completely getting rid of the state income tax. They also backed away from cutting it from the current 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent overnight. But they still want to make that cut – just gradually, over the next four years.

So many early campaigns

Feb 21, 2017

I've been a journalist for almost forty years, and while I tend to specialize in politics and government, at one time or another I’ve covered everything from nutmeg cultivation in Grenada to reunions of World War I veterans.

Along the way, I’ve discovered there are three things people often think they can do without any background whatsoever: Start a magazine, open a restaurant, or run for office. Most people who blindly start magazines or restaurants just end up losing their money.

Well, it is still deep winter, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The Super Bowl is over, and the baseball exhibition season hasn’t gotten started.

So naturally, the restless minds of those interested in politics are turning to the next election, or make that, elections. State Senator Coleman Young Jr., who is term-limited and will need a new job, has announced he is running for mayor of Detroit.

Well, it’s Friday, and I thought I’d mark the end of the week with a particularly absurd joke.

Did you know there is something in Lansing called the School Reform Office which can actually close down failing public schools. Get it?

Well, there is, in fact, something named that. And, for the second year in a row, it indicated it was thinking about closing a group of schools statewide, only to have to beat a hasty retreat and say the equivalent of “Ah, just kidding, we really didn’t mean it.”

Nobody can deny that Governor Rick Snyder is an intelligent and hard-working man. He came from very modest circumstances to earn three degrees, including an MBA and a law degree, from the University of Michigan by the time he was 24.

Well, Happy Valentine’s Day.

I hope you've gotten far more important greetings from someone close to you.

Love is important.

But sometimes, you have to learn how and when to let someone, or something go. I’ve finally accepted that Laura Ingalls Wilder is not going to come back from the dead and marry me.

And in the same vein, it's time for those who think the last presidential election was stolen to give it up. That may sound like an odd thing to say at this point.

For many Detroit Tigers fans, the demolition of Tiger Stadium remains a source of anger.
Michael Kumm / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Mike Ilitch certainly left his mark on downtown Detroit, beginning with the major renovation of the Fox Theatre in 1988 and continuing to this day with the ongoing construction of Little Caesars Arena for the Red Wings and the Pistons.

There are those who found a lot to criticize in the way the Ilitch family acquired downtown property, maintained that property, and financed its arenas.

Michigan Radio's senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry joined Stateside to talk about Ilitch's legacy when it comes to the business side of his life and what he did for the city of Detroit.

You have to admire many things about Mike Ilitch. The son of Macedonian immigrants, in the classic American success story, failed to become a major league baseball player, but instead became a true player on a much bigger stage.

He grew up with essentially nothing.

When he died Friday he was worth more than $5 billion, owned a major league hockey and baseball team, a massive national fast food pizza empire, stadiums, theaters, and lots of other stuff.

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