Jack Lessenberry

Unless you’ve been trapped in a coal mine, you may have noticed that this is an election year.

We’re less than two weeks from Michigan’s statewide primary. Once we get through that, we may have a few weeks before the airwaves are again dominated by commercials for various candidates for various offices.

I’ve been telling you about some of these, and I expect to be talking more about them before November. But I was thinking that three of the most potentially interesting leaders in the state are not on the ballot this year.

They are all women, all young, charismatic, intelligent, competent and highly educated. They also all happen to be Democrats, but that is almost a coincidence. 

Republicans have some rising women leaders as well, two of whom, Lisa Posthumus Lyons and Tonya Schuitmaker, are running for reelection to the Legislature.

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Thirty-five years ago this spring, President Jimmy Carter nominated Detroit attorney Avern Cohn to be a federal judge.

High-tech meant IBM selectric typewriters back then.

Detroit had nearly twice its current population. The World Wide Web wouldn’t exist for more than a decade, and President Obama was a teenager still in high school.

Today, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn turns 90. And he’ll spend the day, as usual, in federal court, where he still hears cases, full time.

“I get great satisfaction out of this,” he told me when I talked to him last week. “I’m happy. Every day is different. You are always learning something new. It is a job that keeps you young.”

 

You have to give Detroiters a lot of credit.

They voted, by overwhelming margins, to accept major cuts to their pensions. In what was most surprising, nearly 90% of city retirees also voted to give up 90% of their health care benefits. They voted to make sacrifices in their old age to give their city a chance at a future, something that we should find pretty admirable.

Now, granted, they had a gun to their heads. They were told to take this deal, or something worse would be imposed on them, but they could have raged against the machine, and didn’t.

In fact, they weren’t even obligated to approve the health care cuts, though they probably couldn’t have stopped them.

People love to bash Detroiters, but throughout the years, they have stepped up time and again, voting to tax themselves when told they had to do so to save the city; voting now to accept new painful sacrifices.

Meanwhile, four classes of the city’s hugest creditors voted no on settlement offers made to them, and so further court battles lie ahead.

All of this is bound to overshadow another story today that in the long run may be as meaningful for our future.

Update: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has announced a 15-day suspension of its controversial shutoff campaign.  

​Unless you’ve been completely out of touch, you know that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been shutting off service to thousands of customers who haven’t paid their bills.

This has sparked huge controversy, protests and even condemnation from the United Nations. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes even got involved.

Last week, he told the deputy director of Detroit’s water department that shutting off water to city residents has, quote "caused not only a lot of anger in the city (but) also a lot of hardship."

And the judge added, "it’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now." That much is not in dispute. But not everyone is in agreement that this is an atrocity.

Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, supports the shutoffs, saying that the rule everywhere is that “if you use water, you have to pay for it.” He notes that there’s an assistance program, and says that if people are in trouble, “all they need to do is call.”

Westland sometimes is in national trivia contests because it was the first city ever named after a shopping mall.

Bill Wild, Westland’s mayor for the last seven years, has been much less well-known. Perhaps until recently, that is; he is now waging a serious campaign to be elected Wayne County executive. That is, to win the Democratic primary August 5, which essentially guarantees victory in the November election.

Wild may still have more money and less name recognition than his four major rivals. But he is running second in some polls, and has one powerful argument.

“I’m the only candidate who actually has executive experience, who has run both a business and a government,” he told me a couple days ago, when I went to see him at his campaign headquarters on the east side of Detroit. 

That is somewhat true.

Back in the 1960s, there was a hilarious TV sitcom called Get Smart, which portrayed the adventures of the world’s most inept spy.

Maxwell Smart was a bumbler who talked into his not-so-secret shoe telephone, carried around a device called the cone of silence, and never really had a clue as to what was going on.

Well, the Cold War is long over, but if he were around today, Smart would clearly have a future in politics.

This week, we learned that the Snyder re-election campaign has evidently revived some version of the classic department of dirty tricks, tactics made most famous by another Richard, the late President Nixon.

The Michigan Republican Party now admits it sent two staffers into a Mark Schauer fundraising event wearing high-tech hidden camera glasses.

Democrats later got possession of the disc, apparently because the Republicans clumsily lost it. My understanding is that it shows the two paid staffers chowing down on appetizers and worrying that the people at the event were on to them. They apparently made small talk with Lisa Brown, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, but not Schauer.

You might think Republicans would now be embarrassed.

But you’d be wrong.

I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for the sugar beet country of Michigan’s Thumb.

Years ago, I used to take graduate journalism students to Caro for a day where they would put out a special edition of the Tuscola County Advertiser.

The folks there were open, friendly, warm-hearted, and hard-working, but I have to say I’m ashamed of some of them today.

They are disgracing our state and reminding us of some of the ugliest chapters in American history.

Here’s why: Thousands of children and teenagers have been turning up at the United States’ southern border over the last few months. We are, if you’ve forgotten, a nation founded by refugees and which, to this very day, has remained open to those seeking political asylum.

That’s the beautiful part of our legacy.

The ugly part is that far too many of us think our ancestors were the last immigrants who should have been allowed in. That’s been reflected throughout our history in signs that said “No Irish need apply,” communities that refused to allow Jews, and the entire history of black America.

Michigan’s statewide primary is three weeks from today, and the one thing certain is that most people, even most registered voters, won’t even bother to vote.

They never do in primary elections.

Turnout seems likely to be especially dismal this year. While there are a few hot congressional and legislative races, there are no primary contests for governor or U.S. senator in either party.

That means, based on past practice, that at least 3/4 of the voters won’t show up. That’s not only disgraceful -- it also could be dangerous to our state’s economy.

I’d like to start the week with a thought that some will consider heresy: sometimes, privatization just doesn’t work.

There are some functions and responsibilities that government handles better.

American is gung-ho for privatization these days, both to save money, and because government at all levels has become something we love to hate. Thanks to years of being told that government is bad, corrupt, expensive and inefficient, we are happy to reduce its size.

Well, we may not be quite ready to hand the nuclear arsenal over to an assets management firm, but apart from that, anything goes. And frankly, there are some things that probably should be privatized.

Garbage collection, for example.

But Michigan decided last year to privatize food service in our prisons, and so far, it has been a highly embarrassing failure.

The Detroit Free Press used the state Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s happened since the state contracted with a private food services company, Aramark Correctional Services of Pennsylvania.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville will be out of a job in less than six months, thanks to term limits.

This means his career in elected politics may be over.

And I am beginning to be sorry about that. In the last few months, Richardville, a former Monroe businessman, has evolved into a leader capable of looking beyond a narrow partisan agenda.

The roads are one example.

In past years, he virtually sneered at Governor Snyder’s call for the Legislature to appropriate billions to fix our crumbling roads. This spring, Richardville switched, came up with a creative plan to finance long-term road repair, and made a valiant, if failed effort, to get it through the Legislature.

He said this was because all he heard from his constituents was “just fix the damn roads.” That may be true, but he did see the light when other members of his caucus were bizarrely talking about trying to push through another tax cut instead.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Michigan’s bizarrely gerrymandered 14th Congressional District, drawn to pack as many Democrats as possible together.

But there has been even more strangeness in its mirror image to the left, the 11th District, similarly designed for Republicans. Shaped something like an irregular claw, the 11th begins with Birmingham and Troy in the east and arcs over to take in Milford and Novi in the west and Livonia and Canton in the South.

This was meant to be GOP territory. But it is not nearly as Republican as the 14th is Democratic. President Obama carried it once, and some think it could send a Democrat to Congress. And it hasn’t been short of controversy.

Two years ago, longtime Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s career ended after his staff filed fraudulent ballot petition signatures.

That left Republicans with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party supporting reindeer farmer. He won and is trying for a second term.

Patricia Hill Burnett, who was famous back in the 1970s as sort of the quintessential Republican feminist, will be 94 in a few months.

She is still defiantly pro-Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice, and on economic issues, Republican to the core.

She was runner-up to Miss America 72 years ago, and went on to become both Michigan’s unofficial state portrait painter and the woman who started the state chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Comfortably wealthy, she always dresses and talks, as Detroit News columnist Laura Berman says today, “like a local, more highly educated version of Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

I went to see her earlier this year when she was recovering from a brief illness, and she told me that she felt sad that many young women did not want to be called feminists any more.

She was also sad that younger women didn’t know anything about Betty Ford.

Late last month, the Detroit Free Press published a stunningly comprehensive look at Michigan’s charter schools.

A team of journalists spent more than a year looking at every charter school in the state. They interviewed hundreds of people, examined thousands of documents, and used sophisticated computer techniques to analyze data.

What they discovered was stunning and shocking. While some charters do an excellent job, many don’t. There is essentially no effective oversight, and bad schools stay open year after year.

 

Tomorrow we will happily celebrate the Fourth of July, both because we see it as the anniversary of American Independence and maybe especially because this year it comes with a three-day weekend.

Actually, what we are commemorating is not really true independence; that came at the end of the Revolutionary War. What this day marks is the signing of the Declaration on Independence, the best-remembered line of which is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Well, as you probably know, the men who wrote that document didn’t believe that as we do now. For one thing, they were all men. Women didn’t even get to vote for more than a hundred years.

Races other than whites weren’t equal, nor were the landless poor. But we like to think that isn’t the case anymore. After all, we have a black president, and may soon have a female one.

But when it comes to representation in the Legislature and Congress, Michigan voters are still not equal.

Legislative seats have to be roughly equal in terms of population. Congressional districts, exactly so. They redraw the boundaries every ten years. But politicians do the drawing, and last time, Republicans were in complete control of the process. That enabled them to give themselves total advantage.

Okay, here’s today’s political trivia test: What do the following people have in common? 

Bob Griffin, Marvin Esch, Jack Lousma, Jim Dunn, Phil Ruppe, Ronna Romney, Bill Schuette, Rocky Raczkowski, Jack Hoogendyk, Spencer Abraham, Mike Bouchard, and Pete Hoekstra. That’s the complete list of Michigan Republicans nominated to run statewide for the U.S. Senate in the last 40 years. 
They have something else in common, too: Every one lost. How many Republicans won election to the Senate over the same period? Only one: Spencer Abraham, who won in 1994. Six years later, he was a loser, too.
That’s an incredible record of frustration. Twelve out of 13 losses. That’s especially strange, given that the GOP has held the governorship for most of that time, and the Legislature.
If you are 31 or younger, you weren’t even born the last time Democrats controlled the state Senate.

I woke up this morning thinking about the election 38 years ago, when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Michigan’s only president, Gerald Ford. That may sound a little bizarre, but before you call my psychiatrist, I was at the Ford Library just a few days ago.

And something that happened yesterday made me nostalgic for that long-ago time, for a very modern reason. I have intensely followed politics all my life, and remember that election as though it were yesterday.

The result was very close – the winner wasn’t known 'till almost four the next morning. There was sadness and some bitterness on the part of the losers the next day.

As I am sure you’ve noticed, Friday is the Fourth of July, which means that for several nights before and afterwards, many of our neighborhoods will sound after dark like a free-fire zone.

In other words, kids, some of them long past voting age, will be setting off fireworks. A few will hurt themselves, mainly burning their hands or losing a finger. Some may lose an eye.

If the grass is dry enough or a bottle rocket goes out of control, we may have some serious fires. Six years ago, a bottle rocket landed on the roof of a rather nice apartment complex in Toledo, starting a blaze that completely destroyed the buildings.

Nobody died, but a hundred people were left homeless. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the staunchest advocates for gun control haven’t been so-called Ann Arbor liberals, but the police.

Cops are not always known to be liberal on social issues, but they see on a firsthand basis what guns in the wrong hands can do. By the same token, firefighters tend to be the most anti-firecracker.

Firemen, and city officials. When I was young, Ohio had far more liberal fireworks policies than Michigan. But that has changed. Ohio has outlawed almost all consumer fireworks.

But three years ago, our Legislature made them far easier to get and blow up for three days around any national holiday. 

Most of us don’t completely trust the government. We certainly don’t want government to be able to prevent us from getting information we want or need.

We are against governments suppressing information…unless it is stuff that we personally want suppressed.Then that’s different, of course.

I thought of that this week when Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation that prevents the press or public from being able to get gun records. From now on, we will be unable to find out who owns guns, and who has permits and licenses to have them.

Well, conservatives and gun lovers are thrilled about this, and I’m not surprised. For some reason, those who most feel the need to be heavily armed seem also to be the most paranoid. 

State Representative Aric Nesbitt, who enthusiastically backed these bills, said: “By allowing publication of private information about gun owners, some other states have put gun owners and their neighbors at risk. We want to prevent that from happening."

Wayne County always has been the biggest county in Michigan, at least in terms of people, and it's the most important. Though it includes Detroit, more than a million of its residents live elsewhere, from the affluent leafy suburbs of Plymouth to gritty downriver towns like River Rouge.

They are all very different, but have two things in common. First, they elect an executive, sort of a super mayor to run things. And second, they live in a county in trouble and in deficit.

In recent years, Wayne County has been rocked by personnel scandals and an astonishing farce concerning a half-built jail abandoned after $125 million taxpayer dollars had been wasted.

Now, there are increasing worries that Wayne County, like its largest city, could be facing emergency management. That should be alarming to all of us for the same reason Detroit’s troubles are.

Whatever you think about the way society is evolving, there continues to be progress when it comes to human and civil rights and freedoms. Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder signed two bills protecting the rights of breast-feeding mothers to nurse in public.  

True, this always should have been a universal human right, but progress doesn’t always come as quickly as it should -- nor for the right reasons. The governor, never eager to go out on a limb on social issues, said the bill would help prevent obesity.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that same-sex marriage will also be fully legal before very long. These have been hard-fought battles, as all struggles for civil rights always have been. But to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been threatening to kill anyone for breast-feeding. 

Yet I got a call last night from an old civil rights attorney who reminded me that we lived in a very different world half a century ago.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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