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

Thirty years ago I was a young editor at the Detroit News, and there was an employee who was a transgender woman. She was not a journalist and I did not see her often, but when I did, I made small talk about things like the weather.

One afternoon she came up to me crying, and thanked me for treating her as a human being. I felt then and feel now as if I didn’t deserve any credit. I had merely talked to her as I would someone standing in line with me at the dry cleaners.

For the last few weeks, the Snyder administration has been pushing the narrative that the real culprit in the Flint water crisis was the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They don’t deny the state had some role in the crisis.

The mantra they’ve been chanting is “mistakes were made at all levels of government.”

But they’ve wanted to create the impression that the EPA was mostly to blame. Republicans especially love this explanation since, while they control all levels of state government, the President is a Democrat and technically responsible for all his appointees.

Nobody, including me, has spent much time praising the legislature recently. But the Michigan Senate did something great yesterday.

They passed a comprehensive package of bills designed to save public education in Detroit – not just the students in the nearly bankrupt Detroit Public Schools.

For years, I got a lot of information about what was happening in mid-Michigan, especially Flint from one of the state’s most colorful gadflies, Pat Clawson.

Clawson had been everything from a disc jockey to a political candidate to a private detective to an award-winning investigative reporter for CNN. Usually, he held several jobs at once. He was sometimes a little nutty. Once, after he spoke to a class of mine at Wayne State University, he said he was shocked that I would venture into Detroit without wearing a gun.

If you’ve been following the presidential race, you probably know that most of the conservative establishment is in a tizzy over the now-likely nomination of Donald Trump.

The New York Times’ David Brooks, for example, wrote a column this weekend in which he proclaimed Trump was essentially the worst candidate in history, and concluded,

“No, not Trump, not ever.”

Many Republicans are now desperately rallying around Ted Cruz, who finished a distant second in Michigan’s Republican primary two weeks ago.

If you’ve somehow missed the latest outrage in the Flint water crisis, here it is. Taxpayers are about to pay $1.2 million dollars for legal fees to personally protect Governor Rick Snyder from civil or criminal prosecution over his role in the poisoning of the city.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Schuette wants us to cough up $1.5 million to cover the cost of an outside attorney named Todd Flood, a contributor to Schuette’s campaigns, who he is hiring to investigate Flint’s public health disaster.

 Think about this: As the world now knows, an entire city’s water supply was poisoned by a series of decisions switching the city over to unsafe river water.

Nobody checked to see if the water was safe; nobody added corrosion control chemicals to prevent lead from leaching out of the pipes. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did nothing to stop this.

Instead, there is considerable evidence that they lied and tried to cover up how bad things were. MDEQ bureaucrats and its spokesman showed considerable contempt for anyone concerned about the water quality.

Michigan voters sent the political and media elites a message of defiance last night. The elites told the people how to vote, and the people told them where to go.

On the Republican side, every establishment figure on two legs made scathing attacks on Donald Trump. Mitt Romney, who lost his home state by a landslide four years ago, was somehow felt to be the right messenger to tell the rank and file not to vote for Trump.

Vote Today!

Mar 8, 2016

Well, for once Michigan seems to have set our presidential primary at the right time, neither too early, nor too late. Today, we could have a decisive effect on both parties’ races.

When my sweetheart and I got home last night, we each had a robocall on our land lines. Hers was from Brian Calley urging a vote for John Kasich; mine from Mitt Romney urging one for Marco Rubio.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, she said something worth considering during last night’s debate in Flint. “We have our differences,” she said of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But she added, simply, “Compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”

That wasn’t just a cheap partisan shot. For two hours last night, Clinton and Sanders argued about policy matters. Sure, there was posturing and one-upmanship on both sides. But they showed personal respect for each other.

As everyone knows, there was an imitation TV wrestling match in Detroit last night otherwise known as the latest Republican presidential debate. If you missed it, I can report that the wrestlers show more ethnic diversity, and wear more colorful costumes.

I watched some of the debate on television. Long ago, I learned that being as such events is usually the second best thing to watching it on TV. You can read and listen to more detailed accounts of it elsewhere, but here’s what you really need to know:

First, the three other candidates spent most of the debate insulting and denouncing Donald Trump, and saying he would be the worst candidate in the history of the world. 


If you turn on any of the cable news channels, the odds are you will soon see a studio full of Republican analysts wringing their hands and discussing whether Donald Trump can be stopped. The answer, as the candidates convene on Michigan, is very likely not.

  

Presidential nominating contests these days remind me of Japanese sumo wrestling matches.

In Sumo, there can be hours of ritual buildup before a so-called athletic match that lasts, on average, 90 seconds.

In this year’s presidential contest, we’ve had months and months of endless crowded debates, especially on the Republican side.

The various candidates spent vast sums, more than a hundred million of it by Jeb Bush, who now seems long gone from the race. It’s only 30 days since the first caucus votes were cast in Iowa, and both nominations now look nearly decided.

Metropolitan Detroit is famous for many things, but one we haven’t heard much about lately is the near-total lack of anything resembling mass transit.

I can’t think of another major city in the country that has no regular mass transit of any kind from the airport to the downtown.

The reason for this, of course, was that in the Motor City, everyone was supposed to own a private car as a matter of civic patriotism. Today that is badly outdated.

Every survey shows millennials aren’t nearly as enamored of cars as earlier generations were.

Normally I have little or no patience with those who demand elected leaders resign or be recalled or impeached every time they disagree with them. I also think Governor Rick Snyder has had two great successes during his five years in office.

The badly needed Gordie Howe bridge would be nowhere near reality if it wasn’t for Governor Snyder, and he did a a masterful job shepherding Detroit through the bankruptcy process. Yet none of this makes up for Flint.

Yesterday was extraordinary because of two things no one could have foreseen a year ago. Michigan Republicans are now fully engaged in a desperate and probably doomed struggle to prevent their party from nominating Donald Trump for president.


Michigan has been so preoccupied with our own environmental disaster in Flint that we may have missed the announcement that Canada last week indefinitely delayed a decision about whether to bury low-level nuclear waste near Lake Huron.

That is bound to be seen as good news by virtually the entire environmental community – though there is a caveat or two that I will get to in a bit.

Seven years ago, our biggest concern in Michigan was the domestic auto industry. The question was, could it possibly survive? Three years ago, our worries centered on Detroit which was about to plunge into emergency management and bankruptcy.

These days the Detroit Three are no longer the Big Three, but they are thriving and making billions. Detroit is out of bankruptcy and is perceived as dramatically improving.

Well, it now seems that the race for the Republican nomination, which once had more candidates than a baseball team, is down to three real contenders.

The Democrats are down to two, and something suddenly occurred to me over the weekend. I’m a baby boomer, born in the 1950s.

When it comes to education issues, the crisis facing Detroit’s Public Schools is now the elephant filling the room. The question is whether the state House of Representatives’ ideological fanaticism and hatred for unions will prevent a sensible fix of the troubled district.

If it does, and the schools topple into bankruptcy, it could cost government --meaning us -- twice as much as the governor’s proposed plan.

 Suppose you came from fairly humble circumstances and had struggled to earn a college degree. You decide to become a teacher yourself, because that’s the only way poor and disadvantaged children have any chance at achieving a successful life.

You wind up teaching in a building that is falling apart, that is infested with mold and rodents, where the heat doesn’t work well in the winter, and it is like an oven in the late summer. You have to worry about fights, some involving kids bigger than you are. Guns and gangs are very real problems.

There are four larger-than-life cement statues on the lawn outside my office at Wayne State University. They are of Cadillac, LaSalle, Marquette and Gabriel Richard, the early French explorers who discovered Michigan and helped found Detroit.

They are magnificent, but they shouldn’t be there. They should be where they were intended to be – a couple miles away, high above the street, looking down from Detroit’s magnificent, baroque old early Victorian-era City Hall.

The news these days is full of examples of where our systems have failed, sometimes disastrously, as in Flint. We have had incompetence and corruption at virtually every level. We should be seeing bumper stickers which say, “if you’re not a cynic, you aren’t paying attention.”

But there are occasional stories of officials striving to do a good job, and there was one last week you may have missed.

Replacing Scalia

Feb 15, 2016

When I learned Saturday night that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died, I talked to a number of legal experts who weren’t necessarily in tune with his thinking.

Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, spoke of his brilliance.

We are in the middle of what is officially black history month. These days, so far as I can tell, that mostly means elementary school kids have to do a report on Martin Luther King Jr., and read a few paragraphs from the famous speech.

The rest of us mainly ignore it. Which is too bad, because black history is filled with fascinating and untold stories, and I want to tell you about a riveting new book about one.


I doubt that anyone who is listens to or reads my commentaries would think of turning to me for dating or relationship advice, but I am going to give you some anyway.

If you are single, and want to meet someone, you probably don’t want to go to the bar with a copy of the governor’s budget request and say, “Hey, there’s some really interesting stuff in here.”

That probably wouldn’t even work in Lansing.

There’s a famous old saying that man proposes, God disposes. Maybe, but in state politics, governors propose, legislators dispose.

The legislature has the power of the purse. Governor Rick Snyder today is unveiling a budget that a year ago, conservatives would have compared nastily to a Christmas tree.

It includes more money – lots of money – for Flint, of course, but also for higher education, community colleges and elementary schools. Higher education would get more, and so would the Healthy Kids’ Dental Fund. There’s even money here to pay for new drugs to treat Cystic Fibrosis and Hepatitis C.

It hasn’t been very easy to defend Governor Rick Snyder lately, but I think he did absolutely the right thing in refusing to testify before a committee of congressional Democrats about the scandal involving the lead poisoning of the water in Flint.

In all likelihood, this would have been nothing but a partisan witch hunt. He would have been asked questions along the lines of, “when did you stop poisoning children on purpose?”

There’s no question that some of the wilder criticism of Governor Snyder has gone too far. There’s absolutely no evidence the governor, or anybody else, deliberately set out to poison the people of Flint as some sort of racist plot.

Accusations of that sort are inexcusably irresponsible. However, there are legitimate questions about what he knew and when he knew it. And yesterday, new information surfaced proving that, at the very least, the governor’s staff failed to properly inform him.

Last weekend Cindy Estrada took her twin twelve-year-old sons Jason and Jesse to Flint, to do what they could to help. What they saw shook them up. Knocking on doors, delivering water, they met a grandmother who dissolved in tears.

She felt she was responsible for poisoning her grandchildren by bathing them in water that state officials had told the residents was safe.

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