Jack Lessenberry

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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