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

Well, the governor is finally paying attention to the water scandal in Flint, and there seems to be general recognition that the state really screwed up. Even Rick Snyder said as much yesterday, though in convoluted language.

Children were poisoned because of actions taken by state government, and finally, belatedly, there’s an effort to do something about it.

But children are being irreversibly harmed in Detroit, too, and we’re not willing to do anything about it. I’m talking about the more than forty thousand kids who are still enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. This time, this is not the governor’s fault.

This has been an intense first week of the year in Michigan politics, with Governor Snyder signing deeply controversial bills, the Flint water crisis, and renewed concern over the impending financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools.

There were a lot of people – some of them Republicans -- who were shocked yesterday afternoon when Governor Rick Snyder signed a bitterly controversial campaign finance bill.

Many insiders expected he would veto it. In fact, The Detroit News, whose editorial page is sort of a house organ for the Republican Party, urged a veto.

Yesterday was not a good day for Governor Rick Snyder.

First, he signed the bill outlawing straight-ticket voting. There was never any real doubt he would do this.

Those in politics were surprised he didn’t sign it between Christmas and the new year, when most people are paying little attention. 

President Obama yesterday announced a series of executive orders aimed at enforcing existing laws and lowering the death rate. You might think that was common sense policy.


Well, Happy New Year. I like to catch up on movies during the holidays, and the first one I saw this season was Spotlight, the film about how The Boston Globe exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex scandal 14 years ago.

Dozens of journalists I know raved about the movie, and they weren’t exaggerating. Spotlight is clearly the most important film about journalism since All The President’s Men 40 years ago. Like that film, it is largely a documentary with Hollywood stars reenacting the roles played by actual, less photogenic journalists.

The Way it Was

Dec 23, 2015

Well, the holidays are upon us, and my guess is that you may need some last minute present and that you also might be guilty of reading books, even when you don’t have to.

So I want to tell you about the best book I’ve read this year, one you can easily find at any bookstore: David Maraniss’s Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, published by Simon and Schuster. Maraniss is a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post writer.

Ten years ago, George Clooney starred in and directed the most socially significant film he’s ever done. Good Night and Good Luck was about the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow and his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy, the demagogue who ruined lives and careers by recklessly accusing people of being Communists.


I have a little bit of good news to start the week. The United States managed, barely, to avoid crippling sanctions that would have cost Michigan farmers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.

Several years ago, Congress passed a law that required “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL, for all meat products, no matter where they were from.

Well, we are ending the last full week before Christmas with two pieces of good news: The biggest is that Washington approved a waiver that will enable six hundred thousand relatively poor people in Michigan to continue to get medical coverage under the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program.

We barely managed to qualify for this program two years ago after the legislature was dragged kicking and screaming to approve it, even though virtually all the costs are borne by the federal government.

Once upon a time, newspapers and even TV stations in this state devoted intensive resources to covering Lansing. That wasn’t because nobody had heard of the Kardashians; it was because news organizations back then realized that when it comes to affecting our lives, state government really is the most important.

Federal money is passed down through the states, and the states make rules for what local governments can do. Back in the 1980s, at least one Detroit TV station had a full-time Lansing bureau, and for a time the Detroit News had thirteen reporters in Lansing.

People have been living with cats and dogs probably as long as modern man has existed. Unfortunately, we  abuse our own species all too often, which, come to think of it, is what much of the news is usually about -- and we aren’t always good to the animals either.

Cruelty and neglect are often tied to poverty, and it’s not surprising that some of our biggest animal problems are on the mean streets of Detroit. There, for more than a century, the Michigan Humane Society has been doing what it can to save and re-home animals.

This week, the Michigan House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill already passed by the Senate (SB 638) which has often been referred to as an attempt to enshrine the U.S. Supreme Court decision usually known as Citizens United into state law.

That’s a reference, of course, to the famous and controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

Several of the many Republican candidates for President have been in Michigan lately, including Marco Rubio and John Kasich. They drew small but polite crowds.

True, their visits are as much about fundraising as winning votes at this point, but all indications are that the vast majority of the population would have great difficulty recognizing them or articulating where they stand on any issue.

Detroit’s Public Schools are slowly dying. Those who run them would not use those words, but that’s what is happening. The schools have lost sixty-five percent of their students in the last ten years, and have closed more than three-fifths of their buildings.

There’s some evidence of better management in the last year. Enrollment may have temporarily stabilized. The schools have shed some of the top-heavy central office bureaucracy that for years drained resources and messed with education.

Thanks in part to Donald Trump, terrorism and pit bulls, here’s a story you may not have heard about, but which could have a major negative impact on our economy.

Two days ago, the World Trade Organization, or WTO, ruled that Canada was fully justified in going ahead and imposing $780 million dollars in retaliatory tariffs on American goods, primarily meat, because of unfair trade practices by the U.S. government.

The reason that clichés exist is simple: They often express basic truths, as in, common sense is an extremely uncommon thing.

So is the ability to do the right thing even when there’s extreme pressure not to.

It doesn’t require much courage these days to bash Muslims.

But if there is a more reviled group than suspected terrorists, it would be sex offenders, especially when children are involved. I’ve never heard of any judge being criticized for being too tough in such a case.

Down on the Dogs

Dec 7, 2015

For years, we’ve had intense debates about two things that can be extremely deadly, are feared and loathed by many people and intensely, even fanatically, loved by others.

Both can easily kill, and both are much in the news right now. What I am talking about are guns, and pit bulls. The world knows about the two latest mass firearm murders in France and California. But last week Michigan was horrified by two pit bull attacks.

A four year old boy in Detroit walking with his mother was dragged under a fence and torn apart. The next day, a 22-year-old Port Huron woman was attacked and killed while crossing someone’s back yard.

Well, the last of the leftover turkey has been eaten or frozen, and the gift-buying and giving season is here.

Hanukkah starts Sunday. Christmas is just three weeks away, and I can’t wait for the first fist-fight in a Michigan shopping mall.

During lunch yesterday, I listened to two young women at the next table agonize that they didn’t know what they wanted their boyfriends to buy them.

Well, I wanted to tell them I knew another woman about their age who knows exactly what she wants.

When it comes to senseless violence, the last few weeks have been, simply, horrible. Yesterday’s mass killing in San Bernadino, the Paris attacks, the shooting at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs six days ago.

When I first heard a bulletin about the Planned Parenthood shootings, I mistakenly thought that it had happened in Michigan. And I have to confess that I was irrationally relieved that it didn’t happen here, though lives lost in Colorado are no less important.

Last night I moderated perhaps the most significant Issues and Ale panel Michigan Radio has ever done.

It was on Flint’s water crisis, and took place in an excellent restaurant called the Redwood Steakhouse and Brewery. 

I thought I knew about the water crisis before last night, and intellectually I largely did.

But I found myself powerfully affected by the enormity of what has been done to the people of Flint, mostly by the State of Michigan.

Late last week, I heard something disturbing from multiple sources.

They told me that Kary Moss, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, and some corporate leaders, had met with Governor Rick Snyder and asked him not to support a ballot drive to win constitutional civil protections for gay and transgender people.

When I asked her, Moss denied this. She said they had instead met with him to discuss, “the role that the business community can play in continuing to support his public commitment to this issue as well as keeping this issue in front of legislators, educating them in particular about the trans(gender) issue.”


Tomorrow most of us will get together with family or friends, or both, and celebrate Thanksgiving.

Yes, I know the holiday’s origins are suspect, and there’s lots of cynical stuff out there to the effect that if the Native Americans had known how all this would turn out, they might have buried axes in the colonists’ heads.

Be that as it may, most of us do have a lot to give thanks for. If you’ve ever been to Haiti, or the slums of Peru, as I have, you know what I mean. I spend a fair amount of time criticizing our officials for stupid, selfish, or wrongheaded behavior.

This should be a holiday of thanksgiving indeed for the United Auto Workers union. It successfully negotiated contracts this fall that give its members big raises and bonuses.

The Tier II workers who have been working at a lesser pay schedule now have a clear path to parity with the longtime workers. Workers are also getting large “signing bonuses” that may pump nearly $3 billion into the Michigan economy just in time for Christmas.

Congressman John Conyers is kicking off his reelection campaign today with two major rallies in his district planned in Detroit and the blue-collar suburb of Redford.

The election is almost a year away, and he is unlikely to have any significant primary opposition, but he may be announcing early, in case anyone gets any ideas. He has had challenges in the past, from ambitious younger people who thought he was too old, too erratic, and too out of touch.

But he’s always crushed them like bugs.

Nearly half a century ago, a young lawyer started grabbing headlines in Oakland County, then across the state.

His name was L. Brooks Patterson, and he was the attorney for NAG, an anti-busing group in Pontiac.

They were, essentially, parents who did not want their kids sent to other districts to go to school with black children.

I went to Michigan State University last night to see former President Bill Clinton, who was the keynote speaker at a new annual event, the Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum.

Clinton’s hair is silver these days. He’s thinner than you may remember. He is vibrant, but no longer looks much younger than he is, but he still has it. 

His personality still fills a room, and he has that priceless gift of making whomever he is talking to feel as if, for those few moments, he or she is the only person on the planet.

Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, there was a story in the Boston Globe saying that some of the hijackers had entered this country from Canada.

Instantly, there were calls for a crackdown on security along what we had been proud to say was the world’s longest unguarded border. 

Suddenly, it was no longer practical for people who worked in Detroit to pop over the river for a quick lunch or dinner in one of Windsor’s superb restaurants. Fourteen years later, things still haven’t returned to normal.

Governor Rick Snyder bowed to pressure yesterday and made a decision that was politically easy.

He reversed his earlier courageous stand and announced that Syrian refugees are no longer welcome in Michigan.

Here's what he said:

"Our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents. Given the terrible situation in Paris, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of its security clearances and procedures.”

What the governor did was exactly what ISIS would want.

The last time Michigan voted for a Bush for President, the Berlin Wall was still up, nobody in these parts had ever heard of a twenty-something Barack Obama, few imagined the Soviet Union would ever disappear, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented.

Since then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s father and brother have been the Republican nominees for president three times, and Michigan voters each time said no.

Jeb Bush wants to turn that around this year. Yesterday, he arrived in Grand Rapids in an effort to kick-start his sputtering national campaign.

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