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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

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.

The Michigan Library Association has asked me to talk to their annual convention about “fake news.” I don’t blame them for being especially concerned about it. I’ve always seen librarians as sort of secular high priests of our culture.

They are concerned with assembling and guarding over our storehouses of information. In the pre-internet age, we went to them to find out things and to learn how to find them out ourselves.

Back in a more sincerely religious era, people used to say “Man proposes; God disposes.”

But when it comes to state budgets, it’s more a case of “the governor proposes; the legislature disposes.”

The governor proposed his budget for the next fiscal year yesterday, and as of now, members of his own party in the Legislature don’t seem to like it very much.

Imagine that you got into politics, won a few local elections, and before you knew it were your party’s leader in the Michigan Senate.

That’s how things worked out for State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, a former high school social studies teacher who, at age 39, got that job a little over two years ago.

It isn’t exactly a secret that a lot of people have lost faith in politicians. Polls show approval of and trust in Congress and the state Legislature has fallen to where it is barely ahead of Athlete’s foot. Men like Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, are a good part of the reason why.

Banks has previously been convicted of eight felonies, mostly for things like bad checks and credit card fraud. He has been evicted for nonpayment of rent at least seven times, and has left a long trail of unpaid bills.

There are a lot of things that Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof doesn’t like. They include unions, especially teachers’ unions. The state’s rule requiring the payment of decent, prevailing wages to workers on state construction jobs. Meekhof is also very much against anything making it easier for people to vote, including making it easier to get absentee ballots.

Sixty-three years ago, the most famous journalist in America broadcast this on national television:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear of one another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”

I’ve never met Eli Broad, the billionaire Los Angeles philanthropist, though I have interviewed him on the phone. He comes across as a kindly man who cares deeply about education and the arts.

I think there would be a lot less resentment of the so-called "one percent" if more of them were like Mr. Broad, who is committed to giving away 75% of his wealth.

Here are three examples of how messed-up and dysfunctional Michigan government has become.

First, last fall the Democrats had a candidate for state representative who had been convicted of eight felonies, charged with three more, and who had cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 thanks to a sexual harassment suit filed against him by an aide.


Tampons and sanitary napkins.

I’ve been a journalist for four decades, and during that time have written and broadcast about everything from train wrecks to Marshall Tito. I’ve written about plumbing problems in Russia and filed stories from Paraguay, but don’t think I have ever written a word about tampons. That isn’t because I am squeamish about them.

Yesterday I was talking to State Senator David Knezek of Dearborn Heights about a tax bill, when I decided to ask him what he thought of the president’s sudden order barring entry to this country from seven Muslim nations.

I would normally never ask a first-term state senator to comment on a foreign policy initiative by the president of the United States. But these are not normal times, and Dave Knezek is not just another state senator. He served two tours of duty in Iraq.

I’m in Grand Rapids today, at the annual convention of the Michigan Press Association, which represents daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state. It is largely a happy event.

Those gathered celebrate and award prizes to some of the best journalism in the state. This year’s top winner was an investigation in which the Detroit News revealed that dirty surgical equipment was being used in operating rooms at a major hospital.

Donald Trump is far from the only politician to believe in “alternative facts.” During the 1984 presidential campaign, when I was working for the Detroit News, I somehow ended up interviewing Lyndon LaRouche, who managed to be both zany and sinister at the same time.

LaRouche, sometimes a Trotskyite and sometimes a right-winger, alternated between competing as a Democrat and running as an independent, and may be best remembered for his theory that Queen Elizabeth II was the mastermind of a huge drug cartel.

I spent lunchtime the other day with a highly educated suburban woman named Amina, who lives in the white-collar suburb of Canton, in the same county but light-years away from Detroit. Her husband is a professor at Lawrence Tech, and she has degrees in both post-childhood development and in education policy with a focus on global studies.

Now thirty-six, she’s lived in many places, but was born not far from where she lives now. She’s thoroughly American, but a bit different from many of her neighbors. She has four children, which isn’t that common these days. She also spends much of her time with other kids in a part of Detroit where her neighbors might never go in a million years.

A century ago, opinionated journalism was dominated by the brilliant and sarcastic columnist H.L. Mencken. Among other things, he was a flamboyant atheist. Once, someone demanded to know what he would do if he died and found himself before God and his angels.

Mencken replied that he would bow and say, “Gentlemen, I was wrong.”

Well, I haven’t been hauled up before the Almighty – yet -- but I am indeed sometimes wrong.

I got a wonderful email yesterday from Jim Bower, a listener in Byron Center near Grand Rapids. Believe it or not, I think most writers enjoy hearing thoughtful criticism, even if, or maybe especially if, the reader or listener disagrees.

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