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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.

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If you’ve been living in Michigan for a while, chances are that you have noticed a drop in the quality of services you are getting from local government. I’m not just talking about distressed cities like Detroit or Pontiac, I’m talking about everywhere.

Well, guess what. You think you are getting less because you are. Some of that has to do with the mentality that all taxes are bad, even when not levying them costs us more than the tax would, as is the case with the roads.


Today, Detroit still has a lot of problems. But the city is out of bankruptcy. It is no longer crippled by huge debts and unfunded pension and benefit mandates.

The population loss has slowed to a trickle, the streetlights are on again, and Midtown is booming. But 11 years ago, Detroit was an entirely different place. White flight had been succeeded by black middle-class flight that was almost a stampede.

Politically, the easy thing for the State Board of Education would have been to postpone a vote on guidelines for protecting transgender students until after November 8th.

State Board President John Austin, who has led the way on this issue, had every reason not to want this vote now.

He is up for reelection this year, he’s had some thoughts about running for higher office, and there’s a real threat that social and religious conservatives will try to put a target on his back because of his courageous stand against bullying.  

When news came yesterday morning that State Representative Peter Pettalia had died in a motorcycle crash, the first question everybody I knew asked was: Was he wearing a helmet?

Pettalia was a key player in the successful drive four years ago to repeal the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Turns out that he was wearing a helmet at the time of the tragedy, which evidently was not his fault. The brutal fact is that if you are going to collide with a heavy, vast-moving vehicle, a motorcycle, unlike a car, offers almost no protection.

There’s a fascinating intellectual property rights war going on that may have big implications for anyone who has a business and is thinking about using a symbol in the public domain. 

If you drive around much, you’ve likely seen bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the familiar diamond-shaped M-22 logo that designated a scenic highway in the Leelanau Peninsula.

I was a little surprised when Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed the decision striking down the ban on straight-ticket voting to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I knew, of course, that the attorney general wanted straight-ticket voting outlawed.

He is a fiercely partisan Republican, and the GOP thinks with some reason that allowing straight-ticket voting hurts their candidates.

I am a little overweight. Not grossly fat, but I could certainly lose a few pounds. I could say this is because I was bullied as a child, because I heroically work too hard and don’t have time to eat properly, or because of my existential angst.

Actually, existential angst sounds like a good, all-purpose excuse for everything, especially given the current climate, political and otherwise. But the fact is that I am overweight because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough.

So is this now summer, or fall?

I know that by the calendar, we officially have two more weeks of summer. But the kids are back in school, the days are starting to get noticeably shorter, and Labor Day marks the traditional dividing line between the seasons.

Psychologically, anyway.

Many of today’s news items still seem like summer stories, with headlines like “naked man charged in homicide,” and “legal deal in the works for killers of pet guinea pig.”

Our national obsession with all Trump, all the time has blocked out most other political news, but there is one item that to me illustrates everything wrong with term limits.

This may strike you as silly, but a little, relatively insignificant thing happened today that put a lump in my throat.

It has to do with The Newspaper Association of America, the group that has represented major newspaper publishers since Grover Cleveland was in the White House.

I was never part of that group, which is mainly for newspaper owners, not ink-stained writers and editors, my tribe back in the day. We moaned and complained about publishers, often because we saw them as skinflints who wouldn’t pay us what we thought we were worth.

I am sorry I didn’t go to downtown Detroit yesterday morning for the annual Labor Day parade. Bill Clinton showed up in a casual shirt, and walked for a mile mingling with regular folks as well as politicians.

I didn’t need to see the former president, however; been there; done that.

Now, I wish I had gone to pay tribute to the men and women who struggled, suffered and sometimes died to give us the weekend, not to mention, paid vacations.


Update 1:55 p.m.:

Attorney General BIll Schuette has filed an emergency application for a stay with the U.S. Supreme Court to stop straight-ticket voting from being allowed in Michigan.

Original post:

Well, it now seems almost certain that on November 8th, Michigan voters will be able to fill in one little oval and cast what’s called a straight-ticket vote for a political party’s entire list of candidates for all offices.


Perhaps the most horrific story of the summer was the Detroit News’s revelations of unsanitary conditions at the now for-profit group of hospitals known as the Detroit Medical Center.

These included dirty instruments, old blood and bone fragments in tubes that were being used for a baby’s operation and other similar horrors.

That was more than bad enough. But a group of mental health advocates are now concerned that the Snyder Administration wants to partly or totally privatize mental health services.


The greatest scandal in American political history was, of course, Watergate. Reporters began investigating corruption in the Nixon Administration.

Congressional committees and the courts got involved, and the existence of a secret White House taping system was eventually discovered. Finally, the tapes provided absolute proof of Richard Nixon’s criminality.

There are those who think that Governor Rick Snyder has been made to bear too much of the blame for the mess in Flint.

There may be some truth in that.

The governor certainly didn’t set out to poison the water, though, as Harry Truman said the buck stops on the desk of the top man.

But there is an area where the governor may not have gotten enough criticism – and that is some of his policy choices in public education. The worst of these may be the Education Achievement Authority, or the EAA.

It was supposed to “fix” Detroit’s worst-performing schools.

Michigan Democrats and Republicans held their state conventions last weekend, mainly to nominate candidates for the education boards.

That includes the state board of education, plus two seats each for the three major universities – Wayne State, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan.

When I was three years old, a little girl in my neighborhood was snatched off the street, raped and murdered. Her body was found a week later in a garbage dump, and the crime never solved.

This traumatized my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong fear of child molesters. It took about half a century before I stopped being frightened whenever a car pulled up next to me.

Donald Trump is coming to Michigan again early next month, this time specifically to court black voters in Detroit. My guess is that the Clinton campaign is thrilled by this.

In fact, they probably wish Trump would spend every day until November 8 in Detroit. If he did so, and managed to make some connections with black Detroiters, he might manage to lift his level of support in that community to maybe four percent.

I met a former student of mine for an early lunch Tuesday, in a little café in the bustling, cosmopolitan suburb of West Bloomfield. Anasie Tayyen has three children, who are seven, nine and 12, and has her hands full running after them and managing her pediatrician husband’s office.

But she now realizes she was also meant to be a writer.

Last week, she had a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post, called “The Olympics Chased the Bogeyman Away.” It begins with these lines:

"Being Muslim in America has been anything but easy this past year. The presidential election has been particularly hard on many Muslim-American children’s psychological well-being."

I heard over the weekend from a retired night city editor from an Ohio newspaper who sent me an article from the New York Post about media bias and the presidential election.

He, and the authors of the article, believe the mainstream media is outrageously in favor of Hillary Clinton. Not that the old editor was especially a Donald Trump supporter.

“There’s never been an election with two less-qualified candidates,” he said, but added, “but that still doesn’t give journalists the right to choose sides so blatantly.”

Perhaps the ultimate political nightmare scenario has been the specter of a stolen election, especially a presidential election. This is not something candidates have tended to talk about, mainly for good and responsible reasons.

Democracy, to a large extent, depends on trust. If citizens were to believe that their votes won’t be honestly counted, that could be an enormous destabilizing influence. That’s not something members of any party in a stable democracy normally want.


Donald Trump is bringing his chaotic presidential campaign to Michigan today, for the second time in two weeks. He is going to speak to a rally at a sports arena in Dimondale, a little outside Lansing, about five this afternoon.

And this morning, I realized something, which was that I don’t much care.

I have had more than enough of this endless campaign.


Democratic chances of finally winning a majority in the Michigan House of Representatives got a lot stronger Wednesday. Republican chances of winning new seats on the state board of education got considerably weaker.

And that’s because a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously denied a Republican request to reinstate the law that prevents voters from casting a straight ticket ballot. 

I’ve been covering politics for a long time, and inevitably, in every election year, amid the high drama and low insults, something happens that is just plain silly.

This year, as you may have noticed, has not been a typical presidential election in any way, shape or form. But what you might call the "Trumpville Follies" is not the only contender for what you might call the "Eugene Ionesco Prize for Best Real Example of the Theater of the Absurd."

Mike Flanagan retired voluntarily a year ago, after ten years as state superintendent of public instruction, a job often referred to as state superintendent of schools.

That he lasted so long and retired of his own accord is more remarkable than it may seem. Most of his immediate predecessors were fired by the state board of education.

Twenty years ago, before he was finally sent to prison, I asked Dr. Jack Kevorkian whether he thought physician-assisted suicide would ever be legal throughout America.

He told me yes, but not for the right reasons.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You are a baby boomer,” he said. “There’s 75 million of you. There are only about 17 million in the next generation. Do you think they are going to spend all their money to keep you hooked up to machines? They’ll make (assisted suicide) a sacrament!”

There was a fair amount of presidential excitement in the Detroit area this week, because both major party nominees came to campaign here just a few days and a few miles apart.

Once, this wouldn’t have seemed unusual. Back at the turn of the century, 16 long years ago, Michigan was seen as one of the three most important states in the nation.

A year or so ago, one of my students saw me talking with Kathleen Straus, a longtime member of the state board of education.

Later, he asked me who she was. When I told him, he said he hadn’t known there was such a board and asked me what they did.

I certainly haven’t been thrilled with the moral leadership shown by the leaders of the Michigan Democratic Party. None called for former State Senator Virgil Smith’s resignation after he shot up his ex-wife’s car on a residential street.

That was last year, and Smith is finally in jail now. Nor did any leading Democrats call on voters to reject another embarrassing creature, State Representative Brian Banks, who won a primary last week despite having been convicted of eight felonies.

Donald Trump started his week off by coming to Motown and delivering a traditional Republican speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the spiritual home of successful old-school businessmen.

I wasn’t there, though I later read the speech and watched a portion of it on one of my perpetually glowing glass screens. My first thought was that the media and hard-core fans of the raw Donald had to be disappointed. Trump behaved pretty much like a normal conservative candidate for President.

William Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, and a man who has the Republican Party woven into his DNA, is announcing today his choice for President.

He will vote for Hillary Clinton. There are those who have said for years that Milliken is no longer a real Republican. They have called him a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

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