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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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.

Back in the bad old final years of the Soviet Union, when the economy and the infrastructure were falling apart and the government was mostly non-responsive, there was a sour little joke that reminds me of Michigan today.

In the Soviet story, Stalin and Konstantin Chernenko, one of his increasingly ineffectual successors are going across Siberia on a train. Suddenly, it breaks down. There are, of course, no spare parts.

If you’ve turned on any TV news channel today, my guess is that you saw experts talking about the meaning of the Iowa caucuses.

I watched more of that than I intended to, and discovered that the single best assessment did not come from one of the glamorous talking heads, but from a former congressman who is going to be 90 years old this summer.

Cle0patra / Flickr

(This story was updated at 9:55am on February 2, 2016) 

Michigan's open primary is on March 8th. 

Michigan Radio's senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry stops by Stateside to explore the nuances of  Michigan's 2016 primary with host Cynthia Canty.

Lessenberry thinks Michigan could play a major role in choosing the presidential nominees of one, or both parties this year. Others agree, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, which this weekend called for adding a Democratic debate with Senator Bernie Sanders in Flint just ahead of the primary. 

If anyone doubts the danger of not appropriately considering environmental hazards, they need only to consider Flint.

To try to save a little money, the state allowed thousands of people to be poisoned, with consequences that will cost us far more in money, let alone human tragedy, than continuing to spend a little more for clean water would have.

Forty-odd years ago, when I was in college, I worked in factories and warehouses, and there was a sign I saw posted in at least one of them:

“Fix the problem, not the blame.”

That was a good idea then, and still is now. Unfortunately, the Flint water crisis seems to have entered a new unhealthy phase that involves the exact opposite.

America always has been, as most of us learned in elementary school, a land of immigrants. Officially, we’ve welcomed them with open arms, since virtually all our ancestors came to this land at some point in the last 500 years, voluntarily or otherwise.

That’s the bright side of our legacy.

The dark side is that once our ancestors got here, they too often wanted to keep any more immigrants from coming, especially from ethnic groups different from theirs. 

Back in 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools, the old “separate but equal” notion, was unconstitutional.

 Now what would have happened if after that ruling, some state attorney general in Mississippi had argued: “Well, we understand that applies to the future, but we’ve got some schools that were segregated before that ruling, and they should stay that way.”

No matter how bad you might have thought the state messed up Flint, the reality is worse. Yesterday, a flood of revelations made that shockingly clear.

Ten months ago, a consultant for the city recommended adding corrosion control chemicals to the water, because it was causing metal to leach out of the pipes. Apparently the governor, who is setting a new standard for clueless, never saw it, and Jerry Ambrose, then one of Flint’s revolving door emergency managers, ignored it.

It’s now clear that the crisis that is Flint is going to go on and on. Yesterday’s release of a large batch of the governor’s e-mails restarted the blame game – and as anyone who knows history could have predicted, brought demands for even more emails.

Think “White House tapes” and Watergate. Meanwhile, President Obama dropped by Detroit yesterday, exactly a year to the day before he leaves office.

Now what in Flint?

Jan 20, 2016

You may think this bizarre, but towards the end of Gov. Rick Snyder’s emotional State of the State speech. what popped into my mind was a scene from the epic movie Braveheart.

William Wallace, the medieval Scottish hero, has just eloquently rallied his men to take on a vastly superior British army.

“Fine speech,” one of his lieutenants said. “Now what?”

The governor’s future, as well as that of Flint, will be determined by the “now what,” of this crisis. In the movie, the hero tells his men “Just be yourselves.”

Every year the governor of Michigan gives an annual State of the State address, modeled after the State of the Union given by the President of the United States.

Usually these are much ballyhooed, televised, and instantly forgotten. Do you remember what either President Obama or Governor Snyder said last year?

For years, there has been a huge contrast in this state between election outcomes on the state as opposed to the federal level. Republicans haven’t carried Michigan for a presidential nominee since before the Berlin Wall came down.

They have won only a single U.S. Senate race in the last 44 years. But they dominate every branch of state government.

If this were the nineteenth century, people would compare life in Flint to the troubles of Job, the Old Testament hero who God allows to be tortured by the devil to test his faith.

We don’t use Biblical allusions as much as we used to, but there’s no question that for Flint, the agony just keeps increasing. Actually, it’s more correct to say that we keep discovering more about what’s been happening.

Flash back to Friday, June 24, 1972. President Richard Nixon goes on national television to apologize to the nation for the break-in and attempted bugging at the Democratic National Headquarters a week before.

“I had no knowledge of this in advance, and am totally appalled that people working for me would do such a thing,” he said. 

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.