Jack Lessenberry

I was asked a thoughtful question this weekend by a listener named Paul Jordan, who agrees that politics in this country seems to be broken and increasingly dysfunctional. So he wonders: If this is in fact true, why do we get only two choices – meaning two major party candidates?

“Why does it seem that we can only vote for Coke or Pepsi? What if we don’t like cola anymore?” He noted that there are other candidates on the ballot, candidates mostly ignored by the media.

And he asked the classic chicken-and-egg question: “Are they minor candidates because they are ignored by the media, or does the media ignore them because they are minor candidates?”

Well, the answer to that question is yes. Both things are true. Now, classic mainstream media usually don’t ignore third parties entirely. Newspapers often do one obligatory story where they survey the minor candidates and report on their views. But they don’t get much attention because they aren’t seen as a serious threat to win.

Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yesterday I talked about Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who is running a write-in campaign to try to keep his seat after losing the Republican primary to David Trott. Bentivolio, who represents a collection of Oakland and Wayne County suburbs from Birmingham to Livonia, told me there was an unwritten rule, at least among Republicans, that you don’t challenge a congressman of your own party in a primary.

That is, as long as that congressman is doing a decent job. However, as I pointed out to Bentivolio, he did just that two years ago; he filed to run against Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

McCotter later self-destructed and was disqualified from the ballot, but Bentivolio didn’t know that would happen when he filed.

He then told me why he did it. Bentivolio, a Vietnam veteran who is now 63, volunteered to serve in Iraq. His neck was broken, and he had to be evacuated.

Kerry Bentivolio wants you to know that much of what you’ve heard about him is wrong.

For the last two years, the media has called him the “accidental congressman.” He prefers, unexpected congressman.

He got to Washington after winning the Republican nomination in his suburban Detroit district when the incumbent, Thaddeus McCotter, was tossed off the primary ballot for fraudulent petition signatures. The GOP establishment recruited a former state senator to run a write-in campaign against him in the primary. She lost badly, and Bentivolio went on to win in November.

But this year, he in turn was defeated in the Republican primary by attorney and mortgage foreclosure king David Trott. But Bentivolio is running a full-press write-in campaign to try and keep his job.

Bentivolio has a reputation for not talking to the media, so I was surprised when he called me out of the blue yesterday afternoon. He was genial, warm and witty.

Basically, he feels that Trott and the GOP establishment stabbed him in the back, have worked for two years to ruin his reputation, and he isn’t going to take it anymore.

Yesterday, the most widely read newspaper in Michigan wrote this about Rick Snyder:

“The governor’s record of protecting Michigan’s natural assets is pretty sorry, and represents a misguided attempt to placate free-market forces at any cost.”

The Detroit Free Press added:

“When it comes to education, Snyder just doesn’t seem to get it,” and added “Michigan, during Snyder’s tenure, has become a less tolerant state, with more restrictions on reproductive rights and fewer labor protections.”

They said that the governor’s “self-fashioned profile as a champion of transparency has become a joke,” and that Snyder resists taking principled stances, something that the newspaper said “spoke volumes about his character.”

Harsh words. But now here’s the shocking part: The newspaper then endorsed Snyder’s reelection!

They did this because they said in spite of all that, the governor had shown leadership skills, and felt Democrat Mark Schauer had failed to show he could lead anywhere.

On Tuesday, The Detroit Free Press came out with a poll showing Gov. Rick Snyder eight points ahead of his challenger, Mark Schauer. That was the widest margin we’ve seen in a while. Most polls have had it much closer.

But within a day after that poll, news stories started matter-of-factly referring to the “fact” that Snyder was eight points ahead, as if these were actual, counted votes, or bushels of grain.

The sheer silliness of that wouldn’t matter much, except that polls drive pretty much everything in a campaign these days: Nobody wants to give money to a loser. Nobody wants to stand in line in the rain to vote for one, either. Polls can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

I seldom laugh out loud at anything I read, but I did at story in the Detroit News yesterday. The headline said: Snyder: Michigan has 1,000 isolation beds for Ebola. That’s all the proof I needed that, sure enough, we are all going to die. But before you put on your hazmat suit to walk the dog, I want to let you in on a little secret. 

We are indeed all going to die, but not of Ebola. I am frightened of many things, but I am not worried about Ebola in the least. If over the air gambling was legal, I’d happily bet anyone that nobody in Michigan is going to die of Ebola, ever. That is, unless they go to West Africa and come in contact with the body fluids of an infected person, and I’m not planning on that this weekend.

However, there is something that is hazardous to our emotional and mental health, and that is the appearance of any frightening disease close to an election.

For more than a century now, Detroit has been the Motor City: Home of the auto industry; the place that put the world on wheels.

You know that. You also probably know that as a result, Detroit utterly failed to build any kind of decent mass transit.

Other, that is, than a system of badly serviced city buses that don’t even coordinate with the suburban ones. The city is paying for that now, as thousands of adults who lack cars have no easy way to get to jobs in the suburbs. Belatedly, there are efforts to get a rapid transit bus system. There’s also the M1 light-rail project in the city, but these are partial solutions at best.

Michael Ryan is like a lot of us. He doesn’t think the health care system works very well, and as a self-employed dentist, he should know. He has problems with the Affordable Care Act. He thinks it needs to be a lot simpler and have better cost controls.

But he isn’t happy with the Republican failure to come up with any alternative, either. What makes Ryan different, however, is that he is a Republican, and is running for the state Legislature. You’ve probably never heard of him, but don’t feel bad.

Many people in his district haven’t, either. And here’s why I admire this man: Ryan, who has a wife and four kids, married relatively late in life, and is not wealthy.

He’s put his heart, soul and about $4,000 into this race. He’s talking about the issues, going door to door. But what’s most remarkable is that he knows he has little chance to win. He’s the Republican nominee in the 27th District.

That’s a collection of Detroit suburbs that are heavily Democratic – the Jewish and black city of Oak Park; liberal Ferndale and Huntington Woods; blue-collar Berkley and Hazel Park.

Two years ago, the last GOP nominee here lost almost four to one. There’s no incumbent this year, but the Democratic nominee, Robert Wittenberg, is seen as an automatic winner. But Mike Ryan thinks the people deserve a choice.

He’s anything but rigid, ideological and doctrinaire. Even his campaign literature admits he doesn’t always vote Republican. “Being exposed to my wife’s even more independent voting patterns forces me to think about how public laws affect ordinary people.”

When it comes to health care, what he would like to do is have Michigan come up with its own system. He would fund it partly by raising the sales tax. But he is open to suggestions. “That’s how you get somewhere, you know?” he told me.

When you look back at the long history of Detroit, yesterday may not have been quite as significant as July 24, 1701.

That was the day Cadillac and his men beached their canoes, scrambled up the riverbank near where the Cobo Center now stands, and started building a fort. But yesterday comes somewhat close.

Yesterday was the day the last major holdout creditor came to terms with the city, in a way that should help improve the city’s chances to make it after the bankruptcy process ends.

This also seems to remove the last threat facing the Detroit Institute of Arts. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company will get the land where Joe Louis Arena now sits, the place where the Red Wings play and where, 34 years ago, I saw Ronald Reagan nominated for President. Eventually, when a new hockey arena opens, this will be torn down and a gleaming new luxury riverfront hotel built here, surrounded by condos and some new retail.

Almost two years ago, I spoke to a group called CRAM, the County Road Association of Michigan. These are the folks who maintain Michigan’s streets and highways, both urban and rural.

I found these folks mainly had frustrating professional lives, trying to do too much with too few resources and being blamed for problems they weren’t being given enough money to fix.

Yesterday, however, some pundits may have been startled when their political action group, RUSH-PAC, announced it was endorsing Gov. Rick Snyder for re-election. That may surprise some because though the governor did announce a plan to raise revenue for the roads, he’s failed to get it through the Legislature.

papierdreams / Flickr

Election Day is just under a month away.

But Michigan Radio political commentator Jack Lessenberry has already voted – at his kitchen table, with an absentee ballot.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee irritated many Michigan Democrats when they canceled plans to buy advertising in four congressional races. These are seats now held by Republicans, but where Democrats believed that with hard work and strong candidates, they had a chance at an upset. Some think they still do.

However, national Democratic strategists made the purely political calculation that with dozens of seats on the line, their money would be better invested elsewhere. But there’s another seat that virtually no one thought would be in play, but which suddenly looks like the surprise sleeper race of 2014.

More than a year ago, a man told me I should get to know Paul Clements, who he said was going to beat Congressman Fred Upton in the Sixth Congressional District, which is based in Kalamazoo.

Twenty years ago, radio in Michigan was dominated by WJR-AM, which had the strongest signal around. You could get it nearly anywhere in the state. The station’s signature personality was the legendary J.P. McCarthy, who was an amazing interviewer.

Politically, I suspect he was conservative, but it was hard to tell; he interviewed politicians of all flavors with decency, courtesy and wit. But then, J.P. suddenly died.

Today, he has been succeeded by the sort of ideological slashers who have given talk radio a bad name.

If you love the Detroit Institute of Arts, and supported the “Grand Bargain” to save it, then you should be grateful that what surfaced this week wasn’t known a few months ago.

Specifically, the whopping raises and bonuses paid to Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, and Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Two years ago, Beal, whose compensation is over half a million dollars a year, got a 13% raise. Erickson, who got a promotion and new responsibilities, got a 36% raise.

My guess is that Jerry Cannon is pretty upset today, and so are Pam Byrnes, Eric Schertzing and Bobby McKenzie.

They are all Democratic candidates for Congress in Michigan. They’ve been working their tails off for months trying to make some headway, three of them against Republican incumbents.

Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and former Kalkaska sheriff, was heavily recruited for the race by Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair. McKenzie, an anti-terrorism expert, and gave up a good job with the state department to come back and run.

There’s an old saying I know you’ve heard: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin said that, by the way. He was a shrewd old cynic who I think would be much more at home in the world today than the other founding fathers.

And I’d also guess Old Ben wouldn’t be surprised to know that his death-and-taxes maxim was, like most things, only about half right. Death remains certain, even if we don’t know where or when. But there is very little certain about taxes.

Oh, we are certain to be taxed, in one form or another. Which is a good thing, if you like clean water, fire departments and schools.

But who pays and who should pay the taxes?

What we should be asking is: How high should taxes be? How do you set tax rates to give us the services we need and help the economy grow? To me, those are terribly important questions.Well, we now have some answers.

Well, the election is officially four weeks away, but not for me. I voted yesterday morning, in the best place possible, at my kitchen table.

I can legally do this, because I am more than 60 years old. If you reach that age, you qualify to be sent an absentee ballot through the mail, every election.

I won’t tell you for whom I voted, but I will tell you this: We’d be a better democracy if everyone could vote this way, if everyone got a ballot in the mail, took the time to study it, and then mailed it in.

Or as I do, drop it off at city hall.

Almost 30 years ago, I was national editor of the Detroit News, which was then the largest-circulation paper in Michigan.

The newspaper was then locked in a competitive struggle with the Detroit Free Press, and each was trying to put the other out of business. They had the novel idea that not only low prices but high quality was the way to win, and they did a lot of excellent journalism.

Back then, in the days before the World Wide Web, both newspapers sold well over 600,000 copies every day. On Sundays, their combined circulation was more than a million and a half. You could subscribe to either paper anywhere in the state.

Michigan is an unusual state politically. Republicans have controlled the state Senate for more than 30 years, and now solidly hold the lower House as well.

We’ve had Republican governors more often than not. But the last time Michigan voted Republican for president, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented and the Soviet Union was still going strong.

And Democrats have utterly dominated our U.S. Senate races. Republicans have won just once in the last 42 years. This year, Michigan had a rare open seat, thanks to the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. GOP hopes of finally breaking through were strong.

But … maybe not.

They ended up with a candidate who seems allergic to the normal processes of campaigning. After what seems to have been a traumatic experience on Mackinac Island in May, Terri Lynn Land has avoided reporters, ignoring all interview requests, except from a few sympathetic conservatives in carefully controlled situations.

Nor has Land campaigned openly much. She sometimes shows up for parades or other events, but usually doesn’t announce her schedule in advance. Instead, she seems to be relying on a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign.

If you are following the campaign for governor you really aren’t normal. Yes, you heard me correctly. The media, me included, has been writing more and more about the campaign.

Not just for governor, but for the Senate and various other races. Today, the Detroit Free Press’s headline trumpets: “With vote just weeks away, Snyder builds lead.”

That’s written as if it were describing something tangible and real, like “new mountain discovered in Brazil.” In fact, that story is based on a poll the newspaper and a TV station paid for.

The data is based on a mere 600 people and shows 45% percent favored Rick Snyder; 39% percent favored Mark Schauer.

That’s pretty close to the margin of error.

Nevertheless, Bernie Porn, the man whose firm did the polling said authoritatively, “Snyder went up with his advertising campaign and it’s made a significant difference in the race.”

But, as if conscious that nobody likes a play whose ending is revealed in the first act, Porn added, “Even with Snyder’s lead, it is certainly not too late for Schauer to turn things around.”

In other words, it’s the Belmont Stakes and the horses are just coming into the backstretch. However, I have news for us political junkies. Far more people are like the server at the cheap restaurant where I had lunch yesterday.

When I asked him about the governor’s race, he said “Is that this year?” He also thought he was a registered voter, but wasn’t quite sure. Well, I don’t need Bernie Porn to tell me how that guy’s going to vote: He’s not. In fact, most registered voters aren’t going to  vote.

Pretty much every major political campaign develops a certain weirdness of its own. Some more than others.

There was Howard Wolpe, who ran for governor of Michigan by talking a lot about South Africa. And now we have the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land. You might think that there was a modern-day state or national issue or two worth worrying about, like jobs or education or ISIS.

But forget all that. For the past couple days, the candidates have been squabbling over what in economic terms is ancient history. Specifically, the so-called bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, and whether Land would have supported it.

What makes this weirder is that one of the candidates is only arguing about it by proxy. Land doesn’t talk to reporters or interviewers and so far hasn’t consented to debate her rival.

I once knew an opinion pollster who told me he could usually determine how anyone was going to vote without ever asking who they were going to vote for.

He did this by asking a series of litmus-test type questions about someone’s life, background and beliefs.

If you were a single mom with limited income, for example, that probably indicated you were a Democrat – unless you were a fundamentalist Christian. White professional male with a six-figure income?  Likely Republican if in business, for example. But probably not if he is a nonreligious professor.

If you follow politics in this state, you probably know that John Dingell has served longer in Congress than anyone in American history.

You also probably know he is retiring at the end of this term, and that his wife Debbie is the Democratic nominee to succeed him. And given the realities of politics, it is absolutely as certain as anything can be that she will win.

Mrs. Dingell – she uses Mrs., by the way – would not want me to say that. Neither would her main opponent, Terry Bowman, a blue-collar Republican auto worker.

Yesterday Detroit’s City Council made a decision so sane, sensible and rational it may have left some flabbergasted.

The council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected leadership.

But at the same time, emergency manager Kevyn Orr will remain on the job for issues having to do with Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy case. That trial is still going on in federal court in Detroit, proceedings that may continue three more weeks.

Two months ago, I told the story of a Vietnam veterans’ group in Detroit that has been fighting for recognition for all veterans of all wars for years. Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9, has been a force in Detroit for many years.

They have reached out to help homeless and messed-up veterans. They got an annual Veterans Day parade started again. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve let veterans of our newer conflicts know they were appreciated and welcomed.

They’ve also had a dream. They’ve wanted to build a Veterans memorial park open to anyone, which would commemorate all of America’s conflicts. I’ve seen the design; it is not overly militaristic, it doesn’t glorify combat. It mostly tells the story of our nation’s military history, and honors those who helped make freedom possible.

But for years, the veterans have been shown little respect by the city of Detroit. Originally, they wanted to build their park in a large vacant lot on Woodward Avenue, and at least one mayor told them that would be fine. The veterans cleaned it up, drove off the junkies, paid an architect to design a plan.

Then another mayor gave it to his buddies to park cars on instead. Later, Detroit City Council told the veterans they should consider Gabriel Richard Park on the Detroit River.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.
Photo courtesy of Richardville's office

There's been talk in Lansing about whether term limits should be extended, and that talk is heating up. 

Michigan voters approved term limits for state lawmakers back in 1992, but Republican Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville thinks maybe it's time they are extended.

Richardville says Michigan has the most restrictive term limits in the country. Other states have either rescinded or eased term limits and, he believes Michigan should review the legislation as well.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst, and he says term limits have been an unmitigated disaster. 

Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy held a press conference to announce that our state is a disgrace when it comes to child care.

They didn’t say it that way, but I will.

What the nonpartisan league actually said was:

“Michigan’s child care program falls far short in ensuring high-quality child care.”

We are living in an age when more parents than ever need to work, and our politicians demand they work. And we are making it harder and harder for them to do so.

Over the last 10 years, Michigan has cut 70% of the funding for subsidized child care.

Back in 2005, before the Great Recession, 65,000 low-income parents got child care help from the state so that they could keep working.

Many more are in trouble now, but we only help a third as many.

Forget human compassion; from purely a business standpoint, this makes no sense.

To quote the league:

“Access to safe, stable and high-quality child care reduces employee absenteeism and turnover and improves businesses’ bottom line.”

We can say two things about the race for governor today: Mark Schauer and Rick Snyder are essentially tied in the polls. And it looks like we may not have a single televised debate.

The last time that happened was 16 years ago, when John Engler refused to debate Geoffrey Fieger. There was a certain logic to that.

Fieger was going around saying that the governor was a “corn-fed bowser,” and declared he would not accept that Engler was the father of his triplets unless they had corkscrew tails.

That was not a normal campaign. But this one is, and the voters have a lot at stake. This time, the challenger wants debates and the incumbent doesn’t.

Conventional wisdom says that’s because the governor doesn’t want to make it seem like his opponent is his equal, or because it is always harder to defend a record than attack one.

That may be. But it is also possible that Republicans are wasting a golden opportunity to put the challenger on the defensive. Here’s why.

There are two dirty little secrets about journalism most people don’t realize. One is that we assume that the good is normal. If you work hard, are not flamboyant, take care of your business and don’t kill your family, you may well live happily ignored by the media.

Same goes for your community, if it is solvent and your elected officials aren’t stealing or worse.

While great breakthroughs in science or human achievement do get recognized, news tends to be about system or human failures, which is one of the reasons journalists tend to be unpopular.

We come to show you that the mayor is a crook, the legislature incompetent, your schools are failing to educate "Susie," that your city is bankrupt and the water polluted.

Something happened in the auto industry recently that was mostly overlooked by the mainstream media – but which may have huge implications for the industry and the United Auto Workers union.  

Seven years ago, the UAW made a concession that I am convinced would have had Walter Reuther spinning in his grave.

They agreed to accept a two-tier wage system under which most new hires would be paid slightly less than half what long-time auto workers made.

Think about that.

This means most of them are earning less than $30,000 a year.  Can they buy a house with that salary?  Even buy one of the new cars and trucks they build?

You know the answer. Yet the union agreed, because it felt it had no choice.

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