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

Right after New Year’s Day I attempted to argue that it was too early to be asking voters to start thinking about who they wanted to support and vote for in next year’s elections.

After all, we are still recovering from last year’s endless campaign. But it’s clear I was howling into an unstoppable hurricane. Not only do I get daily notifications that this candidate or that is running for the legislature in November, 2018, I already am detecting the first embryonic stirrings among Democrats, such as Elizabeth Warren, who are starting to test Presidential waters for 2020.

Adrian Clark / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

Unless you spent yesterday in a salt mine, you know that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill radically altering the Affordable Care Act.

If you don’t know exactly what’s in this bill, or how it would affect you, you are not alone. Neither did virtually any of the members of congress, all of them Republicans, who voted for this bill, which they are calling the American Health Care Act.

Half a century ago, we were a nation split more along news anchor lines than party lines. Some of us got our news from Walter Cronkite, some from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Viewers made choices, but not really along party lines. The anchors were supposed to be essentially neutral, which is why it was such a big deal when Cronkite told America that in his opinion, the Vietnam War was a failure.

I sat down the other morning with Gary Peters, Michigan’s junior U.S. Senator, to get his take on what’s happening in Washington and how that’s playing out here.

Peters is beginning his third year in the Senate; in 2014, during a historic Republican congressional landslide, he was the only Democrat in the nation to win an open seat, when he was elected to replace Carl Levin. Historically, the first term is crucial for U.S. Senators from Michigan; if they are not defeated when they first run for reelection, they tend to stay for decades.

people in voting booths
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Last night (May 2) voters in Ann Arbor and Kent County approved funding for schools. Two proposals that would have allowed the construction of wind farms spanning several townships in Huron County were defeated.

Back when I was in junior high school, one of my classmates announced one April 30th that he had decided to become a Communist. This was not a very popular political choice in the Detroit suburbs in 1964, and our shocked social studies teacher asked why.

Well, little Richard said, we had learned that May Day was an international Communist holiday, and he wanted the day off. The teacher said nice try, but as long as we were operating under our Constitution, even Communists were expected to show up for school.

Three days ago, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission asked the highest court in the land to decide whether our state’s emergency manager law is unconstitutional.

Specifically, the issue is whether the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act by lessening the voting power of minorities. Nearly all the cities and school districts where emergency managers have been appointed had black majority populations.

Saving Lake Erie

Apr 27, 2017
A cyanobacterial bloom on Lake Erie in 2013.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

There’s a little-noticed battle going on across the region to save Lake Erie. Now, I know this story can’t possibly compare in interest or importance to a bunch of football players visiting Rome, or which politician might run for something next year.

Flint water crisis protest
steve carmody / Michigan Radio

This week, my colleagues at Michigan Radio have done an amazing package of stories to mark the third anniversary of the Flint water crisis. If you didn’t have a chance to hear them, I recommend you go read and listen.

Even if you’ve heard them, they are worth hearing again. In journalism, the very first sentence in a story is called the lede. And for sheer eloquence and simplicity, it would be hard to improve on the way Lindsey Smith began her story Tuesday: Three years ago today, Flint switched the source of its drinking water, and triggered a public health crisis.

University of Michigan Professor Rosina Bierbaum says scandals like Flint's water crisis have eroded public trust in the safety of drinking water
Courtesy of Raiz Up

Three years ago this week, officials switched Flint's water source to the Flint River, sparking the water crisis there. The river wasn't properly treated, and began corroding lead water pipes, which then leached lead into the drinking water.

Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry talks to Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about why it took the city so long to listen to residents' concerns. 

kids at computers
U.S. Department of Education

When I was a child, there was this widespread quaint notion that children ought to attend the public schools where they lived. Except for a few kids that went to Catholic schools, and one who won a scholarship to Cranbrook, everybody did.

Well, it’s now all but official: Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley is running for governor next year. Running, that is, to try to win the Republican primary in August 2018.

He’s posted a video of a “countdown clock” on his website, and appears to be marching towards a formal announcement of his candidacy on May 30, during the Mackinac Policy Conference when the state’s political, business and media leaders get together.

By all appearances, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof likes wielding power. He’s been in the Michigan Legislature for a decade, and he has been a strong, if controversial, leader of the Senate for more than two years now.

But in little more than a year and a half, his political career will be over—probably forever. Term limits mean he won’t be able to run for re-election to the state Senate.


There’s a belief in some quarters that Detroit does not appreciate its history. The city, which was really a large town before they started making cars a century ago, exploded in size, going from fewer than 300,000 to 1.6 million people in 30 years.

Detroit Public Schools Community District sign
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Detroit Public Schools Community District school board has chosen Nikolai Vitti as its first permanent superintendent. Vitti grew up in Dearborn Heights and is currently the superintendent in Duval County, Florida.

Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss what the district's new pick means for Detroit schools. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Long ago, way back in, say, the 1980s, there was something quaint about most elections in this country: Candidates did not actually begin running until the year of the election itself. We hold primaries in August and general elections in November, and it was thought that if you declared your candidacy in January, say, that would give you enough time to persuade voters.

I have to admit I was surprised four years ago when Tom Watkins was appointed head of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. When I first knew him, Watkins was state superintendent of schools. That is, until Governor Jennifer Granholm pressed to have him fired for questioning some of her policies.

Two summers ago, something happened that gave parents nightmares throughout the Detroit area. A 20-year-old camp counselor at a Jewish community center was discovered to have been secretly photographing little boys naked and posting them on a Russian child porn website.

He also had written vivid fantasy descriptions of doing things to them, though a massive investigation turned up no evidence that he had ever touched a child.

I’ve never met Chris Campbell, an attorney in Traverse City, but I’ve gotten thoughtful emails from him many times over the years. Mr. Campbell, who grew up in Bay City, loves this state. 

user southerfried / morguefile

You have to feel bad for Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a good and decent man who has the thankless task of heading a party so small it is more like a faction.

Empty classroom
Motown31 / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hundreds of Detroit parents angered by school closure threats are having their kids opt out of the state's M-STEP test. They say the standardized tests are used to justify closures. 

I once saw former State Representative Todd Courser expound on how the welfare state was bad and people needed to take personal responsibility for their lives. Cindy Gamrat, his fellow representative, political soulmate and secret mistress, was nodding vigorously.

Complaining about mythical welfare queens and other so-called predatory poor people is pretty much standard fare for the right wing, and has been, to a greater or lesser degree, since the New Deal.

Less than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump launched his latest Twitter attack on the nation’s most important newspaper, the New York Times. 

I was listening to one of the dumber stories of the week Thursday, about a Twitter squabble between two Republicans, a White House staffer and Congressman Justin Amash.

State Representative Tom Cochran, a Democrat from the Lansing suburb of Mason, has introduced a “Death with Dignity” act to allow terminally ill people to ask for medication to end their lives. His bill is well-crafted to safeguard against abuses.

Wikimedia Commons

For a few years, we were constantly hearing about how terrible Michigan’s roads were–and how the legislature kept ignoring citizens’ pleas to fix them.

Then, a couple of years ago, lawmakers did enact what was billed as a road repair package. It doesn’t start providing any new money until this year, but four years from now, it's supposed to generate something like $1.2 billion a year to fix the roads.

Lansing City Hall building
Michigan State Historic Preservation Office / Flickr

Lansing City Council officially designated itself a "sanctuary city." That move follows the Ann Arbor City Council's decision to not have police or city employees ask people about their immigration status. The Trump administration says "sanctuary cities" could lose their federal funding. Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether that would impact the two communities.

Forty-four years ago, in another early spring, a young lawyer went to the President of the United States and told him, “There's no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we've got. We have a cancer within -- close to the presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”

User: Nheyob / Wikimedia Commons

State Senator Patrick Colbeck of Canton is sometimes referred to as the “most conservative” or “furthest right” member of the legislature.

More than twenty years ago, the late Texas Governor Ann Richards addressed the annual Gridron Dinner in Washington, a high-society affair where the nation’s top journalists mingle with politicians and Hollywood celebrities.