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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Hillsdale County is, in many ways, a flashback to the America that used to be, a place of rolling hills and pleasant little towns and farms and orchards along the Ohio border.

It was settled by New Englanders, and to this day, most of its forty-six thousand people are of either English or German descent. People born there tend to spend their lives there.

Republicans around this state woke up this morning to a double-barreled nightmare. The biggest is national. Last night, Donald Trump stood on a stage in Cleveland and essentially threatened to run a third-party campaign if he doesn’t get the presidential nomination.

If he does that, whomever the Democrats nominate is almost certain to win. The first George Bush would have been reelected in 1992 if it wasn’t for Ross Perot splitting the Republican Party, just as Al Gore would have won eight years later without Ralph Nader.

A Trump candidacy could be far worse, so much so that you might well have the official Republican candidate finishing third.

I was intrigued to learn that a Traverse City bookstore was offering refunds to people who had ordered “Go Set a Watchman,” the long-awaited publishing sensation of the summer. The critics are in near-universal agreement that the book, by the author of the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, isn’t very good.

When the news broke yesterday that Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski had been fired, I was sitting in a TV studio with Amy Peterson, one of the baseball team’s lawyers.

I didn’t know about Dombrowski, and I wasn’t talking to her about baseball, but about a unique business she’s started that is using art to give disadvantaged women new lives.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss the first female mayor of Grand Rapids, this week's elections,  accusations of racism against Gov. Snyder and Detroit emergency managers, the number of college degrees among Michigan lawmakers.


Years ago, a professor who had contempt for politics asked me if I knew what the difference was between Pavlov’s dogs and most politicians. His answer was: Sometimes when the great Russian behaviorist rang his bell, the dogs failed to salivate.

Being a journalist was in many ways harder when I was working for newspapers in the 1970s and 80s. There was no Google, no World Wide Web, no search engines of any kind.

  We relied on land-line telephones, books, and old newspaper clippings kept in what we called the “morgue.”

The group that oversees what goes on our ballots approved language for three more potential ballot proposals for next year. There’s no guarantee that any or all of these will get enough signatures to be certified for the ballot, of course.


I spent some time yesterday in Mount Clemens talking with Mark Hackel, who four and a half years ago became the first executive Macomb County has ever had. You’d have a hard time finding anyone as enthusiastic about any county anywhere as Hackel is about Macomb.

Four years ago, Marian McClellan was a retired teacher who’d lived for the past quarter century in the small Detroit suburb of Oak Park, just north of the city.

Oak Park’s story was similar to that of many older, so-called inner ring suburbs. It was largely pastures and swamps before World War II. Then, as the freeways came, it exploded. Barely a thousand people lived there in 1945.


For the past week or so, I’ve gotten emails and calls from people who want to know why I won’t help “expose” the evil being done by Planned Parenthood. They say that it has now been definitely proven that the non-profit family planning organization profits off the sale of fetal body parts, which they say Planned Parenthood deliberately harvests in brutal ways.

This has caused sort of a national “primal howl” by conservative and anti-abortion activists, who are demanding Planned Parenthood be defunded or even prosecuted.


Two weeks ago, I reported on a little-known trade conflict between the United States and Canada that could cost Michigan farmers nearly $700 million in retaliatory trade sanctions.

This involves a U.S. law known as COOL, for Country-of-Origin-Labeling. It took effect in 2008, and requires all meat to be labeled with its country of origin.

If you want a practical illustration of why term limits are a bad idea, here’s a good one. Yesterday, Senator Debbie Stabenow managed to engineer a deal to save perhaps $100 million in federal blight funds set aside to help Michigan cities tear down ruined buildings.

Here’s something that we seldom realize, but which incessantly fascinates me. You know that for some time, microbreweries have been all the rage. But in fact, we live in a world full of microcultures, which we like to think are more or less interwoven into whatever passes for mainstream culture.

Wayne County woes

Jul 22, 2015

If you’ve studied biology, you may know about a phenomenon called protective coloration. Snowshoe hares, for example, are brown in the fall and white in the winter, so they can blend into their surroundings and not be easily seen by predators.

Sixty-one years ago, during the height of the Cold War, Americans were terrorized by a burly demagogue named Joe McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy specialized, as you probably remember, in recklessly labeling people Communists, and hauling suspects up before his infamous subcommittee. To be accused of being a Communist in 1954 was roughly equivalent to being identified as a member of ISIS today.

Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers union’s greatest leader, has been dead for forty-five years now, killed in a plane crash outside Pellston, a few years before oil shocks and a flood of foreign imports began to drastically change the industry.

Several years ago, soon after the union agreed to accept a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid less, I asked Doug Fraser, perhaps the last of his successors to know Reuther well, what Walter would have thought about that? I expected he’d say Reuther would be rolling in his grave.

But instead, Fraser said it was impossible to know. We are living in a different world from the one Reuther helped build. And Walter Reuther was adept at adjusting to new realities. When the union agreed to accept a two-tier system eight years ago, they hoped it would create more jobs.

I am, perhaps unfortunately, old enough to remember life in Michigan half a century ago. The Detroit Tigers were a much more exciting team than the current lot, on their way up instead of down, a team whose members actually functioned and played as a team.

Their entire payroll, I believe, was about two percent of what it is today. There was also a statewide spirit of optimism and belief in a better future that is lacking today. Oh, in many ways life was worse then. Twice as many people smoked, and poisonous clouds of tobacco smoke were everywhere, from restaurants to airliners.

There’s now no real doubt that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River will become reality. There are still a few parcels of land to be assembled on the Detroit side, and site preparation work needs to be done.

The Canadians tell me they still think the bridge will be open to the public five years from now. However, this has not stopped Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun from trying to twin or eventually replace his own bridge.

UPDATED AT 1:41 pm ON 7/15/15 

Here’s something President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Snyder have in common: Both were born years after a pipeline to deliver oil was installed under the Straits of Mackinac.

That pipeline, more than four miles of which is actually at the bottom of the lakes, is now 61 years old. Enbridge, the Canadian firm that owns it, pumps as much as 540,000 gallons of oil and liquid natural gas through it every day.

Here’s something I’d like to hear a politician in office say, just once. “My fellow citizens, I screwed up. I made the wrong choice, partly because I was too stubborn to listen to advice.”

“This resulted in bad policy and cost taxpayers money. The fault is mine alone, and I am going to try hard to fix it, and hope I can regain your confidence and your trust.”

Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard about – but which could end up costing Michigan thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in lost trade with Canada.

That certainly wouldn’t be cool – but ironically, what I’m talking about is all about COOL – an acronym standing for County Of Origin Labeling.

Earlier this week, Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of so-called early warning bills he said will help both school districts and the state, in his words,

“to resolve potential financial issues before they become unmanageable.”

Among other things, they require districts which are getting close to the edge financially to begin reporting to the state what their economic situations and budget assumptions are.

I like to kick back and get wild and crazy late at night. For example, one thing I usually do is drink some strong coffee and read a detailed summary of what the legislature did that day. Reading the news from Lansing doesn’t usually make me laugh out loud.

There’s an old saying that we ought to take care of the environment we have, since we can’t get another. This is perhaps especially true of our water.

We’re all lucky enough to live on the Great Lakes, which hold most of the fresh water in the world. You’d think taking care of them would be a top priority, but too often it’s not.

 We’ve had various kinds of pollution scares in the past, and the lakes are now over run with invasive species that clog pipes and frustrate fishermen. We’re still awaiting, and not doing enough to prevent, a dreaded invasion by Asian carp.

401(k) 2013 / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about a new law affecting school districts in trouble, college tuition hikes, a former inmate healthcare snafu, and Michigan veterans.  

Well, as you probably know, the legislature has still done virtually nothing to fix the roads. Once again, the State Senate and House have passed wildly different plans.

The Senate bill is honest enough to include some new revenue, which it would get largely by raising the tax on fuel. But it also calls for cutting Michigan’s already bare-bones general fund by $700 million a year, without saying where the cuts would come from.

It’s clear that our grossly gerrymandered legislature is painfully out of touch with the needs and desires of Michigan citizens.


A few days ago, I went to see Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in his downtown office. I’ve visited a lot of mayors in that office, and generally they have a large picture of their families in the space behind their desk.  Duggan doesn’t.

Instead, he has a picture of the famous civil rights march down Woodward Avenue in 1963, the place where Martin Luther King first gave a version of the “I have a dream,” speech.         

 

Well, with great difficulty, the state senate passed a package of roads bills yesterday. They would raise some new revenue, shift billions over time from other priorities to the roads, and include a complex formula for a possible income tax cut.

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