Jack Lessenberry

Eight years ago, Republicans were smirking with glee. They thought they finally had an image to destroy U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. They posted video on YouTube showing an unflattering picture of her in the senate, standing next to a sign reading "Dangerously Incompetent." It was followed by all sorts of sniggering comments,many of them essentially misogynistic.

Stabenow, they claimed then, was one of the most ineffective members of the U.S. Senate. I talked to smug Republicans at the time who felt sure she was going down.

Well, that fall she won reelection by 600,000 votes. Suddenly, Democrats were in the majority in the Senate. Soon Stabenow, the daughter of a car salesman from Clare, was chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

It’s been ten days since the University of Michigan announced that Mark Schlissel would be the school’s new president.

I did not comment then, because I did not know enough to have an opinion, and because I knew Michigan Radio’s news department would do a superb job covering the selection and the new president himself.

I should say, by the way, that while Michigan Radio is a part of the University of Michigan, I am not an employee of the university, and I neither speak for the university or the station management.

But I can tell you that in the 10 days since the new president was announced, I have talked to, or been talked to by a lot of people about it. Roughly speaking, they had two main areas of concern.

The biggest was the rising cost of an education.

Last night I talked to Mary Lou Zieve, who is well known in Detroit as a marketing executive and supporter of the arts. I found out that we had something unpleasant in common.

During the last week, we’ve each had a tire destroyed by a pothole. Not on some unpaved road out in the country, but on suburban surface streets. I was driving forty miles an hour on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak or Birmingham, when – bang.

This cost me $250.

Our roads and streets are bad and getting worse, and our lawmakers have refused over and over again to appropriate money to fix them.

But they are now eagerly signing up for something that from a good government standpoint is the height of insanity. They want to give us a tax cut, which means the state will have even less money to do the things it is failing to do.

Jack Faxon was a 24-year-old government teacher in Detroit back in 1960, when the state voted to call a constitutional convention.

Partly egged on by his students, he ran for delegate, and surprisingly, won. When the convention began, he was the youngest member. Republicans had a two-to-one majority, but that didn’t matter so much, Faxon, still trim, fit and healthy, told me. 

“Things weren’t like they are now. Actually, there were really three parties – the old guard Republicans, the progressive Republicans, led by (George) Romney, and we Democrats.” 

Faxon may have been a very junior delegate, but said he played one key role. Early on, he was approached by the head of the Detroit teachers’ retirement system. 

There’s a new group called the Economic Justice Coalition which is seriously considering trying to get a proposal on the ballot to raise the minimum wage in Michigan.

You might think that would make Democrats happy. Their gubernatorial candidate, Mark Schauer, came out in favor of a minimum wage hike two months ago.

But Democratic leaders aren’t thrilled with a ballot campaign, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Now, it’s not that they don’t want a higher minimum wage.Virtually all of them do. Schauer said if elected, he would try to raise Michigan’s from the present $7.40 an hour to $9.25 an hour over three years.

The last three years haven’t been great ones to be in the legislature – if you are a Democrat. Republicans are in control, and they’ve rammed through bills whose passage would have been unimaginable five years ago. Right to work, for example.

Two years ago, Democrats hoped to win control of the state House of Representatives, to gain some leverage. They did gain five seats, thanks in part to a large turnout and President Obama winning Michigan by nearly half a million votes. But they still fell short, thanks in part to redistricting. More than 400,000 more votes were cast for Democrats, but gerrymandering meant when the dust had settled, Republicans had 59, Democrats, 51.

There was a lot of rejoicing yesterday at the news that the governor had signed on to a so-called “grand bargain” to help save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detroit is, of course, going through bankruptcy.

Creditors want as much as possible of the money owed them. Those counting on city pensions want to make sure they get their money, even if the DIA’s world-class collections have to be sold.

Selling the art would be devastating not only to art lovers, but it might deal the city a cultural blow from which it could never recover.

The good news is that there seems to be increasing interest in mental health issues at all levels of government.

Yesterday, the Michigan Health and Wellness Commission released a new report on improving mental health services in this state. This was a special, bipartisan commission including four legislators, chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

The study, “Improving Quality of Life by Supporting Independence and Self-Determination” is available online.

It is short, straightforward, and easy to understand.

It calls for legislative action, and calls on all of us to reassess the way we view, as well as treat, those with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

I’ve been a faithful subscriber to and reader of The New Yorker for years, though I have to confess that some weeks I only have time to look at the magazine’s wonderful cartoons.

But if you had asked me last week who in Michigan was most likely to be profiled in The New Yorker, I’ll bet I would have offered 20 names before I came up with L. Brooks Patterson.

Patterson, who has been a fixture in Oakland County for more than 40 years, is being raked over the coals today for his Detroit-slamming remarks in this week’s New Yorker interview.

He is quoted as saying:

“Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit-basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough *bleep*.”

  Today, of course, is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And if you know your history, you know that the event that brought him to prominence was the boycott ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the only form of mass transit available to the working poor in many places then. What’s shocking is that nearly 60 years later, metropolitan Detroit lacks any kind of reliable transportation system. Detroit has bus service, but it is not very reliable.

Ever since Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was announced last summer, there has been one major concern in the art world.

What will happen to the Detroit Institute of Arts and its world-class collection, something previously assumed to be untouchable and priceless? When emergency manager Kevyn Orr said the collection needed to be inventoried and appraised, it caused greater shock in some circles than the bankruptcy itself.

At first, I assumed this was a bluff, possibly designed to demonstrate how deep the city’s crisis really was.

But it quickly became clear that the creditors want their money by any means necessary. And for many, art takes a back seat to their stomachs. One former council member, a highly educated woman and a single parent, told me “I am tired of hearing that the pension I worked for is less important than your right to drive down here and see a Van Gogh.”

For Democrats, Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema really is the gift who keeps on giving. Agema, a former airline pilot and state legislator, seems morbidly obsessed with gay people.

He loathes them, and seems creepily fascinated by his mythical version of their lives. Earlier this year, he made headlines by posting a scurrilous, wildly inaccurate, and bizarre article about what he likes to call “homosexuals” on Facebook.

The article, by some mysterious figure who claimed to be a doctor, would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so filled with hate. It claimed that gay people commit up to half the murders in large cities, and are all horribly diseased because of their filthy sexual practices. It also claimed that gangs of lesbians march through the streets chanting “recruit, recruit, recruit.”

Today, virtually all eyes are on Detroit, where U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes rendered his historic decision this morning. That’s exactly as it should be. There is no more important story in the state right now, and our futures are all tied in with the Motor City. But that’s not the only thing happening.

I always feel uneasy when the media’s attention strays too far from the legislature. That’s a bad idea, for the same reason leaving a two-year-old unattended in the kitchen is a bad idea. There are sharp objects, and they can hurt themselves and others.

Well, it was quite a week for our state’s largest city. Voters elected a white mayor for the first time since 1969.

Had you gone to Lloyds of London 10 years ago and bet that within a decade, America would have a black president and Detroit a white mayor, today you would be very rich indeed.

But in the city Cadillac founded, attorneys today will offer closing arguments in a trial to determine whether the city will be allowed to file for bankruptcy. While everything in Federal Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom is by the book, there is an element of Kabuki-theater unreality about it all.

Nobody really believes the application will be denied. If it were, creditors would tear what remains of Detroit apart with the efficiency of a pack of wolves with a lamb.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Once elected, a politician is supposed to work with colleagues to design policy to help government operate efficiently and serve the people. Since legislators represent different geographical areas of people, they often have to compromise.

That’s where moderates are key. They are not so steeped in ideology and are willing to find common ground that leads to compromise.

These days, that sounds rather quaint. Moderates are rare animals.

Listen to what Ken Sikkema, Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants and former Republican state Senate majority leader, and Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's political analyst, think about these rare birds in today's politics.

Listen to the full interview above.

I just learned something important I thought I should share with you. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” is unconstitutional after all.

Yes, I know that the United States Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was constitutional, and that they have the ultimate legal authority to decide that.   But Joan Fabiano says they are wrong, and some media outlets think her views are worth repeating.

Fabiano, who is often described as a “prominent Tea Party activist,” isn‘t exactly a lawyer.

Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo / Flickr

This week in Michigan politics, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss Mike Duggan's write-in campaign, the Detroit City Council, and the Pontiac school district.

U.S. Congress / congress.gov

What are your summer vacation plans? For many in Michigan, it's time at the cottage or beach up North.

If you're a lawmaker, either state or federal, "summer vacation" has a different meaning. It gives you time to be in your district, take the pulse of voters, hear their concerns.

Covering the Washington angle is Todd Spangler, the D.C.-based reporter for the Detroit Free Press. And looking at Lansing is Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Public Radio's political analyst.

They joined us today to talk about summer vacation for members of Congress and state Legislature.

Listen to the full interview above.

The Michigan House of Representatives.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This week in review, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the highlights of the Michigan’s budget, whether Michigan’s Medicaid program will be getting an expansion, and whether the Detroit Institute of Arts will be forced to sell some of its collection in order to pay off the city’s debts.

Michigan’s budget

The state budget is on time for the third year in a row, but it is not finished.

Well, it’s Friday, and I have all weekend to hide from angry listeners, so I thought today I would take on a major sacred cow.

We have more sacred cows than we are willing to admit in today’s world. By that I mean problems for which the solutions are fairly obvious, but which we are unwilling to do anything about.

That’s because dealing with them honestly would mean breaking taboos. Some think we have gotten beyond taboos in this society, because we can talk about sex all the time.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. One of our most damaging taboos involves our school districts.  Unless you’ve been at the South Pole for the last few months, you may have noticed that Michigan has a record number of districts in severe financial crisis.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

On Saturdays, Michigan Radio's Rina Miller checks in with our political analyst, Jack Lessenberry.  

This week, Lessenberry attended the Mackinac Policy Conference.

He says one of the takeaways this year is that the business community is happy with the state's direction.

"[They are] encouraged by the direction in which Michigan is going. They're very happy in general with Governor Synder, but there's a lot of concern about education," Lessenberry said.

Education was discussed more this year than in past years.  

Mark Schauer's run

Here’s something I’ve noticed about education reform. Whenever anybody proposes anything, people tend to react in a knee-jerk fashion based as much on whom the speaker is as what they say. I noticed this yesterday, when I told a variety of people that former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee would be a keynote speaker at this week’s Mackinac Island conference. Teachers especially take a jaded view of Rhee.

They see her as anti-union, and are especially skeptical of her push for merit pay. I myself have had a somewhat jaded view of Rhee for different reasons. There is a fair amount of evidence that many of her claims have been exaggerated.

I was not impressed when her lobbying group, Students First, poured money into an unsuccessful knee-jerk attempt to fight a complex local recall election in Michigan two years ago. But Michelle Rhee said a lot of things to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s conference yesterday that liberals and conservatives all need to hear. She began by noting that this may well be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than their parents – which, if true, ought to frighten all of us.

If you want to see a perfect example of irrationality, go to Saginaw County’s Buena Vista School District’s website.

There, it says this:

“Buena Vista School District and its community of parents and stakeholders has (sic) a long tradition of pride and excellence. We pride ourselves on the caring and committed staff with which we are blessed and consider it our highest calling to be entrusted with the care and education of the community’s children.”

This was the week in  which Detroit got an emergency manager and the state got a right-to-work law.  That is to say, the law took effect this week. I’d say that makes for a pretty  newsworthy few days. Some things this week were entirely  predictable.  Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showed up to protest the  Emergency Manager. Crowds of demonstrators appeared at Detroit’s city hall  crowds which swelled when TV cameras showed up.

The first major lawsuit  was filed against the emergency manager law, and the Detroit Tigers sent an  exciting new spring phenom, closer Bruce Rondon, down to the minor  leagues. That story is worth mentioning, by the way, because a  newspaper computer analysis shows that more people read it today than read any  of the stories about the state or city‘s drama.

Pretty much everyone knows that our roads are in terrible shape, and need to be repaired.

However, at the same time, pretty much everyone also doesn’t want to pay to fix them.

We think somebody else should pay.

So far, Governor Rick Snyder has been the closest thing to a grownup on this issue. He reasons that those who use the roads, people otherwise known as drivers, should pay most of the cost.

That cost is pretty steep: Just to bring our existing roads back to acceptable condition will require $1.2 billion a year for at least the next ten years.

The governor proposes increasing the gas tax by nineteen cents a gallon on diesel fuel, fourteen cents on gasoline. This would be done at the wholesale level, which means the fuel companies wouldn’t necessarily have to pass them on to the consumer.

Okay, well, you’re allowed to laugh.

Snyder would also raise car registration fees by about 60 percent, and heavy truck plate charges by 25 percent.

Well, that plan seemed to bring people together: Everybody hated it.

While Detroit can technically appeal the governor’s decision to appoint an emergency manager, it is clear that the city is going to get one within the next couple of weeks.

Detroiters are now waiting to find out the identity of the person who will have more power in their city than any mayor has ever had. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder and leaders of the Republican led state House and Senate announced plans to introduce so called “Right to Work” legislation today. While police and firefighters are excluded from the legislation, it would prohibit contracts that require union membership and ban the requirement that union dues be paid for all other public and private workers. Clearly, this marks a major shift in direction for the state of Michigan.  Michigan Radio’s political analyst Jack Lessenberry gives us a historical perspective.

Years ago, I put together a  series of panel discussions on the American dream. The people involved differed  a good deal as to what the dream really meant, but they agreed on some  things.

Everybody thought part of it meant that America was a place  where if you worked hard, you could get ahead. And that America was a place  where a decent life was available for all.

Tragically, that’s not as  true as it used to be. Today, the Michigan League for Public Policy, formerly  known as the League for Human Services, unveiled a new national study on  incomes.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Every Saturday Rina Miller talks with Michigan Radio's political analyst Jack Lessenberry about some of the biggest stories in the week's news. Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson was ordered to be in federal court this week, even though she asked someone else to speak on her behalf. Also, controversy surrounding Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R) brings up the question of whether Democrats can be competitive for the Speaker of the House’s seat in November. Plus, a Detroit scandal involving Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee creates head ache for Mayor Dave Bing.

The Capitol was vandalized early Thursday morning
user mattileo / flickr

In the Week in Review, Thaddeus McCotter's abrupt resignation last month means there needs to be a special election to fill his spot.

Also, Michigan's a popular place with presidential and vice-presidential candidates this week.

And, ballot petition mania continues, but can the average voter keep up. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller speaks with political analyst Jack Lessenberry.


 

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