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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

*Subscribe to a podcast of Jack's essays here.

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

Ways to Connect

Martin Brook
facebook.com/pg/brookforcongress/photos/

Last week, I spoke to a candidate for statewide office who lamented that she hadn’t been able to get out much among the people or keep up on important policy issues because she had to spend all day, every day on the phone, raising money. I also saw a candidate in a hotly contested congressional primary who told me the same thing.

LGBT Pride Flag
Tyrone Warner / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Let’s say there had been a Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1961, and it announced that it was going to start investigating claims of discrimination against black people.

I’ve been asked to speak to a group in Mount Clemens today about the difference between Republicans and Democrats. That may sound easy to answer, but it’s not.

ovshinsky standing behind a leather chair
European Patent Office European Inventor Award

Stan Ovshinsky barely had a high school education, and part of him was always more at home in machine shops like the one where began working when he got out of high school.

“For me, manufacturing has always had glamour to it,” he said.

Yet he is remembered as a scientist who made breakthroughs that took your breath away: The first workable solar cells, rewritable CDs and DVD’s, the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers your laptop.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law giving Nevada a monopoly over legal sports gambling. And there were immediately voices clamoring to legalize it here.

They argued that the state would get more tax revenue as a result, and that it would boost tourism. Well, the tourism part sounds dubious to me, but I can easily believe that there is tax revenue in it. But will it be worth what it does to people?

Yesterday I mentioned a candidate for Congress who was frustrated that he had to spend so much time attempting to raise the money needed to run a competitive race.

He’s far from alone. Virtually every candidate I know complains about the same thing. These days, running in a competitive congressional race costs millions.

A long table surrounded by red chairs in a school classroom.
BES Photos / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a challenge with the state court of appeals this week over the issue of public money for private schools. Schuette disagrees with a court ruling that said it's unconstitutional for the state to reimburse private schools for fire drills and other expenses required by the state.

Michigan Radio news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Doug Tribou discuss the issue and whether Schuette's appeal stands a chance.

Anyone who thinks they know how Michigan’s fall elections will turn out is a fool, but this much seems fairly certain: The race for the 11th Congressional District will likely be the most expensive and the most hotly contested.

There’s no incumbent, since mortgage banker Dave Trott decided two terms were enough. The district, which consists of a collection of Wayne and Oakland County suburbs, leans Republican. But it is close enough that the right Democrat could win it in the right year.

Michigan Attorney General's official website

Back in the old days, when a politician got caught doing something questionable, we said “this doesn’t look good.” 

Today, they say “the optics are terrible.”

Well, whatever your terms, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette didn’t do his image any favors during a candidates’ forum four days ago. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, his main rival for the Republican nomination for governor, accused him of personally controlling the sale of millions in property he had inherited in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Calley also circulated documents showing that Schuette, who has said that he had placed all his assets in a blind trust, used members of his official staff to witness and notarize the documents transferring the property, apparently on state time.

You might think that’d be enough to raise the eyebrows of your average citizen, for whom how to sell spare resort property is never an issue. What’s worse is that the attorney general seemed to lie about it. When asked about Calley’s charges by reporters after the candidates’ forum, Schuette said, “I don’t even know what he’s talking about.”

According to the Gongwer News Service, Schuette was then asked if he had assets in the Virgin Islands, and said, “I’ll have to see what he is talking about, but it’s nonsense, it’s false.”

The four Republican governor candidates on the stage together for the debate
Screenshot from WOOD-TV's stream of the debate / WOOD-TV

The four Republicans running for governor held their first debate this week. It was the first time Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines have appeared together on one stage.

There were arguments over the handling of the Flint water crisis and who's the biggest Trump supporter. One thing they all agreed on is that Michigan should not legalize recreational marijuana, but they said they'd respect the wishes of the voters. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what else stood out in the debate.

Q Line
Tony Brown / Michigan Radio

Two years ago, southeast Michigan voted down what I think may have been the region’s best chance at a sensible and affordable regional transit service.

Twenty-six years ago, Michigan voters faced a ballot proposal to amend the state constitution to impose strict term limits on all federal and state officeholders.

That didn’t get a lot of attention then, because the main event that year was the battle between the first President George Bush, his young challenger Bill Clinton, and third party candidate H. Ross Perot. Michigan voters picked Clinton, and also opted by a landslide for term limits. I was around then, and think many chose term limits because they wanted to get rid of longtime federal officeholders like Congressman John Conyers.

sign that says "vote here"
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Voters went to the polls yesterday in several cities across the state, including Jackson, Kalamazoo and Kalkaska.

Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Doug Tribou discuss the results.

Jack Amick / Creative Commons

You’ve probably never heard of Melissa Chapman, who has spent the majority of her life in Michigan prisons. When she was 18, her violent and abusive boyfriend shot a man and forced her to help hide the body. She was sentenced to life in prison for that. She’s been there thirty years.

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

Mark Krinock, a neurosurgeon from Kalamazoo, asked me something via email yesterday that I’ve heard people asking for many years. “I am curious how the state of education can be in such dire straits when the lottery has contributed over $7 billion over the last ten years to the education system.” Dr. Krinock is a big supporter of public education, and is puzzled by this.

Why hasn’t the lottery taken care of education?

There was a hearing in the Michigan House of Representatives last week on a bill that would allow a parent who wished to anonymously give up a child to place it in a box attached to the side of a building like a hospital, or a police station.

When the baby goes in, two alarms are supposed to go off and notify both 9-1-1 and people inside the building to rescue the baby.

On the Kalamazoo River just downstream from the confluence of Talmadge Creek. Around 1 million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the river in 2010.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A new study says Michigan's economy would take a big hit if there was an oil spill in the Mackinac Straits. A Michigan State University professor estimates a spill could cost the state's economy more than $6 billion. Enbridge Energy says the study is "flawed" and based on "unrealistic estimates." This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the study's potential impact.

Legislation that allows parents to surrender their children to secured "baby boxes" has passed in Michigan's House.
safehavenbabyboxes.com

THIS COMMENTARY WAS UPDATED ON 5/19/18

State Senator Patty Birkholz, who died yesterday, was a classy lady who fought for the environment and tried to make this state a better place. She was a proud Republican who nevertheless wasn’t afraid to break from her party on occasion to do the right thing.

The John Ball Zoo's Amur tiger
Courtesy of John Ball Zoo

It often seems like we care less about each other than we used to – or at least, we are choosing policies not designed to help society in general or the next generation.

Our lawmakers have been happily giving tax cuts to the rich while letting our infrastructure fall apart. It is far more necessary for today’s students to get higher education and far harder for them to afford it. Racism and xenophobia seem to be exploding.

Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar
Michigan Radio

Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar are each accomplished men. The 63-year-old Thanedar came over here penniless from India, started companies and made fortunes, even though he also has lost one or two. El-Sayed, who at 33 is barely half Thanedar's age, is one of the smartest and most charismatic people I have ever met.

An aerial view of algae blooms in Lake Erie.
NOAA

Last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency announced that efforts to decrease those potentially toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie aren’t working. When I read that, let’s say I wasn’t exactly surprised. I moderated a large forum on this subject in Tontogany, Ohio last year.

Michigan's 14th congressional district
Public Domain

We could debate endlessly about what people want and expect from state government, but a few things are clear: First, we want a government we can trust and that will respond to what we want. And it is also very clear people are fed up with our current system of hyperpartisan gerrymandering, in which legislative and congressional districts are always drawn to ensure perpetual Republican control of the Legislature and a majority of seats in Congress.

The Ford Taurus at an auto show
Dave Pinter / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Ford this week announced plans to stop making almost its entire line-up of cars by 2022. That means we can say farewell to the Fiesta, the Taurus, the Focus, the Fusion, and the C-Max hybrid. Only Ford's iconic Mustang and a small crossover will remain in production in the North American market. 

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Ford's decision to focus on its better-selling lines of trucks and SUVs, and whether GM might follow suit.

Shri Thanedar
shri2018.com

Shri Thanedar has a fascinating life story. Earlier this year he gave me his autobiography, The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant’s Life. I’ve only read parts of it, but it is more fascinating than most campaign biographies.

Last year, after selling much of Avomeen Chemical Services, the Ann Arbor laboratory he founded, Thanedar decided to run for governor, and has poured millions of his own money into the cause, flooding the airwaves with well-produced TV commercials.

One of the many promises Donald Trump made when running for President was to pull the country out of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Once in office, Trump decided to try to first renegotiate it instead.

That was months ago, and we’ve heard little about NAFTA since, apart from occasional stories that the negotiators are shuttling between the three capitals. News about it has been largely blotted out by the Russia investigation and a threatened trade war with China.

lion cub
Alias 0591 / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1f2P1w6

You don’t have to be a geneticist to know species need genetic diversity. That’s the key practical reason why most societies forbid incest. European kings and queens often married first cousins, and that helped spread hemophilia throughout the royal families of Europe.

Well, that’s at least as true of zoo animals. There are genetic records -- stud books, they are sometimes called – and what are called Species Survival Plans. 

Michigan State University sign
MSU

There are now more than 300 women and girls who claim former sports doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused them, according to their civil suit attorneys. This week Michigan State University and the victim’s attorneys returned to mediation to try to come up with a settlement.

senatedems.com/bieda/photos/

State Senator Steve Bieda is perhaps the biggest history buff in the Michigan legislature. He’s an expert on coins, once designed one for the mint, and fought to get new replicas of Civil War cannons installed on the lawn, and to get the Capitol restored.

After last week’s Democratic Party “endorsement convention,” there is a distinct probability that three of their candidates for the top four statewide offices will be white women.  Strong, accomplished, politically sophisticated women.

But much of the reaction to that has shown that misogyny is not dead, and that some people are fixated on quotas that have too often given us candidates who were symbolic tokens.

Michigan State Capitol
David Marvin / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Pretty soon, Medicaid recipients in Michigan who are able-bodied may have to choose between finding a job or losing health insurance. That's under a bill the state Senate passed Thursday. Democrats opposed to the bill say it punishes the poor, while supporters say most people on Medicaid already work -- this would give incentive for others to do so.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the bill, which heads to the House next, and whether Gov. Rick Snyder will sign if it ends up on his desk.


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