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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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

“I like to think of myself as a problem solver,” Macomb County Public Works commissioner Candice Miller told me.

She’s needed to be. The week before she took office came the collapse of the sewer line in Fraser, the now-infamous giant sinkhole, what she calls “probably the biggest infrastructure emergency in the state of Michigan, at least at this time, perhaps ever.”

Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River, turned 90 earlier this month. I don’t know how he celebrated, but I do know something happened last week that may well have ruined his birthday.

Years ago, when the baby boomers completely dominated the culture, someone once said that we’d know their influence was finally ending when magazines had cover stories on designer funeral homes. Well, we aren’t there yet.

You might say the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the one think tank liberals and progressives most like to hate. Indeed, I heard someone say a few years ago that it was home to some of the finest minds of the 14th century. That’s not completely fair.

They produced a useful report this spring detailing how some of our complex and unnecessary state and local licensing laws are hurting the economy.

Spartan stadium
Flickr/Ken Lund / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Three Michigan State University football players have been charged with sexual assault stemming from an incident in January in which they allegedly sexually assaulted a woman on campus. 

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the this case and others, including former Olympic gymnastics and MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar.

On June 1st, I talked about Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader and now the leading candidate for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

During an interview during last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer told me that when you look at all the candidates, “I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

There’s a legend that Secretary of State Dean Rusk summed up what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis by saying, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Well, things were considerably more complicated than that.

But right now the governor and the legislature are eyeball to eyeball over the future of teacher pensions in this state, and it isn’t clear who’ll be blinking.

dugganfordetroit.com

At the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference this week, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan flatly explained to a mostly white audience the systematic racism that shaped the city of Detroit and the surrounding region. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessnberry talk about the impact of Duggan's speech and his vision for Detroit's future.

Detroit skyline in 1930.
Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

Earlier this week, I said words to the effect that I didn’t think many of those attending the annual Mackinac Policy Conference were doing much to relate to the average citizen.

Largely, I think I was right.

Gretchen Whitmer, currently the leading Democratic candidate for governor, told me something yesterday at the Mackinac Policy Conference that caught me by surprise: “You know, when you look at all of the candidates in the race, I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

H.L. Mencken, the great early 20th century journalist, was a militant atheist, so I don’t suppose there’s any chance his shade is flitting around Mackinac Island this week.

But if it was, it would have been laughing at Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley’s grand announcement yesterday that he would lead a campaign to give us a part-time legislature. That instantly reminded me of Mencken’s famous observation that “for every human problem there is a solution that is neat, plausible - and wrong.”

wideshot of the grand hotel
Scott Ellis http://www.vsellis.com/ / Flickr

For the first time since he's been governor, the leaders from the state House and Senate have signed a target budget agreement without Rick Snyder's input. House Speaker Tom Leonard and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof want to close the pension system for new Michigan teachers and only offer a 401k. Governor Snyder's not a fan of that idea.

The Mackinac Policy Conference kicks off today.
David Ball / creative commons

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference begins today; I’ll be there, though so far, it doesn’t look like the most momentous conference they’ve ever had.

There will be a few national speakers worth hearing, including historian Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Walter Isaacson.

Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will give keynote addresses, and there will be panels on politics, and on things like “Michigan’s Digital Future.”

Detroit skyline
Debbie Malyn / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There's been a great effort to revitalize Detroit in recent years, but new figures from the US Census Bureau show the city is still losing population. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what it's going to take for Detroit to see some growth.

John F. Kennedy
By Cecil (Cecil William) Stoughton / US National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

The other night I had dinner with former State Senator John Kelly, who has a law degree and a doctorate and served his country in the JAG, or Judge Advocate General Corps. He told me once about the moment he decided to go into public service.

It was the day before his eleventh birthday at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit on Labor Day in 1960, and he was sitting on his father’s shoulders. He reached out for the hand of the big man with the shock of reddish-brown hair. “My initials are JFK!” he said.

“Well, then, you’ll go into politics too,” John F. Kennedy told him.

Drowning in manure

May 25, 2017
Free Use Photos / Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

I want to warn you that today, I’m going to be talking about poop. Specifically, more than 3.3 billion gallons of it a year, all of it produced in Michigan by what are euphemistically called “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” or CAFOs.

Many of us call them “Factory Farms” instead. They are places where animals are crowded in what are anything but humane conditions to be fattened as quickly as possible for slaughter, or if they are cows, drained of their milk.

But beyond animal cruelty, what I’m concerned about is our drinking water. Three years ago, toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie left the water unsafe to drink for a few days.

We have an education crisis in this state; in case you haven’t noticed, Michigan is having trouble recruiting enough teachers, especially good teachers, especially in our larger cities.

That’s not surprising.

Teaching elementary and high school students is difficult and draining, if done right. You are chained to the academic calendar –no fall vacations or long weekends. Teaching involves a lot of work on nights and weekends.

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The Trump Administration released its proposed federal budget. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would get zero dollars if the plan is approved as is. Over the past seven years, it received $2.2 billion in funding to preserve the Great Lakes.

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss how that cut could affect Michigan residents.

Twenty years ago, when I was covering Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s assisted suicide crusade, I came to know a retired Detroit policeman named Ray Good, whose wife Janet was a Kevorkian ally.

Good was present at his own moment in history, when he was the first police lieutenant on the scene at 12th Street and Clairmount in the wee hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967.

When we talk about our elected leaders, we usually act as if they did it all by themselves. We only tend to notice their assistants if they start slipping, or show signs of clumsiness.

Whatever your politics, the fact that Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have been so savaged in the press is a clear indication that they, and their boss, are failing to do their jobs.

student protestor
Corey Oakley / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The state Senate Judiciary Committee this week heard testimony on campus free speech legislation. This comes on the heels of some high profile cases in which appearances by controversial speakers were derailed by campus protests. This Week in Review, Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss whether campus free speech legislation is necessary.

They also look at legislation that would limit when a state administrative rule can be stricter than a federal rule, new projections that show there's less money than anticipated heading to the state's general fund, and another delay in the completion of an unfinished jail in downtown Detroit.

Six years ago, the superintendent of a small and struggling school district in Gratiot County wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to Governor Rick Snyder asking that his school be declared a prison. 

Shelly Provost / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Yesterday, a graduate student came to visit me who had never really seen Detroit before. So, I gave her a little mini-tour of the booming downtown and midtown areas.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

I spent an hour the other morning with a newcomer on the political scene, one of the most brilliant and charismatic candidates I’ve ever met.

Let’s imagine for a moment that his name is Andy Smith. Make Andy the son of completely legal immigrants who enthusiastically embraced everything American. As a boy, he went to one of the best public high schools in Michigan, where he was the captain of the football, the wrestling and lacrosse teams, and then played lacrosse in college.

The online publication Jalopnik has released an investigative report which looks at whether the Detroit Police Department used false statements from jailhouse snitches to close murder cases.
Thomas Hawk / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A Senate subcommittee has passed a budget cutting the Department of Corrections' budget by $40 million. The department says that would mean cutting jobs and programs to fight recidivism. Both Republicans and Democrats want to see lower prison populations.

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss whether this plan could get bi-partisan support.

money
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

What do you think is the biggest category of consumer debt in this nation, apart from home mortgage loans? Car loans? Medical bills?

Not even close. It is student loan debt, now nearly $1.5 trillion dollars, and getting bigger by the day. The average undergrad leaves school, degree or no degree, owing $35,000. 

Tony Nova / Tony Nova

Tommy Brann, a freshman state representative from Wyoming, a West Michigan town near Grand Rapids, isn’t someone who puts on airs. He’s passionate about public service and proud to be part of the legislature, but still thinks of himself as “Tommy the Restaurant Guy.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation badge
Public Domain

Former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers is reportedly on President Trump's list of candidates to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Trump abruptly fired James Comey from the position earlier this week. On this Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why Trump might be considering Rogers.

They also discuss Gov. Rick Snyder's latest addition to the state Supreme Court, a resolution that would bring Michigan's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in line with modern technology, and the grand opening of Detroit's QLINE streetcar.

Here’s a little secret about our profession journalists don’t like to admit. To an extent, we are sort of the stenographers of society.

We may not accept everything at face value, but we cluster around established institutions to look for stories. We get a lot of them, but we miss things too.

Planned Parenthood of Michigan

If you listen to the rhetoric about Planned Parenthood from Republican congressmen and legislators, you might think it is the world’s biggest abortion mill.

It’s not. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization that primarily provides contraception, pregnancy and disease testing, and has long gotten federal and state aid for providing what are essentially public health services.

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