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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

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.

prison bars
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.

Library of Congress

Twenty-two years ago, I sat in President Gerald Ford’s home in California for an hour-long interview about his presidency. Twenty-two years before that, he had been nominated, but not yet confirmed as vice president, when the infamous events known as the Saturday Night Massacre took place. That was when Richard Nixon ordered the firing of a special prosecutor assigned to investigate Watergate. The attorney general and his deputy refused, and resigned.

exterior of the Michigan state capital
Pkay Chelle / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

On May 9, State Representative John Kivela was found dead in a Lansing home from an apparent suicide. The Marquette democrat's death marks the third time in the past year a House member has died. Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss reactions from the Michigan State House. 

Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint has decided that he will not, after all, run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. Sources close to the congressman told me last night that he had been wavering until last week, when House Republicans rammed through a health care bill that few understood and which made Democrats extremely mad.

Kildee, who has told me he loves Congress, had an epiphany then that his work was to stay in the House, where he has a safe seat, and fight for what is right for the nation.

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.

Money with bottle of pills
Images Money / Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The stalled Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act cleared a big hurdle this week. Lawmakers in the U.S. House passed the bill -- thanks in part to a last minute addition from Michigan Congressman Fred Upton. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about Upton's amendment and what the bill could mean for Michigan.

They also discuss a state Court of Appeals ruling that teachers can drop out of their union whenever they like, another attempt by lawmakers to scrap and replace pensions for new teachers, and budget proposals that passed the state House and Senate this week. 

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.

Zelda Richardson / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Nobody would ever hire me to give motor vehicle advice. The climax of my career as a “car guy” came long ago in then-Communist Romania, where they made a dreadful little automobile called a Dacia. Romania was a hellhole back then, and I can’t imagine that anyone other than a corrupt high Communist official could buy one.

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.

Defer Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park.
Appraiser / Creative Commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Public schools in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham are already charging tuition for students outside the district who want to attend. Now, because of budget cuts and declining enrollment, it looks like Grosse Pointe Public Schools might follow suit.

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 cyanobacteria 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. 

U.S. Department of Education / Creative Commons

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.

The sinkhole in Macomb County.
Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio

The state Legislature is back in Lansing after a two week break. Before they left for vacation, lawmakers in the House and Senate were at odds over how to fund a fix for the sinkhole mess in Macomb County. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether legislators will be able to play nice long enough to get this sorted out.

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.

Journalism matters

Apr 20, 2017

Last night I went to the annual Society of Professional Journalists banquet, where every year someone is named journalist of the year. I wasn’t unbiased. I wanted my Michigan Radio colleague Steve Carmody to win for his magnificent reporting on Flint.

https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ernie_Harwell

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.

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