Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

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Daily interviews and essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry.More from Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take »

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Road plan is a cynical insult to intelligence

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. If tied to badly needed prison reform, that might make some sense. There's plenty of evidence that the state could save possibly hundreds of millions a year by releasing thousands of inmates who are no longer a danger to anyone. But politics being what they are, my guess is that those cuts would instead come where we can least afford it – education. But if the Senate plan is badly flawed, the House plan is a cynical insult to the intelligence. It would start out by bizarrely punishing both business and the working poor, by cutting economic development funds and eliminating the last vestiges of the Earned Income Tax Credit. After that, the House plan relies on the hope of getting road money from rising tax receipts being swelled by future economic growth, in what looks like a bizarre homage to the long-discredited Laffer curve fantasy of the early 1980s. Next week, when house members return from vacation, we may learn if there is any possibility of an intelligent compromise. But most people I talk to aren't hopeful. Part of the problem is this: Every House seat is up for election next year; senators don't have to worry about reelection until 2018. Most senators, in fact, don't have to worry about it at all. Nineteen of the twenty-seven Republicans are term-limited, and can therefore afford to be a bit more statesman-like. You might think the house members would be under pressure to do the right thing and fix the roads, since that's what the voters plainly want. But you would be wrong. Thanks to outrageous gerrymandering, most of them don't have to care, because they represent safe one-party districts. Most are worried only about a primary challenge from even more militant anti-tax fanatics. That's how broken our system is. Twenty years ago, lawmakers would have gotten around this by raising the gas tax and calling it a "user fee." But we are in a far more irrational world. What may bother me most, however, is not the broken system or the behavior of our so-called representatives. It is that the public seems increasingly resigned to the idea that we can do nothing to fix this. Yesterday a woman from Ypsilanti wrote that she totally agreed with what I said about the effects of gerrymandering, but said she was convinced that the powers that be would somehow manage to block any attempt at reform. Last week, a blogger on the public affairs TV show Off the Record said we were just going to have to accept that we will always be a state with bad roads, just like Floridians have to get used to it being hot in the summer. If we truly believe that, it means we've given up on representative democracy. And that may be the scariest consequence of all. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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A movement in search of a leader

It's clear that our grossly gerrymandered legislature is painfully out of touch with the needs and desires of Michigan citizens. This shows up first in a partisan sense; both houses of the legislature have top-heavy Republican majorities even in years when a majority of the people vote Democratic. But that's not the main problem. The boundaries are drawn in a way to ensure that virtually all districts are completely safe for one party. This means that we get the worst of all possible worlds. We sometimes nominate and elect candidates who are criminals, incompetents, or both. The only real races in most cases are in the primaries, which have notoriously low turnout. That means that all too often they are won by people with familiar names or who are supported by a small group of ideologues. The result is a legislature that has refused to do anything meaningful to fix the roads, even though surveys show that is voters' top priority. We have lawmakers eager to pass new restrictions on same-sex couples, but who have not been willing to adequately fund education, and ignore the need for prison reform. But now we can do something about this. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the people can bypass dysfunctional legislatures and create independent commissions to draw congressional and legislative boundaries. The people of Arizona did that, and an enraged legislature tried to stop them. Fortunately, the state's highest court said no. Yesterday, Jocelyn Benson, dean of Wayne State University's law school, had a column in the Detroit Free Press spelling out how important this was. "The most powerful component of our democracy is ensuring that informed, eligible and engaged voters can freely elect their representatives," she wrote, adding, "There's no reason we can't follow suit in Michigan, amend our state constitution, and become a national model for fair and impartial redistricting." She ended by saying, "it's up to us to use the initiative process," to fix our broken system. Dean Benson is absolutely right, but left something out. After the court decision, Louis Finkelstein, a teacher at Lawrence Tech, wrote to ask how he could help change things. Well, this is a movement in search of a leader, and whether she wants to or not, I think Benson might be the best candidate for the job. She is smart, ambitious, and savvy. She's the author of an acclaimed book, and lost a close election for Secretary of State five years ago. Getting an initiative on the ballot would take a lot of work, and those now in charge of our fundamentally corrupt system will do whatever they can to keep the status quo. The forces of change need all the help they can get, and a visible face to rally around. More than half a century ago, a drive for a new Michigan constitution succeeded because it was led by a charismatic auto executive who embraced the need for change. His name was George Romney, and that launched his political career. I don't know what Benson's future plans are. I do know that if she led a movement that gave representative democracy back to the people, that alone would be bigger than anything many governors and senators have ever done. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Michigan Radio, its management, or its licensee, the University of Michigan.

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The Truth About Roads 7-2-15

Both the state house and senate have passed wildly different bills that would aim to fix the roads. Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's political analyst, has been thinking about what these bills would do.

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Mayor Duggan and Me

Michigan Radio News Analyst Jack Lessenberry has been following Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan for years, but recently learned he and the mayor had a couple unusual things in common.

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Drawing the lines in Michigan

Just in case you hadn't noticed, the U.S. Supreme Court has released a flurry of momentous decisions in the last few days covering everything from lethal injection methods to the environment. The two which drew the most attention were, of course, the rulings which saved the Affordable Care Act, and found that same sex couples have the right to marry everywhere in America. But the court made another tremendous ruling yesterday that, in effect, said we can take back representative democracy in this state if we want to. The fact is that our legislature is extremely dysfunctional, at least when it comes to doing anything about today's major issues. To cite the most glaring example: For years they have refused to come up with any plan to fix the roads, though lawmakers have been quick to do things like allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets or allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, something now likely unconstitutional. Their priorities are bizarre largely because Michigan's legislative districts are grossly gerrymandered to produce top-heavy Republican majorities, no matter how the people actually vote. In several recent elections, a majority of Michigan voters have cast ballots for Democratic representatives, but we've still had Republican legislatures. This is especially true in the state senate, where Republicans have held control for thirty-two years. They've done this by using computer models to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, while making sure that a majority of districts produce smaller, if safe Republican majorities. I'm not saying Democrats wouldn't do the same thing if they had the chance; they probably would. But they haven't, and this becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon, since it means that a Republican legislature always draws the new lines at redistricting time. Because of this, in most districts, the only real races are in the primaries, and since they produce the lowest turnout, we often get winners on the extreme fringes of their party. This also perverts the process for Democrats. One of their safe districts is now held by a man who has been convicted of eight felonies; another Democratic lawmaker who has few real qualifications was elected because he has the same name as his respected father. The son now faces multiple felony charges. Thirty-seven states draw their district lines in a similar way, though few have ended up with as dreadful a result. But in Arizona, outraged voters fought back. They created an independent bipartisan redistricting commission to draw fair lines. Incredible as it may sound, the legislature then tried to stop the people from creating fair representative democracy. They took the case to the Supreme Court, which yesterday ruled that the people had the right to, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her majority opinion, "address the problem of partisan gerrymandering." That means we could do the same in Michigan, and take back the power to elect our representatives. That won't be easy. The current legislature and the special interests who control them will do all they can to prevent it. But if anyone wants to make this state work again and return real representative democracy to the people, leading a drive for an independent redistricting commission may be the best place to start. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Michigan's furthest shore

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the nation, I was in the town of Ironwood, which is both in Michigan and in another world. Ironwood is more than six hundred miles from Detroit. It is so far west that it is one of a handful of Michigan communities on Central, not Eastern Time. If you walk half a mile down the main street, you find yourself in Wisconsin. "We've got a lot of (Green Bay) Packers fans here," Mayor Kim Corcoran laughed, when I asked if the state identified more closely with Wisconsin or Michigan. In fact, not only is Milwaukee much closer to Ironwood, so is Minneapolis. Lansing may make laws that affect the Upper Peninsula, but it seems more remote than relevant to most of the folks I talked to. Granted, many Michiganders don't feel close to state government. But this is far truer for places like Ironwood. Legislators in much of the state come home for long weekends. Some even commute daily. That's not realistic for Scott Dianda of Calumet, who represents Ironwood and a big chunk of the western UP. For him, Lansing is more than 500 miles from home. Nor does the UP have much clout in the capitol. Ninety years ago, it had thirteen percent of the state's population. Today while the Upper Peninsula has nearly thirty percent of Michigan's land area, it has only three percent of the population, a mere three hundred thousand people. The decline of the logging and mining industries meant declining population. Still, for a long time, the UP had more political power than its numbers deserved. Until the 1960s, legislative districts didn't have to be based on population. One state senator in the UP represented a mere 60,000 people, while a counterpart in Detroit represented more than half a million. But then the U.S. Supreme Court said legislative districts had to be nearly equal. Even after that, the UP retained clout thanks to men like Joe Mack and Dominic Jacobetti, who stayed in Lansing for decades. Then they left or died, and term limits kicked in, and the Upper Peninsula has dwindled since. That may be especially true in Ironwood, which back in the 1940s was a thriving metropolis with its own fleet of taxicabs. But the mines played out and the money left. Today, those in Ironwood think mainly about the economy. The Upper Peninsula is supposed to be socially conservative, but the same-sex marriage decision got no more than a small story at the bottom of the Daily Globe, Ironton's newspaper. The editors thought a local American Idol contest more important. Nobody I talked with mentioned gay marriage. But they were wistful about their town's past and future. Gary Harrington, head of the Ironwood Area Historical Society, grew up in Ironwood, then left for a career in the U.S. Air Force. He retired and came home a few years ago. "We've got a lot of kids who leave and wish they could come home," he told me. But there are no jobs. Suddenly, I remembered all the Detroit-area parents who have been saying the same thing. Sadly, Motown and Ironwood may finally have more in common than they ever knew. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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The Obamacare Decision

There must be Republican strategists who are secretly relieved and happy that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the subsidies that help millions buy health insurance. Had they ruled the other way, not only would millions of people have lost coverage, but it would have caused immense problems for a private health insurance market that has changed the way it does business to comply with the Affordable Care Act, usually known as Obamacare. Opponents were hoping the high court would invalidate the subsidies based largely on semantics. They claimed only health care exchanges set up by the individual states qualified, not those set up by the federal government. Two-thirds of the states, including Michigan, are in fact using the federal exchanges, which are in large part health care directories, mostly because their GOP-dominated legislatures refused to create state ones. That ideological stubbornness cost Michigan taxpayers $31 million dollars, by the way. Yesterday's decision was remarkable in a number of ways. Chief Justice John Roberts is deeply conservative. But he wrote the majority opinion upholding the subsidies, and if you read between the lines, he seems to be essentially scolding Republican lawmakers for expecting the courts to bail them out. He indicated the law needed to be read in its entire context, and said that "Congress passed the ACA to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them." In other words, if Obamacare has flaws, as everyone seems to agree it does, the legislative and executive branches should work together to fix them. You might have expected to have heard Republican statesmen yesterday saying the time has now come to fix the flaws in Obamacare, and challenging the President to work with them to do so. But instead they all sounded as intransigent as a bunch of North Korean negotiators. Freshman Michigan Congressman John Moolenaar lashed out at the Supreme Court for failing "to protect Americans from Obama's broken health care law." Speaker of the House John Boehner vowed to continue to repeal it, while Senator Ted Cruz said that every one of his fellow Republican Presidential contenders needed to realize that next year's presidential election was now "a referendum on the full repeal of Obamacare." What he seems to have forgotten is that we had such an election three years ago, and it didn't turn out very well for his team. Millions are now happily insured under the Affordable Care Act. Repeal would be a practical impossibility, though Republicans still seem to think they can rally a majority by waving that banner. What all this reminds me of is what happened eighty years ago, when Franklin D. Roosevelt created not only government jobs but a new program called Social Security. Republicans were bitter and outraged at all this socialism, denounced FDR's programs in language nearly identical to what they say today about Obamacare, and made the 1936 election a referendum on the New Deal. When the voters were counted they had lost all but two tiny states. Republicans were left with fewer than a hundred seats in the house and less than twenty senators. They then decided a more moderate approach might be a good idea. We elect leaders to try and make things work. I think it's about time they started. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Michigan one of the worst states when it comes to "dark money"

Many years ago, a wicked old police reporter told me that he thought common street prostitutes were morally superior to politicians. That was because "they admit that those who give them money expect something for it." Well, he had a point. Those who give vast sums to candidates also expect something for it. Bribery is illegal and there is seldom a direct quid pro quo. But if the Enormous Polluting Company donates a million dollars to your campaign for congress or the state legislature, it is a reasonable assumption they expect you to vote against higher environmental standards. For years, reformers struggled to limit and regulate the money donated to influence our elections, a battle that ended in defeat five years ago when, in a case known as Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled campaign spending was a form of free speech, and that there could be essentially no limits on donations from groups like corporations and unions. But the judges did say we had a right to demand to know who was giving how much to each campaign. Big money donors would often rather not have people find out what they are doing and how much they are giving, however, especially in judicial elections. In Michigan, it has long been seen as legal to form a committee with an innocuous name, like "People for Good Government," conceal the source of its donations, and use the money for sometimes millions in so-called issue-oriented ads. The only rule is that you cannot specifically say, "Vote for Smith for the Michigan Supreme Court." You can, however, say that Smith is the greatest legal mind in history, while his opponent Jones is a friend to terrorists and hint he might impose Sharia law. And some such ads have been almost that outrageous. And yet, we have no ability to find out where the money for such outrageous ads is coming from. Rich Robinson is the executive director of a nonprofit outfit called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and has worked amazingly hard for years to try to bring campaign spending out in the open. He calls this secret spending, "dark money." If you don't think dark money is a serious problem, think again. It now accounts for a majority of what is spent to influence our judicial elections, and is increasingly being used in other elections as well. Two years ago, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson decided she was going to require a disclosure of who was spending what for all candidate-focused advertising in the weeks leading up to an election. That did not make the big donors happy. So they had Senator Arlan Meekhof, now the majority leader, rush through an amendment to another bill that would allow this spending to stay secret. Governor Rick Snyder had campaigned on a platform of requiring full disclosure of such money, but he promptly went back on his word and signed it. If that isn't outrageous, nothing is. Robinson, by the way, has just posted an eye-opening new report on his website that reveals, among other things, that Michigan is absolutely the worst of all the states when it comes to transparency in campaign financing. I hope you read it. And I especially hope somebody tries to do something about it. Read the full report at MCFN.org Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Confederate flag debate important, but a side issue to what happened in South Carolina

As you probably know, there is now an intense debate over whether to remove Confederate flags and other symbols of the so-called "lost cause" from public places in the South. My guess is that some will go away, but that most people have short attention spans. The longer their defenders can stall, the better the odds are that most will still be around in a year. There's a certain irony in all of this, two ironies, in fact. One is that this is by no means limited to the South. There are Confederate flags all over Michigan. Somebody in Flint created a stir last month by flying both Nazi and Confederate flags outside a home. In April, a Livonia man put a huge Confederate flag on his back fence and put hangmen's nooses in his tree. You know what that meant. But the real irony is that our sudden obsession with this historic racist symbol is a way of avoiding the main problem. The twenty-one year-old man-child named Dylann Roof, a kid evidently with a history of drug and other problems, indeed seems to have embraced racism. He is accused of murdering nine black people in a church in Charleston last weekend, and allegedly said he wanted to start a race war. But his preferred symbols seemed to be those of apartheid South Africa and the now long-vanished white supremacist state of Rhodesia. I'll bet Roof wouldn't know the difference between general quarters and General Longstreet. But those nine people didn't die because of racist symbols; they died because this troubled kid had no problem buying a deadly Glock pistol and taking it into a church. But since our government and politics are controlled by the gun lobby, we feel we are powerless to try to do anything about that. So we instead are symbolically fighting racism. Not that this is a bad thing. The Confederate flag today is little more than a symbol of racist defiance. Nobody puts it on the back of their pickup truck because they are thinking about the South's great military strategy at the Battle of Fredericksburg. It is a symbol of the time eleven states tried to leave this nation because they thought their right to enslave other human beings was endangered. Essentially, the Old Confederacy committed treason so that they could go on buying and selling, owning and oppressing four million people who they deemed to have no rights or humanity whatsoever. They were stopped by the bloodiest war in American history. Afterwards, the flag had a long revival as the symbol of those who wanted to keep blacks in a state of terrorized serfdom. Incidentally, what we think of as the Confederate flag wasn't that nation's official flag at all, but something that closely resembles the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee. But no matter. When Robert E. Lee surrendered a hundred and fifty years ago, U.S. Grant paid tribute to the military valor of the South. He gave them credit for fighting for a cause, even though "that cause was, I believe one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." I have to wonder if someday, people will say the same about the NRA. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Trusting Matty Moroun

It now looks as though the Gordie Howe International Bridge is certain to become reality. Investors have to be lined up and there is still more work to be done before shovels go into the ground, but all the major political and legal challenges have been overcome. But what about the Ambassador Bridge and its controversial owner, eighty-eight year-old Matty Moroun? Two months ago, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan startled people when he announced a surprise agreement with Moroun, who says he wants to build a second bridge next the Ambassador. The city is agreeing to give Moroun a three-acre section of Riverside Park he needs if he is ever going to build a second span. In return, Moroun has to give Detroit five acres of riverfront property the city wants. Plus, he has to pay about three million for improvements to the park, another two million later, and put one thousand and fifty windows in the old abandoned train station. What's more, Moroun has to do all of that first, or he doesn't get his land. At the time, lots of people familiar with Moroun felt it was a terrible deal. However, it seemed a smart move to me. The Canadian government is never going to let Moroun build a second bridge, though it is conceivable the Ambassador might someday be replaced. I thought the city was taking advantage of Moroun's obsession to make a good deal for the taxpayers. But there's some evidence that this might not be all that clear-cut. Over the weekend, I saw former Governor James Blanchard, who is committed to helping the Howe Bridge become reality. Blanchard felt the deal with Duggan was a terrible idea, because it sent confusing signals to the private sector investors the Howe bridge needs to attract. The day before, however, I talked to Mayor Duggan about this. He told me he was fully committed to the Howe Bridge, and doesn't think there will ever be two Ambassador Bridges. However, he does think we need a second bridge, and expects someday it will be prudent to replace the Ambassador, which is now eighty-six years old and clearly showing signs of wear. All that made sense to me. But the deal Duggan made with Moroun hadn't yet been approved by Detroit City Council. And yesterday, attorneys urged council to be cautious. They presented a report that noted that the Moroun family's "history of negative dealings with the community in the area of the bridge is well-known." It added that "commitments have been made to the community on a variety of issues – with a continuing lack of follow-through." Well, they're right about that. Three years ago, a judge threw Matty Moroun and bridge company president Dan Stamper in jail for repeatedly ignoring court orders to live up to their agreement to build a freeway ramp and roadway. They have been proven untrustworthy. But the current agreement seems to say Moroun doesn't get what he wants till the city is fully paid off. However, the lawyers think part of the agreement calling for Moroun to fully clean up the property the city gets may be unenforceable. The mayor disputes that. But it would seem that caution is advisable. Ronald Reagan used to quote an old Russian proverb – trust, but verify. That seems especially appropriate here. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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