Lester Graham

Investigative Reporter

Lester Graham is with Michigan Watch, the investigative unit of Michigan Radio. 

He was formerly the Senior Editor of The Environment Report/Great Lakes Radio Consortium, the environmental news service based at Michigan Radio, starting with the service in 1998. 

He has been a journalist since 1985.  Graham has served as a board member of Public Radio News Directors Inc., and also served as President of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. He is a member of the Radio-Television Digital News Association(RTDNA), Society of Professional Journalists and other professional groups. 

Graham received more than 100 awards at the state, regional, national and international levels for journalistic excellence, including four RTDNA Edward R. Murrow awards, two of them at the network level.

Twitter: @MichiganWatch

Facebook link

email:  llgraham@umich.edu

Ways To Connect

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Delegates here have heard from Dow Chemical Company, DTE, the AFL-CIO, various Democratic Party officials and Bob King. King is the President of the United Auto Workers and in Michigan, that carries weight.

He told them Michigan delegates that the platform approved by the Republicans at their convention calls for restricting labor’s right to bargain.

“The baby step in my mind is that they’d pass a national ‘Right to Work.’ They want to do much more than that. They want to take away the right from workers to bargain on conditions at work, their pensions, their healthcare.”

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Leading Michigan Democrats are in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention.
They all say Michigan will go for Obama on election day.

This is a partisan crowd. So, of course, they're going to say the President will be re-elected. But these Democrats also know that recent polls show Mr. Obama and Republican nominee and native son Mitt Romney are in a dead heat in Michigan.

Former Governor James Blanchard says Democrats must work hard if they want their man back in the White House.

Michigan Democrats say they welcome the question of whether President Obama’s record leaves Americans better off than they were four years ago.

Democrats get down to the business of explaining their case to re-elect Barack Obama today. Michigan delegates say Republican Mitt Romney’s plan for economic recovery is no different than President George Bush’s.

U.S. Senator Carl Levin says the contrast is that simple.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Some Michigan delegates at the Democratic National Convention say the Republicans had their chance to bash President Obama. This week they believe they will hear why Barack Obama has earned a second term in the White House.

Smarting a bit after the criticism by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan at the Republican National Convention, some Democratic delegates are anticipating President Obama’s response. Michigan delegates to the Democratic National Convention had some not so nice things to say about the Republican team that wants to take the White House.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This election year, the right to vote and access to the ballot have been hot topics this election year in states across the nation. But one group of sometimes disenfranchised voters is getting attention.

Last week, an op-ed piece hit many newspapers across the nation, including the Tampa Bay area. It was written by Hans von Spakovsky. He was in the George W. Bush administration and is now with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Democratic party leaders are rallying the troops on the first full day of the Democratic National Convention.

Not all the Michigan delegates have arrived at the convention because of Labor Day events back home. But a few delegates gathered today to hear from their party’s leader, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Recent polls show President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney running neck and neck in Michigan. Wasserman Schultz told the Michigan delegates they have work ahead of them.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Delegates to the Democratic National Convention are gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina to nominate Barack Obama for a second term as president. Others are in Charlotte trying to build political momentum for a cause.

Yesterday the streets of downtown Charlotte were filled with protestors.

(Sound of drums and chanting) "Education not deportation!"

(Updated)

A newly created group is challenging a ballot petition that would require a vote on future international bridge and tunnel crossings.

The group Taxpayers Against Monopolies supports a New International Trade Crossing between Detroit and Windsor, so it’s challenging a ballot petition filed by The People Should Decide which is supported by the Ambassador Bridge owners, the Moroun family.

The ballot petition would require a vote on all international crossings that use any taxpayer money.

Dilapidated homes in Delray near Detroit.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The fight between Governor Rick Snyder and Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun about a new bridge connecting Detroit and Canada will be in the news for the foreseeable future. What’s often lost in the arguments is the people of the Detroit neighborhood where the new bridge will land.

Elaine Ezekiel / Michigan Radio

Governor Snyder is pushing for a new $2 billion bridge from Detroit to Canada. The owners of the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge are fighting to stop that new bridge. The latest move is to get a constitutional amendment calling for a vote of the people before building any new bridge to cross the border. That will give the company another avenue to delay or stop the new bridge from being built.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The arguments for and against building a new bridge to Canada at Detroit, for the most part, have been pretty one-sided. The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are fighting it and spending tons of money in TV ads. 

If you watch TV at all, you’ve probably seen one of the Ambassador Bridge-sponsored ads criticizing plans for a new bridge.

“Governor Snyder says, ‘Send Canada the bill.’ But, the Canadians have other ideas.”

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

There’s been a lot of confusion about how much a new bridge across the Canadian border at Detroit might cost taxpayers. TV ads say it will cost Michigan taxpayers $100 million a year. The governor says it will cost Michigan nothing.

http://buildthedricnow.com

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says we need a new bridge to Canada. It will mean more trade and more and better jobs. Not everyone agrees, especially the owners of the single bridge in Detroit which connects Michigan to Canada.

Eight thousand trucks a day cross the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

nopsa.hiit.fi

UPDATE:

Reports of voters being turned away because they declined to check a box asking them to verify U.S. citizenship have been coming in from several areas of the state.

Michigan Radio first became aware of the situation when talking to Michigan Campaign Finance Network's Rich Robinson who said he was refused a ballot because he would not check the box. He refused because it is not legally required.  Other media sources picked up on the story. (see Free Press)

Other political groups received calls from voters complaining they had been refused the right to vote after declining to check the citizenship box.

Chad Livengood with the Detroit News reported:

Shop Rat Nation

Jul 16, 2012

Nov. 9, 2007
Lester Graham
The school system in this country in general has been going away from the vo-tech and shop classes. But one program provides an opportunity for college prep students to get some shop experience.

user Mikerussell from Wikimedia Commons

Updated

A reported bomb threat closed the Detroit Windsor Tunnel today for several hours. Almost all of the tunnel’s traffic is passenger cars. Traffic was diverted to the only other alternative to cross the border, the Ambassador Bridge. Congestion slowed traffic.

It was certainly an inconvenience for travelers, but the economic impact of the tunnel closure was minimal.

However, if the Ambassador Bridge were closed for hours or days for any reason, it would be a much different story.

Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who were cut from welfare cash assistance by a Department of Human Services decision late last year. 

Some Michigan welfare recipients get reprieve

By Ron French/Bridge Magazine

This election year has seen a huge increase in the amount of money being spent on political campaigns compared to previous years. A lot of that money is being spent on negative political ads on TV.

As Michigan’s primary election gets closer, and the general election is only four months away, we’re going to see more and more political TV ads. And the bulk of those ads are going to be negative ads.

“I hear the negativity all the time. I’m tired of it. Tell me what it is you want to do not what you think the other guy is going to do," said Troy Hemphill.

“I don’t like to listen to that. I want some positive information," Kiirsten Olson insisted.

“Even when you think, ‘I’m not going to listen to negative ads, I’m not going to listen to negative ads,’ and then one creeps inside your brain. And then it sticks,” Shannon Rubago bemoaned.

Those are pretty typical responses of a couple of groups of people we talked to. We showed them a series of negative ads to see what their reactions would be.

Former Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter jammed with his blues band after announcing his run for the presidency over the July 4th weekend in 2011.
Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

The race for the seat in the Michigan 11th Congressional District was expected to be an incumbent representative running for re-election in a safe district. Political observers were stunned to learn Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s campaign messed up. The Congressman’s name will not appear on the ballot in the primary election in August.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Broadcasters are fighting a new rule to disclose more about who’s buying political ads. The Federal Communications Commission wants TV stations to post information about the political ads they air on a government website.

That will make it a lot easier to find out what groups are spending money to influence voters.

Recently, I met Rich Robinson in the parking lot of his office in Lansing. He was taking me on a little trip.

It appears a superPAC and other political groups are coordinating their purchases of TV ads running in Michigan.  This means a more efficient use of secret money to influence voters.

Michigan TV stations across the state are running a series of ads critical of President Obama and his administration.

Here's an example of one of the ads.

The Michigan legislature will soon vote on whether to shift more of the state’s tax burden from business to households.  Last year the legislature and the governor shifted about one-and-a-half billion dollars in tax payments from small and medium sized businesses to retirees and the working poor. This year there’s a proposal to cut another business tax. That proposed tax cut could mean higher real estate taxes for homeowners and revenue cuts to local governments.

user Biodun / themedicalhealthplus.com

Elected state officials in Michigan can be more secretive about money than federal officials. At the state level, the disclosure laws on money and politics make it easier to hide conflicts of interest and influence on politicians.

When Governor Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State address last January, he tucked into it a quick mention about making state government more open.

Wyoming Upper Green River Valley / Flickr

This is a speech I recently gave to a Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism meeting in Detroit on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing.

BENEFITS

According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, we are seeing an unprecedented drop in the price of natural gas in comparison to oil prices.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel. In 2002, oil was about $20 a barrel.

Natural gas is currently at 2002 prices. In fact, the price of natural gas is half of what it was one year ago.

Why? Because of abundant supplies of natural gas, what the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls “robust inshore production.”

There is a glut of gas.

This increased supply is mostly due to hydraulic fracturing. More importantly, a newer way to use the drilling method, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal ‘fracking’ has made it easier and cheaper to extract natural gas from shale deposits in the U.S. and other sites around the globe.

Horizontal fracking has meant a boom in gas drilling and production. It’s meant more jobs in certain areas of the country. It’s meant greater dependence on domestic energy, and less dependence on foreign energy.

Because burning natural gas emits about half of the CO2 emissions of coal or oil, it means less of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

It’s meant families can heat their homes more cheaply.

That all sounds good, right?

Well, it’s not ALL good.

 Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who were cut from welfare cash assistance by a Department of Human Services decision late last year. 

Eleven thousand Michigan families were cut from welfare cash assistance late last year. Cash assistance is the $500 a month or so that helps the poorest families pay their bills and rent.  The Department of Human Services says the state can’t afford the cost.  So, the agency cut off those who’d been on welfare the longest. Advocates for the poor say there’s no need for those cuts… there’s plenty of federal money to pay for the benefits.

While the agency and advocates argue and maneuver in court, thousands of families are in trouble. Here's one family's story.

MI Supreme Court

Lots of campaign money is being spent to influence the election of Michigan Supreme Court justices. That makes people wonder how judges can be impartial. After  all, some of the justices owe their position on the bench to people who have given them millions of dollars.

Every election cycle more and more money is being spent to help candidates for justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. With three seats on the court in contention this year, the amount of money is likely to break all records.

Michigan Radio and Bridge Magazine are collaborating on a year-long look at the families terminated from Michigan's welfare cash assistance. This is the latest installment from Bridge.

By Ron French/Bridge Magazine

Todd Stafford has an uncontrollable neurological disorder that causes him to beat himself in the head hundreds of times a day. The beatings have made him blind and caused his head to “look like Frankenstein,” he says. His wife, Tina Stafford, doesn’t have a job because someone needs to be at their St. Joseph County home in case Todd injures himself seriously.

(Click here for the entire story.)

Michigan’s Republican presidential primary elections are over.  But, primary elections for federal and state legislators are in August.

Already out-of-state groups are spending tons of money to influence Michigan voters.

Big money often buys votes. Usually, that includes a lot of big money from out-of-state groups.

Many voters suspect politicians are corrupted by money. Campaign contributions and cozy relationships with lobbyists make voters wonder if their elected officials have their best interests at heart. That’s led to attempts to fix the problem in Michigan, but observers say sometimes the ‘fix’ makes the problem worse.

Politicians need money to run campaigns to win elections. And often that money comes from the rich and powerful. But what do those politicians get in return?

user tobym / Flickr

This election year, money will drive the conversation in politics more than usual because of  recent Supreme Court decisions. They opened the floodgates of cash, allowing groups called Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of federal candidates. We’re getting just a small sampling during the presidential primary.  This fall, Michigan will see a lot of money from outside the state coming in to buy tons of ads—most of them negative—to sway voters here.

Money can’t vote. But it certainly can affect the outcome of an election. And that bothers voters such as William Mayor.

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