SPRINGFIELD—The filing period has yet to close in Massachusetts, but the race for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district has essentially gelled. Indeed, it is already moving onto the next phase, especially for Eric Lesser, the former White House aide, whose campaign has churned out a slew of positive press and the first inklings of policy. While he and others enjoyed their initial wave of endorsements, whatever their power, Lesser’s latest news appeared to be in itself on message for the candidate.
In a critical foray out of Lesser’s home turf and into his opponents’, his campaign announced that it had secured the support of Springfield’s newly minted political power couple. Both Justin and Denise Hurst, a freshman city councilor and a second term school committee member respectively, announced their backing for Lesser. Theirs is also the first big endorsements any candidate in this race has received from inside the political base of one of his opponents. Both Hursts are elected at-large.
Also running for the Democratic nomination are Springfield Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, Ludlow School Committee Member James “Chip” Harrington, Ludlow Selectman Aaron Saunders and Thomas Lachiusa, a counselor at the Hampden County Jail. The seat opened after incumbent Gale Candaras announced her decision to run for Registrar of Probate this year. Debra Boronski is the only declared Republican.
The district consists of about a third of Chicopee and Springfield as well as Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow and Wilbraham.
“Eric Lesser has the experience, commitment, and fresh perspective necessary to bring a positive change to Springfield,” Justin Hurst in the release from the Lesser campaign. “Eric began his own work in politics as a public school advocate, so he understands first-hand the transformative power of a quality education,” Denise Hurst said in the same statement, alluding to Lesser’s work on a Proposition 2 ½ override he led as a high school student amid budget cuts in 2003. The Hursts said they would be active in Lesser’s campaign, offering whatever they could between now and the primary and beyond.
The Hursts’ endorsement was a coup for Lesser and a strike in Allen’s backyard. As the councilor from Ward 7, Allen represents the highest turnout ward in Springfield, which covers neighborhoods like East Forest Park and the part of 16 Acres where the Hursts live. By most estimates, Allen is heavily favored to win this part of the city in the primary, but will also need to rack up big numbers in the City of Homes to overcome structural advantages Harrington, Lesser and Saunders have elsewhere. It remains to be seen if their bases could be vulnerable to incursions from non-hometown candidates.
Justin Hurst is the first Springfield councilor to break the pattern of endorsing Allen. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, the Council President, and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards have thrown their support behind their colleague and others are expected to follow. However, Hurst is the first at-large councilor to endorse, all 5 of whom live in the parts of Springfield within the 1st Hampden & Hampshire. No other School Committee members have indicated their preference yet.
Justin and Denise Hurst each took the top vote-getting place in their races last year. The win was a hard-fought battle for both Hursts, with Justin battling to make into the top five after a near miss in 2011 and Denise fighting off a challenge from Dr. Calvin McFadden. Justin ultimately succeeded, with former Council President Jimmy Ferrera falling off the stage in sixth place. McFadden joined the school committee race, coming in behind Denise and displacing Antonette Pepe.
The election was viewed in many quarters of the city as a referendum against business as usual in the city. While turnout was low, even by Springfield standards, the results showed a clear surge to the Hursts. During the campaign, Councilor Hurst, who would later be named chairman of the Young Professional Ad Hoc committee created by President Fenton, had focused on retaining and attracting young professionals and families like his to Springfield.
Like Justin Hurst, Lesser has discussed diminishing economic opportunities in the Pioneer Valley forcing younger residents to seek work and start lives elsewhere. “We know that improving our economy in Springfield requires retaining and attracting families, improving public safety, and creating first-class schools in Springfield and across our region,” Lesser said in his statement.
Justin Hurst is the son of Frederick and Marjorie Hurst, who have been figures in Springfield politics for years. Frederick Hurst was a former member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and owns The Afro-American Point of View, a newspaper catering to the city’s black community. Marjorie served on the School Committee until in 2009, the year her daughter-in-law was elected.
The elder Hursts have been defined to some extent as a noted, if not equal, counterbalance to others in the black community like Ray Jordan, the former State Representative and a Vice-Chair of the state Democratic Party. Since Marjorie’s retirement from electoral politics, their influence has existed primarily through the newspaper. While they certainly had a hand in Justin and Denise’s victories last year, that win, its tone and the margin itself indicated the emergence of a new Springfield political brand and the next generation breaking out rather than merely reviving the one before.
Hurst, speaking to WMassP&I on Monday, said he and his wife came to their decision after meeting with Lesser personally “at least three or four times.” He “presented his vision well and his vision includes Springfield,” Hurst explained noting Lesser’s campaign themes were similar to his own in 2013. In Lesser’s statement, Justin Hurst and his wife both noted how he and Lesser were both fathers of young children with first-hand concerns about their kids’ needs and the needs of their communities.
Parallels exist between the Hursts and Lesser and his wife Alison Silber. Lesser and his wife have a daughter, Rose, 9 months. The Hursts’ son, Justin, Jr. is 2. Lesser’s wife is an attorney, while the candidate has taken a leave from pursuing a degree at Harvard Law. The Hursts hold advanced degrees, too. Justin, an attorney, co-owns an investment company and Denise, is a Quality Improvement Manager with the Department Mental Health. She is also Secretary-Treasurer for the local division of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and serves on the state women’s commission.
The endorsement also adds a bit of diversity to race that consists of five white men. Justin Hurst offers some entre to the black community, but his wife Denise, who grew up in the North End and speaks Spanish, could be a key link to the city’s much larger Latino population. Although the pockets of Springfield in the district lean more white and affluent than the city as a whole, none are monochromatic. Moreover, whoever the State Senator is will, in effect, be expected to represent Springfield as a whole in conjunction with its other State Senator in the Hampden Senate seat.
Councilor Hurst is convinced that Lesser will keep the City of Homes in mind on Beacon Hill. “He also is a strong believer in bringing and retaining young talent in this city,” Hurst said speaking to WMassP&I. “I think that this is a problem that is present not just in Springfield, but throughout the region.”
“[Lesser] truly is the best candidate not only for Springfield” and “for this entire region,” he added.