Echoing Statewide Bids, Lesser Tactics Marry Past & Present…
UPDATED 7/21/14 3:14 PM: For grammar and clarity.
EAST LONGMEADOW—Nik Nadeau was not sure if everybody was clearly in the frame as he took a picture of Eric Lesser supporters lined up in front of the sign-filled windows of the campaign office.
“I need everybody to take a microstep in,” the volunteer from Chicopee said. The mob that included friends, family, volunteers, interns and a former First Lady of the Commonwealth—dotted with blue Lesser T-shirts—obliged. Crammed together and then photographed, the forty-odd people dispersed to collect their clipboards and literature for the “Day of Action.”
The campaign claimed canvassers knocked on over a thousand doors. Besides putting in work, the Day of Action was a show of force for Lesser. Sometimes cast by some opponents as a well-financed interloper in this race, the phalanx of supporters underscored one of his oft-ignored strengths: local boots on the ground.
But for special guest Kitty Dukakis, most of the volunteers that day were local. Another squad led by Justin and Denise Hurst were out canvassing and unavailable for the photograph. Despite their absence, it was apparent from how many present that Lesser’s camp is not relying on only cash, cachet or connections.
A former staffer in President Barack Obama’s administration, Lesser is locked in battle with Springfield City Councilor Tim Allen, Ludlow School Committee member James “Chip” Harrington, Longmeadow social worker Thomas Lachiusa and Ludlow Selectman Aaron Saunders. They are competing in the Democratic primary for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district.
Tucked behind the Big Y the Lesser campaign office is a beehive of activity. Parking is decent and the office is about right-sized for a district of well north of 150,000 people. Long tables line the walls for interns and staff to lay out their laptops and enter data.
Speaking to the volunteers, Dukakis, whose husband Michael served three terms as governor, said her husband had a rule not to endorse in primaries. “I didn’t care what he had to say,” in Lesser’s case. Noting her husband’s absence (now a professor he was grading papers), Dukakis said she and her husband decided to break their rule because they “recognize he [Lesser] has such special properties.” Lesser’s presence would deliver a “much better senate” she added.
A grateful Lesser, flanked by wife Alison Silber and infant daughter Rose, thanked Dukakis and launched into his stump speech. Lesser said his earliest voting memory was his mother, Joan, announcing “we’re voting for Michael Dukakis,” likely in 1988. He closed by assuring this was only the “First of many days of action.”
As a campaign event, it was the first Day of Action, but by almost any standard, Lesser, like his opponents, has been grinding out his campaign for longer. Virtually all of the Democratic campaigns recognize he has been working exceptionally hard. On a comparative level, some estimate that only Ludlow’s Harrington comes anywhere close to the hard work and ubiquitous presence Lesser has shown.
In Massachusetts Democratic politics, Michael Dukakis is seen as the godfather of modern political campaigning, despite reviving a startlingly simple and classic strategy. In an age when television ads had come to dominate politics, Dukakis focused on person to person campaigning, that is door-knocking, phone calls, house parties and the like to win an unlikely gubernatorial bid in 1974 and then stage a comeback in 1982 after losing reelection four years earlier.
Somewhat lost after Dukakis left the electoral arena, the tactic, joined with modern political tools, was revived. Mixing in data and aggressive social media use, its resurrection mimics the grassroots efforts that elevated one-time Brookline State Rep Michael Dukakis to Massachusetts governor, just as it elevated attorney Deval Patrick to governor and law professor Elizabeth Warren to the Senate.
The Dukakises told Warren she would need a massive volunteer operation to win. In the end, she outdid Patrick’s historic 2006 campaign. Lesser has been trying to do the same, or at least on a level unlike his opponents, who, too are trying build grassroots campaigns. Even at a 1/40 scale, directly comparing Warren’s race to Lesser’s feels off. Moreover, Warren had no primary, but turnout at Lesser’s event was still high.
The crowd was a mix of Lesser backers and folks who worked on Dukakis’ gubernatorial and presidential bids. Candy Glazer, who heads the Longmeadow Democrats and serves as Lesser’s campaign chair, was both. The couple met Lesser as chair of the Harvard Democrats. As a former Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis and his wife were no strangers in Washington. Lesser became their point of contact at the White House and grew close, often visiting when the one or both Dukakises were in DC.
The interaction between Lesser and Kitty Dukakis seemed much more like friends than the less-than-rare awkward grin & greets between pols and/or political figures who barely know each other. Campaigning together, they aptly illustrated the mixture of past and future Lesser hopes, like Patrick and Warren, will deliver him to the victory.
True to the political tactics she and her husband espouse, Kitty Dukakis joined Lesser on his canvass a few miles away in Springfield’s Forest Park historic district. The senate district, snaking from Longmeadow to Belchertown, mostly only covers the city’s southeastern edges including the precinct in which the actual Forest Park is.
Winding through leafy roads and terraces, Dukakis and Lesser, and for a bit Glazer, too, knocked on a few doors, approached folks doing yard work, chatted with residents and dropped literature.
Springfield as a whole is expected to go for Allen, largely due to his likely edge in his council district, Ward 7. That ward turns out the most in elections and it is entirely within the district. However, on the turf cut for Lesser and Dukakis in adjoining Ward 6 along the park itself, the former White House aide seemed to have an edge.
Among those who were home, some reactions were enthusiastic, but not quite surprising. Hampden County Registrar of Deeds Donald Ashe and wife Margaret welcomed Lesser and Dukakis warmly. “Oh, my God!” Margaret Ashe said upon seeing them both.
“We’re supporting him 100 percent,” Don Ashe said. The Ashes’ son, Brian, Longmeadow’s State Rep, was the first high-profile endorsement Lesser received. Margaret Ashe recalled her and her husband’s efforts to help reelect the younger Ashe, but also noted Lesser helped Brian Ashe during the latter’s run for selectman some years before he became a state rep.
At another house, Lesser lived up to The New York Times’ “hug-prone” description. After Anne Marie Ferraro said “He’s got my vote,” Lesser embraced her. Her response, along with the Ashes’, and the undecideds’ and which folks were not home will become campaign data at the end of the day. Once at Field Director Michael Clark’s fingertips, thus begins the strategizing about how best to reach out to voters missed and to ensure the committed votes show up at the September 9th primary.
Data may be important, but traditional methods still matter. Lesser has been to countless tours, breakfast nooks and even other politicians’ events. He dropped by the Tech Foundry in downtown Springfield last week during Gov. Patrick’s visit. The Foundry, a nursery for high-tech startups, invited Lesser back Friday to speak to a class about bringing more of the Boston area’s tech economy to the Valley, and, presumably, how to make it happen.
An all-of-the-above strategy is essential for a candidate like Lesser, whose resume can get his foot in voters’ doors, but needs more—far more—to close the sale. With opponents who have put in a great deal of work and maintain their own bases off of which to draw, continual engagement is key for Lesser to keep supporters excited and motivated.
In Forest Park, this manifested itself in Tim & Joanne Oppenheimer. The couple met Lesser at one of the candidate’s house parties and was “persuaded” despite knowing Allen. Oppenheimer did one better than just commit support. Briefly joining the canvass, Oppenheimer directed Lesser and Dukakis to a few of his neighbors’ doors, including some that were not on the list.
After taking a picture with Dukakis and asking her to sign a campaign flyer, Oppenheimer told WMassP&I he was backing Lesser because “He’s a progressive Democrat. I think his positions are great!” Oppenheimer added that he was a union rep and was pleased Lesser had labor support, including locals of the IBEW and UFCW. The correctional officers’ union at the jail in Ludlow has backed Harrington.
On a nearby street, a gentleman, putting up a photo of Lesser and Dukakis on Instagram, was pleased to discover the campaign was on the photo-sharing service.
Other interactions were more subdued. The sound of a lawnmower practically begged the candidate and his canvassing companion to investigate. After speaking to a woman tending to her grass, Dukakis said with a laugh, “If we mowed her lawn, we’d get two votes.”
At another house, a woman told Lesser and Dukakis she recently lost her job at a pet store. Dropping into a low, serious tone, Lesser sympathized and mentioned his proposals to bring jobs to the area. The woman thanked them for stopping by, but before leaving, Dukakis offered one more endorsement, “He’s very special!”
Flattered, Lesser sheepishly flashed his trademark grin.