From Seeds Sown in Override Battle, a Lesser Outlook Was Born…
LONGMEADOW—In the shadow of the 2002 recession, each community felt cuts to local aide—inevitable as acting Governor Jane Swift ruled out new revenue—in their own way. During an assembly in January that year, students, faculty and staff at the high school gathered and learned what the ripple effect here would be: teacher layoffs. Forty positions would have to go.
For Vivian Morse, the prospect of unemployment became real days after an attempt to override the town’s Proposition 2 ½ levy limit failed. Per the teachers’ contract, she, along with 104 fellow teachers, received notice that her job would likely be eliminated in the coming school year.
While the letter phrased the warning in the conditional, Morse said, “I definitely would have been one of the layoffs.” What she taught, business and technology, was not a core subject and faced the chopping block along with arts and music programs.
In the end, however, Morse did not lose her job and while schools sustained cuts for the 2002-2003 year, they were not nearly as dramatic. Morse, whose curly hair and inviting smile has appeared in voters’ mailboxes in recent weeks, credits one of her students, Eric Lesser, with organizing a push to plug some of the gap in the budget, save teachers’ jobs and minimize the growth in class sizes.
Lesser, a former White House aide running for the senate seat Gale Candaras is vacating, has highlighted his role in the override during his campaign on the stump and in campaign literature. For Lesser, that campaign serves as an early and enduring experience with both grassroots organizing and the political process. His campaign has marketed it as a local accomplishment as his political opponents maneuver to recast Lesser’s time in Washington and at Harvard as an absence that left him unfamiliar with the needs of the region.
On September 9 Lesser will face Springfield City Councilor Timothy Allen, Ludlow School Committee member James “Chip” Harrington, Longmeadow social worker Thomas Lachiusa and Ludlow Selectman Aaron Saunders in the Democratic primary for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate District.
Funding schools has been a complex juggling act in the wealthy suburb for years, especially as the state has pulled back on non-school financial aid to cities and towns. In turn, town officials have redirected the town’s share of education funding to other municipal functions, often prompting protest from parents and school officials including as recently as last year.
But when Lesser was still a student at Longmeadow High School, the impact of the 2002 recession roiled the budgets in a way it would not in following years. Even as the schools faced continuing funding challenges in the years afterward, politics or successful hunts for change in the town’s couch cushions held off the multimillion dollar cuts threatened in 2002.
Many communities held overrides, largely to maintain school operations, some unsuccessfully. East Longmeadow rejected several overrides around the same time.
“It was a time of cutting back,” Saul Finestone, Vice-Chair of the Longmeadow Democrats, remembered.
“Teachers were going to get fired and not coming back,” Lesser recalled in a phone interview. But, with about 40 of his classmates, “we decided were going to something about it.”
Under Proposition 2 ½, a community can only raise 2.5% more property tax revenue year over year, excluding taxable new growth (i.e. new construction, additions to houses, etc). An override permits a town to raise more than that “levy limit,” provided it is earmarked for a specific purpose.
Contemporary media accounts imply a lot back and forth among the Select Board, School Committee and other town officials between that January assembly and the first override vote on May 21. Ultimately, a $3.65 million override was submitted to voters, just days after the Town Meeting agreed to a budget that assumed the money would be approved.
Students and parents, particularly the PTA, led the charge to support the overrides. Lesser, then a junior class president, oversaw the student organizing effort. Teachers participated, too, but not as prominently as students and parents.
“We mapped out the whole town,” Lesser said. “The heart of the effort was knocking every door.” Media reports from 2002 say students staged rallies where Longmeadow Street meets the I-91 ramps.
While the campaign was a new outlet for Lesser’s involvement, he had been active in politics by this time. Lesser had served as class president for many years, volunteered with town’s Democratic committee and political campaigns and served as a House page for US Rep. Richard Neal.
“Eric was a great organizer,” Finestone said. “He got the high school kids and their parents and went around and tried the override.”
Despite those efforts, the first override failed 2722-1708. Speaking to The Union-News at the time, Lesser characterized the first vote a “slap in the face” to students. Morse observed, though, that Lesser, the students and their allies were undaunted.
“We had to deal with this,” she said, “and fortunately we had young people like Eric who had that naïve positive attitude…a belief that things can change. And it did.”
Lesser characterized the second override attempt, scheduled only about a month after the first, as a lesson in compromise and finding common ground. In an email, town clerk Katherine Ingram told WMassP&I the June 25 override vote was for $2 million almost half the earlier amount. However, turnout doubled at the second override, winning 3542-2546. In recent years only the debt exclusion garnered higher turnout.
“Didn’t get it the first time. Got it the second time,” said Finestone, who is supporting Lesser for senate. “He has shown political prowess,” Finestone said speaking of Lesser more broadly.
The impact of the layoff notices and students going out into the community to talk to voters, “That’s what convinced people,” Lesser said. School and town officials were able to avoid layoffs with the smaller increase although some vacant positions went unfilled.
Many have seen the override as a prelude to Lesser’s future with then Senator Barack Obama’s campaign. While much of Massachusetts, including Cambridge apparently, were with the Clintons, the grassroots emphasis Obama’s presidential appealed to Lesser.
“You can see the same kind of ‘we did it we can do it again’” attitude, Morse said of Lesser’s path in life.
Morse and her husband Wayne, also a teacher, obviously like Lesser. She has appeared on his campaign mailings as has another teacher whose job was threatened, Jamie Dibbern. Morse, of East Longmeadow, has hosted events for Lesser and attended campaign phone banks. The two have kept in touch since Lesser graduated in 2003.
Recalling a visit from Lesser shortly before the senate campaign began, Morse said, “He came to our home and when he walked out the door, Wayne and I looked at each other and said he is the same person he was 15 years ago.” To her, Washington had not made her former pupil “slick.”
The override battle crystalized a belief Lesser holds to this day about politics. “It is ultimately one of the most powerful ways to solve problems,” he said.
Most people, Lesser explained, view politics as a “dirty, nasty business” or “this abstract game that goes on somewhere other than where we are.” The battle made clear to him and others that the actions in Boston are not a remote chess game unconnected to life here.
Critics, including Lesser’s opponents, have argued his emphasis on grassroots politics belies his robust fundraising and high-powered contacts. Lesser dismisses that as cynicism, letting it roll off his back.
In the years since the Obama campaign, it would be easy for even the most ardent supporters to have their faith in the process dimmed. Lesser has not apparently. Getting involved, he says, remains, “The best way to make a difference.” Even after the White House, Lesser said he believes even more firmly that one has to work locally as “change does not happen from the top down.”
“Yes, people feel even more cynicism than when I was 16,” Lesser continued, “I still remain as committed to that principal as ever.”
Twelve years later, Lesser asserts his own campaign observes the grassroots lessons gleaned from the override. In this way, Lesser is not wholly unique. His opponents are running campaigns from the ground up, some more successfully than others. All but Lachiusa, have run municipal campaigns before.
Morse observed the legacy of the override campaigns is the intergenerational support Lesser has found. “It was inspiring to see this young man has brought together a coalition of people who believe that the future can be different,” she said.
Since that override campaign, though, Lesser has seen other political disappointments. But perhaps because Lesser and his allies’ faith in the process was rewarded with the override, it has not deterred him. Even now he said, that belief and hope still drive him in his campaign.
“In a time of frustration, it is even more important to engage,” he said echoing themes from the stump. “The alternative is giving up and we cede control to the same people who got us here.” As with the Longmeadow override and DC defeats, in his campaign Lesser said he has seen optimism despite Western Mass’s troubles.
Not surprisingly, Morse is one such optimist. “I think he’s going to make a great state senator,” she said. “It is something we here in Western Massachusetts will look back on and think we got the right thing. Beacon Hill will be impressed.”