Millennials A-Massing: The Wunderkinder Start off Early These Days…
UPDATED 1/12/15 1:20AM: For grammar & clarity.
Since Senator Edward Kennedy’s death in 2009, Massachusetts has endured a near endless election cycle that at last ended last November. While countless cities like Holyoke and Springfield will hold municipal elections this year, young candidate running in those cities could make 2015 a big year, too.
Following news that Holyoke Ward 6 Councilor Todd McGee would not run for reelection, Mark Riffenburg, 20, who once ran at-large unsuccessfully, announced he would seek the open seat. Down the road in Springfield, Jesse Lederman, 19, organized a campaign committee last year to run at-large in 2015.
Lederman and Riffenburg are not alone in announcing early. Riffenburg’s likely opponent, Kevin Jourdain, an at-large councilor, inexplicably announced for the ward seat already. While Springfield at-large incumbents are likely to seek reelection, the race in Ward 6 has already materialized.
Incumbent Ken Shea confirmed he will seek reelection. Kim Rivera, former councilor Amaad Rivera’s mother, filed paperwork for Ward 6 on December 31. The younger Rivera held the seat 2011 before running at-large unsuccessfully. He went on to work for the state and for Senator Ed Markey as Constituencies Director.
Lederman and Riffenburg’s candidacies standout, however, both because of the need to broaden their name recognition and to convince voters that their ages are not a liability.
“‘What could this person probably bring to the table,’ voters might ask, Riffenburg said during an interview. Young candidates, “have to take time to build trust with the electorate.”
“There is a lot of ground work to lay and I’m a first time candidate,” Lederman said, noting Springfield’s council races will compete with the mayoral election for attention. Reached by phone, Lederman confirmed a bid for City Council at-large. He said a public kickoff would be announced soon.
Riffenburg’s race has gotten some notable attention because of the McGee’s retirement and Jourdain’s decision to enter it, but most Council races do not capture much attention. In 2013 when Springfield’s Council races were the only thing on the ballot, the election drew little press.
In this way it makes sense for Lederman and Riffenburg to start off early to gather time to build up name recognition that, in a state or federal race, could be done more quickly through television ads.
Lederman has been at the forefront of several Springfield social justice battles, particularly the proposed biomass plant. However, he points to plenty of other civic experience, including holding office on the McKnight Neighborhood Council and serving on the Springfield Preservation Trust’s board.
He transferred to UMass-Amherst after a year at George Washington University. He made his decision to return while working for Don Berwick last summer. He served as Treasurer-elect Deb Goldberg’s Western Mass director after the primary and worked on Markey’s senate campaign in 2013.
His work on statewide campaigns was an opportunity to see “the bigger picture” of politics. “Being able to view Springfield with a statewide perspective is really important,” Lederman explained, adding the city must look beyond its boundaries for solutions.
Riffenburg, a student at Holyoke Community College, has likewise worked on several campaigns, including as an organizer in Holyoke for Martha Coakley. Earlier in 2014 he worked under Holyoke Treasurer Jon Lumbra as a deputy. While his job was eliminated due to budget cuts—many say deliberate ones—Riffenburg says he is better prepared now than when he first announced in mid 2013 for that year’s bid.
“At that point, my connections within the political system in Holyoke were very few,” Riffenburg said. Working directly with officials and voters offered a different perspective from his other activism. “You see how things work. You gain a wealth of knowledge,” he continued.
Each will still face huge challenges from fundraising to political resistance. Fundraising will take time—partly why they announced early—but both estimate they have between $1000 and $1500 in the bank.
Politics is a different matter. Lederman’s relationships with councilors vary, but if all incumbents stay put, his adversaries will be all five at-large councilors. He chose an at-large bid, in part, because it fit his outlook on the city.
Lederman’s focus would be constituent services, something universal to every ward. It is, he said, the how residents connect to their government, “Every resident should have a councilor they can count on.”
But this represents exactly where an upstart candidate like himself must be careful not come off as smug or offensive to rest of the Council with which he will serve.
The nuance, Lederman said, is to note this is about beginning the generational transition. “We need to elect young people to start the transition. Eventually, we are going to be who leads the city.”
Riffenburg’s fraught relationship with Jourdain is well-known. When McGee announced his retirement, Holyoke politicos viewed Riffenburg’s Ward 6 run as likely. Jourdain’s decision to swap his two decade stretch as an at-large councilor for a ward seat struck few as coincidental.
“I am not inclined to believe it is a personal thing,” Riffenburg said. The two have been at loggerheads before. Jourdain had objected to Riffenburg’s appointment as a deputy treasurer and successfully sought budget cuts to force Riffenburg’s termination. Jourdain and others contended Riffenburg was unqualified, although that is disputed.
Jourdain did not respond to questions about his relationship with Riffenburg for a prior story.
One thing is clear, if Jourdain tries to attack Riffenburg’s youth, it would be an odd tactic. Jourdain was in his early 20’s and UMass student when he first won his at-large seat in 1993.
Others could enter the Ward 6 race, but a Jourdain-Riffenburg smackdown appears likely. “I will openly acknowledge it will be an uphill battle,” Riffenburg stated.
But history can be kind to young people in such contests.
Voters in Springfield’s Ward 2 elected Mike Fenton over the nephew of a former mayor. Alex Morse unseated a sitting mayor. The young pols in this election cycle may take comfort in the fact that many of the region’s victorious younger candidates started off in uphill battles, too.