A Lesser Bid for Reelection, but No Less Determined…
SPRINGFIELD—This is not like previous elections.
As Senator Eric Lesser launches his reelection bid Thursday night, it will be a unique experience. Historically, when officials he helped elect sought reelection, he had moved on to other things. In 2014 during his first bid for office, Lesser was a fresh face. Now he must defend his two years in office, but in a time of particular angst.
“This is a deeply cynical time in politics,” Lesser said, “and rightly so.”
Two years after squeaking into the Democratic nomination for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district and winning the general more comfortably, Lesser hopes to channel a busy term into a robust reelection. James “Chip” Harrington, among those Democrats Lesser vanquished in 2014 has resurfaced as a Republican, seeking to block Lesser’s return to Beacon Hill.
The 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district consists of Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Wilbraham and about a third of Chicopee and Springfield.
“Elections are fundamentally about the future,” Lesser, 31, said. “Where we want our region going, where we want Massachusetts headed.”
The race may have seemed dormant against the din of the boisterous Hampden Sheriff primary. However, the cold war had its first hot moment when Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has endorsed Harrington, effectively vetoed Lesser’s feasibility study of Boston to Springfield rail service.
Over a plate of stuffed beef with rice at a Vietnamese restaurant here, Lesser brushed off the study’s derailment, promising to refile the measure in January. “That’s the role of a senator from Western Mass. It is to fight for Western Mass.”
Better connecting the commonwealth’s western frontier with its capital was a marquee issue for Lesser in 2014, but it ran aground powerful interests this year. Despite support from the area chamber of commerce and Economic Development Council, it was shorn from this year’s budget shortly after bus magnate Peter Picknelly reportedly spoke to Baker.
“The governor may be focused on things happening in Eastern Mass, I’m not sure,” Lesser said.
Baker proposed a working group to look at all regional transportation, but Lesser ultimately rejected the governor’s alternative.
Speaking to the Forest Park Civic Association Tuesday night, he explained, “The study has to be robust enough to mean something.” The working group would be “just a bunch of politicians” talking, he continued. A feasibility study would involve engineers.
The murmuring crowd seemingly concurred. One resident urged Lesser to inform them when the measure comes up again so they can lobby legislators and the governor to support it.
The issue is set to become a campaign rallying cry as John Walsh, former Gov. Deval Patrick’s campaign manager and a former state Democratic party chair, demonstrated while visiting Longmeadow Democrats Wednesday night.
“No, we won’t accept your veto.” Tying the veto to Baker’s support of Harrington, Walsh added, “We want him [Lesser] in our district!”
In many ways the map favors Lesser. Presidential turnout in Chicopee and Springfield and across the district—especially for Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump—works in Lesser’s favor.
But Harrington, 48, is a dogged campaigner. He has tried to shave off votes even in super-Democratic Springfield. The state GOP’s office is in vote-rich East Forest Park and some precincts there went to Baker in 2014.
Lesser has not neglected the city. Stops at civic associations like Forest Park’s are not rare (he took questions until residents had none). He has secured funds for Springfield projects and utilized his chairmanship of the Tourism and Arts committee to feature city cultural events and attractions. Lesser’s kickoff will be here at Nathan Bill’s restaurant.
Still, “Never take anything for granted,” he said, unabashedly promising to run and win on his record. “Two years ago I asked voters to trust us to work on a few core things,” and Lesser claims progress on all of them.
Campaign officials promise a detailed argument marshalling a list of accomplishments from battling the opiate crisis to bringing dignitaries to the region, boosting manufacturing and the cultural economy.
Lesser himself pointed to a bulk-purchasing program for Narcan, an anti-overdose drug, which could become a model for stop price-gauging on other drugs. The Longmeadow Democrat also co-chairs the Senate’s Millennial outreach efforts, which is expected to produce more legislative proposals next year.
The campaign will delve into the municipal level too and feature endeavors in all nine communities Lesser represents. On the stump, he may be just as likely to talk about a playground in Hampden as addiction recovery coaches at Bay State’s emergency room.
— Baystate Health (@Baystate_Health) September 13, 2016
“All of that is in progress and none of that is inevitable,” Lesser assured.
The conclusion of the Democratic primary may provide Lesser another weapon. Democratic Hampden Sheriff nominee Nicholas Cocchi’s resounding 20-point win last week owed as much, perhaps far more, to organization and data than endorsements, including Lesser’s. Sources say Cocchi’s 16 Acres headquarters will serve as a Democratic coordinated office and Cocchi is eager to put his primary apparatus to work for Lesser.
Nor are Lesser supporters conceding Republican-trending Ludlow, home to both Cocchi and Harrington. At his victory party last week, Cocchi supporters planned to contest Ludlow, which Harrington and Republican Debra Boronski won in the 2014 primary and general elections respectively. Not so-subtly, Maureen Rooney, of the Ludlow Cares Coalition, a group fighting in the battle against substance abuse, will introduce Lesser Thursday according to a campaign release.
The campaign is expected to include mail and media, but field is critical. Weekly canvasses have already begun—Walsh knocked doors Wednesday in Springfield—and Lesser drew legions of volunteers in 2014.
Still, Lesser will face attacks similar to those from 2014. Although his out-of-state for fundraising has lessened this year, Harrington has taken aim at Lesser’s financial support, insisting it compromises the senator.
Lesser pushed back. “We’ve shown a willingness to buck the system and challenge the most powerful interests in Boston and Springfield,” an allusion to individuals like Picknelly who have historically flooded money into local garnering outsized influence in local affairs. “I’m not afraid to speak truth to power and fight for what’s right in Western Mass and Boston.”
While comfortable in the generally more liberal Senate, Lesser noted cooperation with Republicans. His Millenial initiatve co-chair is the archconservative Webster Senator Ryan Fattman and Lesser said he worked with Westfield Senator Donald Humason to help maintain the Holyoke Soldier’s Home’s independence.
Lesser’s most potent armament, however, may be a familiar one. Seeded in the school funding override campaigns of 2002, but blossoming while working as a grunt for Obama’s presidential bid and later as David Axelrod’s assistant, Lesser retains an optimism about the political process.
He still described a new style of politics. This politics, he says, is about “challenging the gospel of how things have been done” and “working to create some real change in the system rather than just getting along.”
He says it is not naïveté, but faith. If Lesser’s faith is rewarded, it will be because voters are hopeful theirs will be, too.