Against Dark National Mood, Dukakises Rally for Lesser…& Public Service…
EAST LONGMEADOW—With Election Day nearing, former Governor Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty were here to rally volunteers on behalf of Senator Eric Lesser and return him to Beacon Hill for another term. With a mix of nostalgia and prospective-minded praise for Lesser, Dukakis emphasized the importance of down ballot races like the one for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district, even in the context of the national contest looming overhead.
The Dukakises support for Lesser goes back to 2014. The senator’s agenda mirrors some of Dukakis’s priorities from the 1980’s especially on transportation and drug treatment. But set against a race that has become noxious—far more than the one Dukakis contested in 1988—there was a certain urgency to bolster the more optimistic politics Lesser has pitched since he starting his own political career.
“Nobody tell yourself you cannot make good things happen,” Dukakis said he tells his students, despite the grim political climate.
Lesser faces Ludlow School Committee member James “Chip” Harrington, who competed against Lesser in the 2014 Democratic primary before joining the GOP this year. The 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district consists of Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Wilbraham and about a third of Chicopee and Springfield each.
Calling Lesser “idealistic” and “committed,” Dukakis, who served as governor from 1975 to 1979 and again from 1983 to 1991, regaled the crowd with his own efforts to improve rail service and battle drug addiction. The former governor noted his wife’s public struggles with addiction and called for a broader conversation about substance abuse treatment including and beyond opiates.
But Dukakis, a grassroots organizing legend in the lore of Massachusetts Democratic politics, also emphasized the importance precinct-by-precinct campaigning, like the door-knocking and phone calls supporters would soon do.
The Dukakises’ relationship with the Longmeadow Democrat dates to the latter’s stint in the White House as David Axelrod’s assistant. As volunteers snapped up clipboards to knock doors and fired up phones to make calls behind the senator’s office here, the former governor told WMassP&I Lesser helped Kitty Dukakis with an issue involving one of her causes, refugees. An individual she knew was threatened with deportation and Lesser helped facilitate a resolution.
A shared interest in public service kept their relationships going and led to their support in 2014 and this year.
Out of office for 25 years, Dukakis gamely took pictures with volunteers. He broke into Spanish talking to another and greeted former State Rep Dave Vigneault, with whom Dukakis had once served in the state House. The Dukakises later joined Lesser canvassing voters.
Speaking on a pet issue of his, Dukakis said better rail service between Boston and Springfield was entirely doable, but also “the single most important transit project in New England.”
“It’s not that complicated,” he told the volunteers in his remarks. Governor Charlie Baker, who has endorsed Harrington, “did everything he could” to halt Lesser’s efforts to order an implementation study.
As Lesser has, Dukakis noted work done between Boston and Worcester. However, he went further, praising Connecticut for its upgrades between Springfield and New Haven.
To revive the economy in the 413, he said it was “essential Springfield be connected both to Boston and New York with excellent rail service.”
A spry 82, the upbeat Dukakis’ mood dimmed even as he willingly spoke about Trump and the national mood the real estate tycoon and provocateur has let loose upon the country.
“This guy Trump,” he trailed off briefly. “It’s not that we’ve not had characters like Trump,” naming red-baiting Joe McCarthy and radio priest Father Charles Coughlin‘s antisemitism.
“I’m sure we’ve not had anybody who is a party nominee who makes things up as he goes,” Dukakis said, later pointing to the GOP nominee’s call for the candidates to take drug tests before the next debate.
Even as he disagreed with his presidential opponent in 1988, George H.W. Bush, Dukakis clearly respected the former president—Dukakis remarked it was “to his credit” that Bush was voting for Hillary Clinton over Trump.
The politics of optimism that Lesser espouses seems much in line with the former governor’s, but that too is feeling the squeeze in this political season. While Harrington has disowned and disavowed Trump, there is a sense the Lesser camp feels the case Harrington has brought against the incumbent is a knock it all down, baby with the bath water approach. Lesser must go simply because he has sought a career in public service, regardless of the quality of his work.
That Dukakis would reject this notion is no surprise. He called public service “a noble thing to do” and hoped his students and others interested in government would not be deterred.
“I want public service to be something young people aspire to,” he said.