At Senate Debate, Levin-Epstein & Oliveira Peddle Goods They’d Bring to Boston…
SPRINGFIELD—Six weeks from the primary, candidates for open local races assembled here for one of the first in-person face-offs of the 2022 primary season. The Ward 7 Democratic Committee organized a debate, of sorts, inviting primary candidates for the open Governor’s Council seat and state senate seat to meet residents and then showcase their political wares.
Held in the community room of the spiffy new East Forest Park branch library, Ward 7 Democrats asked candidates questions about their backgrounds and policies. The senate side of the evening happened as Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser exits the Senate to run for lieutenant governor. Compared to the Governor’s Council bout, the Senate event had more energy but fewer direct barbs—maybe a mild subtweet or two.
Competing for Lesser’s seat are Ludlow Rep Jake Oliveira and Sydney Levin-Epstein, a former staffer for federal officials and campaigns. Whoever wins the primary will face Granby businessman Bill Johnson. The Democratic nominee will likely have an advantage though. Even the tides of Charlie Baker’s have done little to lift Republicans down ballot.
Formally named the Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester after 2022, redistricting altered its shape, too. From next year, it includes Palmer, South Hadley and Warren but covers less Chicopee and Springfield. Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Wilbraham remain.
Oliveira leaned right into his experience in government going back to late-aught election to the Ludlow School Committee. He pointed to Lesser’s retirement and that of Chicopee Rep Joe Wagner, the region’s legislative dean, as reasons his background fit the ticket for the seat.
“The role of state senator is something that’s so critical to our region, especially right now, when we’re losing a lot of similar leadership within the legislative delegation here in Western Massachusetts,” he said.
Oliveira listed legislation that recently passed expanding reproductive health access and renewable energy subsidies—while excluding biomass. He also featured the dollars he had brought back to the district in his sole term as a state rep.
“I’m proud to say that in my 19 months as a state representative, I secured over $17 million for local projects within my district,” the rep added.
Levin-Epstein quickly mobilized the underdog eagerness that has given the race heat. Laying out her own bio—going to STCC while working at Six Flags and then attending George Washington University—and seeing her family’s business struggle, she drew a line between the region’s potential and advocacy she assure she would provide.
“I want to build communities where people have the option to stay,” she said. “Right now, we’re facing an economic crisis in Western Massachusetts.”
She described working on Capitol and coming back to Western Mass, which, she underscored, was not doing nearly as well as the Eastern end of the state. Echoing comments she made at least as early as her kickoff, Levin-Epstein pointed to the potential of biotech in the 413’s underutilized mill space.
In terms of future legislation, Oliveira, who used to work for the group that lobbies on behalf of state universities, plugged efforts to arrest student debt. Among the bills Levin-Epstein emphasized was her own proposal to guarantee cancer screenings for firefighters. However, she also took aim at something missing in recent reproductive health access bills.
“There are crisis pregnancy centers across this senate district emotionally manipulating young people of reproductive age,” she said.
Pregnancy crisis centers, which tend to have veiled religious ties, advertise themselves as reproductive care centers. They usually provide little to no actual health care. Most only direct women away from abortion with misinformation. Yet, regulating them is difficult as they have enjoyed sympathetic ears in the US Supreme Court.
Levin-Epstein has played up reproductive health issues on the trail, although there is little daylight between her and Oliveira on policy. Still, a later question in the debate about community involvement let her spotlight a reproductive health information group she and others founded while SCOTUS cocked the hammer back and took aim at Roe.
She mentioned her activities with groups like the Children’s Miracle Network and the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Citing upticks in antisemitic incidents nationwide and in Massachusetts, she argued there was value in electing Jewish young people such as herself. She also claimed she would be youngest woman elected to the Senate if she won.
For his part, Oliveira noted his work at a Ludlow foundation formed after a young resident succumbed to opioid addiction. The opioid crisis has hit Western Mass particularly hard and action on the issue will be a major concern of whoever succeeds Lesser. Oliveira touted his service on boards like LUSO credit union, which gave him a chance to fete credit unions’ value to their communities.
The race to succeed Lesser is very different from the primary he won eight years ago. Although it ultimately came down to him and Tim Allen, the Ward 7 councilor in Springfield, the campaign was a five-person slog. Lesser won with a plurality before triumphing in the general with a majority.
Allen made a very deliberate pitch around his pitch to his public service, especially on the City Council and, by extension, his ability to represent local concerns in Boston. Although he had worked on local issues in high school, Lesser, had gone to Harvard and on to work for President Barack Obama. That background fueled an optimism but offered voters an assurance he could take on Beacon Hill’s disinterest in Western Mass.
Yet, the arithmetic of Lesser’s win obscures whether primary voters’ had any strong feelings about these dimensions of that race. Certainly voters did not care whether electeds spent every living, breathing moment in the Valley. Nor did they reveal a clear preference for local, state or federal resumes.
This race vaguely echoes those themes. Levin-Epstein is playing up coming home to region that forged her. Oliveira built up his career almost entirely in Greater Springfield, albeit with a day job that often took him to the State House. The similarities end there.
Oliveira is well-known within local educational and political circles. Levin-Epstein’s family goes back in the Valley further than Lesser’s. That Lesser could outraise Allen is no surprise, given Obama ties. That Levin-Epstein has outraised Oliveira, an incumbent rep, is quite different. It gives her resources to reach voters amid anemic media coverage. Yet, Oliveira can also speak about what he is doing in the legislature right now, one reason why reps running for higher office have advantages.
For example, on a question about climate change and protecting urban forest—which face threats in East Forest Park specifically—Oliveira quickly pivoted to a reforestation bill he has cosponsored.
“What we’re seeing not just in urban areas, we’re seeing in suburban or rural communities…is that they’re cutting up these forests and not just urban forest, old growth forests that are throughout Massachusetts to develop solar farms,” he said.
An 80’s era law, he said, all but compelled cities and towns to allow clearcutting for such projects. This happens even when they have parking lots and old mills solar farms could call home. The subject also let Oliveira tout his Environmental League of Massachusetts endorsement.
Having worked for US Senator Ed Markey, Levin-Epstein was not exactly disarmed on climate either.
“It takes a comprehensive collaborative approach to take bold leadership, something I’ve never stayed away,” she continued, calling for prosecution of environmental scofflaws.
“This is no longer just a talking point that we hear at presidential debates let alone Senate debates,” Levin-Epstein said.
Next to her, Oliveira nodded in approval.