Eric Lesser had collected his drink at the counter of the Springfield Starbucks and was heading to a table where a reporter was waiting to talk to him about his campaign for state Senate when he was intercepted by a man who greeted him warmly. The two chatted for a couple of minutes before parting, Lesser reminding the man of a campaign event he had planned for that weekend.
The man, Lesser explained as he settled into his seat, was the uncle of an old friend from Longmeadow High School. “So I do actually live here …” he said with a smile.
Where Lesser lives—or, more specifically, where he has lived for the past five years—has become a matter of considerable interest in the race for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District. Last month, Tim Allen, a Springfield city councilor and one of five Democrats competing for the party’s nomination, announced that he would ask the State Ballot Law Commission to rule on whether Lesser meets the legal requirements to run for the office. Under the Massachusetts Constitution, a state senator must live in the commonwealth for at least five years “immediately preceding” his or her election—a requirement that Lesser, who worked in Washington for the Obama administration in recent years, fails to meet, Allen charges.
Lesser maintains that his time in Washington amounted to a temporary assignment and that he always intended to return to Massachusetts. His focus, he told the Advocate, is on the issues in the district, not the sort of “politics as usual” that he says voters are tired of. “I think people are eager for a change,” he said. “There’s a sense that we’ve been let down by our political representatives. I’d say things like trying to kick people off ballots and deny voters choices is an important example of that.”
There’s rarely much glamour to be found in state Legislature races. But Lesser’s White House connections have certainly brought a hint of celebrity to the 1st Hampden and Hampshire race—along with a certain degree of breathlessness in the media coverage of his candidacy. “Eric Lesser has worked one door down from the Oval Office. He has celebrated Passover seders with President Barack Obama in the White House dining room,” Springfield Republican political reporter Shira Schoenberg wrote when Lesser announced his candidacy in February. “He has even nagged Obama senior advisor David Axelrod about the brown sugar Axelrod put on his oatmeal…”
Lesser entered Obama’s political circle as a volunteer during the 2008 presidential campaign. After Obama won the election, Lesser was hired as an assistant to Axelrod and later moved to a job as director of strategic planning for the presidential Council of Economic Advisers. (A 2010 New York Times article about young staffers in the Obama administration described the then-25-year-old Lesser as a “moon-faced, sweet-tempered special assistant, who also worked on the campaign as a baggage boy” and “something of a sprightly West Wing mascot: neurotic and prepared but earnest and funny in a kid-brother way.”)
Lesser left Washington in 2011 to enter Harvard Law School. This winter, when incumbent senator Gale Candaras announced her plans to leave the seat to run for Hampden register of probate, Lesser put his law studies on hold to enter the race.
It’s a competitive field, with five Democrats—Lesser; Allen; Ludlow School Committee member Chip Harrington; Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee member Tom Lachiusa; and Aaron Saunders, Candaras’ former chief of staff—competing in the September primary. The winner will face Republican Debra Boronski, a member of the East Longmeadow Select Board and president of the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, in the general election. Lesser has been campaigning hard, knocking on doors throughout the district, which comprises the entirety of East Longmeadow, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Wilbraham and Granby, as well as parts of Springfield and Belchertown. He’s also making the rounds of local parades and festivals, often with his wife, Alison Silber, an attorney, and their infant daughter, Rose, at his side.
It’s a face-to-face campaign style he learned as a 16-year-old, when he worked to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override to preserve teacher positions in the Longmeadow schools, Lesser said. “You can’t get more grassroots than that. I knocked on every door in my town.”
Lesser’s family is not political, but his parents—his dad is a family doctor; his mom, a social worker—have always been engaged in the community, he said. When he was a child the family moved to Massachusetts when Lesser from Queens, N.Y., where his dad drove a cab before becoming a doctor. Settling in the well-off suburb of Longmeadow was the family’s entrance into the middle class, and it opened doors for Eric and his sisters, including the chance to get a good education. “I’ve been blessed with tremendous opportunity, but I know how hard it is,” he said, referring to his family’s working-class background.
Today, Lesser continued, opportunities are fewer for the district’s young people. “This area used to have good industrial jobs” that paid workers salaries on which they could raise families. But many of those jobs are now gone, and high-tech employers that remain say they can’t fill vacancies for a lack of qualified applicants. “We need to find new economic approaches that will let the middle class grow and prosper as it used to,” including job training programs that will prepare a workforce that can fill the jobs available and attract new employers to the area, Lesser said.
The large number of schools in the area—creating the so-called “knowledge corridor”—should be an integral part of the district’s economic revival, Lesser added. He’s also a strong backer of high-speed rail service between the western and eastern ends of the state, which he believes can help the western counties enjoy the same post-recession economic recovery the greater Boston area has.
Lesser described himself as “skeptical” about the economic benefits that backers say casinos, including MGM’s proposed Springfield venue, would bring to the region. While such a project would provide the temporary benefit of thousands of construction jobs, “it is not a long-term solution to the economic challenges in our area,” he said.
Does Lesser support repealing the 2011 casino law, as opponents hope to do via a November ballot question? The candidate said he wants to see how the Supreme Judicial Court rules on a legal challenge that aims get that question on the ballot. (At deadline, that ruling was pending.) But as a legislator, he said, he would keep a close eye on the issue, including, if the projects go forward, making sure casino companies like MGM follow through on the promises they’ve made to their host communities.
Lesser’s time working for the White House has garnered his candidacy some extra media buzz. Earlier this spring, a Times reporter followed him as he campaigned around the district for a profile that described Lesser as one of the few members of the “Obama generation” to make the leap to running for office. (Manny Rovithis, himself a local celebrity for his starring role in television commercials for his appliance store chain, made a cameo in the article, gamely posing for a photo with Lesser.)
That coverage, however, also led to questions about whether Lesser has lived in the district long enough to run for the Senate seat. “There was a lot of stuff being written about this Washington life that he had,” Allen recently told the Advocate. A Republican article, for instance, noted Lesser’s time in Washington and said that a state senator “must have lived in Massachusetts for five years and be a resident of the district when elected.”
In fact, the Massachusetts Constitution specifies that a senator must live in the commonwealth for at least five years “immediately preceding” election—a requirement, Allen said, that Lesser doesn’t appear to meet. Under the law, he maintains, Lesser would need to have lived in Massachusetts since November of 2009. Lesser told the Advocate that he was in Washington from January of 2009 until July of 2011, when he came back to Massachusetts to attend law school. He lived in Cambridge until he entered the Senate race, when he and his family moved into his parents’ home in Longmeadow.
In an interview with the Advocate in April, shortly after Allen raised the residency question, Lesser declined to discuss the specifics but said, “Massachusetts has always been my home.” He also described Allen’s planned formal complaint with the Ballot Law Commission as “frivolous” and “designed to get headlines.” (Allen countered that it is Lesser, not he, who brings up the issue on the campaign trail.)
Earlier this month, Lesser released a statement in which he called Allen’s complaint a “desperate political maneuver.” In the release, Lesser described his job in the Obama administration as “an inherently temporary position” and said that during the time he worked in Washington, “I continued to vote in Massachusetts, maintained my driver’s license in Massachusetts, kept my bank accounts in Massachusetts, and regularly returned to Massachusetts for personal, family, and religious functions. There was no question that Massachusetts was my home, and where I intended to return when my public service in Washington ended.”
Lesser also pointed to several earlier residency challenges in which the Ballot Law Commission ruled in favor of candidates who’d spent time out of state working in public positions. Those candidates included former Springfield City Councilor Bruce Stebbins, who was deemed eligible to run for state representative in 1991 despite having worked in Washington for the Bush administration in the previous five years. (Stebbins lost the state rep race.) Lesser also cited an unsuccessful challenge to Mitt Romney’s residency after Romney returned to Massachusetts from Salt Lake City, where he had served as president of the organizing committee for the 2002 winter Olympics, to run for governor. In the Romney case, the Commission wrote in its decision that “an individual may be absent from his or her intended domicile while fulfilling certain employment obligations, without having been considered to have abandoned that intended domicile.”
As in his interview with the Advocate, Lesser’s press release accused Allen of trying to force him off the ballot and “take away voters’ choices rather than honestly debate the issues.”
Allen dismissed those accusations. “This isn’t politics, this is about the rules. There are rules that have been established,” Allen told the Advocate. “If you apply to be a lawyer and you don’t have law degree, you haven’t passed the bar, you can’t be a lawyer. Well, this job has requirements, too.”
And, Allen added, it’s important to address the question of Lesser’s residency now, before the Democratic primary. “Whoever wins in September … has to challenge and beat the Republican candidate, who’s out and about and campaigning. She’s a significant opponent,” Allen said. “Lets make sure that whoever is the winner of the Democratic primary is someone who can stand up to those kinds of questions.”
Allen planned to file his formal complaint with the Ballot Law Commission last week (he had tried to earlier but was told he needed to wait until Lesser had submitted his nomination signatures and become an official candidate) and expected a ruling some time in June.
Shortly before Allen raised questions about Lesser’s residency, he challenged his fellow candidates to pledge to accept no more than $5,000 in campaign contributions from out-of-state donors. “There’s so much big money in politics right now that we have to do something like this to make sure that people in the local area are the ones determining the fundraising and possibly the policies that get implemented from that area,” he told the Advocate at the time. (See “Bay State Money for Bay State Races,” April 23, 2014, http://www.valleyadvocate.com.)
While Allen said his proposal didn’t target any particular candidate, it stands to reason that Lesser, given his time working on the federal level, is likely to attract more money from outside of Massachusetts than his competitors. Harrington and Saunders have both agreed to the pledge, with Harrington also suggesting a $5,000 cap on lobbyist donations.
Lesser declined; while he’s “completely committed” to reducing the influence of money on politics, especially hidden donations, Allen’s proposed pledge doesn’t address that problem, he told the Advocate. His campaign, he continued, is grounded in the district—although he’s not apologizing for any donations that come from Washington connections. “I think it would be a little odd if people I worked with didn’t support me. I think it shows people I worked with believe in me and my vision,” he said.
At this point in the campaign, Lesser’s time in Washington seems to be a mixed blessing, bringing him an extra level of public attention while also, perhaps, making him a bit of a tempting target. But to Lesser, it’s an important part of a resume that he says leaves him uniquely suited for the state Senate seat. “I have a combination of local, state and national experience which I think will make me a more effective advocate for our region, which has been forgotten year after year,” he said.
By way of example, he pointed to the planned $260 million overhaul of the I-91 viaduct in Springfield, which will be overseen by the Mass. Department of Transportation but will be funded largely by federal money. “I’m the only candidate with federal experience,” Lesser said, and those connections would serve the district well when it comes to such a project. Having lived outside the district has given him a broader perspective, he continued, allowing him to see how other areas have dealt with the sorts of challenges facing Western Mass. And given the global nature of the economy, he added, a diverse background can only help when it comes to finding ways to rejuvenate the local economy.
Given the resume he’s built so far, it’s hard not to imagine that the 29-year-old Lesser has political aspirations that reach beyond the state Senate. (The recent Times article included an anecdote about Lesser’s running into Boronski, the Republican candidate, on the trail: “After exchanging pleasantries, Ms. Boronski looked at him and said, ‘I see an ambitious young man,’” the article reported.) But when the Advocate asked him about his long-term goals, Lesser insisted he’s focusing on the here and now: “Rose is basically sleeping through the night now. That’s priority number one.”•