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Representation of Western Mass in the Modern Day: An Interview with Eric Lesser

[Editor’s note: This interview took place before State Senator Eric Lesser left office on January 4, 2023.]

Former State Senator Eric P. Lesser represented nine communities in the First Hampden and Hampshire District, proudly serving Western Massachusetts in the Massachusetts Senate between 2015 and 2023. As Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Lesser’s legislative agenda focused on the fight for greater economic opportunity and quality of life in Western Massachusetts. He worked on initiatives surrounding passenger rail, education, job training, innovation, economic recovery, and reinvestment in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly focusing on Western Massachusetts and the Gateway Cities.

Prior to becoming a state senator, Lesser worked in the Obama White House, first as Special Assistant to Senior Adviser David Axelrod and later as Director of Strategic Planning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Lesser began as a young aide on President Obama’s historic 2008 presidential campaign, traveling to 47 states and six countries with then-Senator Obama and his senior team. Lesser holds a law degree from Harvard Law School and a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard College. He is a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Federal District of Massachusetts Bar. Lesser lives in Longmeadow with his wife, Alison, and three children, Rose, Nora, and David.

Alex Delaney: Thank you so much for meeting with us. So, Senator Lesser, you were raised in Longmeadow, Massachusetts—a product of Longmeadow Public Schools. You first jumped into politics when you were still at Longmeadow High: You helped organize a campaign against education budget cuts, which would likely have left 105 teachers without a job during the 2002-2003 school year. So what exactly was it like organizing at such a young age, and what lessons did you learn from being a part of this campaign that led you to your later career in politics?

Eric Lesser: When I was a junior in high school, the principal at the time called an assembly and gathered all of the students, packed us all into the auditorium, and lined a whole bunch of teachers up at the front of the room. He told us that several of the teachers there were not coming back the next school year. They were being fired primarily because of budget cuts made by the State House, almost 100 miles away from where we lived. It was going to be devastating for the school’s music, arts, sports, sciences, and math programs. I remember sitting there and just feeling really angry that 14- and 15- and 16-year-­olds were being affected by these bad decisions, which, frankly, had been made somewhere else.

Massachusetts has something called a Prop 2 ½ Override where you can run a campaign to override a town budget decision. So we went out, and we organized. We knocked on doors. We had no leaflets. We did everything you do in a race like that. I remember sitting in the town hall the night of the first vote when the clerk was counting the ballots. I remember sitting there with a group of teachers whom I had worked with on the ballot campaign. When the clerk announced that the vote had passed, one of the teachers literally ripped up the pink slip that they were holding and threw it in the garbage because it meant that their job had been saved. It was an early lesson for me that despite all the messiness and the frustration of politics, being politically active really is one of the most powerful ways to make a difference. From there, I caught the bug and got involved.

AD: After high school, you got your undergraduate degree from Harvard and went on to work on the Obama campaign. You helped create new and innovative policies on the campaign trail, like a luggage management system under which you never lost a single piece of luggage. You eventually developed a close relationship with advisor David Axelrod while traveling abroad and eventually became his special assistant after the campaign, playing a key role in communications regarding economic issues. After your tenure as a White House aide, you were elected in 2014 to represent the first Hampden and Hampshire district and have since been reelected three times. What would you say have been some of the biggest takeaways from working in the White House and the State Senate? And what were some of the biggest differences between working in these two government bodies?

EL: I am wrapping up my fourth term in the Massachusetts State Senate now. We have two-year terms, so it will have been eight years total. There are a lot of differences. I’ve worked at the local level in my town on town campaigns, like you mentioned. I’ve worked at the federal level for President Obama and at the state level as a state senator. The skills are actually more common to each other than different. No matter what level of government or issues you are working on, at the end of the day, effective policymaking is really a team sport. I got very good advice when I first started in the State Senate, which was, “You’re just one more person with an opinion—unless you get 20 other senators to agree with you on something.” Because we have 40 senators, 21 means you have a majority. Then, you have to get 81 state representatives to agree with you. Then, you also have to have a governor agree with you, or get two-thirds of your colleagues in the legislature, which is an even bigger hurdle.

Everything about it is about building coalitions, adding people, trying to find common ground with people, and trying to build broad bases of support—working with people who might think differently than you, come from different places than you, and just generally have a different orientation about things than you might. That’s what is really kind of fun and stimulating about politics, and it is a skill set that I think is really very important. Now, granted, the policies being discussed are different, which does impact some of the skills that are required. For example, state and local governments are much, much more attached to the everyday sorts of issues that are right in front of people. Funding schools, making sure the trains are running, making sure that the roads are getting paved. That is a different set of issues than on a federal level, where the conversation is more abstract. You might be debating something high-level about the economy or about foreign policy, which is obviously very important. But it’s not necessarily something that your community is feeling every single day in a very immediate way. So that’s something that is very, very exciting about state politics and about local politics: You can’t really hide from the issues. You get stopped by constituents at the grocery store, you get stopped walking your dog, you get stopped dropping your kids off at school. As a result, you are just much, much more connected to your community and to your people.

AD: Since being elected to the State Senate, one of your biggest legislative priorities has been the East-West Rail, which is a high-speed rail system to connect the western and eastern portions of Massachusetts. Your feasibility study saw little to no opposition in the State House and Senate. But Governor Baker still vetoed your bill, albeit controversially. The following year, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) announced their intention to look into your bill. Lawmakers championed it from all across the state. Since then, MassDOT has begun narrowing its plans, and the East-West Rail is looking more and more like it will become reality. Why exactly is the East-West Rail so important to you, and what steps do you think that lawmakers should take today in trying to accomplish this goal?

EL: You have had a similar set of experiences to me. You are at Brown. You are in Rhode Island. You are dealing with and meeting students from all over the world. One of the things that really struck me after growing up in Western Massachusetts and being in other places, like going to Harvard, working at the White House, being in Washington DC, being in Boston, was just how much Western Mass was getting left behind. I saw this firsthand because so many of the people I grew up with, so many of my classmates and friends, felt like they had to move away from the region in order to find good, high-paying jobs. So rail is really one of the single most important ways to help connect people living in Western Mass to the red-hot economy and really, really good job market in Eastern Mass. 

Similarly, Eastern Mass would benefit tremendously because the biggest challenge facing the Boston area is how expensive it is to live there. Nobody can get around, it’s so congested, and it’s so expensive, and housing prices have been skyrocketing. Rail really solves both issues. It gives Western Mass access to that really high quality of living. It gives Western Mass access to that really red-hot economy and those great jobs. It gives Eastern Mass access to that really high quality of life and lower costs of living. 

The other piece that is really important to this is climate change. There would be no project in our state that would take more cars off the road and do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than investing in clean rail service. It would help reduce car emissions, and it would be one of the most powerful ways to clean our air, especially given that the Pioneer Valley, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke region was ranked a few years back as one of the worst places in the country to live with asthma. For all those reasons, I think it’s really essential for our state and for our future. I don’t think we can continue to be on this path where Western Massachusetts is continuously being left out. 

AD: In your run for lieutenant governor in 2022, you would have become the first Democrat from Western Mass to serve in the role since 1853. Despite coming in second in the Democratic primary, you still got somewhere between 50 to 80 percent of the vote in Western Massachusetts, even though you were running in a competitive three-way primary. Why do you think people from Western Massachusetts have been so underrepresented in the statewide government? And what steps do you think should be taken in trying to reduce the political divide between Eastern and Western Massachusetts? Specifically, what do you think should be done to reduce this polarization?

EL: Well, as you saw, we did very, very, very well in Western Mass. It would have been hard to do any better in the region, especially considering that we ended up losing by a pretty big margin. We did especially well in the Metropolitan Springfield area—I think we got about 80 percent of the vote. I think a couple of things. One is that I am better known here because I have been a state senator for a year and have run several elections here. I’m out and about in the community as we talked about. I have family ties to this region. My parents are here, my family, my kids. This does speak to this very real sense we have in Western Mass that we are left out of the conversation.

For the first time in a very long time, every statewide office holder will be from along the I-495 corridor—the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, all down the line. Part of the reason lies in the pure majority vote system: All four counties of Western Massachusetts—Berkshire County, Hampshire County, Franklin County, Hampden County—are about 12 percent of the total vote. You’re talking about a huge geographic area, and it’s only 12 percent of the total vote. Even in my race, if you get 80 percent of 12 percent, that doesn’t get you anywhere near where you need to be to win. So it creates, I think, a lopsided political system where really all of the representation comes from the eastern part of the state. From a pure majority vote point of view, I guess that system is fair. But what ends up happening over time is that it creates a very unfair situation for Western Mass because of the unique issues we face. Like you said, we have a lot of open space. We have environmental issues. We have a different economy, and a different kind of population here. And it’s very, very hard for those specific issues to really get the attention that they need in a political system that is set up that way.

AD: Do you have any recommendations for youth entering politics in today’s climate?

EL: It’s a very, very hard climate because there is so much negativity. I was very lucky because the kind of icons when I was coming up were Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and, of course, Barack Obama nationally. I think what we’ve seen, whether it’s on gun control or climate change, is that younger people are demanding to be heard. The most powerful way to get started is to get involved in your own community. 

I think that politics can feel very daunting and impenetrable to people. How do you make a difference on issues that are so big and in a climate that is so negative? The way you do that is you get involved right where it’s the closest. So maybe it’s a neighborhood cleanup, or maybe it’s a school board election, or maybe it’s running for city council or school committee or being involved on a commission or a volunteer board with your city, in student council, or in community service issues. I think that’s the best place to start because you are going to learn a lot. You’re going to meet a lot of people, and you’re going to build the contacts and the confidence you need to grow from there.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.