President’s hug a reward for fundraiser Tom Lesser

Last modified: Sunday, December 09, 2012

Tom Lesser got his start working on political campaigns in the Pioneer Valley, volunteering for friends running for state representative or district attorney in Franklin and Hampshire counties. On Tuesday, he ended this year’s campaign season with a hug from President Barack Obama.

“It was very exciting to be there,” Lesser said Thursday of his trip to the president’s victory rally in Chicago.

Lesser, who lives in Conway and has a law office in Northampton, is a veteran of both Obama runs for the presidency. He was an early supporter during Obama’s campaign in 2008, serving on his New England steering committee and raising $500,000 for the then-U.S. senator from Illinois.

In 2010, Lesser was invited to join Obama’s reelection campaign as a member of the National Finance Committee, a group of approximately 400 donors charged with leading the fundraising efforts.

That meant two years of raising money for the president, collecting donations through high-profile events like first lady Michelle Obama’s fundraiser in August at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

In the end, Lesser estimates he corralled between $500,000 and $1 million in donations for Obama’s reelection campaign. He also played a role in Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign, helping raise $100,000 for her successful challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.

While other National Finance Committee members raised upwards of $30,000 at a time, Lesser said he was proud of the smaller contributions he collected. “My highest donation was $10,000.” Most of those contributions were from western Massachusetts, which, Lesser said, reflected the hard work Obama volunteers in the region to generate support for the president.

Most expensive campaign

The 2012 presidential election was the priciest in history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama, the Democratic National Committee and pro-Obama SuperPACs raised $932 million.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and his allies raised just over $1 billion.

Obama’s senior advisers entered the contest knowing that they would likely be outspent by Romney and SuperPACs supporting his campaign, Lesser said. But they believed Obama could still win if his field organization was well funded and ad buys were carefully targeted, he said.

“You can’t get outspent three or four to one,” Lesser added. “They felt they could be outspent, counting the SuperPACs, two to one. They just wanted to raise the money to fund the field operation fully and not get terribly outspent on the year.”

It was that field operation and a barrage of damaging commercials during the early summer which helped turn the election in Obama’s favor, Lesser said. Those ads painted Romney as a businessman who shipped jobs overseas as he and his associates took home large profits.

The Obama campaign placed an emphasis on field operations early, drawing up a plan in 2009 of what needed to be done in each state, Lesser said. Operatives were then dispatched to swing states to open field offices so they were familiar with the local community, he added.

In his remarks to approximately 400 donors after addressing the nation Tuesday, Obama said it was a superior field organization that carried him to victory over Romney, Lesser reported.

According to Lesser, the president said, “I know some of you don’t think I’ve done everything right. But I’ve used my best judgment and we won tonight because of the ground game, we won tonight because we funded that ground game and because many of you not only helped fund the ground game, but participated in it.”

‘Unlikely fundraiser’

A partner at Lesser, Newman and Nasser law firm, Lesser calls himself “an unlikely fundraiser.” “I am an organizer at heart. I believe in the grassroots,” Lesser said. “That’s how you win elections.”

A native of Washington D.C., Lesser moved to western Massachusetts in the 1970s after graduating from Harvard Law School. It was not long before he entered the local political scene, helping run Ben Benson’s successful state representative campaign in Franklin County and the late Jonathan Souweine’s unsuccessful run in 1978 for Northwestern district attorney.

In those days, Lesser’s efforts were focused on organizing neighbors to go to then polls. “We turned out votes in Wendell and all these small towns,” he said.

His introduction to state politics came in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, when Lesser backed former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Democratic primary against state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who grew up in Easthampton.

Lesser recalled attending a meeting in Boston where he learned the Reich campaign didn’t have money for lawn signs. “I said, ‘I’ll raise the money,’ ” Lesser remembered.

But Reich’s campaign faltered and O’Brien won the primary before losing to Romney in the general election that fall.

In 2006, Lesser backed another upstart candidate. But unlike Reich, Deval Patrick defeated the establishment candidate, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a native of Springfield, in the primary before going on to dispatch Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey in the general election.

“Deval from the beginning talked about the grass roots,” Lesser said, describing what drew him to Patrick’s campaign. Two years later, Lesser signed on early with Obama’s campaign. Lesser said he was first captivated by Obama during his address as an Illinois state senator to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

“I’ve never felt as strongly about a candidate for president as I do for Barack Obama,” Lesser said. “We’re all Americans, there’s no red states, there’s no blue states.”

He described his approach to fundraising for the president as “talking to people, explaining why you support someone and asking them if they could support them. Everybody has different things that they do and I seem able to do that.”

Lesser spent the last week of the campaign in Ohio, canvassing neighborhoods in southern Columbus.

“We just did shifts and walked turf,” he said. “The people were very well identified. This was not to persuade anymore. It was get people to vote and preferably vote early.”

It ended in a victory party at McCormick Convention Center in Chicago Tuesday night. By the time the president addressed donors, his voice was hoarse after his victory speech, Lesser said.

“He said ‘This is the last time I am going to ask you for money,’ ” Lesser recalled. “Michelle interrupted and said ‘What about the mid-terms?’ He said ‘Michelle is feisty tonight.’ ”

And then, as Obama mingled with the crowd afterward, came the hug. “It was kind of worth it to get a hug from the president at the end,” Lesser said.


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