Answering the call: As region’s legislative clout dwindles, 33-year-old Sen. Lesser emerges as a leader

  • In this file photo from 2016, State Sen. Eric Lesser chats with seniors at the Friends of Granby's Elderly summer picnic at Dufresne Park. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Anthony Dunne, right, executive producer of the WGBY program "Connecting Point", greets Sen. Eric Lesser, left, D-Longmeadow, seated left, of the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District and state Rep. John Barrett III of the 1st  Berkshire District prior to their interview with Carrie Saldo, seated right, for a weekly "The State We're In" segment on Friday, March 9, 2018, in Springfield. Standing behind them is producer Alejandro Cameron. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, of the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District, appears on the weekly "The State We're In" segment of the WGBY program "Connecting Point" in Springfield on Friday, March 9, 2018. State Rep. John Barrett III, right, of the 1st  Berkshire District was also a guest on the segment. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is interviewed Friday in Springfield for the weekly “The State We’re In” segment of the WGBY program “Connecting Point.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser stands at the center of supporters of a bill to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail service between Springfield and Boston after they arrive by bus at the Statehouse in Boston on Oct. 24, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Carrie Saldo, left, host of the WGBY program "Connecting Point", and Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, appear on screens in the control room of the station's Springfield studios on Friday, March 9, 2018, during a taping of the weekly segment of the show, "The State We're In". Lesser has represented the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District, which includes the towns of Belchertown and Granby, since January of 2015. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Carrie Saldo, host of the WGBY program "Connecting Point", appear on screens in the control room of the station's Springfield studios on Friday, March 9, 2018, during a taping of the weekly segment of the show, "The State We're In". Lesser has represented the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District, which includes the towns of Belchertown and Granby, since January of 2015. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carrie Saldo, left, host of the WGBY program “Connecting Point,” and Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, appear on screens in the control room of the station’s Springfield studios Friday during a taping of the weekly segment of “The State We’re In.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, left, D-Longmeadow, of the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District talks with state Rep. John Barrett III of the 1st Berkshire District following a taping of the WGBY program "Connecting Point" in Springfield on Friday, March 9, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING


  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, of the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District, which includes the towns of Belchertown and Granby, is interviewed by Carrie Saldo of WGBY in Springfield for the weekly "The State We're In" segment of the nightly program "Connecting Point" on Friday, March 9, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

EAST LONGMEADOW — Hampshire County is losing clout on Beacon Hill.

Two longtime state representatives have announced their impending retirements, another has died, a Democratic representative has unenrolled from the party, and the most powerful member of the delegation, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has had to step down from his leading role as president of the Senate.

But some say that one member of the delegation who remains, one of the youngest people in the state Senate, may soon be called upon to provide leadership.

In early February, rumors began circulating that Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, might consider running for the office of Senate president in 2019.

Lesser, 33, was elected to the 1st Hampden and Hampshire Senate seat in 2014 and will run for a third term this year. The district covers Granby and Belchertown in Hampshire County.

“I’ve been thinking about it and some people have approached me about it,” Lesser said of the possibility that he might run for the position in January 2019. “My focus is on the future and the ideas and the issues. If I feel like that’s a way I can contribute and get these issues front and center and make western Mass. front and center, it’s absolutely something I am going to take really seriously.”

However, he added that Rosenberg is a dear friend and that not having him in the role of Senate president for 2018 has been a big loss, particularly for western Massachusetts.

Rosenberg, the former Senate president, stepped down from the position in December for an independent ethics investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against his husband, Bryon Hefner, and allegations that Hefner held influence over Senate affairs. Sen. Harriet Chandler, D-Worcester, stepped up as Rosenberg’s replacement and will serve as Senate president through 2018.

From Longmeadow to D.C.

Sitting in his simple office above the Dunbar Shopping Center in East Longmeadow in early March, surrounded by photos of his wife, Alison, and their two young daughters — often accompanied by a smiling President Barack Obama — Lesser recalled his path from high school activist in western Massachusetts, to Obama campaign worker, to the White House — and back.

Born in Queens, New York, to a Jewish-Italian family, Lesser moved to Longmeadow at 7 when his mother became a professor at Smith College in Northampton.

As a student at Longmeadow High School, Lesser and others organized an override campaign to stop budget cuts and teacher layoffs  following a recession in 2002. The override, he said, was “crushed.”

But when pink slips went out and the layoffs became real, Lesser, other students and parents worked together and a second override campaign was successful in saving many jobs, he said.

“My advice to young people would be: Believe in your own power to make a difference, and just go do it,” he said. “There will be some setbacks; there will be some people who will try to stop you, and that will always be the case, but there’s never been a great change or social movement in our society that hasn’t been led by young people.”

The experience led Lesser to work in the early days of then-U.S. Sen. Obama’s New Hampshire presidential primary campaign. From blowing up balloons in gyms for rallies to piling into a Zipcar and knocking on doors, Lesser said he was there for many of the big moments in Obama’s grassroots movement.

Later, he worked on Obama’s national campaign, where he likened his responsibilities to those of the Red Sox team manager and described himself as the keeper of the Blackberry chargers. He traveled to 47 states and six countries with the campaign, all of which are marked on a map in his Statehouse office.

When Obama was elected, Lesser said, he was one of the first staff members to enter the White House on Inauguration Day, and he spent two and a half years working for senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, just 40 steps from the Oval Office.

Then, he said, he had a decision to make.

“I really faced a fork in my career,” Lesser said. “If I had stayed there, I would have really been cementing myself as a Washington person — and while that’s interesting work, it doesn’t really speak to what I was about. I was always more of a community and grassroots person. I knew I really wanted to get back to my home community.”

Lesser chose to return to Massachusetts, earning a degree from Harvard Law School and running for state Senate in 2014. As a senator, he has focused on a number of issues important to western Massachusetts.

Focus: East-west rail

Lesser has been a key partner with Rosenberg in supporting the state’s western region. The young senator has made connecting eastern and western Massachusetts a priority, something his constituents in the Pioneer Valley say they greatly appreciate.

Lesser has worked for three years to pass legislation that would authorize a study of the feasibility of creating a high-speed rail between Springfield and Boston. In 2016, the study made it into the Legislature’s final budget, but was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

As of January 2018, however, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s 2018 rail plan included a proposal to study ways to connect Boston and Springfield with passenger rail, a development Lesser said he considers a success.

Kenneth Elstein, chairman of the Belchertown Select Board, said Lesser understands the importance of economic development for western Massachusetts and that tying the two parts of the commonwealth together would be beneficial for the whole state.

“He’s pushed very hard for the economic development that would come to our region, the Pioneer Valley, by trying to get a railway between Springfield and Boston,” Elstein said. “We were very optimistic when he was first elected, and we have not been disappointed.”  

Rosenberg agreed.

“He has been the region’s leader on east-west rail, consistently pushing it in the Senate and with the Baker administration,” Rosenberg wrote of Lesser in an email. “Working with all the stakeholder groups in the region, he has built a regional coalition in support of rail and is now working to connect it to similar groups across the state.”

Former Sen. Gale Candaras, who represented the 1st Hampden & Hampshire District from 2006 to 2014, said she couldn’t be more pleased with her successor.

“I feel that he has represented the district well, with dignity and with hard work and with good, strong ethical standards,” Candaras said. “He’s done a lot of work on transportation issues and I think that’s a topic that needs to be kept alive and needs to be ongoing.”

Focus: Millennials

Lesser has also chaired the Massachusetts Millennial Engagement Initiative, which hosted 11 roundtable discussions across the commonwealth. According to the group’s 2017 report, the effort “engaged with millennials from all walks of life” to discuss the greatest issues facing young people in Massachusetts and to propose legislative solutions.

Lesser said that those solutions  include creating portable benefits, such as a 401(k) or health care plan that is tied to a person and goes with them to each new job, instead of being tied to the job itself.

He’s also working on creating a student loan bill of rights that would give students and their families new rights and protections as they navigate the loan repayment process. Modeled after a successful effort in Connecticut, Lesser’s bill, S.129, was referred favorably to the Senate Ways and Means Committee in February.

“I saw what happened to the economy with the housing crisis. As a very young person, I was in a room with very serious people who had to make very big decisions about millions of people’s lives in response to the financial crisis,” Lesser said. “I don’t want that repeated again with a failure to act on student loans.”

Other successes

Lesser also wants to streamline the voting process, with proposals for automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and better vote-by-mail procedures. He introduced legislation that established a bulk purchasing program of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose, lowering the price from $66 to $22.

As chairman of the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus, Lesser said he is proud of the work he has done to improve and increase vocational education, including a new advanced manufacturing program at the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative.

In Granby, Select Board chairman Mark Bail said the senator was instrumental in securing a grant for the town to create a veterans memorial to honor Granby residents who have served their country.

“He sees politics as public service, and that is not the case for some people,” Bail said. “I think he’ll go far, but he’ll go far serving the people, not himself.”

Rosenberg said Lesser is becoming a recognized leader also in economic development and job creation as the chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.

For the future

As for the Senate presidency, some echo Lesser’s support of Rosenberg, but also like the idea of Lesser running for the position.

“I think he’d be wonderful for the job of Senate president, and we could certainly use the strength,” Elstein said. “Sen. Rosenberg was a terrific advocate for our region and it would be great if Sen. Lesser could take that role in 2019 or beyond.”

Candaras said there are many critical issues competing for attention in the commonwealth and she thinks Lesser has the time and the energy to take those on, as he is still young and relatively early in his political career.

“Can I see him as Senate president in some future time? Absolutely. He would certainly be qualified,” she said.

However, she said she hopes the ethics investigation will clear Rosenberg and that, in 2019, he will return to his former position as Senate president to continue providing his seniority, knowledge and expertise.

But, as the investigation continues and with the upcoming changes in the western Massachusetts House delegation, Candaras said there will be a larger burden of leadership on Lesser regardless of whether he seeks the Senate presidency.

“When I went to the Statehouse as a brand new state rep., I didn’t know where the restroom was. I was elected with six weeks notice on stickers in the middle of a nor’easter. I knew nothing,” Candaras said. “Being a legislator requires skill and experience and the types of attributes you’re only going to gain over a period of years. Sen. Lesser is going to have to carry these new reps, and support them in their efforts to represent their districts.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.