New Senator Declined to Cash in on Ties to Obama, Service at White House

Friday, June 12, 2015

It was a little before 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20, when Eric Lesser, the pride of Longmeadow, the new senator from the 1st Hampden & Hampshire District, arose from his place in the Senate Chamber at the State House to deliver his maiden speech.  The upper branch was in the midst of its annual budget debate, the multi-day period during which it makes final changes to, and then approves, its version of the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Only 30 years old and already a veteran of politics as it is practiced on the highest stage in the world, Washington, D.C., Senator Lesser had taken the oath of office as a legislator 133 days before.  This was not an exceptionally long spell for a new senator or a new representative to wait before giving his first speech on the floor.  (Thanks to the State House News Service, we know what he said; we have an historical record.)
“I come from the Pioneer Valley, the crossroads of New England, a strategic location between Albany and Boston, where George Washington placed the armory during the Revolutionary War,” he proclaimed. “We have been a manufacturing center.  We have also been one of the great engines of innovation.”

That great engine may have lost some of its once amazing power and be limping in the pitiless competition with many other great or greater engines around the world, but it is still running, unnoticed by most of us, and it is deserving of the attention and the assistance of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was the point of Senator Lesser’s speech on May 20.
He had filed an amendment to the Senate budget, #328, which sought to increase by half-a-million dollars, from $945,000 to $1,445,000, the amount to be spent in FY 16 (July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016) on a pilot program to train unemployed and underemployed workers in Greater Springfield in the skills required to get a job in the high-technology-driven factories of today.

“The legacy of advanced manufacturing continues in our area: high tech, solar panels, components of wind turbines, advanced parts that leverage technology,” Senator Lesser said, noting that good-paying manufacturing jobs have always been the “ticket to the middle class” in this country.
“People (with such jobs) can buy homes, they can save for college, they can invest in their futures through these jobs,” he said. “That proud tradition extends ten generations in the Pioneer Valley.”

While manufacturing has declined in Western Massachusetts, as it has in every part of the U.S., Senator Lesser struck an optimistic note. (One would be chagrined if a promising young man or woman had not done so on the first occasion that the State House spotlight was shining exclusively on him or her.) 
“There is a vision for the future.  There is a path to reinvest in the industries and to reinvest in the middle class,” he said, “and that’s to marry our traditional history of a manufacturing center to the intellectual firepower of our schools.  There is a renaissance in making wind turbines, solar panels – all the things that fuel the modern economy.  It is projected that, over the next 10 years, there will be 44,000 vacancies in the manufacturing field – in a field that pays average salaries of $75,000 a year.”

Senator Lesser exhorted his colleagues to “imagine the wasted potential if we don’t take this on.”
He said, “Imagine the families that won’t be able to put a kid through college, buy a home, if we don’t take this on.  One of the most fundamental things we can take up is to address this skills gap, between the jobs that are being created and the people looking for work, not only in Hampden and Berkshire and Hampshire Counties, but in all of Massachusetts.”

The senator was on a roll now.  “Shared prosperity is our goal!” he declared.
“I would argue,” he added, “that so many of the challenges we face are connected to this fundamental challenge, which is a middle class that is increasingly squeezed.”

He asked, “In an economy where a 19-year-old can become a billionaire by creating an iPhone app, how do we create an economy for everybody else?”
He said, “We have to reinvest in our middle class.  Amendment 328 is a modest proposal.  It’s 1.5 million dollars.  It might not seem like a lot, but for the hundreds of people who will benefit from it, it’s the world to them.”

When he finished, all of the senators and all of the senate staffers in the Chamber, as is the custom for maiden speeches in the legislature, stood and applauded.  Many observing the budget debate from Senate galleries also gave him a standing ovation.
Then the clerk, at the direction of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, a fellow champion of the Pioneer Valley, called the roll.  Thirty-nine senators were present; each voted yes on Amendment 328.  For a few moments, Senator Lesser could feel like the rookie who hits a home run in his first at-bat in the major leagues.

I like this Eric Lesser -- his set of mind, his imperatives of heart, his immunity to greed. 
In May of 2007, three days after graduating from Harvard, he joined the presidential campaign of Barack Obama as a baggage handler and advance man. He was so good at his job, so well organized and relentlessly conscientious and task-focused, that Obama predicted he would run a Fortune 500 company one day.  Lesser was only 22 years old when Obama won the White House and he joined the president’s staff as a special assistant to David Axelrod, Obama’s political guru, at a desk only a few steps from the Oval Office.  He would later become an aide to the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and would remain in service to Obama until the fall of 2011, when he departed for Harvard Law School.  HBO hired him as an advisor to the series “Veep” during that time. (Former movie star and U.S. Senator Fred Thompson memorably likened acting  to "finding money on the ground;" advising actors has to be the next closest thing to that.)

Early in 2014, Lesser was considering various options when he decided to run for the state senate seat occupied by Gale Candaras, who had decided not to stand for re-election and to run for Hampden County Register of Probate.  (Candaras lost the Probate race by fewer than 300 votes.)   

Lesser could have used his connections to Obama and Axelrod, one of the top political and media consultants in the world, to land a lucrative job in the private sector.  Instead, he set his sights on a job in the legislature with a base salary of $60,032 per year. 
At Longmeadow High School, Lesser had been elected president of his class four years in a row, but the fall of 2014 would be the first time his name appeared on a public ballot. Geographically, the 1st Hampden & Hampshire is very large; socially and economically, it is very diverse.  The district includes all of Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow and Wilbraham, and parts of Chicopee and Springfield.  It’s hard for a veteran politician to get elected in a district like that, never mind a first-timer.  Lesser faced a very real risk of rejection and failure -- death by voter.

I like that, after having the run of the White House, Lesser didn’t feel too big for a back bench at the State House.  It says something about the proportionality of his ego that he can enjoy being on the streets of Wilbraham as much as the streets of Washington.
I like that he’s a sincere student of the Masssachusetts legislature and that he sees the formidable value and potential in being a state senator.  For example, besides wanting to revive manufacturing in the Pioneer Valley, he’s hoping to establish high-speed rail service between Boston and Springfield.  “For our economy to grow,” he says, “we need to better link ourselves to the red-hot economies in the eastern part of the state, and give families more opportunities to root themselves in Western Massachusetts.” 

If you get off the highways that crisscross Springfield and take a slow drive around the city, you’ll see a lot that will distress you.  Poverty has been entrenched in some areas for decades.  You’ll also see the city’s great natural assets, and you'll quickly grasp why they built Springfield where they did, at a commandingly beautiful point on the Connecticut River. 
You’ll see, as George Washington did when he chose it as the site of the arms factory needed to win the War of Independence, that it’s a natural inlands crossroads. You’ll see, as Senator Lesser and others do, why many more people would want to live on those gracious old streets above the Connecticut if they could get to their jobs in Boston by train in a little over an hour, a feat well within our engineering, if not our monetary, capabilities.
Legislatures are like all human organizations: they constantly need new blood. We’re witnessing again how the likes of a Lesser can make a legislature greater.

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