Briefings: A Ballot Challenge Sets in the West…
The State Ballot Law Commission ruled unanimously this morning to overrule an objection to Eric Lesser‘s candidacy for the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district. In doing so the commission rejected the challenge from Springfield City Councilor Tim Allen, another candidate in the race, and ordered Lesser name to appear on the Democratic primary ballot in September.
The ruling not only allowed Lesser, a former White House aide, to get onto the ballot, but could also have the effect of limiting attempts by his opponents generally to blunt Lesser’s candidacy by appealing to the region’s oft-insular politics. The challenge and other meta-issues in the campaign so far appeared to be an attempt to discredit Lesser as not Pioneer Valley-enough to run for the senate seat.
The district includes about a third of Chicopee and Springfield each, as well as Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow and Wilbraham. School Committee member James “Chip” Harrington and Selectman Aaron Saunders, both of Ludlow, and Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee member are also running for the Democratic nomination.
The commission’s decision, coming a down a week after a hearing on the matter, included a great deal of recitation of previous case law on the subject of whether Lesser was in fact an “inhabitant” of the commonwealth. The State Constitution requires senate candidates to “inhabit” the commonwealth, not the district particularly, for five years prior to election. For Lesser, that would date back to November 4, 2009.
However, the commission has consistently found that temporary absences do not break inhabitancy. The burden is on a challenger to prove, “through compelling evidence” the candidate in question is”physically present in [another] place and intends to make that place his home for the time at least; ‘the fact and intent must be present.”
Allen failed to prove this of Lesser.
Instead, much of the opinion that described that actually referred to Lesser’s case specifically was a parade of the evidence he had mustered in his own defense including the chronology of his early life, his work in President Barack Obama’s White House, his voting record, and the disposition of personal items, documents, and bank accounts.
The commission specifically called employment by the president as “notably transitory.” Careful to note that it is not conclusive evidence, it made specific note of Lesser’s continued voting in Longmeadow (via absentee ballot) for state and town elections.
The commission made no reference to Allen’s case other than the mere fact of his objection nor did it mention Allen’s testimony while questioned by Lesser’s attorney, Cheryl Cronin, at the hearing last Friday. That lack of any reference to the his basis for or evidence of the objection may be, by implication, an acknowledgment of Allen’s case.
An email to Allen requesting comment was not returned as of posting time and this post will be updated to reflect any response from the Allen campaign. Allen had defended his decision to file the objection as a good-faith reading of the constitution and indeed the commission denied Lesser’s request for attorney’s fees, in part, because the term “inhabitant” is not self-defining. Allen also argued that if he did not file the objection, the Republicans would. Allen told NEPR that he was satisfied with the ruling and it was always about “letting the process play out.”
The local GOP has dropped hints that they already consider Lesser the likely opponent of their only candidate for the seat, Debra Boronski.
Lesser, however, did not waste any time putting out his response to the ruling. In a press release Lesser said he was “gratified, but not surprised, by the Commission’s decision.” He emphasized that he grew up in the region and the district in particular and was looking forward to raising his family here and serving the community. But he also noted his time in DC, an experience he said he hopes to apply as a senator.
Lesser called the challenge “political theater” and left it to Allen to explain why the latter’s campaign spent a great deal of time and energy focusing on an issue, which in Lesser’s estimate, Allen admitted was “politically motivated.” Lesser went on to say his focus is the campaign and the issues important to the community. “The voters expect, and deserve, nothing less,” he concluded.