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At His Kickoff, Far More than a Game of Follow the Lederman…

Jesse Lederman announced his bid for an at-large City Council seat. Shanique Spalding, Zaida Luna, Stephen Cary and Melvin Edwards are seated behind him. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Entering after a rousing introduction from his political mentor E. Henry Twiggs, longtime city activist Jesse Lederman, a McKnight neighborhood resident, formally kicked off his bid for City Council at-large Wednesday night. Promising to bring a smarter, more innovative direction to 36 Court Street, Lederman called for an activist city government working for its residents.

A crowd of at least 100 consisting of activists, politicos, friends, family and more, packed the function room of Red Rose Pizzeria in the South End cheering as Lederman shook hands and embraced supporters on his way to the front of the room. The event, the first of the city’s political cycle, came several weeks after Lederman began organizing his campaign.

“He’s ready for the City Council,” Twiggs boomed. Perhaps half-joking that he needed to keep an eye on the young pol, Twiggs said he met while the latter was putting up campaign signs. A local icon of the civil rights movement, Twiggs said he saw some of himself in Lederman and recruited him to help out on Springfield Democratic committees.

Although “Get Ready” by the Temptations played as Lederman entered the room, many present were likely prepared for such an event. A veteran of several campaigns and big municipal political fights, it was probably only a matter of time before Lederman sought office.

A view of the crowd (via Facebook/Lederman campaign)

Notables ranged from Twiggs, Ward 4’s councilor, Councilors Melvin Edwards, Just Hurst and Zaida Luna to electeds from neighboring towns and the Massachusetts Democratic Vice-Chair, a sign of the 19 year-old candidate’s broad array of relationships.

Lederman trumpeted the virtues of the city, without shying away from its problems either. Addressing confounding and enduring problems like poverty and homelessness, Lederman declared, “We mustn’t kid ourselves that Springfield’s problems are unique.” Yet, he continued, “We should strive to be a national leader to overcome those problems.”

Dressed in a dark blue suit with a bright blue tie and sporting a neatly trimmed beard, the UMass-Amherst student did not seem a baby-faced newcomer. A former teacher of Lederman’s, Stephen Cary, recalled his first encounter when Lederman was in high school. His lesson plan was upended when Lederman interjected the topic of Springfield’s changing city government.

A crowded Council chamber during a 2011 biomass hearing. (WMassP&I)

Around the same time he became a lead opponent of the proposed biomass plant on Page Boulevard. The Council rescinded the plant’s permit sometime later, although the matter remains in litigation.

That experience left an impression on many of the new, mostly ward-based councilors. Luna told the crowd she remembered how articulate Lederman was at public hearings. Despite her own reelection, she promised to find the time to aid Lederman’s bid, urging supporters to do the same because, echoing the candidate’s slogan in both English and Spanish, “We can count on Jesse.”

In the aftermath of the biomass fight, Lederman transitioned from issue activism to political activism, working on council campaigns in 2011 and 2013, a 2012 state senate campaign and statewide bids. He served as a field organizer for Ed Markey, Don Berwick and Deb Goldberg.

Lederman most recently worked for Massachusetts Treasurer Deb Goldberg (via Twitter/@debgoldbergma)

Edwards expressed a personal thanks for Lederman beyond just campaign staffing. Following a double knee injury in, Lederman spent time with Edwards as he recovered. Edwards has sometimes called him an “adopted son.”

“As I worked the room, I’ve found I have a lot of adopted parents,” Lederman said in an ad lib from his prepared remarks.

But in his speech, Lederman offered a positive, progressive vision for the city that embraced its diversity—both cultural and economic—but not tinted by nostalgia for bygone times. Such nostalgic outlooks are typical in Springfield, but often come with a whitewash of that era’s problems, challenges and past mistakes.

Speaking of his home in McKnight, “where a restored Victorian mansion could sit next to a public housing project, with everything in between up and down the block,” Lederman described neighbors helping each other and the families growing up there.

Additionally, he called for community policing and a revived police commission to both ensure officers are treated fairly and investigate residents’ complaints. Such a move would take time as Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s contract—which gives him sole power over discipline—runs through 2019.

“We need more than just ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric,” Lederman said taking an indirect stab at incumbent city officials, who historically have recycled such language for years.

Lederman cited the city’s purchase and restoration of the Mason Square branch library as an example what city government can do. (via Springfield Libraries)

Lederman was not without tried and true Springfield applause lines. Praising the restoration of the Mason Square branch library as an example of local government’s power prompted cheers. But he was realistic, too, noting he would only be one voice of thirteen.

Drawing  from his experience on the McKnight Neighborhood Council, Lederman promised to further involve neighborhood councils and to ensure economic development occurs in all neighborhoods. In a similar vein, he made a specific commitment to constituent services because, repeating his slogan, “every resident…deserves a city councilor they can count on.”

Lederman announced a listening tour across the city and committed to continuing such events if elected, “I’m asking the people of Springfield, to do more than just vote for me. To ask you to vote for me implies that our relationship ends after you leave the polling booth.”

The pitch included the normal appeals for money and volunteers. Shanique Spalding, who emceed yesterday and serves as chair of his campaign committee, took the lead on that push with an energetic appeal just before Twiggs spoke.

So far all five incumbent at-large councilors are expected to seek reelection, although that was the case in 2013 as well. The 2013 race featured two incumbents—one at-large and one in a ward—losing their seats, offering hope to challengers like Lederman this year. Yet turnout will be higher due to the mayor’s race, complicating what to read into 2013’s results.

Judging by the music selection, Lederman’s campaign appears undaunted. “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty began playing after the candidate concluded his remarks.