Levin-Epstein & Oliveira Begin Sprint to Primary in Open Senate Contest…
LUDLOW—The difference from eight years ago is stark. When the State Senate district hugging Springfield’s east, north and south sides was last open, five Democrats sought the nomination. It looks likely that in 2022, only two will run. This month both kicked off their campaigns after weeks of initial preparation and signature gathering.
On Thursday at the Portuguese Club here, Democratic State Representative Jake Oliveira launched his bid for the seat Senator Eric Lesser is vacating. Oliveira highlighted his experience, dating to a teenaged stint serving at Ludlow’s Representative Town meeting. Only days before in Springfield, Sydney Levin-Epstein launched her bid, committing her work ethic to benefit the district. Her early and eager push as first-time candidate has convinced observers the primary will be hard-fought.
“This is not an easy campaign,” Oliveira told his supporters Thursday. “Unlike 2020”—when he won his rep seat—”where there was a 40,000-person district, you’re able to knock on just about every door, in a 170,000-member district. It’s important that we have people volunteering.”
Lesser announced his campaign for lieutenant governor in January, opening the seat he first won in 2014. Following redistricting, the Senate district was renamed the Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester. After this year’s election, it will take on Palmer, South Hadley and Warren while trading territory in Chicopee and Springfield with an adjoining district. Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Wilbraham remain in the HH&W.
It is quite possible a Republican primary could develop as well. Granby businessman Bill Johnson and East Longmeadow Attorney John Harding have filed with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance. Still, the Democratic race is more advanced and in an arch-Democratic state, there are simply more votes in that primary to secure.
It may not be too late for more candidates to enter, but signature papers are due next month. Oliveira, 35, announced at his kickoff that he had already received his certification for the ballot from the Secretary of State’s office. Levin-Epstein, 26, has previously announced that she had collected the necessary 300 signatures to get on the ballot.
In many ways, the race is still developing. Both Democrats held in-person kickoffs where they exhorted supporters to volunteer. Still, the hangover of the pandemic and the Omicron surge muted campaigning until last month.
Behind the scenes, the campaign has churned on. While Oliveira is an incumbent rep with over a decade in elective office, Levin-Epstein has charged into the money race. He entered the race in February with over $20,000 in his campaign account and has raised $13,000 since according to recent OCPF reports. She announced a week after Oliveira and has already reported $21,000 to OCPF. Levin-Epstein and Oliveira have over $20,000 and $23,000 cash-on-hand respectively. However, her March report indicates she has yet to ramp up spending.
Levin-Epstein and Oliveira may not differ much on policy. Yet, they will emphasize issues differently and exude their own styles. Both discussed making the 413 more a more desirable place for younger residents. Both touted the need to carry on Lesser’s efforts on rail—West-East rail, as both called it to maintain occidental precedence.
At the John Boyle O’Reilly Club in Springfield last weekend, Levin-Epstein lamented how so many people her age had left the area.
“I am running for State Senate because I am deeply concerned about the amount of young people who are leaving Western Mass. We are raised here, and we are educated here. But we’re not staying here,” she told supporters.
Younger generations were going to bigger cities where jobs were plentiful. Yet, she insisted this was not inevitable. Levin-Epstein pointed to biotech companies in Cambridge, with whom she said she had convened meetings, which could find homes in the Valley’s former mills.
Levin-Epstein has worked on Capitol Hill and on the campaigns of Lesser and US Senators Ed Markey and Jon Ossoff. From early jobs in costume at Six Flags to professional work in politics, she argued her experiences prepared her to deliver for Western Mass in the Senate.
Speaking to WMP&I at the Boyle, Levin-Epstein said that background taught her how relationships between officials and with people on the grounds make the difference.
“I’m leading this campaign with empathy, which means that not only not only am I listening, but I’m learning along the way,” she explained.
Oliveira got into public higher education lobbying Beacon Hill for state university presidents after stints in Town Meeting and the Ludlow School Committee. As a state rep, he brought this to bear to deliver for his Ludlow-anchored district. Senate was the next step.
In an interview, he agreed that there was work to do to retain rising generations. However, the current moment presented a huge opportunity given federal recovery funds and overflowing state coffers. That means expanding childcare and focusing on transportation—including a rail stop in Palmer—to capitalize on other assets like relative affordability.
“We’re building capacity out here,” he said. “We need to build up the human infrastructure, the physical infrastructure to keep pace with that and make sure that we put Western Massachusetts on the map as a destination for people to locate and stay.”
Another dynamic in this race is redistricting. Some Senate districts in Western Mass saw significant retooling to match the shifts in population. Looking at a map, the HH&W district did not transform that much, save its new eastward proboscis into Palmer and Warren. Those communities as well as South Hadley’s inclusion may affect the texture of the race, though.
Both candidates highlighted ties across the district or in neighboring communities just outside, such as Holyoke. Levin-Epstein’s father owned a business in Hadley. Oliveira said her mother’s family first settled in Palmer after arriving from Poland.
“I’m having a great time, the opportunity to meet new people reconnect with old friends and also really strengthen the relationships of members of my community throughout this district,” Levin-Epstein said.
She has already drawn from that process, promising to file a bill on cancer screenings for public safety workers.
Oliveira noted that he learned Warren does not have mail delivery. While not something the state has direct control over, he cited as an example of how he was both learning about the district and rediscovering old connections.
“It was like coming home and so being in all 12 of the communities and talking to residents,” he said. “I have never felt out of place.”
Although both sides are settling in for an intense battle, the simmering race has yet to explode. If anything, the candidates are trying to avoid it for now. Levin-Epstein even said those who want to campaign for her must promise to keep their efforts positive.
“Every member of Team Sydney is signing a clean campaign pledge. We will not be going negative first in this race,” she told supporters.
The race may not get bloody, as it did eight years ago. In that case, styles and pitches could feature, if by implication. Levin-Epstein has no problem emphasizing the importance of electing more young, progressive women like herself. More than a few backers at her kickoff echoed this point in explaining their support.
For Oliveira’s part, he’s leaning into his time in government and municipal government. The town officials, especially from here in Ludlow, on hand for his launch. Now was a moment to install somebody to make up for losses in the delegation such as retiring Chicopee Rep Joseph Wagner.
“We’re at a turning point for Western Massachusetts, we have people that are leaving the legislature out with decades of experience, which is going to create a void,” Oliveira told WMP&I. “We need someone that’s hitting their stride in order to get results.”