Amid the 413’s Challenges, Levin-Epstein Argues She Has What the Moment Needs…
EAST LONGMEADOW—Given how she envisioned the arc of her life, Sydney Levin-Epstein doubts she would have sought public office if things went differently. Before she went to college, Levin-Epstein did not give that much thought to politics as a career at all. Now she is locked in a heated race with Ludlow State Representative Jake Oliveira for one of region’s coveted State Senate seats.
Her own bid to succeed Eric Lesser, the retiring state senator whose district includes her native Longmeadow, is perhaps the 413’s hardest-fought contest this cycle. Levin-Epstein has put her federal and state political background on the table as a counter to the hyperlocal commitment Oliveira has made in this race. Her campaign has stressed the revival of the 413’s economy with a dab of rallying more women into politics.
“We do not have a job market conducive to economic growth,” she said. “Without better jobs, and access to Westie surreal, a train to finally connect our commonwealth, our economy will continue to decline.”
The district’s formal name will be Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester after 2022. From next year, it includes Palmer, South Hadley and Warren but covers less of Chicopee and Springfield. Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Wilbraham remain.
On the trail and skimming questionnaires, the ideological differences in this primary are few, even minimal. (There are real, but nuanced differences on public records law minutiae if somebody wants that fight, but they both want more government transparency and legislative oversight).
Rather, it is a question of emphasis. From the beginning of her campaign, Levin-Epstein has zeroed-in on the region’s economy. Only reproductive rights have held as prominent place in her bid. If there is a motivation for her economic focus beyond regional pride, it may be personal.
“When I was growing up, I never wanted to do this. I wanted to write and to travel. I had so many dreams of leisure,” she said.
As she has on the trail, Levin-Epstein recalled the collapse of her family’s business. It changed their financial situation. “If you’ve ever lost a family business or small business, this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long and painful process.”
She started college at STCC to save save money. That led to George Washington University, internships in DC and a gig working for the late Israeli leader Shimon Peres. More recently she worked on Senator Ed Markey’s 2020 reelection campaign and George’s Senator Jon Ossoff’s bid later that year. These gigs including time fundraising, helpful prep for a first-time candidate. She has consistently outraised Oliveira.
Despite much of her career being outside the region, Levin-Epstein has corralled prominent support. From former and current mayors to Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni and the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts to her old boss Senator Markey himself, she has assembled a broad spectrum of support.
I am pleased to endorse @SYDNEYRACHAEL_ , who is ready to hit the ground running for Western Massachusetts in the State Senate. She will fight to make sure the region gets its fair share of resources and that we create good jobs for our workers and young people. https://t.co/Ch7MOJzjSF
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) August 30, 2022
Springfield Ward 7 City Council Tim Allen cited her focus on economic development specifically.
“I have more talked about the economic development, he ideas n economic development, biotech and that sort of thing,” said Allen, who has endorsed her. “Concrete ideas, research, she’s done that I think it gave me a sense that, she’s really done work on it and is not just not just words, that she’s passionate about it.”
Over eggs and toast at a breakfast nook here, Levin-Epstein went into detail about her economic proposals, thoughts on health and education and her trajectory. It is no secret that few believed she could make this race competitive at first. The first inklings of a bid began circulating amid Lesser’s own retirement rumors.
While eyebrows still rise among some, she can draws support in fluidly, rallying with urgency about the economy one moment before lowering tone to relate her own story. She becomes especially vehement about bringing more women in government.
Jessica Sizer, an at-large councilor in Palmer, said she had never really got involved in campaign other than her own. However, she was attracted to Levin-Epstein’s bid, even seeing a bit of herself in it.
“I realized there was another young women interested in getting involved in politics and running for office. I just wanted to help,” Sizer said. “When it came more to learning more about her politic and her goals and her ambitions I could relate to what she was running on”
Levin-Epstein has seized on this and events like the overturning of Roe v. Wade this year, to underscore the importance of women in public office. Though there is little daylight between her and Oliveira, reproductive rights were a priority before the decision, dating to working groups on women’s issues she joined along with fellow Hill staffers. More recently, she and others formed a nonprofit, Mayday Health, to disseminate reliable reproductive health info. Mississippi is now trying to investigate over a billboard the group erected there.
Talking about expanded rail service to Boston, Levin-Epstein dismissed philosophical arguments about a MBTA free while regional equity worsens.
“We need a fierce champion and I am the candidate who has made [rail] a central component of my campaign, building west east rail,” she said. “This is the hill that I will die on. We need the damn train.”
Levin-Epstein is hardly alone on the subject. She freely credits Lesser, who built his career on the project and it is now closer than ever. The federal infrastructure bill and a recent $250 million bond allocation seemingly put it in reach. However, Oliveira has also championed it and has said there are weekly meetings of the 413’s delegation on progress.
Throughout the campaign, she has also married rail with proposals to attract biotech firms to the region. Vacant mill space could provide the other side of the equation.
At her kickoff, Levin-Epstein laid out meetings she has had with bigwigs in the industry to learn and to cultivate relationships. She observed that many startups leave the Boston-Cambridge orbit for Atlanta and Austin, partly due to costs. She promised to introduce legislation, including tax incentives, to encourage them to could relocate biotech jobs to the 413.
Sizer said getting rail service to start up—with a station in Palmer—is essential for her town. She also notes that Palmer has lots of old mill space, which together could be transformative for her town, some 20 miles outside downtown Springfield.
“I can think that they can have a ripple effect and really build up a lot the smaller retail economy that Palmer is lacking,” such as restaurants and services Sizer said.
Despite the enthusiasm she has cultivated, Oliveira has challenged Levin-Epstein’s commitment to the region. At a debate last month, Oliveira highlighted Longmeadow Town Clerk records show she had not voted in most elections between the 2014 primary—when she was an intern for Lesser—and when she began running. She did vote in the 2020 US Senate primary and the November election.
Levin-Epstein said she returned full-time from Washington during the US Senate campaign. This was shortly after then-Congressman Joe Kennedy began his bid against Markey, she explained. But she said it was wrong to say her connection here had ever severed, highlighting her participation in local events like Miss Massachusetts, among other ties.
“My commitment to my community isn’t simply familial, but it’s my home,” she said. “This is where my friends are. This is where my synagogue is, where my school is.”
Although she has outraised Oliveira, a first-term state rep, there is no denying he has had his ear to the ground longer. While she has indirectly jabbed him at public event by invoking career politicians, it may not land against the ever-earnest Oliveira. But speaking to WMP&I she revealed some tactics she has employed to engage on his strongest suit: education.
Levin-Epstein said she attended school committee meetings across the district to understand the educational issues facing students, teachers and parents. She relayed growing concerns about learning loss at elementary school levels and even normal classroom interactions. At one meeting Levin-Epstein said she attended, she learned a student was injured because they never learned how to safely handle scissors thanks to remote kindergarten.
Another area that Levin-Epstein has tried to match Oliveira on is experience in government. She touts that she has worked on both state and federal policy and addressed constituent service issues while working on Capitol Hill.
Sizer cited a rather cumbersome process of allocating and reallocating funds for bridge construction. One of the most difficult things in local government, she said, is getting responses from the executive branch.
“That’s something that is so important on the local level,” the councilor said. In her mind, Levin-Epstein would be the right fit for that. “She may not have run for office before. She may not be an elected official, [but] her experience behind the scenes has been so important.
While she has been on television for a few weeks now, Levin-Epstein has leverage social media for weeks. The check-ins are part of a broader message discipline that helps cement name recognition. That will help her win on September 6 and then in the general election. The only Republican running is Granby businessman Bill Johnson.
The strategy conveys an animated window into her bid for both supporters and the electorate to see.
“It’s almost an infectious energy that she has,” Allen noted. “That’s I think the main thing is that she’s kind of a new face on the scene who has done substantive work and has these great personal qualities.”
There have clearly been trying moments for both candidates. Levin-Epstein says she has encountered sexist comments about her outfits. But if the difficulty of a first time bid in a strange election—namely one with no competitive Democratic contest in an open gubernatorial race—has deterred her, she does not show it.
“I’ve had the time of my life,” she said of campaigning. “Team Sydney isn’t just a group of political supporters. We are a community.”
“At night, I sit in my gratitude thinking about what we have accomplished,” Levin-Epstein continued. “Months ago I was a former legislative staffer with a dream of improving my community. Now, I’m a front runner to be our next state senator.”