On Beacon Hill, a Lesser Legacy or No Less than the Beginning?…
UPDATED 1/4/23 11:58AM: For a correction. A previous version of this story misidentified Senator Brownsberger’s hometown.
BOSTON—Days before Eric Lesser gave his last speech as a state senator from Western Massachusetts, the commonwealth, jointly with Amtrak, applied for a $108 million federal grant. It would finance work so more trains could run from Boston to Springfield and beyond. In the twilight of his Senate tenure, his marquee project took one of its greatest leaps toward reality.
Amid the setbacks and lunges forward for East-West—or West-East in Western Mass parlance—Lesser has accomplished other things. The Narcan bulk purchase program was on the tongues singing his praises. Lesser entered the State House with political experience but little knowledge of the building’s necromancies. Yet, these efforts are reminders of how quickly he began pulling levers on the 413’s behalf.
“From the moment I raised my right hand in his chamber eight years ago to my departure today and frankly for the rest of my life, I will always be filled with immense gratitude for the opportunity to represent the hopes, the dreams, the fears and the very real needs of the people who come from the 1st Hampden & Hampshire district,” Lesser said in a goodbye speech on December 12.
“The honor of representing my home community is only matched by the chance to do so alongside each of you as you did the same for each of your communities,” he added.
Lesser declined reelection to seek the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination. He fell to Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. She and Governor-elect Maura Healey, the current attorney general, take office the day after the legislature. That day outgoing Ludlow Rep Jake Oliveira will succeed Lesser, representing the renamed Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester district.
The LG bid revealed the limits of the political prowess Lesser honed working for former President Barack Obama’s campaign and White House. Raw geography and deep pockets happy to shove him aside may have doomed his bid.
Lesser’s relationship with the administration of Governor Charlie Baker ran a gamut from cooperation, especially when Lesser chaired a relevant committee, to conflict. However, Lesser also lambasted Baker on Covid vaccine equity and rail—until Baker caved—even as polls suggest his Excellency had achieved godhood.
Key to understanding his impact as a political figure in the 413 is his prosecution of politics with an intensity few in the Valley bother with. It has embedded him in Valley politics, as his commanding margins in the West in the LG primary showed. While his style grated on some, most criticism—outside Picknellys—manifested as too-big-for-his-britches kvetching.
Still, this was a minority view. Sprinting from the airport to Lesser’s Western Mass thank you event, Springfield Congressman Richard Neal saluted Lesser’s statewide run despite the challenges. Critical of “performative politics,” Neal said Lesser always displayed substance.
“I have never had a conversation with Eric Lesser that was superficial,” he averred.
Here in Boston, specifically in the Senate, the Lesser project received as warm a reception as out west. Newton Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, one of the colleagues that introduced Lesser two weeks ago, found both his studious and neurotic moments endearing.
“He would come over and say, ‘Should I have said that?’ ‘Do you think people are mad at me?’” Creem recounted, “How could anyone be mad at Eric who was always so fair-minded and collegial?”
As their friendship developed, she met people he knew in her own district and even received fan mail about him. Pointing to his fervency on East-West rail, the opioid crisis and economic development bills, Creem indicated the results speak for themselves.
“Eric has improved the lives of his own constituents and families across the commonwealth,” she announced.
In an interview at a Beacon Hill pizzeria dwarfed by the State House’s hulking posterior foundation, Lesser reflected on his tenure. Given the accolades and banking not even 38 years on earth, “legacy” feels premature. Still, he made an impact in and on this famously frustrating legislature while hailing from the faraway 413.
The needles on everything from his 2014 platform—rail service, battling opiates and expanding high-tech manufacturing and job training—have moved since. Many items took time. Rail service is chugging faster than ever thanks in no small part to support from the region’s powerful congressmen. Plus, Amtrak’s favorite rider is in the White House.
“Obviously, it’s far from done,” he said. “Frankly, we achieved more than I could ever hope for.”
Colleagues are not shy about his impact. Belmont Senator Will Brownsberger said it took “sustained focus” to get East-West over many finish lines.
Brownsberger, who joined the Senate in 2012, pointed to his departing colleague’s background in Washington as a significant factor.
“When [Lesser] came to the Massachusetts legislature, he was able to engage at a higher level than most young legislators are able to do. He was able to come in and be effective on Day 1,” Brownsberger said. “I think his track record over his eight years in the legislature is more significant than many people are able to achieve in a longer career.”
Ryan Migeed, a former Lesser Communications Director, suggested that his advocacy for the region helped expand his reach in the Senate. Senators returned the favor by trusting him with the Senate chair of the Economic Development Committee. They also signed on to East-West rail.
“There’s this sense in Western Mass that we’re a forgotten region. That that part of the state doesn’t get the same attention and resources that the eastern part of the stat gets,” he said. Lesser, Migeed continued, advocated for and secured those resources and then some.
“West-East rail went from being something that only Eric was talking about that nobody else is talking about to now being a state priority that is going to be receiving federal funds,” Migeed explained, crediting the 413’s larger delegation for push for it alongside Lesser.
Even as it became a must-support issue in Western Mass, senators realized it was critical for the 413.
Despite working at the highest level of national politics, Lesser said he had a learning curve. Perhaps Lesser knew how to comport himself and craft deals, but Beacon Hill’s environment is different. With Republicans essentially a rounding error in the legislature, the question is not what the pie is. Rather, it is how Dems divide the pie. Policy debates differ, too. The Pentagon and monetary policy are not on tap.
“The policy questions you’re dealing with in the state are operational and granular,” he said. “It’s schools; it’s teacher salaries; it’s roads and bridges; it’s trains; it’s sort of meat and potatoes stuff that’s immediate.”
Lesser said one of his earliest victories, the Narcan bulk purchasing program, arose from discussions with voters in 2014. Even as Purdue Pharma and other drugs companies were quickly becoming public enemies, emergency responders lacked naloxone, branded as Narcan, which can reverse an overdose.
At a campaign stop in Longmeadow for Oliveira weeks before Election Day, the Ludlow rep cited his hometown’s struggle with opiates, underscoring the importance of Lesser’s Narcan program to put Narcan in first responders’ hands.
“You should be taking a victory lap for now, because we’ve saved people’s lives,” Oliveira said.
In the Senate, Creem and Spencer Senator Anne Gobi, who took office alongside Lesser, also feted his Narcan efforts. Migeed noted that while Lesser is probably best-known for rail, he had a hand in a lot more.
“At times it feels like Eric lesser’s name is synonymous with east-west rail, it was only one part of a multi-issue portfolio,” he said, pointing to student loans and drug pricing. Migeed relayed a story about a State House staffer, an EpiPen user, who welled up with emotion after the passage of an initiative to make the anti-anaphylaxis device more affordable.
Colleagues cited other issues. Brownsberger pointed to reforming noncompete clauses in employment contracts. Lesser, as the Economic Development co-chair, worked with Brownsberger on that.
Pyrrhotite used in concrete between Springfield and Worcester has turned foundations to dust, almost Thanos-style. Gobi thanked Lesser for stand with her on crumbling foundations. They two have held joint town halls on the issue.
“They sent us a friend and they sent all of Massachusetts a second senator,” Gobi said before Lesser’s speech. “He has been there on so, so many issues.”
“Collaboration, always, leads to better results,” Lesser said in his farewell speech. He brought a list.
“The work responding to COVID-19, fighting for rural communities, protecting a women’s right to choose, police reform, gateway cities, regional transit authorities, work we did on substance abuse, civics, mental health care, zoning reform, transportation, veterans issues, oversight hearings, unemployment insurance, climate change, conservation and on and on and on,” he continued.
Earlier, he noted the work he and retiring Senator Harriette Chandler had done to protect religiously-affiliated institutions, especially amid a rising tide of anti-Semitism. The issue hit especially close to home, not just because Lesser is himself Jewish. The Jewish Community Center in Springfield, which he has described as a second home, has faced threats.
Lesser also paid tribute to staff, naming everybody who had worked for him over eight years. It was not an empty gesture. Migeed called his old boss a “cheerleader” and a “mentor.”
The outgoing senator also thanked his parents and his wife Alison. Their family has grown from one to three kids since he took office. Yet, he added, “It’s deeply fulfilling work, but it takes a toll on your family.”
A double Harvard grad, Lesser could easily make more money doing something else, while taking less time from loved ones. Still, he said the cost had been worth it.
“Because of what we’ve been able to get done,” he told WMP&I. Citing a proverb, Lesser added, “I personally think the greatest honor and the greatest reward in the world is helping, you know, plant trees, you don’t get to enjoy the shade under.”
What’s next for him is unclear. In the interview, as elsewhere, he insisted he has made no decisions. He serves on Governor-elect Maura Healey’s transportation policy committee, which ensures some short-term role as her admin starts up.
Reflecting on his lieutenant governor bid, Lesser observed Massachusetts was bigger than people realize. Yet, sounding waxing optimistic, he argued the commonwealth was small enough to address regions’ ills.
Electoral options are few now. Lesser would be an obvious contender in a crowded field when Neal retires. But, Democrats’ better than expected midterm showing make a Neal exit less likely. The congressman will cede his Ways & Means gavel next week, but his party could be back come 2024.
“I think Eric’s got a lot of great things ahead of him,” Brownsberger said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how he decides to do next.”
Healey has mentioned a position overseeing rail service to Western Massachusetts. That practically screams Eric Lesser, especially with his policy committee spot. Yet, Healey only just named her top Transportation officials. It may take time to name positions deeper in the secretariat.
State policy may be the place where Lesser can do more as national politics remain comparatively glacial. Asked directly, Lesser was coy—and yet not—about his future.
“I see no conceivable scenario in which I would not be engaged in some way, either as a private citizen or an academic or whatever,” he said.