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Where the Springfield City Council Went While Following the Lederman…

Melvin Edwards Kim Driscoll Jesse Lederman

Council President Lederman & Council Vice-president Melvin Edwards on the first day of the 2023 session with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—The end of a City Council term with impending departures from the chamber can be emotional. However, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards offered a poignant good-bye to the outgoing president.

Calling Lederman both his “baby boy” and “protégé,” Edwards, by turns laudatory and wistful, described his exiting colleague as his closest confidant other than Mrs. Edwards.

“You know how I feel about you so I don’t need to make a public pronouncement of how I feel I am extremely, extremely proud of you. I’m proud of your service,” he said.

Edwards’s moving tribute has roots in their long relationship, including each other’s support in virtually all of their campaigns. At 28, that means Lederman has been active in city politics since he was a teenager. That makes his exit after three terms notable less because he was leaving so soon, but that the Council was not even his first act.

By his 2017 election, Lederman had already run once, worked on several campaigns—even subbing for Edwards after his devastating injuries during a legislative run in 2012—and become a prominent figure in Springfield environmental activism battling the biomass plant. From an organizer for Ed Markey’s first Senate run he became a key local surrogate during the fraught 2020 primary.

Markey biomass Springfield

Lederman with Markey in 2021 alongside anti-biomass props. (WMP&I)

“I think that public service is an honor and a privilege,” he said in a recent interview. “And whether you’re engaging in the political sphere, or the public sphere as an elected official, candidate and activist, there’s a great deal of good that can be done and it’s worth the time and the energy and the effort.”

Lederman had his critics, from political rivals and rent-seeking establishmentarians to more earnest competitors for attention. However, he could function and even thrive as a progressive policy maven in a sometimes inert, small-c conservative city. His supporters spanned the late Michaelann Bewsee to non-aligned good government types of all ideological persuasions.

Of course, Lederman is not leaving the Council for laughs. He ran for mayor, placing fourth in the preliminary. It was an outcome that in retrospect looks like it had been inevitable. Still, it will likely not prove fatal either as he moves on from the Council and considers future steps.

Lederman’s is not even the longest tenure ending this year. His colleague Justin Hurst, who also ran for mayor, joined the Council four years before Lederman. Yet, the six years Lederman had on the municipal legislature were especially eventful.

There was a pandemic that sent half the council meetings of his tenure into virtual reality. But there were also personal changes. He got married while on the Council—he proposed Election Night 2017. Lederman’s first term overlapped with the last one of his mentor, E. Henry Twiggs, who died weeks before their joint term ended.

Fittingly, one of Lederman’s last official acts was raising a sign in Twiggs’s honor on the late councilor’s street. Twiggs, then the Springfield Democratic City Chair had recruited him to volunteer for campaigns. Lederman succeeded him in that role.

In an interview, in the Council committee room before his last regular meeting, Lederman discussed his time on the Council and its place in his career. Lederman’s Council tenure came as the durable supermajority that briefly countered the mayor had begun to flag. Nevertheless, he thinks that he maintained the relationships necessary to remain productive.

Lederman’s path to the Council presidency was somewhat unusual. Last year, then-President Marcus Willaims abruptly resigned. Lederman was Vice-president and, by operation of Council rules, become the body’s leader. He faced no serious challenge to this ascension nor to taking on a full term for 2023.

Jesse Lederman Marcus Williams

Lederman & Williams after the Council’s inauguration in 2022. (via Facebook/Lederman official)

“I had a unique situation in that I became president, after the departure of my colleague Marcus Williams, but I did have to court votes, again, and earn the support of my colleagues for my for my full term,” he recalled. “When you’re having a leadership fight, you’re asking for a personal endorsement from another elected official, and in turn, you are, sort of making a commitment to represent them, as well as your broader constituency.”

To that end, despite a hot mayoral campaign that included a Council colleague, the race did not pollute meetings’ flow. There were tensions below the surface, though. Yet even Hurst’s closest Council ally, Tracye Whitfield, feted Lederman as her “favorite learning president.” That is, he was the one from whom she learned the most about the body’s procedures.

Taking office two years before the shroud of coronavirus fell upon the city, the pandemic was an inflection point. With in-person meetings verboten and more power channeled into the mayor during the emergency phase, the Council had to adapt.

“I still saw a strong role for local elected officials, to be conveyors of information,” he said.

The City Council, Lederman noted, became an important node of information for the city. Hurst, the Council President in 2020, held public meetings with city officials. Lederman also organized digital town halls. The following year then-President Williams appointed Lederman to a special COVID-19 response committee. The two later pressed for changes for vaccine distribution.

More to the point, Lederman says that even in Springfield, with its population and City Hall notoriously disengaged, people were tuning in during the pandemic. Plus, it set the stage to use technology to bring the Council back in person, maximize hybrid opportunities and broaden the public’s ability to connect.

“We did reach people and I think that the goal was always to reach as many people as possible,” he said. “I’ve tried to put tools in place for the council in the future, beyond my efforts to be able to continue doing that.”

From both before and during the pandemic, which Lederman said did not slow down legislating, he ticked off achievements. While not without precedent, Lederman used committees he chaired to conduct oversight. On the legislative front, he led or played key roles in passing the renewable energy choice program, allocation of cannabis revenue to neighborhoods that host facilities, the lawsuit to implement the Police Commission and transparency in the selection of boards and commissions.

Most passed without resorting to a veto override. Mayor Domenic Sarno did oppose the cannabis stabilization program, but the executive and legislative branches found agreement in the end. The threat of a override may have waned, but Lederman still believes in a Council that is strongest when working together.

Springfield City Council 2023

All together now! (WMP&I)

“When we are pulling the levers of the council appropriately, and doing so in a unified manner, that is when we are at our most powerful, and I think that’s what I’ve seen over my three turns on the Council,” he said.

Still, Lederman made the decision to leave the Council, something traditional political watchers thought odd. Although no ally of Sarno’s, Lederman straddled the line between conflict with the mayor’s imperious reign and collaboration with the city departments under Sarno. Some accurately predicted last year how the race’s result. Lederman insists he felt comfortable enough with his legislative record to leave the Council. However, he saw opportunity in the city’s corner office.

“I felt that there was more for me to offer and certainly, while I value greatly my time on the City Council, I just intend to continue being active in public services,” he said, awash in foreshadowing. “That’s what I’ve always done.”

Nevertheless, with Lederman’s exit, the Council is losing an engine of legislation. Attention will shift to the incoming president, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton. Over the last six years, both councilors have communicated, argued and, often, collaborated.

They worked most closely on stopping the proposed biomass plant on Page Boulevard. Earlier this month, they shared a victory lap when Massachusetts Land Court drove another nail into the project’s coffin. They had public differences on the Police Commission before less visible coordination on the lawsuit to finally installed the panel.

Lederman Fenton

What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; (WMP&I)

The outgoing president declined to detail how the Council or its presidency had changed since Fenton last held the role in 2016. However, they have spoken about the handoff.

“The conversations that we’ve had have been about how to continue on some of the initiatives that I’ve put in place and how can we make sure that the Council continues to advance in this modern age and be a great representative of the people,” he said.

Lederman himself is preparing for his next chapter, whatever that is. He has not dismissed a return to electoral office. Unlike Hurst, whose allies have telegraphed interest in a future campaign, the outgoing president is more overtly shifting gears.

There is a great deal of speculation about what he will do next. Lederman did not say directly whether or what form it would take in Springfield. Clearly, he he does not expect to leave public service.

Public service is “where I’ve put my energy and my effort and whatever role comes from me in the future, it will be one that ultimately gives me the opportunity to continue working for the benefit of my fellow human beings,” Lederman said.