Eric P. Lesser was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in November 2014. He serves Western Massachusetts as the youngest member of the State Senate, representing nine communities in the First Hampden & Hampshire District. His legislative agenda focuses on the expansion of economic opportunity and quality of life for the residents of Western Massachusetts through his high-speed rail project, a high-tech economy, job training, and innovation in government. He is a graduate of both Harvard College (2007) and Harvard Law School (2015).
Harvard Political Review: How has the IOP informed your political career?
Eric Lesser: When I was in college, I was active in the Institute of Politics, and I was also the president of the Harvard College Democrats. That was in 2006 when Governor Deval Patrick’s campaign was going on. While I was also in the IOP, I started a policy program that is still exists to bridge the gap between academic research and public policy research in order to have students dive deeply into a particular issue and learn everything that is needed to know about that issue, and very importantly, develop and propose concrete policy solutions based on that research that could actually be implemented by legislatures.
When I was a senior, I had gotten very interested in, then, Senator Obama and everything he was working on. I started just driving up to New Hampshire to volunteer for him, and while I was still a senior, I may or may not have skipped class a little bit to go up there and help out. Then, I was hired to help during the New Hampshire primary, and to make a long story short, after the primary, that’s when they moved to a national campaign—you probably see it on TV now, where they put your name on the side of a plane and they fly over, visiting three or four states in a day. My job was to be the “Grounds Logistic Coordinator,” which was a fancy title for bag boy. So my job was to basically keep track of all the luggage for all the traveling press as well the staff and, then, Senator Obama. That was just a breakneck job—we would often be in three or four states in a day. I started that job in January of 2008 and did it until November of 2008 until Election Day, and by the time it was over, we had traveled to 47 states and six countries and had traveled over 200,000 miles. And my claim to fame after 200,000 miles and 47 states is that I never once lost a bag. So I used to joke during my campaign trail to when I was running for State Senate, “Nobody can say Lesser does not deliver.”
HPR: What were the next steps after that to running your own campaign?
EL: When that was over, I worked very closely with David Axelrod, who would travel with us on that campaign plane. So when the election was over, I joined Axelrod to become his special assistant. Probably the most accurate description of that job was the “Donna Moss” character in on The West Wing. Basically I was in charge of managing all of the different things that Axelrod was doing and keeping track of his schedule. In my office, I had a little cubby hole, 40 feet from the front door of the Oval Office. I did that for little over two years, and then went over to the Council of Economic Advisors, where I was working as the Director of Strategic Planning for Austan Goolsbee, who was the chair of economic advisors. At that point, I faced a fork in my career. I was very eager to get back home to Massachusetts; one thing that I learned was that as neat and special as it was to work at the White House, ultimately, change in a democracy doesn’t come from Washington down. It comes from communities up. That was actually a lesson I learned at a very early age. When I was 16 in high school in Longmeadow, Massachusetts (a small town in western Mass.), there was a round of budget cuts and 40 teachers were threatened to be laid off. I didn’t think it was fair that 15 and 16-year-olds should pay the price for the bad decisions made 90 miles east. So we organized and put together a campaign with parent, teachers, and students. We knocked on every single door in our town, and we were ultimately able to get the cuts reversed. I actually remember those 40 teachers who had received pink slips; those pink slips were ripped up and thrown in the garbage. Those 40 teacher positions were saved, and it was an early lesson for me that despite all of the messiness and frustration of the political process, it really does remain such an important force for change. That was what had inspired me to get involved in the Obama campaign and to work for him at the White House, but ultimately, it was the reason why I was eager to get home because I felt like in order to make a lasting difference, you need to work for change on a grassroots level.
To keep the story moving along, in 2011, I decided to get back to Massachusetts, but I also felt like I wanted to continue my education. I came back and went to Harvard Law School in the fall of 2011; actually, my wife and I were tutors in Kirkland House, which was the house I was in, so it was fun to go back. During the spring semester of my 3L year, one of the long term state senators for the area where I’m from, announced she was retiring. You know, there was every reason in the world to not do it—I was still in law school, I actually had 6-month old baby at the time, and I had just gotten married—but I really felt strongly that, again, serving in the community where I grew up through the political process would give us the greatest chance to make a difference. So I jumped in, and it was a tough election; most of my opponents were my parents’ age or even a little older. I won the primary by 192 votes, and then won the general election. I was sworn in on January 2015 as the youngest member of the state senate. Now I really get to work on issues everyday that are just of such great importance to the communities where I grew up, where I played catch with my dad, and where I went fishing on Saturday mornings, and that’s been a really fulfilling project.
HPR: How did your emphasis on the grassroots movement affect your current policies?
EL: Western Massachusetts is a wonderful place, but in many respects, we feel left out of the economic boom that has been happening in the eastern part of the state, in particular in the Boston area. We cannot have a healthy or functioning commonwealth unless all areas of our state feel included in the progress and growth that is happening all around us. I felt very strongly that better connecting the different regions of our state is one of the most important things we could do to foster economic growth, create jobs, and create opportunities everywhere, not just in Cambridge and Boston, but also in Wilbraham, Ludlow, Longmeadow, Springfield, Chicopee, and all the communities that I represent. That was what underlined the high-speed rail project. You really learn the most just knocking on doors and talking to people at block parties, and there was a recurring theme that we don’t get a fair share of the growth and opportunities that other parts of the states do.
HPR: Would this high-speed rail connect western Massachusetts to eastern Massachusetts?
EL: There actually is already a rail-link; there’s an Amtrak train that runs once a day that is basically unusable because it runs once a day during the middle of the day when no one can use it. The single most important and single hardest aspect of a rail project is getting the right of way and getting the space for the tracks. We have already completed that because there already exists a track, so the challenge now is improving the tracks so that regular trains can go back and forth. That’s what we are focusing on. It’s actually not the whole route from Boston to Springfield. About six or seven years ago, a regular rail service was set up between Worcester and Boston, so we’re only talking about the Worcester to Springfield portion, which is only about 55 miles. You know, it is like any complicated problem; it is like doing a problem set or something. At first, this feels like a daunting task, but if you break it down and start looking at what are the different pieces and what are the initial steps, you can put together a game plan to start making progress.
HPR: Do you have any plans for running for higher office?
EL: No plans right now; I have a two-and-half year old, and I feel like I’m in a job through which I can do quite a lot of good. Just to give you an example, a group came to me when I first got elected. A really important issue in Western Massachusetts is job training, especially vocational training for machine working and manufacturing. There’s a huge skills gap between people who are looking for work and the employers who are desperate for skilled workers. This was a big challenge, and we put together a program to have one of the local schools set up a training program in which the high schoolers in the area can get their academic classes done in the morning and then they can get on buses to get to the training center to learn things such as machine operating and tool making. These are actually fields that can pay average wages of $75,000. When we talk about income inequality and trying to promote more opportunities, here is such a perfect example. Unless we rebuild jobs in the middle like manufacturing, we are never going to solve the income inequality challenge.
One thing that might be of interest to you—I run this millennial engagement initiative in the Massachusetts Senate to work to promote more participation in the state government by the millennial generation. We have been doing round tables all over the state with millennials because we need young people to be excited and engaged.
HPR: What are your thoughts on the current presidential election?
EL: I have been pretty focused on my work locally, but I support Hillary Clinton because I think she would do the best. When I was at the White House, I had the chance to observe how hard she worked and how much attention and dedication she put into that role of secretary of state. People forget how badly America’s reputation was damaged during the Bush years and after the war in Iraq, and the work she did to rebuild that reputation overseas was very difficult and very well done. So I think she is very well equipped to be the president, and I think she is providing the best vision for how we realistically and appropriately take on these big challenges like income inequality, the skills gap, and everything else.
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