Eric Lesser won his first state election in 2014 and is the State Senator for the First Hampden and Hampshire District in Massachusetts. YDMA spoke to him about his four years in office, what he finds meaningful about representing Western Massachusetts, and the necessity of investing in public transit. We also discussed the importance of young people getting engaged at the state and local level and ways to tackle the student loan debt crisis.
Pollmann: When people talk about you, what do you want them to think of? What are the key issues and positions you want to be identified with?
Senator Eric Lesser: I come from Western Massachusetts, so my district includes the cities of Springfield and Chicopee and seven towns in the Pioneer Valley. We’re not Boston; we’re not part of the Boston metro area. It’s really a different place, with a unique set of needs, and when I look at the community where I grew up, we’ve been a victim of deindustrialization and are seeing the loss of jobs we’ve seen in other parts of the country.
My community was home to a constellation of iconic manufacturing companies. We were the home of Indian Motorcycle and American Bosch; Rolls-Royce Engines were made in Springfield. All of those companies, all of those jobs left over the past twenty, thirty years. And we’ve struggled to find ways to replace those lost jobs. I have a lot of friends in the community whose parents and grandparents worked very good-paying jobs at these local manufacturing factories. Their kids are struggling to find equivalent employment.
The defining issue for our community is how do we keep pace with the red-hot growth we see just to our east in Boston, just to our south in New York? This is why I really try to champion economic issues, those jobs-focused issues to bring investment into our community, like high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield, new job training, and vocational education so that we have a talented workforce to take the jobs that are available in high-paying manufacturing.
We want to bring tech and life sciences to Western Mass. Tech and life sciences are red-hot in Boston, and we want to spread that to Western Massachusetts and other parts of the state. I hope when people look at what I work on, what my career has been about, they see that it’s about drawing out that circle of opportunity, circle of growth and innovation that is so red-hot in the Boston area to all communities in the Commonwealth, many of which have frankly been left out.
I hope when people look at what I work on, what my career has been about, they see that it’s about drawing out that circle of opportunity, circle of growth and innovation that is so red-hot in the Boston area to all communities in the Commonwealth, many of which have frankly been left out.
Pollmann: How strong is Donald Trump’s appeal in your district? How does the Democratic Party need to respond to that?
Lesser: Unfortunately, he is stronger than I would like. Five of the nine communities in my district voted for Donald Trump, and these are communities I’ve done well in, and have had positive responses in. I feel dismayed and sad when I see those numbers, but the Democratic Party needs to stand for something and offer real alternatives to what we see happening in Washington, what we see being championed by Trump. We need to make the case for how Democratic and progressive policies are going to create jobs, how we are going to bring new investment into communities that have seen disinvestment for a very long time.
The response to Trump is to put forward an aggressive, positive vision of what we stand for—equality for all people, universal health care access, universal college access, investing in infrastructure, like high-speed rail, new fiber optic and high-speed Internet lines. We still have over forty communities in Western Mass that don’t have high-speed Internet. This is a shocking thing to imagine: that in the twenty-first century, we still have that as a challenge. When we make that case to everyone and in every community, and we do it with conviction and passion and a sense of where the future is heading, we will win those voters back and succeed in regaining their trust.
The response to Trump is to put forward an aggressive, positive vision of what we stand for—equality for all people, universal health care access, universal college access, and investing in infrastructure, like high-speed rail, new fiber optic and high-speed Internet lines. We need to make the case for how Democratic and progressive policies are going to create jobs, how we are going to bring new investment into communities that have seen disinvestment for a very long time.
Pollmann: Elections matter because of the people they propel into office. As someone who has seen two legislative sessions, could you speak about the importance of individuals—whether it’s in terms of individual personalities or how it shapes group dynamics?
Lesser: Politics is a team sport, and it’s an interesting dynamic in this legislature because everyone is independently elected from their own constituencies, and every community is different and has different needs. Every representative and every senator is different and comes to the job with different life experiences, different goals, and different promises that have been made to the communities that sent them there.
On the one hand, everyone is their own boss, and is accountable to their own community and their own set of voters. But at the same time, you can’t get anything done without 51%. It’s give-and-take. You have to fight for your individual priorities and your community’s priorities, while at the same time remembering the obligation you have to your colleagues and to the state as a whole to work together to move these issues forward. It’s a great study in group dynamics, and it’s a team effort. The most important thing for success in the state legislature, in politics, is to always look for alliances, to build coalitions, to build partnerships, with different types of people and communities to work towards a common goal.
That’s the only way to achieve success. One senator is only one out of 40. It’s great to have an opinion or a passion for a subject, but you have to do a lot more than that. You have to convince your colleagues, convince other communities to go along with you as well.
The most important thing for success in the state legislature, in politics, is to always look for alliances, to build coalitions, to build partnerships, with different types of people and communities to work towards a common goal.
Pollmann: What are the issues you have had the most success collaborating with your Republican colleagues on?
Lesser: We’ve actually had a lot of success working with colleagues across the aisle, from all across the state. One really important initiative that has bipartisan support is high-speed rail access between Springfield and Boston. The provision I had for the feasibility study on high-speed rail access has now passed the State Senate four years in a row on unanimous votes. So this has been an example of the entire Republican caucus supporting us, an area where both sides can agree that infrastructure investment benefits everyone. Eastern Massachusetts is going to benefit because it provides access to new housing, which is desperately needed. No one can get anywhere in Boston: it’s too crowded; housing is too expensive; the traffic is awful. And then in Western Massachusetts, we have great housing and great cost of living, but we don’t have enough access to those high-paying jobs. This will help both ends of the state, and that’s part of the reason we’ve seen bipartisan success on this issue.
Pollmann: What surprised you most about the state legislative process?
Lesser: It’s definitely sausage-making. Unfortunately, often politics is two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes, it’s two steps back and one step forward. What’s really important is maintaining a north star of what we’re fighting for, what we need to achieve. I really enjoy the process; I love the job. I’m really blessed that I get to work everyday on issues that are vital to our community, and I get to talk to amazing people who are working so hard to improve their communities. That’s my favorite part of the job. It is a joy to give back to the community that has been so good to me and my family.
One really important initiative that has bipartisan support is high-speed rail access between Springfield and Boston. This will help both ends of the state, and that’s part of the reason we’ve seen bipartisan success on this issue.
Pollmann: In a state as blue as Massachusetts, it can be easy for young voters to feel disengaged from the process. Why is it important for voters to care about state politics? Why should they get involved?
Lesser: The most important thing about state politics is that it really is the bread and butter of our everyday lives. The vast majority of policy decisions that are really directly tied to our day-to-day life are state and local in their nature, rather than federal. For example, public schools—the quality of your public school, the policies of your public school, your teachers getting paid and trained, the curriculum you are using—these are all set by state legislatures and school committees, state and local officials. That’s just one example. The roads we drive on, the trains we take, the public safety decisions, the police, the fire department—these are all state and local policies. Really, the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes of what we do day-to-day as people and as a community are driven by state and local decision makers more than they are by Washington. That’s why engagement at the state level is so important.
I would really encourage young people to especially engage in state and local politics because some of the sharp elbows and the viciousness in Washington politics is gone. Look, I worked in Washington for four years. I worked for Obama, on his 2008 campaign and then in the West Wing 40 feet from the Oval Office as the Special Assistant to David Axelrod in the first two years of the Obama administration. I’ve seen how Washington works up close, and something that’s important for young people to appreciate and understand is how important it is to engage on the state and local level because these issues are so close to the ground. We don’t have the time for the posturing and the partisanship and the polarization and the reality TV show that Washington, DC, has become.
I run into my constituents at the grocery store. I run into them at the park with my kids. I run into them when I go on bike rides through my town, when I’m getting ice cream with my kids. If we’re not delivering, people let us know. On a state and local level where the issues are very immediate and tied to people’s real lives, there’s not time for posturing and grandstanding. People want to pull up their sleeves and get the job done. So what you will see as a young person is that if you get involved in state government is that you’ll be able to get a lot done quite quickly, and you will really have a positive experience doing it. You’re not going to see the same partisanship and gridlock that you see in Washington.
As a young person, if you get involved in state government, you’ll be able to get a lot done quite quickly, and you will really have a positive experience doing it. You’re not going to see the same partisanship and gridlock that you see in Washington.
Pollmann: Looking forward to the next legislative session, what agenda items do you want Massachusetts voters, especially younger voters, to be paying attention to?
Lesser: We have a lot we need to work on, quite frankly. We had a very productive session: we were able to pass a $15 minimum wage, a new paid family and medical leave program, criminal justice reform. We’ve done a lot this past session, but we have quite a lot more to do. And, of course, the national climate makes it even more urgent that we work to empower young people
One thing in particular that is so important is that we need to work on zero debt, a debt-free future for our young people. We need to get the cost of college reduced, and I feel very strongly that we need to pass a student loan bill of rights to protect student loan borrowers from predatory practices, and also to bring down the cost of higher education, the cost of college. When you look at one of the most important issue holding people back in our generation, it’s the explosive out-of-control cost of college and the skyrocketing student debt issues. We’ve got to get a handle on it. We need to offer debt-free options to people, we need to invest in universal community college, and we need to pass a student loan bill of rights.
One thing in particular that is so important is that we need to work on zero debt, a debt-free future for our young people.
Pollmann: Can you talk to me about the details of the student loan bill of rights?
Lesser: The idea behind the student loan bill of rights is to put back in place a bill of rights that was issued by President Obama in 2015. The idea behind this would be a set of rules of conduct that student loan servicers would have to follow. For example, they would have to disclose upfront what the student interest rates would be, they would have to disclose upfront what payment plans would be, and they would have to notify students of their eligibility for income-based repayment plans or public service loan deferments. They wouldn’t be able to do things like make harassing calls to people.
When you look at the practices that some of these student loan servicers have engaged in, they have no regulation, no oversight, no state control over what they do. Often they will do very terrible things like send unmarked single page pieces of mail to young students they know are itinerant and move around, without proper identification of who they are, hoping that they will miss a payment in order to skyrocket their interest rates overnight. We need to put rules in place. This is behavior we wouldn’t tolerate from used cars salesmen—let alone people who control the financial futures of tens of thousands of young people in our state. We really need to pass this bill of rights.
Another thing we need to do—which this bill of rights would do—is create a one-stop shop for collecting consumer complaints around student loans. Right now, if you have an issue with your student loan, it’s very hard to know where to turn to. You could call the Attorney General, you could call the Division of Banks, you could call a private attorney to help But a lot of different people are involved, and everyone is pointing to someone else. That’s part of the problem. We need one person responsible, one cop on the beat looking out for students and their families. That would be a student loan ombudsman. That’s a new position we would create in the Attorney General’s office to collect all those complaints—and then to act on those complaints by taking action against those student loan servicers who are violating the rules.