Eric Lesser carries the western Massachusetts banner into lieutenant governor primary
Not many candidates for statewide office usually hail from western Massachusetts. And those that do run don't usually have success. But state Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow is trying to change that.
Lesser is running against Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Acton state Rep. Tami Gouveia for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in next Tuesday's primary.
"And we're counting on a big, strong showing from western Mass. to send that signal to Boston," Lesser said at a July campaign event in Springfield, "that we need a government that speaks for our whole state, and that includes our whole state and represents our whole state.”
That statement garnered applause from those gathered outside of Union Station to support Lesser, including U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.
A few weeks later, in Lesser's campaign office, he said that idea of regional equity is what brought him into the race.
"I really want to be someone who brings the perspective of western Mass. to Boston and brings the perspective of western Mass. to the highest levels of decision making in the state,” Lesser said.
He is leaning on his experience, as a state senator first elected in 2014 and before that as an aide in the Obama White House.
Kim Driscoll, another candidate and Salem's longtime mayor, said her experience running a city will help her if she wins.
"Sixteen years later, we're a hip, historic, vibrant destination. We've made historic investments in schools and parks and infrastructure,” Driscoll said. “I know firsthand that the success of cities is really tantamount to the success of the commonwealth, but you can't really do it alone. We need a strong state partner."
Driscoll has picked up endorsement from four of her fellow mayors in western Massachusetts, including Nicole LaChapelle of Easthampton, Roxann Wedegartner of Greenfield, Jennifer Macksey of North Adams and Linda Tyer of Pittsfield.
Lesser has support from the mayors of the two largest communities in the western part of the state: Domenic Sarno of Springfield and John Vieau of Chicopee.
As for Gouveia, she was elected as a state representative in 2018, but has a different background than her opponents. She was a social worker for 25 years, with a doctorate of public health. Gouveia said what she's seen over her professional career made her want to run for lieutenant governor.
"Just the many ways that we are not investing in people in our state," she said. "We make it really hard for folks to get access to some of the basic services like housing and mental health and child care."
The candidates share many of the same priorities when it comes to the issues. Driscoll and Gouveia agree with Lesser that more can be done in terms of regional equity for the western part of the state. They all agree the state needs more housing.
The candidates also each support expanded passenger rail service between Boston and western Massachusetts. Lesser, who has been pushing the concept for years, said rail could also help with the housing piece.
"It would be the single-largest way, biggest way, to create more housing in our state," he said. "Good, transit-oriented development. Thousands and thousands of new units that would be affordable and walkable and will allow families to stay here."
Driscoll said other transportation needs, such as getting around locally, need to be looked at, and used her city's own ride-share program as an example.
"Doesn't always have to be a car. It could be a shared ride system, it could be a van," she said. "That's the work I've done in my community. Bringing together key stakeholders, understanding what are the transit needs beyond just getting back and forth, your typical commuter run."
Gouveia had a similar vision.
"In part of western Mass. that are more hilly and more rural, that there's also a need to invest in micro-transit so that we can make sure that people can get to their doctor's appointments, get to school, get to recreation and work,” she said.
One controversy to crop up during this campaign involves a super PAC called Leadership for Mass., which supports Driscoll. The Boston Globe first reported the group is backed by a wealthy real estate developer who has donated to national Republicans and GOP causes in the past. In recent weeks, the group has been run an ad on Driscoll's behalf, touting her accomplishments as Salem’s mayor.
Both Gouveia and Lesser criticized Driscoll for not denouncing the support. On a recent visit to Springfield, Driscoll pleaded ignorance.
"You know, I don't really know that much about it. I only read what I read in the newspaper," she said. "There's no collaboration or coordination permitted. I've been so focused on my campaign."
Lesser has stepped up his criticism of Driscoll with his own TV commercial. The ad called Driscoll’s backing from the super PAC “a dark money disgrace” and insinuated she is receiving the support because the real estate developer in question “knows he’s got a friend in Kim Driscoll.”
In terms of money raised directly by the candidates, Lesser is way ahead of his opponents. According to state campaign finance data, Lesser had just over $1 million on hand as of the end of July. Driscoll was at nearly $306,000, though has outraised Lesser in each of the last two months. Gouveia had just under $200,000 and accepted $148,000 in public financing in July.
But as for support from the party, Lesser came in third at the state Democratic convention, behind Driscoll and Gouveia. He's been campaigning mostly away from the western part of the state, trying to drum up name recognition among voters far from Longmeadow.
Asked about the gamble of leaving the state Senate to run for statewide office, Lesser said he "felt great" and brought the conversation back to regional equity.
"You have to go back a long way to find another statewide elected official from western Mass," he said. "And we've been hurt by that. We've been hurt by the fact we haven't been at the table when the big decisions get made."
There has been some representation in recent decades among statewide officeholders. Jane Swift, a Berkshire County native, was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, and later became governor after the resignation of Paul Cellucci. Former Governor Deval Patrick maintained a second home in the Berkshire County town of Richmond during his time in office.
The outgoing state auditor, Suzanne Bump, lived in Great Barrington during a portion of her tenure before moving to the eastern part of the state.
The primary winner for lieutenant governor will join the Democratic ticket with state Attorney General Maura Healey for November's general election.