Sen. Eric Lesser (D-MA) visited Brandeis on Thursday, April 7, at an event hosted by Brandeis Democrats to talk about his work as a state senator and his campaign for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. 

Lesser began his talk by explaining how he first became involved in politics. When he was a junior in high school, his principal called an assembly, brought up a group of teachers to the front of the room, and announced that those teachers would not be returning the following year due to budget cuts. Lesser described feeling like he and his fellow students were “being asked to pay for others’ mistakes.” A group of students, including Lesser, began to put together a campaign in support of the teachers that were set to be fired, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets in an attempt to “close the gap of funding.” 

The moment that changed it all for Lesser was in the town hall meeting the night the ballots were being counted. A woman was sitting next to him and holding her firing notice, and when the vote had passed, she ripped it up in victory because she was going to be able to keep her job. It was an early lesson to Lesser that, despite the difficulties in politics, being involved is one of the “most powerful means of making a difference.”

One of Lesser’s first jobs in politics was working for former president Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign. Lesser explained that his role was essentially to carry around Obama’s suitcases and pick him up at the airport. Lesser said he would pre-drive their routes the night before to avoid getting lost because even though Obama was a “chill guy,” he did not like to get lost. Lesser traveled to 47 states and six countries with the Obama campaign, and he described his role as the equipment manager for the campaign as similar to being the “mom on the family vacation from hell.” 

During the campaign, because there was no way to get back home for Passover, Lesser and the other Jewish staffers decided to hold a Passover seder to celebrate. They invited Obama, who agreed to come, although Lesser recalled believing that the then-senator was simply being polite. However, to his surprise, Obama joined and stayed for the entire seder in the windowless basement where it was being held. When everyone said “next year in Jerusalem,” as customary in many seders, Obama lifted his glass and said, “next year in the White House.” As it turned out, Lesser explained, that ended up being the case. 

After the campaign ended, Lesser worked for David Axelrod, President Obama’s Senior Advisor. He was there for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the passing of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. However, Lesser was eager to get home and get involved in local politics, particularly after Obama himself advised Lesser that that was where he could get the most change done. He said to “grab a clipboard and run,” which is what Lesser decided to do. He ran for the position of state senator in Massachusetts and won by 192 votes. Because it was such a close election, it highlighted to Lesser the importance of campaigning and of voting. “You remember every baby you kiss and every door you’ve knocked on,” he said. 

One project that Lesser has been pursuing is the installation of a high-speed rail through Massachusetts. He described it as the “single biggest climate change project” in the state. Since 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts are from cars, and because it would get many cars off the road, Lesser said that a high-speed railway would significantly reduce those emissions. The project would also, he explained, create thousands of high-paying jobs, which is particularly important after the drop in employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When asked about his favorite memories from working at the White House, Lesser talked about the seders held at the White House during Obama’s presidency. Malia and Sasha Obama, he said, would read the four questions and find the afikoman — the hidden piece of matzah — which are both seder traditions. They could not open the door for Elijah — another Passover tradition — Lesser remembered fondly due to concerns from the Secret Service. There was one unique aspect of these seders that was added at Obama’s request. After reading the Haggadah, or the meal and telling of the Passover story, they would do a shared reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lesser said it was important to Obama that his daughters understand this part of American history which is “still ongoing” and its parallels to the story of Exodus. 

One memory Lesser shared from working in the state senate was the night the legislature passed an economic development bill in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was at the height of the pandemic and was “very intense.” They had until midnight to negotiate and finalize the deal, but it was proving difficult, and the negotiations went past the time limit. Any legislator could have challenged the fact that the deal had continued past its allotted time, and that would have been it. Fortunately, Lesser explained, no one did, and they were able to get it passed at about 2:30 a.m..

Lesser was also asked about what he would do if elected as lieutenant governor. As lieutenant governor, he said, he would have a role on the governor’s council that confirms all judicial nominations made by the governor, a power that he believes has been long underutilized. In addition, Lesser said that he would advocate for police reform and the abolition of mandatory minimum, and close the waitlist at vocational schools. 

Another student asked Lesser what students can do to make a difference. Lesser, who was involved in Harvard College Democrats when he attended the university, advised the students in the room not to bite off more than they can chew. “Do what’s in front of you,” he said. “If you work on a local level, it will mushroom from there.” He emphasized that it is unproductive to try to solve all issues at once, and it is much more manageable and effective to do smaller things each day in an attempt to make a difference, such as taking initiatives in one’s hometown. “You’re not going to solve climate change in an afternoon,” he said.