Two Western Mass senators face off in lieutenant governor race

Hinds, Lesser have different strengths but come from same region

TWO DEMOCRATIC state senators from Western Massachusetts will run against each other next fall – but not for the Senate.  

Sen. Eric Lesser’s decision Tuesday to jump into the primary race for lieutenant governor will pit the Longmeadow Democrat against Pittsfield Sen. Adam Hinds, who launched his campaign in October. Also running are Acton Rep. Tami Gouveia and Boston businessman Bret Bero.  

In a region where voters often see themselves as being ignored by Beacon Hill, having two Western Massachusetts politicians running for one top job in state government is highly unusual. While the race is now more likely to pay attention to issues important to the western part of the state, the danger is that the two Western Mass pols could cancel each other out in a crowded field and make it easier for a politician from the eastern part of the state to win the election. 

The two senators have different personalities and constituencies – Lesser is an ambitious politician with Obama administration ties and an urban base, while Hinds is a skilled diplomat with expertise in rural policy. Both will face the challenges of building name recognition around Boston. While Hinds has the advantage of an early start and initial endorsements, Lesser benefits from superior fundraising and political connections.  

“Western Massachusetts doesn’t have any top people in top leadership right now,” said Ray LaRaja, a professor of political science at UMass Amherst. “They need to have people taking some risk to try to win those offices, so when people in the eastern part of the state start talking about policy, there’s someone there to say, ‘Hey, what about Western Mass?’” 

Hinds was elected to the state Senate in 2016, at age 40, after a career working for the United Nations as a diplomat in Iraq, Syria, and Israel. He is originally from Buckland, a rural Franklin County town, lived in Pittsfield when he was elected, and recently bought a home in Amherst.  

Hinds is Senate chair of the Revenue Committee, which is in charge of state tax policy. As the representative of the state’s largest geographic district, which covers 52 cities and towns, many of them rural, Hinds has championed rural causes. He pushed for a new pot of state money to help rural schools and has been critical of the state formula for compensating communities for state-owned land. He got a pilot program funded to establish a rail connection, the Berkshire Flyer, between New York City and Pittsfield. 

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat who endorsed Hinds, said Hinds has worked closely with her to address issues big and small, including a reporting system that mislabeled the location of COVID cases in towns that shared a zip code. “Every time you call on him, he’s there,” Sabadosa said. 

Lesser was elected to the Senate in 2014 at age 29. After working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Lesser jumped straight from college at Harvard to the Obama White House, working for senior White House adviser David Axelrod, then the Council of Economic Advisers. He left government for law school and announced his state Senate campaign before graduation. 

Lesser is the Senate chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which oversees state spending on economic development projects. He has been the major proponent of launching an East-West passenger rail connection between Springfield and Boston, elevating the project from a pipe dream to a project that, with strong support from US House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, now stands a good chance of getting federal funding. He has tried to address locally issues that have national implications, like creating a student loan bill of rights or examining the future of work. 

Candy Glazer, a Longmeadow Democratic activist who is chairing Lesser’s campaign committee, said Lesser is someone who “wants to unite the state,” who has a strong base in Western Massachusetts combined with a statewide presence.  

Hinds and Lesser have worked together in the Senate, and Lesser, in an interview, called Hinds a colleague and a friend. “It’s not personal. It’s not about us. It’s about what the vision is for the state and what the state needs right now,” Lesser said. 

Hinds, in a statement, did not mention Lesser by name but said only that he “is looking forward to showing voters why he’s the true progressive candidate in the race.” 

Springfield political consultant Tony Cignoli said both senators have reputations for being “good at the politics but extremely good at doing the job.” He added: “Both have track records within their Senate districts and beyond for being fighters for the region.”  

Lesser, whose district includes parts of Springfield and Chicopee, has had to address urban concerns like joblessness and homelessness. Hinds, representing a more rural swath of the state, has dealt a lot with environmental issues.  

With the four western counties comprising just 12 percent of the state population, any candidate from there must expand their appeal into the more populous central and eastern Massachusetts. 

State Rep. John Barrett, a North Adams Democrat who endorsed Hinds, said by getting into the race early, Hinds has been able to secure support from elected officials and activists – which will be vital for the Democratic convention, where candidates must get 15 percent of the vote from delegates to secure a spot on the ballot. Hinds has gotten support from nearly 30 elected officials so far, according to his campaign, including 19 leaders from the four western counties. 

But Barrett acknowledged that Lesser will probably be the frontrunner in the primary due to his fundraising ability. According to campaign finance filings, Lesser already has $651,000 in his campaign account, while Hinds has $251,000. (Bero has $134,000 and Gouveia has $17,800.) 

Lesser also has national connections from his time working for Obama, which gives him an edge in fundraising and organization. For example, Alexrod, the Obama senior advisor, spoke to the Boston Globe for a story published last month about Lesser weighing a run for lieutenant governor. 

Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who is backing Hinds, recalls visiting the White House with his sister, who worked in the Obama administration, and meeting the president in the Oval Office. When Pignatelli told Obama he was in the Massachusetts Legislature, Obama asked, “How’s my friend Eric Lesser?” 

“He’s made an impact way beyond Western Massachusetts,” Pignatelli said. 

Many of Hinds’ recent campaign donations come from donors in his district, with 82 percent of his donations last year from in-state. Lesser’s donors appear to be more sprinkled throughout the state, and 72 percent of his donations last year were from Massachusetts residents. 

Lesser has made efforts to become familiar with other regions of the state, through leading a Gateway Cities caucus and an advanced manufacturing caucus. “Senator Lesser been around a bit longer and has more extensive political networks, including in eastern Massachusetts,” LaRaja said. 

The role of the lieutenant governor depends on the officeholder’s relationship with the governor. The lieutenant governor’s only official job is chairing the Governor’s Council, a body that vets judicial nominees, and replacing the governor should the governor leave office.  

While some have derided the role as having little purpose, Jerold Duquette, a Longmeadow Democratic activist and associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University, has argued that the modern lieutenant governor, exemplified by current Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, plays an important role in cultivating relationships with constituencies, from municipal officials to interest groups.  

Duquette said Hinds would be the traditional type of lieutenant governor candidate, as a politician who has a strong reputation yet is not particularly high-profile. He said Lesser’s decision to get in reflects the increased importance of the role in modern times, calling Lesser someone who “everyone assumes is Richie Neal’s replacement,” when the powerful Springfield congressman steps down. 

Pignatelli added that with Gov. Charlie Baker and Polito not running for reelection, and Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey potentially entering the gubernatorial race, the Democrats have a good shot at winning the governorship. So far, the only Republican running for governor is former state rep. Geoff Diehl, a pro-Trump candidate who appeals to the conservative GOP base. “I think it makes that job [of lieutenant governor] much more attractive than it has been historically,” Pignatelli said. 

Lesser has long been rumored to have his eye on higher office, in any number of potential roles. Asked why he chose to run for lieutenant governor, Lesser said he spoke to prior lieutenant governors in Massachusetts and other states about their role and capacity to make change. Many of those potential roles – things like implementing a state infrastructure plan or revitalizing local communities – fit with the work he has done in the Senate. “My experience and the work I’ve done over the last eight years I felt were preparation for the role of lieutenant governor,” Lesser said.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Other Democrats are still rumored to be considering a run for lieutenant governor, including Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. No Republicans have yet announced their intention to run. The field could also change once Healey decides if she will run for governor. Harvard professor Danielle Allen and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz are already running for governor as Democrats, but Healey would be the immediate frontrunner should she get in. 

Lesser refused to say whether he talked to Healey before announcing his decision. “I’ve had conversations over the course of the process with everyone,” he said.