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State Sen Eric Lesser considers joining Democratic field for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts

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Eric Lesser, the four-term Democratic State Senator from Longmeadow has championed east-west passenger rail since his first campaign.

Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser is seriously considering a run for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts next year.

The four-term senator from Longmeadow confirmed he is exploring joining a field of candidates that already includes another Democratic state senator from western Massachusetts – Adam Hinds of Pittsfield.

Lesser spoke with WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill. The wide-ranging interview also touched on the $4 billion plan to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds and budget surplus money. Also, new developments on the east-west rail front.

Paul Tuthill 

The $4 billion plan to spend federal ARPA money and surplus state revenue that has now been passed by the legislature and sent to Governor Baker's desk. What, what specifically is it is in there that pertains to your senate district?

Eric Lesser

Well, first, I mean, it's a historic piece of legislation and very, very excited for what this is going to mean for Western Mass and for the state as a whole. There's significant money for broadband, and making sure that we continue to improve connectivity, certainly to the communities in Western Mass that remain that do not yet have that connection. But also very importantly, as a way to bring costs down in the communities that are already served. So that's going to be a big deal. There's also significant resources that are going to be brought to bear for more housing, we know rents are going up, especially in our gateway cities, Springfield, Holyoke Chicopee, have all seen rents going up, our rural communities have seen housing prices going up very fast as well, we're going to be bringing a lot of resources to bear to build more housing to provide more rental assistance to get more shovels in the ground, so that we can both create jobs and help bring costs down. And then you know, a little bit more closer to home, there's going to be some really significant investments for some local organizations, I'm particularly proud of $5 million I was able to secure for the Food Bank of Western Mass to build a new distribution center in Hamden County. This is going to allow them to dramatically expand their capacity to reach food pantries to get food into communities and to families that need it. Unfortunately, there's been a surge in demand for their services since COVID-19. Started so this investment is about allowing them to both keep up with that. And also to make sure that they're getting fresh foods, anybody who needs it long into the future.

Paul Tuthill 

This ARPA bill that was sent to the Governor has 107 and a half million dollars in it for job training. That's about $50 million less than what they had initially been proposed by the leadership in the legislature. Why was that money cut?

Eric Lesser

Well, so I don't I don't think it's accurate to say that the overall job training budget was cut. There were different buckets in different categories that the money was distributed to. So just as an example of what I mean, that particular line item is a little bit less than was initially proposed. But we set up an entirely new program around human service workers and mental health professionals to help with training and retention in that sector. And part of that is because of the response we're hearing from community members, from hospitals, from community health centers, about the crisis we're facing and mental health coverage, especially for children. So we want to make sure we're able to hire more social workers hire more psychiatrist, clinicians, caseworkers, so that we're able to keep up with that. So the overall amount is really roughly the same. If you look at the governor.or look at the house, the senate, and what was ultimately signed. But we were responding as we heard feedback about where the greatest need is, and it's very clear right now, that mental health services and human service workforce across the board, group homes, elder services, nursing homes, is a sector that is under immense strain. And those workers need better pay, they need better training. And we need more.

Paul Tuthill 

There's been some developments on the East West Rail front-- MassDOT recently put out what they described as a governance white paper, what's your take on what the transportation agencies had to say about how they'd like to see East West Rail run?

Eric Lesser

Well, so first, you know, zooming out, you know, when I first campaigned about connecting our entire state by a high speed rail line from Pittsfield, to Boston with, of course, Springfield in between, it was kind of dismissed as a little bit of a pipe dream, a little bit of a fantasy, we're now at a point where it very much is a real plan that needs to and likely will get implemented. The Biden infrastructure bill has provided a huge opportunity and a new pot of money that the state can use to help build the plan. And we're beginning to get some clarity about what we need to do to make it happen. So just as an example, that white paper that came out, gave us some good information. One of the most important was that using Amtrak gives us more leverage with the freight rail operators because there's a federal law that gives Amtrak precedence over freight rail when when negotiating the sort of terms and the access points of different rail lines. The second piece that I think is important and that that white paper looked into is how do you govern? Is it Amtrak that governs it. Is it the MBTA? Is it a new rail authority? In the North South Line, just south of us in Connecticu itt is a new authority called CTRail that does the link from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield. So that still needs to be worked out. I personally have some caution about something like a Western Mass Rail Authority. Because I think the experience in our state has been, if you don't have buy in from Boston, if you don't have buy in from the the big population center and the political center and in Greater Boston, it's a recipe for us not getting the support or the attention or the funding that we need. So we need to sort those things out. Those are significant questions that need to be worked through. But the bottom line is, is that this project is now at a place that is gathering more momentum and more excitement than it ever has before. So it's really good news, and it's full steam ahead.

Paul Tuthill 

You referenced when you first ran for office. Are you planning to run for re election next year? Or do you have designs on higher office, as has been reported in some places?

Eric Lesser

Well, you know, I mean, it's obviously that time of the year where everybody kind of speculating about that, you know, it's always flattering to be in those conversations. You know, Paul, you and I just talked about a really ambitious agenda here, whether it's the workforce training issues, if the unemployment insurance issues, we just went over rail, which has been such a focus for the last eight years. So I'm going to be in the place where I think we can move these issues forward with the most enthusiasm and the most success. So we’re in the process of sorting that out and talking to people and hopefully, we'll have some clarity soon.

Paul Tuthill 

Are the reports accurate that you have been sounding people out about the possibility of running for lieutenant governor?

Eric Lesser

I've certainly been talking to a lot of people, a lot of people have called me and written to me. So yeah, I have had those conversations. But uh, you know, again, for me, it's really about what do we need to do to get the rail done? What do we need to do to get the unemployment picture better? What do we need to do about the job training and the mental health crisis? What do we need to do to get sports betting done, which is a topic your and I have talked about a lot. So that's really the reason I'm thinking about it. And I'm open to suggestions and ideas from people about that.

Paul Tuthill 

What's your timeframe for making a decision? I mean, the caucuses start in February to pick delegates to the state convention. So I assume you've got a deadline within the next few weeks right?

Eric Lesser

A decision is going to get made when I've made it so I’m not holding myself to any kind of specific timeline.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.