Incumbent Lesser faces Harrington in 1st Hampden and Hampshire District

By EMILY CUTTS

Staff Writer

Published: 11-02-2016 12:39 AM

For the second straight election, incumbent state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is facing a challenge from James “Chip” Harrington in the race for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District seat.

Unlike the first go-around, however, Harrington is now running as a Republican candidate, rather than the self-described moderate Democrat he campaigned as in 2014 when Lesser defeated him in the Democratic primary.

Harrington, 48, of Ludlow, unenrolled from the Democratic Party after the last election, saying the party had moved further left than he had realized and was no longer aligned with his views. Lesser, 31, won election to a first term in 2014, defeating Republican challenger Debra Boronski and independent Mike Franco.

The 1st Hampden and Hampshire Senate district represents Belchertown, Granby, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, Hampden, and parts of Springfield and Chicopee.

Harrington changes party

Harrington, 48, is a small-business owner and part-time police officer with the Ludlow Police Department and is married with two children. He said every town has a person who volunteers for everything, and in Ludlow, that’s him.

He changed political parties saying he felt the state’s Republican Party had “a much bigger tent” with members on the far right as well as those much closer to the middle like himself. In addition, Harrington said he liked Gov. Charlie Baker’s leadership style and felt he had a lot in common with the Republican.

Since 1990, Harrington has served in various elected local positions, including the Ludlow Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen and as a Town Meeting member. In 2005, he was elected to the Ludlow School Committee where he still serves and is currently the chairman.

One of the main reasons he is running against Lesser again is because he believes his fiscal views are more in line with the residents of the district.

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“I feel it is a somewhat fiscally conservative district. His (Lesser’s) votes were opposite,” he said. “All of those things put together, I said, you know, this guy does not deserve a free pass, he deserves to be challenged. I’m going to be the one to do it.”

Lesser ready for more

As the youngest member of the state Senate, Lesser said his last 20 months in office have “been a wonderful experience.” He highlighted his work in battling the opioid epidemic, and bridging the skills gap in the region’s manufacturing sector, among other issues.

“We’ve worked hard,” Lesser said. “We’ve really achieved very tangible results. Certainly, these are big issues and big challenges we are focused on — they won’t be resolved overnight.”

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Lesser worked for President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and then served as special assistant to David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president. He also worked as director of strategic planning for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, where he said he learned a lot about economic policy.

He was elected to serve in public office for the first time when he won the state Senate seat in 2014, which formerly was held by Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham. Lesser is married with a young daughter and is expecting a second child in January.

The issues

Harrington said he has kept a close eye on Lesser’s voting record since he took office. He said he believes Lesser’s support for bringing the Olympics to Boston and the billion-dollar bond for the Boston Convention Center did not represent the views of the district.

Harrington said the amount of work he’s done on the local level “far outshines” Lesser, and that his resumé compared to Lesser’s is “quite frankly, what this district needs,” as he put it.

“I didn’t move back here. I’ve been here, raising my family, contributing to the economy and the community for well over 25 years,” Harrington said. “It puts me in the perfect position to serve people in this district.”

Harrington said there are not a lot of people in the Legislature with experience owning their own business or serving in public safety, and that he is someone who is going to vote based on real life experience.

He said he was early to sound the alarm on the opioid crisis because, as a police officer, he was witnessing and responding to an unusual number of overdoses.

To help those seeking recovery, Harrington wants to streamline the process for private addiction counselors to become certified by the state Department of Mental Health, as well as lifting the cap on the number of agencies.

Lesser also stressed the importance of addressing the state’s substance abuse crisis. He noted that he was the sole senator from the area to served on the committee that led to legislation, signed by Baker, that enhanced treatment. Lesser offered a provision that allowed for bulk purchasing of the anti-overdose drug Narcan.

“All of the different municipalities were purchasing the drug on their own” Lesser said. “Our law gave new authority to the Department of Public Health and the attorney general to do bulk purchasing.”

The senator also authored legislation to crack down on pill shopping, closing pharmacy shopping loopholes and beefing up reporting for highly addictive prescriptions.

To combat the substance abuse crisis, Lesser said, there should be many more treatment facilities in the western part of the state. He said he’d work on getting more treatment beds open in Hampshire and Hampden counties.

In Hampshire County, Harrington said he would help Granby examine the need for school upgrades.

In his current term, Lesser said he has been working on addressing the student loan crisis and college affordability. He ran an initiative to better engage millennials and says he wants to make it easier to publish open-source and online text books.

He also said more needs to be done to “beef up consumer protection and transparency” surrounding the state’s financing agency for student loans.

“It’s terrible. It’s very unfriendly,” Lesser said. “We get a lot of complaints about it. I want to make that a big focus.”

Lesser said he would continue to support the University of Massachusetts and make sure the school was getting the investments it needs.

In Hampshire County, Lesser said he supports getting more local aid for the Belchertown school system to expand early education and early education initiatives and making sure the Granby Veterans Memorial is completed.

Campaign finance

In debates, campaign finance has been a hot topic between the candidates. Harrington ended the primary reporting period with $20,890 compared to Lesser’s $199,115.

Harrington criticized the amount of money Lesser’s campaign has raised, suggesting it was too much for such an election.

“I’ve raised less but I’ve raised what is normal,” Harrington said.

Lesser said he has a national network of support from the work he has done as an undergraduate and law student, as well as working for President Obama. He said he is grateful for the support he has received.

“It’s a tremendous advantage for us as we try and get stuff done,” Lesser said, notng that there are only six state senators from western Massachusetts.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.

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