Back in April 2008, Eric Lesser began what would become a White House tradition when he helped organize a seder for staffers on the Obama campaign trail. “We were feeling a little down because we realized it wouldn’t be possible to get home for Passover,” the 28-year-old recalled. “So we set up our makeshift seder in this windowless basement in the Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and when we were down there getting ready to begin, all of a sudden Senator Obama popped his head in and said, ‘Is this where the seder is?’ and asked, ‘Can I join?’ It was actually a little funny, because we were planning to have a bit of a briefer version, but he was very interested in it, and so we went through almost the entire haggadah, which is much more than I had ever done with my own family.”
The seder became a yearly tradition for the Obama family, and Lesser would go on to serve as a special assistant to David Axelrod and later director of strategic planning for the Council of Economic Advisers. He was profiled–along with his weekly shabbat dinners with other young Obama administration staffers–in the New York Times, and then moved on to Harvard for law school, where he’d previously attended college. And just this week, he launched his own political career by announcing his candidacy for State Senate in Massachusetts.
Lesser casts his campaign as a community-building exercise, rather than a particularly partisan affair. “My family wasn’t very political per se, but was very community-oriented,” he explained. “I was very active in my synagogue in Springfield, MA., Sinai Temple. I was active in my synagogue youth group, which was a branch of NFTY. And that was one of my early paths into community work,” he said. One of Lesser’s first political acts was to work with his local community to successfully fight budget cuts for his high school in 2002. “I’m a proud Democrat, but I don’t particularly care if an idea comes from a Democrat, from a Republican, or from none of the above. My focus is on good ideas,” he said. “We didn’t even know what party the community members and the volunteers were, and we didn’t care. What we cared about was that we fought for a good idea.”
Both of Lesser’s parents worked their way through college in New York–his father as a taxi driver–and became professionals in Holyoke, MA. Lesser’s goal is “to give more families that kind of opportunity”–to enable others to live the success story of his own family’s rise into the middle class. At the moment, however, he is still in listening mode. He intends to release “a variety of new innovative policy proposals.” Until then, he’s demurring on hot button issues like the role of charter schools, which has split progressives across the country, and pitted his former boss President Obama against liberal leaders like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “My goal now is to listen to people, and to make sure I’m hearing from all people in the district, regardless of party or position.”
In the end, Lesser’s hope for his political career is simple. “My background in Judaism is there’s no greater work than tikkun olam, and that’s always been a very strong part of my identity and my motivating force,” he said. “The idea is that you work in some small way to try to leave things a little better off than how you found them.”