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BOSTON — On his first day in office, State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, then 29, sat down in his office and opened his laptop. He discovered that there was no wi-fi in the Statehouse.
"I don't think I've ever been in a workplace or building that didn't have wi-fi," Lesser said. "I was shocked."
The Statehouse has since been outfitted with wireless Internet, but Lesser sees it as only one example of the way in which state government can be out of touch with the needs of 20- and 30-year-olds. Lesser on Wednesday was tapped by Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, to lead a "Millennial Engagement Initiative," a new initiative in the state Senate to reach out to "millennials," an age group loosely defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s.
The effort will be similar to one Rosenberg launched soon after he took office last year, in which Senate leaders traveled around the state holding public listening sessions to determine what issues citizens were most concerned about. Rosenberg said he noticed a glaring absence in those sessions.
"The noticeable absence of people under 30 was stark and startling to me," Rosenberg said. "The absence of participation by millennials means that we're not necessarily understanding as we need to what their issues are, what their agenda is, what they want the Legislature to focus on."
Lesser will lead an effort to talk to millennials about their public policy concerns and figure out what issues can be addressed through legislation. Lesser said he hopes to use the sessions to draft or prioritize specific bills. "I want this to be very specific," Lesser said.
Some potential bills that would affect millennials are already pending in the Legislature. The Senate passed a social media privacy bill that would prohibit teachers or employers from requiring a student or worker to share their social media password. Lawmakers are considering bills to regulate ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Lesser said issues related to student debt and student loans could also emerge as priorities.
Lesser and Rosenberg will kick off the initiative with a roundtable at TechSpring in Springfield this Friday that will include students and professionals ages 16 to 35. The initiative will include a visit to Facebook headquarters in Cambridge, a meeting with the College Democrats and College Republicans and a Twitter question and answer session.
Rosenberg said he has made an effort to modernize the state Senate's activities – for example, by creating infographics and engaging people through social media sites like Reddit and Twitter.
"The idea is not to coddle or infantilize millennials," Lesser said. "The idea is to bring them into the process in a way other generations have been part of the process for quite a long time."
Rosenberg and Lesser announced the initiative a day after the New Hampshire presidential primary, in which young people were instrumental in carrying Democrat Bernie Sanders, an independent U.S. Senator from Vermont, to a landslide victory over former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton. Both Rosenberg and Lesser campaigned for Clinton.
"What a great day for millennials!" Rosenberg said. "I was very excited not about who got what votes, but about the fact that millennials turned out and made clear they were enthusiastic about looking forward to the changes that need to be made around the economy."
Rosenberg said he thinks millennials responded to the fact that Clinton was speaking as a "traditional politician" while Sanders was more dynamic, even though the two Democrats talk about many of the same things. "He doesn't button his suit, if his tie is askew, he doesn't care, his hair is a mess, it doesn't matter," Rosenberg said. "He was out there. People just grabbed it and ran."
Lesser said the election underscored the point that "this is a generation that needs to be taken seriously and can really exercise quite a lot of influence over the process if and when we get mobilized and get excited."