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Downing drops out of Mass. gubernatorial race, citing fundraising challenges and incoming heavyweights

Former Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing.
Josh Landes
Ben Downing.

Former Western Massachusetts State Senator Ben Downing has ended his bid for governor. Downing, born and raised in Pittsfield, represented the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District from 2007 to 2017 before stepping down to work in the renewable energy industry. In February, the East Boston Democrat was the first to announce his candidacy for the 2022 election. While State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, and businessman Orlando Silva remain in the Democratic primary, this month’s news that centrist Republican Governor Charlie Baker would not run for a third term has stoked expectations that Attorney General Maura Healey – one of the state’s most popular Democrats – will enter the fray. WAMC spoke to Downing about why he’s bowing out and what message he has for his supporters in Western Massachusetts.

DOWNING: End of the year, you're looking at where you've been able to get to in this race, how you've been able to build it, trying to hit year-end fundraising targets, and then plan ahead to the next year. And I had to go through a realistic assessment and say that if I’m going to be able to get on the phone and ask supporters who have been generous and have made the progress that we’ve made possible already, if I'm going to be able to ask them with a good and clear conscience to support the campaign again, I want to be able to have a clear path forward. And I think the race has changed since I got in about 11 months ago at this point. And as much as I'm proud of the work that we've done, I could not see a path forward as this race plays out, especially as we expect candidates with good-sized campaign war chests or the ability to self-fund to becoming into it soon.

The biggest changes you're alluding to are, obviously, the first being that Governor Charlie Baker will not seek reelection, nor will Lieutenant Governor Karen Pulido, which is a big pair of chess pieces to get off the board. There's a lot of speculation about Attorney General Maura Healey entering the race. Is that what you're alluding to when you talk about established candidates with large war chests?

Yeah, I think it's fair to say that with Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito’s decision, you have a more wide-open race and candidates who otherwise may have chosen not to jump in will likely get in at the start of the next year. And I had to be realistic about my own self-assessment of the campaign and where we stood relative to that.

Now, as far as endorsements at this time, do you plan on shifting your support to any of the other candidates in the field?

No, not at this time. And I'm not sure how we're if I'll participate at all. I'm also not one to think that just because someone supported me and I say that I'm going to go support someone else that that'll shift my support anyway. So I think like everyone else in Massachusetts, I’ll be excited to hear the candidates go out and make their case in the Democratic primary over the next nine months and then a couple of weeks after that in the general election as well.

If your campaign made an impact in this conversation about Massachusetts and its leadership heading into the election next year, what do you hope that impact was?

I hope that we see that we have at our fingertips the solutions to the big challenge that face us on climate, on economic inequality, on racial justice. And what stands in the way isn't a single party. It isn't a single individual. But it's a culture at the statehouse and on Beacon Hill of complacency that too often cares more about the comfort of those that are in power instead of meeting and addressing the challenges of those in need. And I would hope as we spent our time in gateway cities in Western Mass, in Central Mass, in communities that too often Democrats take for granted or don't campaign in, we showed that part of the way to address those big challenges is to not just assume that you have the support of candidates, but rather to go out and earn the trust of folks in those communities. And you do that by showing up, by listening, and then by developing real concrete solutions to the challenges that folks face.

Some of the elected Berkshire County officials who I spoke to about your candidacy were so excited to see a Western Mass representative on the gubernatorial primary ticket- at least for some time. What do you say for supporters out west who were happy to have a champion of, as you acknowledge, a lesser represented part of the Massachusetts community in the statewide conversation?

I only hope that I was worthy of their support, right? You know, I love Pittsfield and the community. I mean, Pittsfield’s my hometown, right? It will always be a special place me, and one that I got to represent, one that gave me every opportunity in life, one that was there for me and my family when my dad passed away, when my brother passed away, that held us up. And that is a special place. And the Berkshires, the 51 other communities that I represented in Western Mass and that broader region, I know are filled with potential and opportunity. And we just need state leaders who can echo and see the potential in opportunities that our local leaders see and have worked so hard to create. And so my hope and something that I'll be sharing with any other candidate or folks who are willing to listen is get out there and listen to folks in Western Mass, see the potential and opportunity and don't just make one swing through and hit one community and think you've been there. Show up and listen to folks in small communities and big communities, and you're going to be a better candidate for it. You're going to see that there's a lot that unites this state and we’ve just got to come up with solutions that are flexible to meet the different communities where they're at.

Lastly, Ben, what’s next for you? This was a return to politics- Is this your final political gesture? Should we expect more in the future? What's happening next?

Man, I wish I knew the answer, Josh. The immediate answer is I am going to be a better husband, a better dad, and a better partner than I've been over the last 10 months, and try to restore a little bit of balance in our house and chase my boys around the playground and make sure that my incredible partner Micaelah gets some semblance of the rest that she deserves after holding us up for the last 11 months plus, year. And from there, I'm going to find my way to be involved, to continue to give back and serve, whether that's back in the private sector or whether that's in some other capacity in public service. The work that I care about is not the work of one campaign. It's the work of trying to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts, and that is not one policy plan, that’s not one campaign, and now it's on me to try to figure out what that looks like.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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