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Chang-Díaz says she will “stand up to anybody” in bid for MA governor

Josh Landes

For the past 13 years, Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz has represented the 2nd Suffolk District on Beacon Hill. Now, the Democrat wants to be governor. Ahead of the party’s state convention in June, Chang-Díaz visited Berkshire County this week to make her pitch to voters on why she’s a better choice than her rival, Attorney General Maura Healey. WAMC sat down with Chang-Díaz to talk about her climate change policy, her odds against the well-funded and popular Healey, and what she thinks the 2022 state election is all about.

CHANG-DÍAZ: I think it is a lot about waiting and impatience, right? I hear over and over again, both before I came on to the campaign trail, but certainly over the last, you know, 9, 10 months that I have been crisscrossing the state, I hear over and over again from families east, west, north, south, about how many years they have been struggling to find housing, affordable housing costs, how many years they've either been sitting in soul crushing commutes, right, or haven't been able to find the transportation modes that they need right in the communities that they live in, the years that they've been carrying crushing student debt on their backs. And these are problems that I know. You know, I've been on Beacon Hill for 13 years now as a state senator. And I see the way that we tell people over and over again to wait, wait another year, wait another term or another election cycle for us to tackle these issues at scale, rather than just you know, a nibble here and there, maybe slap a band aid on it. And I'm fed up waiting. And I think a lot of folks across the state are fed up waiting for meaningful solutions to those problems. And I have seen also in my time on Beacon Hill that we can do a lot better than that, right? I've seen enough breakthrough moments, whether it was on K through 12 education funding reform when we passed $1.5 billion in new state aid to cities and towns, whether it was police accountability legislation, or criminal justice reform, or LGBTQ rights, I've seen that we can get big things done when we organize hard and when we press Beacon Hill to pay attention. And we have to make those kinds of root cause problem solving endeavors the rule rather than the exception. Right now they’re the exception, and that requires cultural change on Beacon Hill to shift from a culture of waiting to one of impatience and urgency, so that we are keeping the needs of working families as our North star.

WAMC: Your main rival in this race is Attorney General Maura Healey, who certainly on paper seems to have major advantages in polling and in fundraising. From your vantage point, what is your narrative as someone running against someone who's accrued so much material and sort of word of mouth momentum at this point in the campaign?

Well, listen, you know, what we've seen again and again in Massachusetts, campaigns and movements that have been people powered movements that have taken on the political establishment and the powers that be and won, right, and upset the sort of traditional narrative and the conventional wisdom. And I'm always amazed at how quickly we forget those lessons in those instances. Because it's not that uncommon in Massachusetts. But it takes courage, it takes courage to step out on values and on principle. And that's what I've got a 13 year record of doing, right, of working with anybody in any party to get things done. Also stand up to anybody in any party in order to move the pace of change along. And that kind of that kind of willingness to come off of the sidelines even when something looks daunting, even when people everyone around you say says that's impossible, is what we are going to need in our next governor, right? Because things like delivering on a universal, affordable early education and care system, or delivering on East-West rail, or debt free public college, or a Green New Deal for Massachusetts- If these things were easy, they would have been done already, right? It takes political grit and courage to do things when they're hard in order to get those done, and that's what I bring to this race. And, you know, if we believe that whoever has the most money should win elections, right, like, what are we doing in democracy? Let's all just hang up our spurs. This needs to be a campaign about ideas, about action, and about specifics and how we're going to deliver on those plans and not just about, you know, sound bites or name recognition.

So with that in mind, what ideas or policies do you feel like most differentiate you in this race from say, a Maura Healy?

You know, Josh, there are a lot of differences. I'm the only candidate in this race who support single payer health care or Medicare For All, who supports fair free transit, not just for the MBTA, but also on our regional transit authorities. I’ve pledged that in my first budget proposal as governor, we will include funding in that budget for fair free transit, both on the MBTA and on our regional transit authorities, so that we are drawing more people into mass transit and making it a more accessible option for folks. I'm the only candidate in the race who's pledged support for a debt free public college, so that a college education does not become, as it is rapidly doing, the province of the wealthy and the privileged in this state. I'm also the only candidate in the race who has pledged to use the full powers of the executive branch to stop development of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state and who has pledged to reject all fossil fuel donations, whether from their fossil fuel company or utility company executives or lobbyists or PACs. And the Attorney General has not pledged to do any of those things.

Now, climate is obviously a big topic of conversation this election cycle. Walk me through your stance on that topic, and what do you think as governor you would do to see Massachusetts steer in a more climate friendly direction.

So this is a huge issue. And you know, it's not just a sort of down the road, around the corner issue. It is now, right, this is an issue now. We're already seeing record heat, record rainfall, more extreme storms and weather here in Massachusetts. And I know this may seem a little distant from Pittsfield, but in the eastern portion of our state, we have the third highest concentration of affordable housing units in coastal floodplain in the whole of the United States, right? And we have to address these problems together as a commonwealth or we're not going to get where we need to go in terms of confronting climate change. And I everywhere I go on this campaign trail, I meet young people, college students but also high school students, who ask me with real profound urgency in their voice, what are you going to do about climate change? They're begging us to not hand them a planet on fire. And that's why I've put out a full-fledged climate action plan for Massachusetts that. It’s a Green New Deal for our state that pledges to meet all of our electricity needs in Massachusetts with green renewable energy by 2030, to transition our built environment, our buildings, to carbon zero. With our new construction, we're going to do that by 2030 also. With our existing buildings. by 2045. It pledges to expand and electrify our mass transit systems. And it's important that it's both, right? The Attorney General's plan calls for electrifying mass transit as mine. But my plan is only plan this race that pledges to make major investments in expanding mass transit- So East-West rail, or West-East rail depending on where you wake up in the morning, right? And like I said, fair free transit. And it also calls for a deep, deep partnership between emerging technology companies, our trades, our institutions of higher education, in order to fuel the development of technology and the building of the workforce pipeline that is going to make that transition to a completely green energy economy possible in our state. This is a huge economic opportunity for us, not just to avert climate disaster, but also to create tens of thousands of good paying, family sustaining jobs all across our state. And we have to invest both in the steel and concrete infrastructure, physical infrastructure to do that, but we also need to invest in our people. Because all of that, the wind turbines and the solar panels and the mini splits that we need to install to transition our built environment, or, you know, building East-West Rail- All of that is going to take people, right, to design it, to build it, to maintain it. And we need to be ready with our workforce.

Earlier, you mentioned police accountability. I'm interested in your thoughts on the most recent legislation around police reform in the commonwealth. And just broadly, certainly, over the last couple of years here in Western Massachusetts, we've heard a lot of people who feel a sense of frustration about a perceived gap between a lot of conversation about reform and not a lot of tangible evidence of what the outcome of that conversation has been. You were in the legislature during those conversations. What are your thoughts on that bill, about qualified immunity – which proved to be one of the biggest sticking points in that debate – and sort of the path forward for Massachusetts police accountability?

You know, Josh, I remember so clearly in the summer of 2020 – we're coming up almost on the two year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd – how people felt after watching that video. And it was sickening, and it was a horror that people felt, it was an appropriate horror, that this is something we can never allow to happen again and persist in our country and that we in Massachusetts are not immune to that kind of abuse of power by the police. There are many wonderful human beings who are serving as police officers in our state, but there are also people who are doing the wrong thing, right, and who have a gun and a badge out there. And just like in politics, right – we need to have guardrails for elected officials to make sure that elected officials are not abusing power – we need to have those systems in place in law enforcement because it is an enormous set of power and responsibilities to have a badge and a gun. And I was very proud to be one of the chief architects and negotiators of that police reform law. Even in this moment of national consciousness and conscience when people said we have to do something different, we have to change our laws, we have to change our systems, there was huge opposition in the state house, a very well-funded police lobby that pushed very hard against the bill. And it was only because we did really savvy organizing, grassroots organizing, to keep the pressure on for that bill to stay strong that we were able to deliver- Not everything I wanted. Like you mentioned, qualified immunity, we did not get in the end negotiation. I've come back and filed legislation to continue to pursue qualified immunity reform. But we still came out of that conference committee with the strongest police reform law in the fifty states here in Massachusetts. That's a huge step forward. And among the reforms included in that bill, we got a ban on chokeholds, major restrictions on the use of no knock warrants, an affirmative duty to intervene for police officers when they see a fellow officer abusing power. And we now have the only, among the fifty states, the only statewide police oversight and licensure board that is civilian controlled. And not just any civilians, but three of those six civilians have to be appointed by racial justice and civil rights oriented organizations. And we are already seeing that police oversight board, it's called the POST, the Peace Officer Standards and Training commission, that they're standing up their system. So it doesn't change overnight, right? But they are creating totally new systems, rolling out new regulations. They now have a complaint intake system that you or I or anybody else walking down the street here in Pittsfield can lodge a complaint with the POST and expect that that complaint is going to be looked at by, again, a body that is civilian controlled, that does not answer to a police lobby, and that has a subpoena power, right, that they can use to conduct an investigation if they deem it appropriate.

The leaked SCOTUS draft about the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade has gripped the nation and there's been a lot of conversation in Massachusetts about what that means here. What were your thoughts on the leak? What would you do about abortion access if you are governor? And what does it mean that Maura Healey has been endorsed by NARAL in the midst of all of this?

Well, as we said at the time when that endorsement came out, it was honestly – I'll be very frank with you, Josh – was troubling, because NARAL did not invite me or my campaign to submit a questionnaire or interview with them. And I think it is a problem with the movement, right, that there has been erasure of the work of women of color in the reproductive justice movement for a long time. I have been a lifelong champion for not just reproductive rights, but reproductive equity and justice. Every year that I've served in the state senate, you know, fighting for funding for reproductive health services. And that's really where my focus lies, right? That we have to in Massachusetts, of course, make sure that we are enshrining and holding up the standard of Roe vs. Wade. And I was very proud every time the Roe Act came before me. I voted for it, you know, whether in committee or on the Senate floor, and then again on the Senate floor after [Governor Charlie Baker] vetoed it. But we can't just rest on codifying Roe in our state law. Because the truth is, having a lot on paper is just the first step. And for many years, right, we've had this law on paper or in Massachusetts as well as nationally. But the reality is that for low income women, for women of color, for immigrant communities, for young people, that these laws are still very hard to access in real life. And that's why the services and the funding and the equity really matters. And that's been my mission, is to make sure that it's a right in practice, it's made manifest in people's actual lives by making sure that the services there are actually there that they can access. And that's why I say reproductive justice and not just reproductive rights.

Part of this campaign that I was a little disappointed by is that with Governor Baker not running for reelection, conversations about sort of the end of the Baker era that I'm very interested in, I feel like have kind of fallen to the backburner. When you when you look back on the last decade, almost decade of Baker leadership in Massachusetts, what do you feel like the legacy is going to be for the next governor to inherit?

Well, look, you know, I came into this race last June when many folks thought that Charlie Baker was going to run for reelection. And I did that because I think it was important to offer a different point of view and a different vision for the state. There are a lot of things we don't agree on, even though we agree on that local aid provision. But this is a governor who, as I mentioned, vetoed the Roe Act here in Massachusetts. You know, he talks now since the SCOTUS leak about making sure that Roe is going to be protected in Massachusetts, but he was not there to sign the bill when it came to him. I also think about a bill that we just passed in the Senate to enable anyone who is a qualified driver in Massachusetts who has passed the road test and has an inspection and insurance to obtain a driver's license, even if they lack federal immigration status. I mean, folks in the Berkshires know better than anybody else how important it is to be able to you access transportation to get to and from work or the grocery store or medical appointments. And this has been a 20 year battle for immigrant communities in this state to be able to get driver's licenses, like you can in 16 other states. And we're finally, finally passing that in the legislature, and the governor has threatened that he's going to veto it, right? And we've seen massive disinvestment in our public higher education system, major disinvestment in our transportation infrastructure. We have a $10 billion backlog of, the State of Good Repair backlog for our roads, bridges, and transit systems, right? So that is the legacy that I am worried about. Not to say that there haven't been any positive things, but those are the things that the next governor is really going to have to grapple with when it comes to delivering economic prosperity and equality in our state, is getting those core pieces of infrastructure to a functional and robust place.

Heading into the state convention, do you feel confident that you'll have the 15% required at least to make it onto the ballot? And how important is getting the nod from the state party in this election ultimately?

So I feel really good about where we are. When we came out of the caucuses process several weeks back, we had a very strong delegate count. We saw that actually, even in the very insider environment of party caucuses, that most of the delegates were undecided. And that's a really positive sign, right, for our campaign. That folks are not interested in a coronation. Folks really want to see where the candidates stand on the issues, what concrete commitments they're willing to make. That's why I've called for three debates before the convention, so that folks can see where Maura and I stand on the issues. So I feel really solid about where we are going into convention. Of course, we never take anything for granted. You know, I hustle every day, to earn people's votes and to listen, you know, to hear about truly what are the changes that people want to see in their communities, and so that we're building a movement not just to win the corner office, but to be able to deliver on those changes once I get in there. So again, no one's entitled to this office, I don't take anything for granted. We're going to keep working right up to a convention for that 15%. And then on to the primary, right, because the convention is one stop in the process to primary day, and ultimately, that's where the decision gets made, is in the primary election about who's going to be the nominee.

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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