The first Democrat to declare a 2022 gubernatorial bid in Massachusetts is a Berkshire County native, prompting both enthusiasm and skepticism back home.
Former state Senator Ben Downing was raised in Pittsfield, and spent a decade on Beacon Hill before moving to the renewable energy sector in 2017. As the first Democrat to throw his hat in the ring for 2022, Berkshire County party activists say there is symbolism to Downing getting in first.
“Ben is young, exciting, energetic. He really understands the need for green energy and climate change. Most of all, he really understands about and wants to make sure that the people who have been left behind, it's a really wide group of people, that they need to be, their needs need to be attended to. They need to be shown that government can do well. And frankly, the race really is going to be about jobs, justice, and health care. And he's on top of all of them," said attorney and former state representative Sherwood Guernsey, a member and former chair of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, the grassroots organizers for the party in the county. “The problem with Governor Baker, frankly, is that he has not moved this state forward in the status quo. And in the way the world is changing, and the problems we face, that's not enough. We need somebody young and dynamic to take that seat.”
Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has remained broadly popular in polls, has not said if he will seek a third four-year term.
While the county’s state legislative delegation is solid blue, its longest serving state representative says Downing’s race is still an uphill one.
“Ben has been out of politics for a few years," said Smitty Pignatelli. "I mean, you can stay involved social media-wise, like he has, which I think he's been smart to do that. But, you know, one thing I learned about politics is, you know, when you're out, you're out sometimes and you move on.”
Pignatelli has represented the 4th Berkshire District since 2003. He says Downing first approached him about a possible bid for governor in 2020.
“He had a great platform when he was a senator," Pignatelli told WAMC. "And the fact that he's from the Berkshires, with a very low population, is indicative that we haven't had an elected governor from Berkshire County in over 120 years. So that's indicative of where the bases are. The fact that he lives in Boston now, I think would bode well for him. But it's going to come down to, can you raise the money? Can you raise the money to get your name out there? Because when it comes to the issues, Ben will be very well versed on the issues, and he's a good debater. But you got to have a seat at the table, and I think raising the money is going to give them that seat.”
Pignatelli noted that the full slate of Democratic candidates has yet to materialize.
“COVID has changed politics entirely in this past year, and I don't see any change in that over this, for maybe ‘21," he said. "But keep in mind, this race is in ‘22. This is a whole year and a half away. So I think a lot of that groundwork, the grassroots, which Ben is very good at, is going to be critically important. And getting to talk to people at their level, whether they experienced COVID, lost their job because of COVID. What's the next generation going to look like? I think that's where the grassroots campaign has to come into play. Ben's track record of that grassroots politics would bode very well for him. So setting the table for a campaign in ‘21 could be very different in ‘22, when it really kicks into full gear.”
Baker carried much of Berkshire County when he cruised to a second term in 2018 with 66% of the vote against Democrat Jay Gonzalez alongside Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
“We are well positioned financially and economically once this vaccine gets fully distributed, and we can start turning this economy around," continued Pignatelli. "So I think it's an uphill battle for any Democrat as we stand here right now in February of ‘21, still not knowing if Baker's going to run or not. But the lieutenant governor, I assure you she'll be running and she's going to be a formidable candidate as well.”
The 2022 Massachusetts gubernatorial election is set for November 8th, with a primary in September.