Former Massachusetts State Senator Ben Downing, a native of Pittsfield, says he is running for governor.
Downing, a Democrat who spent a decade in the Senate representing Western Massachusetts, tells WAMC he is running “to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts.” He is the first declared Democrat in the 2022 race. Downing says he will run regardless of whether Republican Governor Charlie Baker seeks a third four-year term.
Now living in East Boston, Downing has been a WAMC commentator in recent years.
Why did you decide to run for governor? And when did you decide?
Well, Ian, I'm running to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts. And for me, that means bringing a sense of urgency to our leadership. I see limitless potential in Massachusetts. We have the most innovative economy, we have world class resources and organizations, we have talent, we have some of the most kind, decent, hardworking people on the planet, and what we've been missing is leadership. We've been missing leadership that pushes us to achieve that potential to address economic and racial justice, to take the urgent action that we need to on climate change. And so, it's something that I've thought about for probably about a year before this. I really started to think about it in earnest. And I think a lot of that thinking was crystallized by the pandemic and the gaps and the fissures in our society that it exposed. We've seen that in the brunt of COVID cases hitting black and brown communities, and certainly in access to medical care and public health infrastructure being limited in rural communities. We have the ability to close these gaps. We just haven't had the leadership that's pushed us to do that, and pushed us to do that before a crisis strikes that makes us more resilient. So, that's why I'm running to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts by bringing a sense of urgency to our leadership.
Governor Charlie Baker, a second-term Republican, has not yet said whether he's going to run for a third term. When you point to a lack of leadership, do you mean him?
Certainly there are gaps in Governor Baker's record that I point to, but I don't think this is just a Charlie Baker issue. And it's also not just a last year, last five years issue. This is a 20 or 30 year culture on Beacon Hill, too often kicking the can down the road, punting on big issues, refusing to take on big issues, failing to get uncomfortable with the tough choices that are in front of us to try to make a more equitable society, a fairer, stronger society. And that lack of leadership has left time and time again, the same communities exposed. Communities like the gateway cities, Pittsfield, which I grew up in, and many others, like the rural communities that I represented in the Senate for five terms. The communities that have been hardest hit by the COVID crisis, in Chelsea and Revere and Lawrence and Fall River and New Bedford. Those are the communities that I'll be running for and trying to raise up and make the center of this campaign.
Here's a question for you. In an era when people are very concerned about the avatars for a lot of the social justice that you've been talking about so far, should Massachusetts elect you, a white man, as governor?
This is an issue I’ve thought a lot about and struggled with, Ian. I guess where I came down on this is first, I believe deeply that we need to have more equitable, diverse representation in Massachusetts, across the country at all levels of government. And in the process, I also believe that white people and all people of privilege have a responsibility to use that privilege, to fix injustice, to fight systems of oppression. That's why I got into public service in the first place. That's what inspired me to get into this race. I also believe that I have the experience, the empathy and the vision to be a governor who will not only be a partner in the fight for racial equity, but will be a leader in that fight and will center the lived experiences of those who I know have suffered injustice unlike anything I will ever know. And then, it's up to me to go out and make that case to voters. And then it's up to the voters to determine if that's the leadership they want at this moment.
You were in the state Senate for a decade from Western Massachusetts, but you've been out for the last five years or so. Do you have enough name recognition and also geographic name recognition to actually win a race like this?
I've been written off before when I've entered campaigns, for any number of different limitations. The campaign that we're going to build is going to be one that's 351 cities and towns, 14 counties, Senate district by Senate district, neighborhood by neighborhood, you name it. So no, I don't expect that if the election were held today, I'd have the name recognition or the ability to win the election. That's part of getting in early, and that's part of building a relational base campaign. Organizing first online and through screens, and then as we get this virus under control, and as vaccination rates get up and it's safe to, getting out and meeting folks where they are in their community and doing really what I enjoy the most which is listening before I lead, and then coming to the role with humility and empathy and trying to make the case for how we build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts with that urgent leadership. So if it were held today, no, I wouldn't. But we've got about 20 months here to go ahead and change that.
Again, we don't know if Governor Baker will seek a third term, but he's very popular in polling. It seems like the voters liked him, they overwhelmingly reelected him into a second term, assuming that you are in a Democratic primary to eventually run against Governor Baker. Is he beatable?
What makes you say that?
I think in previous cycles when we've debated Governor Baker, Democrats have failed the public more broadly by simply pointing at the letter after his name, and saying: well, he's a Republican, just like those national Republicans, we’re Democrats, vote for us. That's not good enough. Charlie Baker is not a national Republican. He's a good man, who I disagree with on some issues, and we ought to have a vigorous debate about those issues. I believe that when you have a debate on those issues, when you focus on the record that Governor Baker has amassed over the last six years, what you'll see are few examples of him using that significant political capital to make Massachusetts fairer or stronger in any way. And that left us exposed to the storm that is COVID. No one saw COVID coming. But the job of a manager is to know and to prepare us for the tougher times ahead. Too often Governor Baker's made decisions with the short term interests of his supporters in mind instead of the long term interests of the public in mind.
I think you've seen it with the vetoing of the climate change bill, I think there hasn't been the necessary urgent action on climate at all. I think you've seen it with budget decisions, and particularly around funding for transit. Much of the debate in Massachusetts focuses on the MBTA. And as someone who's a rider of the T, I understand that. But if we're actually going to solve climate change and build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts, we need to be supporting our regional transit authorities, so that they're able to provide more service, more people are able to transition over to transit. And when you make those cuts, and when you don't support those agencies, you disproportionately impact low income, working poor black and brown communities. We haven't made the investments that we need to make in early education, and higher education. And certainly those are generational issues. But for six years now, Charlie Baker has had 70 plus percent approval ratings and hasn't taken those to the legislature and said, find a way to provide universal early childhood education. And we've seen just how critical that is in this pandemic.
What would a Governor Downing mean for Western Massachusetts specifically? Berkshire County, Hamden, Franklin, areas that often feel that they've been left behind on Beacon Hill?
I think more than anything else, I have the context. I know those communities, right? One, I could find them all on a map and not just Springfield and Pittsfield and North Adams. But the smallest of communities, right? I spent a lot of time doing coffee and conversations in Heath and Hawley and Rowe and Monroe. And I know what it means to be from those communities, came to know the folks there, consider them friends, and maybe more importantly, Ian, I know the connections between those communities and Eastern Mass. Too often our debates in Massachusetts presume that there is this massive gap, this big difference between Boston and the Berkshires and all the communities surrounding both of them. And from my experience living in East Boston, this vibrant immigrant community, a community that was home to my Irish immigrants two generations ago, from having grown up in Pittsfield, a community that's gone through economic transition. There is so much more in common there, right? And in both cases, those communities have limitless potential that they just need leadership to help them unlock, to tap into that potential by making sure they have the resources they need, so that we can look at every kid when I drop off Mac and Eamon at daycare and say you will have the opportunity to make the most of your God given talents, you will be supported. We can't say that today. And that's wrong. That's why I'm running, to right that wrong.
For people who might remember you from your time in office, but maybe lost track after you retired from the Senate, what have you been up to in the last few years?
When I term limited myself the only thing I knew I didn't want to do was I didn't want to become a lobbyist. I didn't want to do government relations. So, I joined Nexamp, a Massachusetts based veteran-founded clean energy developer and operator. And Nexamp specializes in expanding access to clean energy. We build community solar projects, and then sell subscriptions to those projects at a discount. And that has massively increased access to clean energy, especially for low income populations, especially for black and brown populations. And I've helped outside of Massachusetts, and that was a great exposure for me to see what was going on in other states. But I was also able to help us build an energy storage team. So I've seen firsthand the innovative technology that we have at our hands, at our fingertips, that's ready to solve climate change if we have the leadership that's ready to unlock it. I came away from my last four years more optimistic about our ability to solve climate change, more optimistic about our ability to take on big problems than I was when I left the Senate. And that's largely because there's this unbridled energy in our communities. And too often Beacon Hill can be insular in the way it deals with issues. We need to open the place up to the energy and the optimism and quite frankly, the sense of public service that's out there and tap in to that to take on these big problems.
You mentioned a minute ago that you have a young family, you've got young children. How will this work? Are you going to leave your job to campaign full time? Will you wait until Election Day is a little closer and then take a leave of absence? What's your plan?
I've left full time and I'm supporting Nexamp in the transition as they fill my role as head of the Energy Storage Development Team. And that sort of part time work there will finish up by the end of March, but I am effectively full time on the campaign trail starting now. And you mentioned the young family. That is the thing that I will juggle throughout all of this, right? I'm incredibly lucky to have a partner in Michaela who is far smarter than me, far more talented and energetic than I am, and really is a true partner in all of this. And we're going to find a way to make sure I'm there for the boys and for her. And I don't know that there's any one way to guarantee that other than to make that the goal and continue to check in throughout that. My dad ran for DA when I was nine years old, I know the grind the campaign trail can be on a family. But I also know that I got to see the impact my dad had on lives through the service and the connection he made to his community. And while we may have given up a few weekends one summer with him, it was well worth it for the impact he had on his community. And I'm hoping that'll be the case for me as well.
Let me ask you just about a few more issues here. What did you think of the police reform package? Governor Baker sent it back, it was eventually a compromise bill that he signed after the initial rejection. Are you satisfied with where things ended up? Or would you change things?
Certainly a first step and one that needed to be taken but can't be the end of the conversation, I do think there are parts of the bill that ought to be revisited, including the makeup of the board overseeing the standards, the post board. We plan on rolling out a comprehensive package on this and a variety of other topics over time. I have my ideas. It's critically important to me throughout this campaign that those ideas, while they might form the core of a platform, don't roll out until we've had significant discussions with all of the stakeholders, significant discussions with communities that are most directly impacted by these. I'm someone who listens first and then I lead. So, certainly an important first step, but much more work to do.
What's your plan to address income inequality and the rising gap between the haves and have nots that we've seen in Massachusetts?
Broadly speaking, we need significant investment in early education. We need to continue our investment in K through 12 and speed up the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act. We need to ramp up our investment in public higher education. Along with that, in transportation and housing as well, and then a significant economic development effort in our gateway cities. And all of that is going to require that we ask more of the wealthiest in our communities who have benefited the most from the economic expansion before COVID and really, every economic expansion in my entire lifetime. So that will require tax reform and again, we plan on rolling out a package that details all of those steps along the way.
Just a follow up on that. It sounds like that means higher tax on the wealthy?
Yeah, and it's not as simple as that in Massachusetts because constitutionally, we have a flat tax. But I think too often in previous debates, folks have defaulted to the millionaire's tax at the ballot. And we don't know what the outcome there will be or not, and I say that as a supporter and someone who voted for the proposal when I was in the Senate. But I think it's important to detail what a proposal would look like without that, assuming that there isn't action there. And again that, like everything else, will be part of a series of policy proposals that we roll out over the course of this campaign. That's part of getting in early too is to make sure that voters know not only who I am, but they know what are the plans that I would like to implement and so we can have that robust, vigorous debate about what we need to do to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts.
And just lastly, circling back to the pandemic, the vaccine rollout in Massachusetts has had its troubles so far and community spread of the virus in some areas is still a real concern. If you were governor today, what would you be doing differently about COVID-19?
I think there are some clear steps, right? First, we should have had a single pre-registration for all residents so that they could be provided with information when a slot was available, instead of effectively asking people among their 12 million other sort of pulls on their time, to try to schedule their own vaccination. So pre-registration should have been in place. There should have been more locations in the most directly impacted communities. Some of the mass sites, as much as they are well intentioned, at Fenway and Foxborough, just aren't accessible to communities that need them the most. So I think having a more clear and more clearly communicated and centralized approach to all of this in which state government took over, but was communicating directly with the local boards of health who, as you read about, sort of their reaction to the Baker administration, they're finding out about changes to their work in real time as they're trying to implement policy. And that's just not a recipe for success at this point. So we need clear leadership from the corner office, instead of simply devolving it down to local communities and saying, well, here are some ways to do it, you all figure it out.
Let me end with a gotcha question. Were you happy to see Tom Brady and Gronkowski win a Super Bowl in a different uniform yesterday?
The scary thing is that that’s only the second most painful Boston sports moment about a star we lost. I mean, Mookie Betts winning with the Dodgers, for me. I should have been bringing Eamon who was just born to a Red Sox game at 10 years old to see Mookie Betts get his number retired. Brady hurts but somehow it doesn't hurt as much as Mookie did.