For Ben Downing, politics are personal

On paper, Ben Downing looks very much like someone who might launch a run for governor while still in his 30s, which is what the 39-year-old Democrat did earlier this month, becoming the first declared candidate in the 2022 race.

His dad was a popular elected official in Pittsfield where Downing grew up, elected four times as Berkshire County district attorney. After college, Downing worked for several members of the state’s congressional delegation in Washington before mounting a winning campaign for state Senate at age 24 (he had turned 25 by Election Day) and going on to serve 10 years in the Legislature before leaving in 2017 to spend several years working the clean energy field.

“It looks like a straight line on paper,” Downing said of his aggressive political rise on this week’s episode of The Codcast. He says it’s actually been anything but. 

He wasn’t sure what he’d do after graduating from Providence College and wound up following a college roommate to Washington, where he eventually landed staff positions working with several Massachusetts congressmen. He ran for Senate in 2006, he says, not because of his father’s  elected office, but because of his tragic death from a heart attack in 2003, at age 52. 

“I don’t know if I ever would have run for the state Senate if my father was still alive,” he said. “One of the reasons I was able to muster the confidence to run was that one of the first public speeches I ever had to give was my father’s eulogy. And when you’ve stood in front of a church of your family and friends when your whole world is shattered and you can get through that, then speaking to a local Democratic town committee, to a neighborhood association, to a big crowd isn’t all that daunting anymore.” 

The second way his father’s death fueled his run for office, Downing says, was by witnessing the outpouring of support his family got from the community in Pittsfield, a place that has seen its economic fortunes flag amid a steady exodus of young people heading elsewhere for better opportunity after college. 

“That community was always there for us,” Downing said. “And yet that’s the same community that, people told me growing up, had nothing to offer us that we ought to study hard and get away from it. And that was part of the reason I wanted to run, because I looked at those people who were there for us, who lined the streets for my dad, and said they deserve better than to be written off. And I know that’s true of communities like Pittsfield across Massachusetts.”

He would come to appreciate that community support again in 2012 with the tragic sudden death of his younger brother Nate at age 26 from a genetic heart defect. 

“All loss is unique and painful regardless of the time and the circumstances, and too many people have had to deal with that over this last year,” he said. “For me, the impact was to deepen my empathy.” He said the experiences have also made him “more impatient” and “less tolerant of the idea that we can just put off trying to do good work, put off trying to solve big problems to the next year, to the next session, to the next decade. Which too often is what happens in Massachusetts.”

On issues facing the state, Downing cuts a decidedly progressive profile, advocating a more activist role for state government and not shying away from the idea of new taxes, particularly on those most able to pay, to support more initiatives. As for Charlie Baker’s leadership, he faults the governor for not advancing bold solutions to longstanding problems. 

“Charlie Baker is a good man and a dedicated public servant,” he said. “He’s someone who I disagree with on the issues. I think he’s someone who has accumulated significant political capital, and the instances, the examples of him using that capital to address those big challenges, to address climate and economic and racial justice are few and far between.” 

Downing, who now lives in East Boston with his wife and two young sons, shows an admirable reluctance to “Monday morning quarterback” and attack Baker’s early moves during the pandemic. But “there aren’t any excuses for where we land right now,” he says of the state’s troubled vaccine rollout. 

You can think of the governor as having two big roles — setting out a broad vision through his or her political philosophy, while also tending to the day-to-day functioning and mechanics of state government. 

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Downing, however, pushes back on that. “They’re not silos,” he said. “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen a pandemic on the scale and with the impact of COVID-19. But we knew that tough times would come, even if we were in a boom back from the previous recession. We know there are these ups and downs. For me, that’s where our leadership has come up short, whether in the corner office or in the Legislature — taking the steps in those more stable times that will take the edge off the worst parts of the downturn.”

“If you just manage in the day-to-day,” Downing said, “at some point you’re chasing the day-to-day and you lose a feel for the broader goal and the broader set of principles and values you’re trying to work towards.”