Dem candidates for governor pushing big, expensive ideas

Is the time right, or are they bucking historical trend

OVER THE LAST  30 years, voters in Massachusetts have been remarkably consistent, electing moderate Republicans as governor to serve as a counterbalance to the Democratic-controlled Legislature. 

The only exception to that trend was the election of Deval Patrick in 2006. He ran for an open seat when Mitt Romney chose not to seek reelection and ended up serving for two terms – defeating Kerry Healey to win a first term and Charlie Baker to win a second. Both Healey and Baker moved to the right in those campaigns and lost. Baker adopted a much more centrist campaign in 2014 and won; his mix of political pragmatism and fiscal incrementalism has made him one of the most popular governors in the nation. 

The race for governor in 2022 is still taking shape (Baker, for example, hasn’t said whether he will run again), but the early trendlines suggest Democrats believe a different dynamic is in play this time around. Rather than adopting centrist positions, the three announced Democratic candidates – Harvard professor Danielle Allen, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, and former state senator Ben Downing – are all campaigning on platforms that call for a much larger and expensive role for state government in daily life.

Chang-Diaz on Tuesday came out in support of extending the K-12 public school system in both directions – adding publicly funded preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and making public higher education free for all Massachusetts residents, with additional money to cover fees for living and textbook expenses for low-income students. 

The initiatives would be expensive, with costs running into the billions of dollars. Chang-Diaz told CommonWealth she believes voters want full-scale reform and not the more targeted, incremental changes favored by Baker. “This plan that we’re laying out is intended to be bold, transformative change on the scale of the problem working families and our economies are experiencing,” she said. 

Allen and Downing would not go quite as far. They both support a massive state investment in preschool education, but not a state takeover of the system. They also support making higher education debt-free – which means anyone who needs financial aid to avoid having to borrow money would get it. Downing says he would embrace free public higher education down the road, while Allen says she would continue to collect tuition from those who can afford to pay.  

As Chang-Diaz laid down a bold marker on education, Downing on Tuesday unveiled an aggressive and expensive transportation proposal. He promised to make all MBTA and regional transit authority buses fare free by the end of his first year in office and the MBTA entirely fare free by the end of his first term. He also pledged to electrify all commuter rail lines and launch East-West commuter rail service by 2030. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

For the Democrats, the revenues to cover these program expansions would come from higher taxes and fees, primarily on the wealthy. All three Democrats support passage of a constitutional amendment coming before voters next year that would impose a surtax on incomes over $1 million. Chang-Diaz backs a new tax on large college endowments. Downing favors an increase in the state gas tax, implementation of congestion pricing on roadways, and higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides. 

Baker has taken heat for not moving fast enough to address many of the state’s challenges, but his popularity among voters has remained high. Democrats in the race for governor are betting that voters want action now and are willing to give one party the reins of power on Beacon Hill.