Former state senator Ben Downing launches gubernatorial campaign
Liberal Democrat aims to address inequality
BEN DOWNING, a former state senator from Western Massachusetts, on Monday launched a run for governor, laying out a liberal policy platform that aims to address inequality amid the recovery from COVID-19.
With a slogan of building a “fairer, stronger Massachusetts,” Downing, a Democrat, said in an interview that he thinks Republican Gov. Charlie Baker “lacks the urgency needed” to tackle issues like transportation, climate change, education, and housing. Downing argued that a bolder plan will be necessary as the state returns to a new normal post-pandemic. “Normal isn’t good enough for working families. It’s not good enough for our black and brown neighbors,” he said.
Downing, 39, a Pittsfield native, comes from a prominent Western Massachusetts family. His father, Gerard Downing, was the Berkshire district attorney from 1991 until he passed away in 2003. His grandfather was the first head of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
Downing attended Catholic schools, went to Providence College, then got a graduate degree in urban and environmental policy planning from Tufts University.
Downing said in a video announcing his decision to run for governor that he ran for state Senate after seeing the effect of the shutdown of the General Electric factory in Pittsfield, which devastated the local economy and emitted toxins in the Housatonic River, which are still being cleaned up today. He said he understands the challenges facing communities like Pittsfield. “Growing up, my family reminded us that too many people don’t get the opportunities we did, and we have a responsibility to change that,” Downing said.
In the State House, Downing earned a reputation as an expert in energy issues and a strong proponent of the development of renewable energy, as chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. He took reliably liberal positions and pushed for economic policies like increasing the minimum wage and investing more in public higher education.
Downing has also experienced personal grief, losing his father and brother to heart disease. He said those losses have given him perspective on what is important and given him empathy in talking to others who have lost loved ones. Downing also says the loss of his brother in 2012, at age 26, showed him the “randomness” of life and fueled his own sense of urgency.
“My brother had gifts I don’t have. I have one he didn’t, which is years,” Downing said. “I made a commitment I was going to use that gift to do as much good to honor his memory with the life I lead.”
Downing said his brother’s memory pushes him to try to accomplish things. “It frustrates me when I hear people say I’ll get to that next year. That’s dangerous,” Downing said. “We don’t know if tomorrow will be here, let alone next year, let alone next decade.”
After Downing decided not to run for reelection in 2016, he took a job working for the solar energy company Nexamp as vice president of new market development, focused on expanding the company’s reach and leading the company’s entry into the energy storage market. Downing also that year moved to East Boston. He has left Nexamp in preparation for his campaign, though he is staying on as a consultant through April.
In a video announcing his decision to run, Downing said the losses the state suffered due to COVID-19 reveal “how our leaders failed to build a community and an economy that works for everyone everywhere, that tackles racial justice and climate change.” “For too long, we’ve seen income become concentrated in a few communities, while our black and brown neighbors continue to bear the brunt of environmental injustice,” Downing says in his video.
As debate rages between Baker and the Democratic-led Legislature over whether to decrease emissions by 50 percent or 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, with the Legislature favoring the bolder goal, Downing said he wants to move to 100 percent renewable energy by that date, with a certain percentage of state resources directed to “environmental justice” communities, places that have struggled with environmental-related problems and health disparities.
Asked about the potential costs of such a vast shift in energy policy, Downing said, “There are costs and benefits to every set of policy alternatives, and what we’ve seen at every step, the bolder the action the broader the benefits.”
Downing said he favors “comprehensive tax reform” that would result in wealthier residents paying more to invest in areas like making early childhood education universally accessible and improving public transportation. He wants to focus on helping the economies of Gateway Cities.
Downing closed out his state Senate campaign account, so he will be starting from scratch in fundraising.
He has hired several seasoned Massachusetts campaign professionals, including consulting firm Rivera Consulting, run by prominent Boston consultant Wilnelia Rivera, and communications professional Emily Kaufman, who previously worked for US Rep. Joe Kennedy. His finance efforts will be led by Julia Hoffman, the founder of 4C Partners’ Boston office, who has fundraised for Kennedy and US Rep. Katherine Clark.
Downing and his wife, Micaelah Morrill, have two sons, Malcom, 3, and Eamon, 9 months.
Danielle Allen, the director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has also said she is exploring a run for governor as a Democrat. Baker has not yet said if he is running for reelection.