Harvard professor launches campaign for governor

We’re not all in the same boat, says Danielle Allen

HARVARD UNIVERSITY professor Danielle Allen officially launched her campaign for governor on Tuesday by promising to address the inequities in Massachusetts that COVID has laid bare.

The first-time political candidate – and the first African-American woman to run for governor in state history – did not offer specific policy prescriptions or tax initiatives. Instead, standing on Boston Common at the corner near the State House backed by supporters holding signs that said “Reimagine,” the self-styled progressive laid out a vision for an all-inclusive Massachusetts.

“We all remember when COVID hit. No help was coming from Washington, little help from the state and the help that came was slow, halting, and fumbling. But an even clearer truth was visible. The pandemic made plain as day that there are different experiences for different people in our Commonwealth,” she said.

“There was a lot of talk about how we’re all in this together, all in the same boat. But it became pretty clear that some of us were in sinking skows while others were in the same yachts they’ve always been in,” she said.

“The powerful plainly abandoned the powerless and the pain is still visceral, raw, and deep. But the truth is this abandonment has been building for a long time,” she said. “As a society, we don’t hold the belief that we’re all in it together. Whether we lost that belief or never had it, doesn’t matter. We’re in a bad way. The point is the powerful too often really do just look out for themselves. And those who feel powerless become disconnected from their own agency.”

Allen is the second Democrat to jump into the race for governor, joining former state senator Ben Downing, whose message about the lessons of COVID is similar but is more steeped in the practical give and take of Beacon Hill politics. Allen speaks much more broadly, casting herself as a leader who will attempt to build a sense of community among people from all walks of life.

“Imagine a state government that in a crisis jumps in and activates all of our talents in response. Imagine one Commonwealth where those who are in power recognize their responsibility to the greater good and those who feel powerless are reconnected to their own agency through communal action. That’s what democracy is about, coming together, working together, learning together, siding together, and acting together,” she said.

Allen says she has had a recurring dream over the course of her life where she is in a house full of locked rooms and each room contains treasure. During COVID, she said, she dreamed the dream again and came to view the locked rooms as communities that have been ignored or neglected, full of people with untapped potential.

Danielle Allen announces her campaign for governor. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

“This is where our state government comes in. To connect the neglected rooms of our Commonwealth, to bring all the hidden treasure to light, we need to focus on housing, transportation, schools, jobs, and justice.” She said the state has to do all of this while addressing the existential threat of climate change.

Allen, known for her academic work on justice and citizenship in ancient Greece and modern America, recalled a college class on the Athenian justice system in which she came to realize that prisons were rarely utilized at that time. “That was the moment I realized the world had been completely different from how it is now. And that it could be different again. We could reimagine our own possibilities,” she said.

Her political inexperience doesn’t seem to deter her; she notes former governor Deval Patrick and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran for office and won with grassroots campaigns despite limited political experience. Her family also has included a number of political activists – a great-grandmother who headed a branch of the League of Women Voters in Michigan in the 1930s, a grandfather who founded the first NAACP chapter in northern Florida, a father who ran for US Senate in California in 1992 as a Ronald Reagan conservative, and an aunt who that same year ran for Congress under the Peace and Freedom Party in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In answering questions from reporters, Allen said the Eureka moment in the college classroom when she discovered the Athenians did not use prisons was the sort of academic discovery that spills over into her policy stances. She did not say she would shut down or do away with prisons, but she said she would like to see Massachusetts follow the lead of Germany and the Netherlands in reducing the level of incarceration, which she said can be partly accomplished by decriminalizing certain activities (she supported the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana for that reason).

“We can build a different approach to sanctioning and a different approach to safety,” she said, calling for the expansion of restorative justice programs and helping offenders with support systems.

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.

Where Downing is critical of Gov. Charlie Baker’s lack of vision, Allen’s critique of the governor returns to her theme of inclusion. “In my view, our state administration doesn’t sufficiently activate the talents of everybody in the Commonwealth,” she said.

Allen is now preparing to step out of academia and into the political arena. She says she is ready. “Democracy isn’t something to be studied,” she said. “Democracy is something to do.”