Chang-Diaz aims for big, progressive change

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s mother was a social worker, who helped women and children living on the margins overcome systemic barriers. Her father was a Costa Rican-born NASA astronaut who tied the record for the most space flights launched from Earth.

Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat running for governor, said her mother’s work shaped her desire to make societal changes that help those in need. Her father taught her to dream big. She describes her father as a man who “came to this country as a skinny brown kid with 50 bucks in his pocket” and a “monumental dream…of becoming an astronaut.”

“It puts the challenges that I face in perspective,” Chang-Diaz said. “And it gives me no excuse, no quarter, for thinking small.”

Chang-Diaz spoke on this week’s Codcast about the big ideas she is espousing on the campaign trail – and the challenges she will face to make them happen.

Chang-Diaz, a state senator since 2008, is facing Attorney General Maura Healey in the Democratic primary. She has carved out a niche for herself as a progressive Democrat in a state that leans heavily Democratic but also has a history of electing moderate Republicans like Gov. Charlie Baker, who is not running for reelection, to the governor’s office.

Much of Chang-Diaz’s career has focused on combating inequities, particularly in education. She says she was inspired to enter politics after teaching in Lynn Public Schools, where she was struck by the disparities between the lack of resources there and the resources she had attending Newton Public Schools.

“I saw the difference between those two worlds and the way that that gap narrowed the life choices for my kids in Lynn,” Chang-Diaz said. “And that really made me mad, as you could imagine, and it pushed me back into organizing in order to try to accomplish the changes that I thought would bring about systemic change for my students.”

A tagline of Chang-Diaz’s campaign has been the need for “increased urgency” combatting issues like climate change, traffic congestion, health care costs, and childcare accessibility. She has criticized Baker for lacking urgency. Yet polling finds Baker remains popular.

Asked whether voters will support a progressive Democrat, Chang-Diaz said she believes her independent-mindedness and willingness to challenge leaders in both parties will endear her to the electorate. “I think actually what voters want is not necessarily somebody who’s middle of the road, but somebody who is going to keep them as their north star,” Chang-Diaz said. “That is going to be anchored in the needs and the fears and the aspirations and hopes of working families in the state, and someone who’s willing to be independent minded, and not just go along to get along.”

Chang-Diaz said she thinks voters like Baker because he has maintained distance from the national Republican Party. But, she said, “Not voting for Donald Trump has not fixed our traffic congestion problems here in Massachusetts, right? And it hasn’t made the crushing student debt load that young people are carrying go away.”

Healey has remained far ahead of Chang-Diaz in fundraising and polling. But Chang-Diaz argued that her on-the-ground focus on building organizational infrastructure will triumph. “We have seen so many examples, time and time again, where people power movements have taken on and won against establishment powers in Massachusetts,” she said. “In the end, we have to remember…that it’s not money that wins elections. It’s people that win elections.”

Asked about one of her biggest failures to negotiate an agreement – the inability to reach a compromise on an education funding formula overhaul in 2018 – Chang-Diaz said she refused to agree to legislation that would not work. “I could have agreed to things in that conference committee that would have gotten the bill out, but they wouldn’t have been things that actually solve the problem,” she said.

Chang-Diaz said that failure led to the passage of the Student Opportunity Act the following legislative session. “Instead of agreeing to something that was about $300 million worth of funding for schools, in the end we got a package that was $1.5 billion with a B, that was actually the right size to solve the problem of closing those opportunity and achievement gaps,” she said.

Chang-Diaz’s penchant for releasing ambitious plans – like establishing a carbon-free electric grid by 2030 and making universal affordable preschool and debt-free college available to all families – begs the question of how she intends to pay for them. Chang-Diaz acknowledged the cost, but said it is worth it because of the broader impact her plans would have on society. “You can’t get big transformational change in most cases without spending some money,” she said. She said Massachusetts is “one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.”

We have to have frank conversations about progressive revenue reform,” Chang-Diaz said, mentioning raising taxes on income over $1 million and closing “corporate tax loopholes” that let multinational companies store profits overseas.




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