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With A Focus On Inequality, Democrat Ben Downing Starts His Campaign For Governor05:18
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Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Democrat Ben Downing at Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Democrat Ben Downing at Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The race for governor of Massachusetts has begun — even though Election Day is still more than a year and a half away. The incumbent, Republican Charlie Baker, hasn't said if he'll seek a third term, but Democrat Ben Downing is already running.

The 39-year-old former state senator, who announced his candidacy in the 2022 gubernatorial race last month, has defied the political odds once before, and is hoping that his early start can help him do it again.

Downing was just 24 when he first ran for the state Senate in 2005, and back then, lots of people said he was too young.

"I heard that [more than] a couple of times," Downing says, with a chuckle.

But Downing defied doubters and became the state's youngest state senator ever. He went on to represent western Massachusetts for 10 years. Then, in 2016 he stepped down to work for Nexamp, a solar energy company in Boston.

Now, he's back in politics, taking on a much bigger, statewide political challenge. Last month he became the first Democrat to officially launch a campaign to become the state's next governor, focusing his messaging on the challenge of inequality.

To Address Inequality, Downing Wants Tax Reforms

"The hope and the why [of my campaign] is to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts," Downing says. "The potential of Massachusetts is limitless. And we see some of it right here. Right?"

"Right here" refers to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, where Downing suggested we meet on a bright, winter day. The park features a stretch of snow-covered trails with views across the water to Winthrop, Revere and East Boston. (Downing now lives in East Boston with his wife and two young sons.)

"We're sitting here in one of the last saltwater marshes in and around Boston proper, right by one of the biggest potential development sites over at Suffolk Downs," Downing explains. "You can see downtown; there's a little bit of everything from right here. It's this little unknown gem in some ways."

Downing describes Massachusetts in a similar way: a gem full of untapped potential; a state with vast intellectual resources and enormous wealth — but also with high levels of poverty and a stark racial wealth gap.

"This state that is no larger from one end to the [other] than Silicon Valley," he says. "And yet, to have those radical gaps makes no sense at all."

Among the most troubling symptoms of the disparities that plague Massachusetts, according to Downing, is "increasing hunger and food insecurity in so many of our communities."

"Many of the farmers that I represented in parts of western and central Massachusetts don't have a business model that will allow them to preserve and protect a family farm and help meet those needs," he says. "That just breaks me. That makes no sense at all."

Downing also sees evidence of the inequities every time he drops his son, Malcolm, off at his daycare center in East Boston.

"I know that Malcolm will get more opportunities than many kids in his classroom because they look different than him — different racial background, different ethnic background, a different zip code," he says. "That's wrong. We're better than that."

Downing's policy prescriptions include universal early childhood education; more funding for public schools, state colleges and universities, as well as new spending on affordable housing and public transportation. To pay for all that, "we need to ask more of the wealthy," he says.

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Downing speaks with WBUR's Anthony Brooks at Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Downing speaks with WBUR's Anthony Brooks at Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Downing argues that means reforming a tax system that he says for too long has left too many people behind.

"It's put a greater burden and a greater responsibility on the middle class, the working class and the working poor, instead of those at the top 1% who have benefited the most from economic growth," he says.

'Empathy' And Environmental Justice

Downing's agenda excites progressives like Damali Vidot, a city councilor-at-large in Chelsea, who applauds Downing for making environmental justice a top priority. Vidot says it's an issue particularly important to cities like Chelsea, which has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Beyond that, she praises Downing for possessing a key quality: "Empathy, empathy, empathy," she says.

Vidot says evidence of Downing's "empathy" was his support of a transgender rights bill, passed in 2016, which he told her was one of his proudest moments.

"I'm thinking, 'how can this cis-gendered white man — why is he the one pushing this?' " Vido says. "I think it's important to have someone with the empathy [and ability to] connect with folks that may have experiences that are not like theirs, and still be able to see the humanity in them and want to advocate for them."

In a video announcing his campaign for governor, Downing says the grief of losing his father and brother to heart disease "deepened my empathy and fueled my sense of urgency."

"For too long, we've seen income become concentrated in a few communities, while our Black and brown neighbors bear the brunt of environmental injustice," Downing says in the video.

But Downing has a steep hill to climb. He'll likely face challenges from other Democrats, including Danielle Allen, a political science professor at Harvard, who announced last December that she is exploring a run for governor. It's also possible that better known Democrats, such as Attorney General Maura Healey, could run.

"[Healey] is well-known, she's well-funded, and she's very well-regarded," says Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist and a dean at Stonehill College. "If Maura Healey gets into the race, she's the presumptive nominee, in many ways."

Ubertaccio says Downing's challenge is that he's not well-known across the state, which is why it makes sense for him to launch his campaign so early. But, of course, the biggest obstacle for any Democrat is Charlie Baker, should the popular governor decide to seek a third term.

"The governor has remained consistently one of the most popular politicians in Massachusetts over almost the course of two terms," Ubertaccio says. "That's a remarkable feat."

For his part, Downing calls Baker "a good man and a dedicated public servant." But he says the current moment calls for much more.

"It's not enough for the governor to manage the day-to-day," Downing says. "The governor's role is to set a vision and then to advocate for that vision and the steps to get there, and then to bring the broader public along with it. Governor Baker hasn't done that."

But that may be a tough case to make to Massachusetts voters. Even the slow and troubled roll-out of coronavirus vaccines doesn't appear to be tarnishing Baker's shine.

A mid-February poll from the MassInc Polling Group finds Baker with a 74% approval rating — a number few politicians ever come close to. It's also a number that defines the challenge facing Downing — and any other Democrat — if Baker decides to run again.

This segment aired on March 3, 2021.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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