PITTSFIELD — Benjamin Downing said Monday he had no job offer or political office in mind when he decided against seeking re-election after a decade representing his 52-community district in the Massachusetts Senate.
He just believes that after 10 years, it's time to step down.
Making the announcement during a morning press conference, the Pittsfield Democrat said his focus for the remainder of his fifth term will remain on alternative energy, health care costs, transgender rights protection and the other issues he has concentrated on.
Downing, 34, said he has no current plans to seek a political post or accept a particular job, but he wouldn't rule out another campaign in the future. "It's been 10 years," he said. "I always said I wanted to do 10 years. It's just time for something new."
While Downing is leaving the Senate, his looming departure is expected to set up a contest to replace him, possibly including some familiar faces.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, confirmed he will consider a Senate bid, but said that first of all, "I tried desperately to talk him out of it."
Pignatelli described Downing as "a key leader" within the Berkshire legislative delegation. "I'd call him the glue."
"I've known him all my life, and our families have been friends for generations," the Lenox Democrat said.
While considering a Senate run, which he will decide upon soon, Pignatelli added, "But today is Ben's day. He deserves all the [accolades] he will get."
Noting that Downing "is still a very young man," Pignatelli said that after his Senate term concludes in 2017, "the floodgates of opportunity will open before him."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, expressed similar sentiments Monday, while also confirming that she is thinking of a Senate run.
"I think today is all about Ben," she said. "I want to say how very sad I am that he is leaving; I am trying to get my head around that fact."
She added, "Certainly, it is something I will strongly consider," but a run for the Senate "is not something to take lightly. It will consult with my family, as I always do."
Concerning Downing's contributions in the Senate, she said, "The service he has done this community and his district is outstanding."
Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer said Monday, "Senator Downing has been such a good friend to this city, and to his district. Obviously, there is going to be a transition; however, as mayor it is really important to me for my first year to have all his knowledge and experience and wisdom."
In North Adams, Mayor Richard Alcombright lauded the out-front assistance Downing offered when North Adams Regional Hospital closed abruptly in 2014, tossing more than 500 full and part-time employees out of work, and as the city worked through a new school project and other developments during his six years as mayor.
"I have really leaned on Ben in a lot of different ways," Alcombright said. "He is a great advocate for Berkshire County, his district and the city."
"My first plan is to serve out the term," Downing said Monday. "I don't have anything lined up. I think it's important; I made a commitment to voters and I plan on fulfilling that commitment."
Among his priorities are pushing the agenda on clean energy, including net metering solar; expanding broadband connections throughout his district and the commonwealth; and securing rights and policies to protect and serve transgender constituents.
The senator said he disclosed his decision to family members, friends and close colleagues over the weekend after considering over several months whether to run again.
Downing was just 24 when he decided to jump into his first Senate race in 2006, after Sen. Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., D-Pittsfield, left the office — also after serving for 10 years.
That September, Downing defeated former state Rep. Christopher Hodgkins of Lee, Margaret Ware of Williamstown, and two other candidates in a closely fought Democratic primary race.
Hodgkins finished just 243 votes behind Downing, who went on to crush Republican Matthew Kinnaman of Lee, and Green-Rainbow candidate Dion Robbins-Zust of Richmond in the November election, taking more than 70 percent of the vote. He has not been seriously challenged for re-election since his first race.
Downing is the son of the late Berkshire District Attorney Gerard D. Downing, who died at age 52 while serving in that post in 2003.
Downing now is Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. He said he's proud of the progress he's made as an elected official, from helping to secure investments in public higher education, including the multi-million dollar Center for Science and Innovation at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, to solving smaller issues brought to the cafe tables of the more than 80 "coffee and conversation" events he's held with townspeople throughout his sprawling district.
The senator expressed great fondness for the Berkshires and beyond. "I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region. My heart will always be here," he said.
Downing said his most challenging time in office was when his brother, Nathaniel "Nate" Downing, died from a genetic heart disease in 2012. Downing said his brother had been key in convincing him that he could win the Senate seat in 2006, dismissing all his own reasons not to enter the race.
As when his father died, it brought their family closer together, he said.
"Ten years ago when I decided to run for the state Senate, I made some promises," Downing said. "I promised to help the people of this district every day. I promised to bring fresh energy and a new perspective to the job. I promised to make decisions with future generations, not future elections, in mind. I promised to fight to make our economy, our schools and our environment better. I promised to help bring more clean energy and high speed Internet to the Berkshires. I promised to fight for the poor and struggling middle class. With your help I have been able to keep those promises.
"Very few people get the chance to serve," he added. "Even fewer get to serve and leave on their own terms, knowing they did the best job they could. And that is what I am doing today.
"I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region," he said. "My heart will always be here. I promise."
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, issued a statement Monday, saying, "Ben Downing is a highly respected and passionate public official who always made the people of Western Massachusetts his top priority."
State Senate President Stan Rosenberg stated, "Sen. Downing has been a progressive leader in the Senate and his voice will truly be missed. He has made a real difference for working families in Massachusetts, and I know that he will bring the same energy, intellect, and passion he exhibited in the Legislature to his future endeavors."