BOSTON — With a decision that surprised many of his colleagues, Sen. Benjamin Downing, a rising star in state Democratic politics, said Monday he would not seek a sixth term this fall, adding his name to the list of experienced and influential lawmakers leaving the Senate at a time of flux for the chamber and its new leadership team.
At just 34-years-old, Downing's age belies the level of experience he brings to the job of representing a vast swath of the western part of the state, including all of Berkshire County. The Pittsfield Democrat has made himself the Senate's go-to person on energy issues.
"It's a little bit shocking," Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said on Monday, reacting to Downing's news. "It's going to be a big loss."
Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, said Monday he was "stunned" when told by a reporter that this would be Downing's last year. "He's been a great senator," he said.
Downing's decision could further test new Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who will have to partially remake the team that helped get him elected to the post in 2015 and advised him through the beginning of his leadership tenure.
Anthony Petruccelli, another experienced young Democrat and close friend of Downing's, left the Senate last week for a lobbying job, and Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich, another member of Rosenberg's leadership team, previously announced his plans not to seek re-election.
"He will be sorely missed. He's a very effective legislator, well-respected in the body and he doesn't speak often but when he does he really influences the direction of the debate in the caucus and on the floor," Rosenberg said.
Downing plans to serve out the remainder of his term through the end of the year, important months as he leads the Senate effort to negotiate a compromise solar bill with the House and will likely become the point-person on any effort later this year to pass comprehensive energy reform legislation.
"It's been 10 years. I always said I wanted to do 10 years. It's just time for something new," Downing told the News Service Monday morning.
Without accounting for any other senators who might choose to leave or wind up unsuccessful in their re-election bids, the Senate will enter 2017 with at least 14 of its 40 members having less than five years of experience. The known departures also come from senators not approaching the end of their careers, but from younger party leaders arguably entering their prime.
Rosenberg said that, with the exception of Wolf, everyone leaving the Senate has served at least 10 years — the natural lifespan of a state legislator.
"When people leave it's really hard, because the new people come in. They've got all the energy and excitement, but they don't have the insitutional memory. They don't have the experience in the Senate. ... But make no mistake, everyone in the Senate is fully engaged and these three will certainly be missed but the bench is very deep," Rosenberg said.
Downing's departure does not foreclose a return to politics, and could even better position him for a run for higher office in the future, depending on what he does next. Downing said he doesn't yet know what the future has in store, and will instead be focused on finishing his term through December before turning the page.
The Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Downing's legislative career has been focused on energy and environmental policy, along with efforts to bring high-speed Internet to the Berkshires.
He has also taken on elevated roles in party politics, tapped by fellow senator and Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Thomas McGee in 2014 to be the party's coordinated campaign chairman, working around the state to support Democrats up and down the ballot.
Forry said that the loss of Downing, Wolf and Petruccelli would mean that Rosenberg will have to put together a new team next session to replace the "immeasurable" contributions of a trio that she credited with being able to "build coalitions" within the body to get priority legislation moving.
Downing is a well-known name in the Berkshires. Not only has he represented the county for almost 10 years in the Senate, but his father Gerard Downing worked for 13 years as Berkshire County district attorney before he died in office from a heart attack in 2003.
Once considered a probable strong contender to succeed his one-time boss John Olver in Congress, that window closed on Downing during the last round of redistricting when Olver timed his retirement to the redrawing of district boundaries that saw Olver's district combined with that of incumbent Democrat Richard Neal of Springfield, now the dean of the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House.
Downing also hinted that the back-and-forth travel between Pittsfield and Boston had begun to take its toll.
"I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region. My heart will always be here," Downing said in his announcement.
Brownsberger downplayed the notion that there might be institutional reasons for several high-profile Democrats deciding to leave the Senate either mid-term or at the end of the year. "I don't detect that. I think those are all individual factors," Brownsberger said.
While a special election will be held in May to replace Petruccelli, Wolf's Cape and Islands district seat and Downing's district appear on track for wide open races in November with no incumbent on the ballot.
Five current House members live within the borders of the district, including four in Berkshire County and one in Hampshire County. Making that choice, however, would come with the risk of giving up relatively safe seats in the House.
Rep. Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams, Tricia Farley Bouvier of Pittsfield, Paul Mark of Peru and William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox all live within the district in Berkshire County, while Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington newly found himself in the district in 2012 after redistricting.
"I've known Sen. Downing for a long time. I think he's a really good guy and a really good public servant. We obviously don't agree on everything but that's kind of beside the point. I think he's done a terrific job of serving the people of Berkshire County and I think he will be a difficult guy to replace," Gov. Charlie Baker said.