LEE — Ben Downing came to town to talk transportation.
And while the candidate for governor discussed his latest policy plan at a Wednesday evening event, he found those in attendance asking him to weigh in on an array of issues — not least the proposal to move toxins from the Housatonic River to a landfill in Lee.
Downing, a Democrat who represented the Berkshires in the state Senate from 2007 to 2017, visited The Morgan House in Lee as part of a two-week tour highlighting the fourth policy plan of his campaign. Downing’s “Transit for All” proposal would prioritize fare-free public transit, emphasize regional approaches, raise revenue, and invest in rail electrification and new rail projects, including “east-west” passenger rail from Pittsfield to Boston through Springfield.
Still, many in the room were at least equally interested in his thoughts on the proposed landfill to hold polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which the Environmental Protection Agency has said is likely to cause cancer in humans. General Electric released PCBs into the Housatonic River for decades, and local opponents say the settlement reached in February 2020 lets the company off easy.
More than a dozen people attended the event, and at least 10 came with the intention of discussing PCBs, said Cindy Mathias, a Lee resident and opponent of the landfill proposal.
Downing said he has followed the story “from afar” but would like to learn more about the full story, as well as the options available.
“Like just about everyone, I wouldn’t want the dump,” said Downing, who agreed to residents’ request to meet with him about the issue. “I don’t think any of us want the dump.”
Downing, 39, born in Great Barrington and raised in Pittsfield, lives in East Boston, where he most recently worked as an executive for Nexamp, a solar energy company.
In the September 2022 Democratic primary, Downing will face Boston state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, political theorist Danielle Allen and business owner Orlando Silva. Attorney General Maura Healey, considered a possible Democratic challenger, has yet to declare her plans. Gov. Charlie Baker, a popular Republican, also has yet to say if he will seek reelection.
The Eagle sat down with Downing on Wednesday to discuss the race.
Q: One year away from the primary, how do you see the race shaping up? What do you see as the lane where you’re really looking to make your case to voters?
A: We’re certainly still in the early stages. ... I’ve been campaigning for, at this point, seven-plus months. I know that we’re still a long way away from most voters paying attention to the race, but we feel good about the groundwork that we’ve laid to date, knowing that to run the type of campaign that we wanted to run, it was going to take time for me to get out there and meet with voters, to hear from them and to roll out specific, concrete ideas to address the big challenges they’re facing.
I think it’s clear, we’ve established that I’m going to be, and have been, a leader on climate, that we’re going to find creative and unique ways to address economic and racial justice. And I think we’ve really used policy to be the organizing principle of the campaign — to not have it be just about sound bites, but have really concrete proposals that will address the big challenges facing Massachusetts.
I feel good about where we’re at, but we have a lot more work to do.
Q: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom you supported in the most recent presidential election, similarly focused on detailed policy plans, although some observers questioned how those proposals would resonate with voters. How, in your campaign, are you seeking to connect policy with the everyday challenges people face?
A: At least in this campaign, the way we’ve thought about it is: Especially if you are a Democratic candidate running for governor, you have to be able to win voters’ trust. And one of the ways that you earn voters’ trust is to show them how you will govern if you are lucky enough to be given that power, if you are honored to win their trust and support. ...
If I’m lucky enough to be only the third Democrat to win the corner office in my lifetime, voters will know the issues that I’m going to prioritize. And I think that’s critically important, because I think voters could rightly look at it and say, “Well we’ve got a Democratic Legislature, in the House and the Senate; I like having a Republican in the corner office for the times that I disagree with them.”
I don’t think you have to sacrifice your values to also have independence from the corner office and to have a clear idea of when the governor is going to stand up for you and for the public interest.
Q: One thing your campaign has focused around is the call to raise revenue to make investments. How are you making that pitch on the campaign trail?
A: If you look around at the 351 cities and towns that make up Massachusetts, here in the Berkshires and beyond, what you see is, for my lifetime, the last 40 years in Massachusetts, we have made significantly fewer investments than we used to in critical public infrastructure for K-12 education to higher education, transportation — for really everything except health care, our investments have dwindled. And that’s limited the ability to have a vibrant middle class; it’s left the working poor further and further on the edges of our communities.
And so I think if we’re actually going to change that trajectory in any way, then we need to ask more of those who have benefited from economic growth in the last 20 years, the last 30 years. And that is those at the upper end of the economic spectrum, and we can set up our tax policy to do exactly that.
Will that be easy? Will everyone go along with it? No, not at all. But, I don’t think we should think that things are going to change without making those investments.
And it can’t just be a one-time investment. It’s important that the federal government is stepping up with a bipartisan infrastructure bill. And it’s important that the reconciliation bill gets done as well. But, those are one-time investments of capital.
And if we’re actually going to be able to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts and take on economic fairness, climate change and racial justice, that requires a long-standing commitment to making those investments, and there’s no other way to do it.
Q: When it comes to transportation, you’ve centered on regional approaches. Why is that the path forward?
A: Every region of the state is convinced that someone else, somewhere else, is benefiting from the status quo, when the truth is that nowhere is benefitting from our status quo.
The Blue Line that I ride on breaks down regularly. I’ve carried my son out of the tunnel that goes under the Boston Harbor when our train is broken down. But, it’s just as true that the BRTA [Berkshire Regional Transit Authority] doesn’t run enough to be relevant to too many people’s lives, and that limits the opportunities for people to get out of their cars and use it. And it confines people to having to pay for gas, pay for auto insurance, pay for gas — never mind the fact that small towns would be bankrupt by a single culvert, a single large road project of any scope or scale.
And so the unique thing that I bring to the transportation debate is the recognition that we need to empower regions to meet their unique needs. There will be broad, statewide goals, like funding for the RTAs [regional transit authorities], like funding for Chapter 90 road and bridge projects and other things along those lines. But, there are going to be specific, unique things that regions should have the power to do.
And that’s why we’re going to create regional transportation commissions. We’re going to empower those commissions to put before the voters a proposal for the investments that they’d like to make, and if the voters support the taxes to make those investments, they’ll move forward. What we have seen in red states and blue states, in urban settings and rural settings, is that when voters have a chance to control the revenue to fund their transportation priorities, they’ll be much more likely to support those projects.