LENOX — By my count, there are 634 days to go until the 2022 election.
Despite my decision to avoid commenting on state or national politics for the rest of this year, the official entrance of Pittsfield’s native son, former state Sen. Ben Downing, into the race for governor is remarkable so far ahead of time. No surprise that, for the moment, he has the Democratic field to himself.
It’s hard to imagine a more impressive candidate to challenge the Teflon Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who hasn’t revealed whether he’ll seek a third term. But, Downing faces formidable odds to secure the Democratic nomination, much less prevail over one of the nation’s most popular governors.
Baker has taken some well-deserved hits for the troubled rollout of the COVID vaccine program statewide. Even though Berkshire County has hit the jackpot, with plenty of supply and a well-organized, widely praised distribution effort, many parts of the state have suffered from just the opposite.
On Cape Cod, for example, the Yarmouth Select Board wrote to Baker, asserting that “while the policy of prioritizing people over age 75 for the COVID-19 vaccination is to be applauded, it is simply meaningless without an adequate supply of vaccine to support it." The letter calls the state’s response to the crisis “seriously lacking” because there is no mass-vaccination site in Barnstable County, forcing many seniors to drive over the bridge for appointments on the mainland.
Downing’s challenge is to gain enough name recognition statewide and raise millions of dollars for his campaign coffers ahead of a potential primary battle against Attorney General Maura Healey, a potential candidate for the Statehouse, and Danielle Allen, a Harvard University professor who is exploring a run as the first Black female major-party candidate in the state’s history.
Downing, 39, served for 10 years in the state Senate before stepping down in 2017 to work as a vice president at Nexamp, a renewable energy company in Boston. He lives in East Boston with his wife, Micaelah Morrill, and their two young sons.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, the Lenox Democrat and dean of the Berkshire delegation to the Statehouse, has praised Downing as "the best state senator the Berkshires have ever seen."
On Friday, Pignatelli told me that “if Baker runs, the field looks one way; if he doesn’t, it looks dramatically different.”
“Ben has a big lift,” Pignatelli acknowledged, “but he has the qualifications and the capability of organizing statewide. Raising the money would be the big challenge.”
When he announced his campaign on Monday, Downing emphasized that he will run regardless of whether Baker seeks reelection, and no matter who else seeks the Democratic nomination.
Downing intends a grassroots campaign, “Zoom by Zoom, ultimately door to door, one Democratic town committee to the next one, coffee shop to the next,” positioning himself as a progressive, independent leader focused on major issues including economic and racial injustice, climate change, child care, affordable higher education and transit investment.
As he told The Eagle’s Statehouse reporter, Danny Jin, "a fairer, stronger Massachusetts” requires the state to increase the minimum wage, commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, raise taxes on top earners and invest more in public infrastructure.
"If we're going to build that type of economy,” Downing said, “we're going to need someone who sees, feels and understands the experiences of families from Pittsfield to East Boston, and can knit together their stories to build the political coalition to win a campaign, and will govern with their experiences at the forefront.”
According to Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Boston, beating Baker would be tough, “but not as tough as it was a year ago,” since the frustration over the vaccine distribution touches regular voters’ lives in a way few other issues do.
“That’s politics everyone pays attention to, and Charlie Baker’s coming up short there,” O’Brien told The Boston Globe.
Downing lost his greatly admired father, Berkshire District Attorney Gerard Downing, who was only 52 when he died of a heart attack in 2003, after 12 years as chief prosecutor. In 2012, Ben’s younger brother, Nate, 26, died of a genetic heart disease.
In his campaign video released this week, Downing sounded a bit like Joe Biden when he explained that the tragedies “deepened my empathy and fueled my sense of urgency.”
Since he left the state Senate, Downing has criticized Baker’s management of state agencies, including the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Children and Families, as well as the governor’s recent veto of a climate change bill, which remains under negotiation with state lawmakers.
It was inspiring to hear Downing describe the pandemic as an opportunity to “loudly proclaim that we value people over special interests and that we will emerge from this crisis more resilient.”
“We’ve lost a lot — people close to us, livelihoods, and small businesses,” he said in the campaign video. “Those losses hurt more because they reveal how our leaders failed to build a community and an economy that works for everyone everywhere, that tackles racial justice and climate change. Growing up, my family reminded us that too many people don’t get the opportunities we did, and we have a responsibility to change that.”
With Baker more vulnerable as his skills as a crisis manager come under greater scrutiny, Downing’s ability to become a formidable and potentially winning candidate for governor should not be underestimated.
It’s worth recalling how former Gov. Deval Patrick emerged as a virtually unknown candidate in 2005 after Mitt Romney declined to run again. Patrick won the Democratic nomination with 49 percent of the vote in a three-way primary, and then defeated Romney’s lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey.
With his unquestioned skills and talent, a combination of good fortune and luck could propel Downing into a long-shot victory that could reshape the state’s political landscape for the benefit of all our residents.