State Sen. Ben Downing faces toughest crowd yet — Brayton Elementary schoolers (copy)

While state senator in 2015, Ben Downing took questions from fifth graders at Brayton Elementary School in North Adams.

When Ben Downing got to the Statehouse in 2007, he provided “a breath of fresh air for the delegation,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

When Downing departed, Pignatelli called him “the best state senator the Berkshires have ever seen.”

Yet, when Downing describes accomplishments from his time in office, he tends to use the word “we.” It was a “we,” in Downing’s telling, that fought to raise the minimum wage and expand the earned income tax credit.

For former state Rep. Dan Bosley, Downing’s work in the Statehouse recalls a Chinese proverb. The best leaders, Bosley said in paraphrase, perform their work in such a way that when the job is done, other people can say, “We did it.”

“There was no proprietary ownership of an issue — he would welcome everybody in,” Bosley said. “As a result, you don’t always get credit for what you do, but you get a lot done.”

But, Downing did not go to the Statehouse without his own priorities.

He made climate a staple of his work early on, before most Americans accepted climate change as a serious threat. In 2008, Downing worked to establish a green jobs training program that he now calls “a predecessor” of the policy framework behind Green New Deal proposals.

Downing also was “about social justice before it really became household words,” said former North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, noting Downing’s work to expand civil rights protections for transgender residents.

Having chaired seven committees by the time he left office, Downing influenced statewide policy in multiple arenas.

In 2009, though, when he chaired the revenue committee, his post took on increased significance as the Great Recession crippled the Massachusetts economy. Fearing budget cuts, Downing worked to raise tax revenue. He said the eventual 25 percent sales tax increase helped maintain services and ease communities’ pain, although he would have preferred to raise the income tax while adding exemptions for lower-wage earners.

The state “passed,” in Downing’s assessment, but not with flying colors.

He is quick to point out that, in the present, with Massachusetts facing another budget crunch in the coronavirus pandemic-associated recession, the state can do better. This time, Downing wants to get it right.

Gov. Charlie Baker recommended a budget that cuts $300 million of state spending, relying largely on a $1.35 billion dip in the rainy day fund rather than raising new revenue. But, Downing is calling for more spending, not less, to get the economy going again.

And in the long run, a tax system that “asks more of the wealthiest earners,” Downing said, is the only way to sufficiently fund areas like early education and public higher education.

When Downing speaks of the investments he believes the moment calls for, some of the old issues come up again. The struggle to deliver high-quality and affordable internet access to communities still without it, he said, was one of the most frustrating he faced while in office.

“It’s not an abstraction to me to see families lined up outside a town hall because that’s where the only Wi-Fi spot in town is,” said Downing, who chaired the telecommunications, utilities and energy committee for six years. “Those are stories that I heard and that I brought with me to Beacon Hill.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.