Ben Downing chats about life after the state Senate and the issues that captured him then and now
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Micaelah Morrill's name. She is married to Ben Downing.
PITTSFIELD — After a decade representing 52 communities, former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, all of 35, decided in 2016 to head for the private sector.
After his term ended last year, he did just that, but remains involved in issues he was passionate about while in office. Now 36, Downing is vice president for new market development at Nexamp, a Boston solar development firm. Downing and his wife, Michaela, have a 7-month-old baby, Malcolm.
The Pittsfield native sat down for coffee at Dottie's Coffee Lounger to talk about life on the other side of politics, and, of course, energy and reducing poverty.
Q: So, tell me about Nexamp.
A: The company has over 200 solar installations totaling over 100 megawatts, and we own and operate about 70. We're generally focused on community shared solar projects. The company was founded in 2007 by two U.S. Army captains who both had electrical backgrounds and wanted to get involved in clean energy. Mitsubishi invested in Nexamp, wanted to be its solar partner in North America, and so my job is looking at those new markets.
Q: How'd you end up working there?
A: If you had asked me as I was going through this job search process, I didn't think I was going to end up in energy because many of the opportunities that came my way in energy were purely government affairs, government relations or straight out lobbying positions. I really wanted to be in the private sector.
Q: In the Berkshires, there's occasional griping about solar panels being plopped in the middle of farm fields, even though people love solar. Will the panels eventually get smaller?
A: The amount of electricity the panels are able to produce is going to grow. Whether or not that leads to the panels getting smaller, we'll see, but I think the state deserves credit. It is a bit difficult because you have 351 cities and towns that all have their own zoning, but the state has given greater incentives to projects that are on rooftops and in areas that are zoned commercial and industrial, and there is actually a penalty for developing on a straight greenfield.
I have seen where those incentives have changed behavior on projects.
Q: What about Northeast Renewable Link, National Grid's proposed transmission line that will cut through the Berkshires carrying wind and hydro power, but will be another mega power line. Do we need to tolerate any new infrastructure that will carry renewable energy?
A: Our energy infrastructure is really old, and it absolutely will need to get upgraded to not only ensure reliability but also to bring that amount of renewables we want. It doesn't mean that every infrastructure project is a good one. We should ask tough questions.
But I'd rather hassle over a community benefit agreement for a renewable transmission line than be put through the ringer like we have been down in Otis State Forest with the Connecticut [pipeline] spur.
Q: I was getting ready to ask you about the pipeline. A lot of people think it's nuts to build new pipelines, but Kinder Morgan says having some fossil fuel infrastructure is necessary for the transition to more renewables.
A: The Kinder Morgans of the world and others are trying to put a spin on justifying a short-term investment, and it's that type of short-term thinking that has locked us into where we are right now, and we've only just started to break out of it.
Q: People were getting arrested at the pipeline every other week. What do you think of that kind activism?
A: It's critically important to moving us forward. The logic of renewables and the pace of technology is undeniable.
Q: Is Gov. Baker doing enough about renewables?
A: I was very glad to see Gov. Baker join with the other governors to reaffirm our commitment to [the] Paris [Climate Accord]. That's the least we can do. What I'd like to see more of from this administration is what we had from [former] Gov. [Deval] Patrick, which is consistently pointing out that it's a false choice to say we have to choose between the economy and the environment.
Gov. Baker has certainly been on the right side of these issues when it comes to accepting the [climate] science, but that shouldn't be the bar that is set in Massachusetts.
Q: Energy was just one of your passions as senator.
A: Climate and broadband were the reasons I asked to be on the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy for the district I represented, and the issues I care deeply about.
Q: Broadband was slow-going, for sure.
A: I don't know if I've had a more frustrating issue the whole time I was in office. There were many stops and starts. The [state broadband] bond gets signed, the economy collapses, and you have a completely different market to try to solve this public policy problem.
It wasn't until Gov. Baker appointed Bill Ennen and Peter Larkin [both of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development] that there was more movement.
Q: There were plenty of reasons for the delays.
A: Broadband is a symbol of a bunch of different problems. You're trying to provide a public good in a private deregulated market, so we're dealing with the regulatory regime that got set up by telecom deregulation.
On top of that, it's a uniquely important issue in Western Massachusetts. It's a critical issue for less than 10 percent of the Legislature, so that made the political challenge of keeping it on the front burner difficult. I'm confident that the communities are going to get connected because I know the delegation is working day in and day out on it.
Q: A lot of people are struggling in the Berkshires. So you worked to raise the minimum wage.
A: And increasing the earned income tax credit. We talk about attracting new people and new firms to the Berkshires, and I think we rely on that as an economic development strategy. I think a much more pressing problem is making sure that if you work 40 hours a week that you are not living in poverty, that you are not living in debt. We need to reward work just as much as we reward wealth.
Tackling poverty and economic inequality is an economic development strategy in the Berkshires.
Q: You have a baby now. That will open your eyes to a lot. What has this done to your perspective?
A: There were a lot of issues that I thought were important and knew were important, like paid family leave and access to health care. Everyone says [having a child] changes everything and you roll your eyes — until you have a kid.
Q: And we start doing things differently.
A: I've tried to stay off social media mostly because I don't want my son to see me staring at it. We only let him watch sports or soccer on TV (chuckles). I'm a Red Sox and Everton (soccer).
Q: Does your wife, Micaelah, work?
A: She works at a clean tech incubator in Boston. The company was incredibly generous to her when it came to her [maternity] leave — she had four months, and we have a day care set up.
Q: So now you see how all this works.
A: Yeah, as a legislator I had a handful of staff with families and I was always impressed with how they juggled [family and work]. It's a whole other thing to see it in your life and think, "How do people do this?" That's all hit home.
Q: Do you get any sleep?
A: I'm going to knock on every bit of wood I can find right here. Malcolm has been incredibly kind to us when it comes to sleep. We're just the luckiest people on the planet.
Q: What do you do when you're not working?
A: It's all Malcolm all the time now. I'm also sometimes teaching a state government internship class at Tufts. I'm on the board of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and I've done some [radio] commentary things with WAMC pre-Malcolm — I'll try to get back into that a little bit. I'm trying to stay involved with the issues I care about: climate, poverty and hunger.
Q: And when you have a baby it inspires more engagement?
A: We need to be constant, vigilant participants in our democracy and in our communities. In response to Houston [Hurricane Harvey flooding], Micaelah reached out to the Houston Diaper Bank. She started to organize among friends and family.
Find something where you can see a tangible difference. But also make sure you're registered to vote. Consider running for office yourself.
Q: Do you miss being a lawmaker?
A: I didn't sleep at all on election night [last] November. I had this weird feeling of, "I'm changing careers and I'm doing it at a time when, oh my God, everything that I care about is up for grabs."
In elected office you can convince yourself that the world will fall apart if you aren't the one who's involved. If my 10 years in office taught me anything it's that change is frustrating, but there are many reasons to be hopeful. We all have a stake in this.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871
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