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Danielle Allen, leader at Harvard, exploring run for governor of Massachusetts

Danielle Allen, a leader at Harvard, is exploring a run for governor.
Danielle Allen, a leader at Harvard, is exploring a run for governor.

Danielle Allen, a Harvard University professor, political philosopher, and author, said Monday she is laying the groundwork for a potential run for governor in 2022, making her the first Democrat to publicly say they’re weighing a campaign.

Allen, 49, said she plans to take at least three months to hold a virtual “listening tour” to introduce herself to party activists and voters ahead of what could be a crowded, and fluid, race in two years.

Should she formally launch a campaign, she would be the first Black woman to run for governor as part of a major party in Massachusetts history, and would be seeking to become the first Black female governor in the United States.

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The director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Allen has not run for public office before. But she said she felt compelled to consider the leap from academia into elective politics after the 2016 election — and the “erosion of democratic norms” since — and more recently, in watching the economic and social damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the end of the day, you end up feeling like you’re making a difference at the margins,” Allen, a Cambridge resident, said in a Globe interview. “I just felt we were watching a broken social compact all around us,” adding there is “frustration, from what I saw, in the decision-makers in the pandemic.”

In the interview, Allen didn’t directly critique Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who has yet to say whether he’ll seek an unprecedented third consecutive term.

“I’m a real believer that democracies are stronger when elections are competitive,” Allen said. “This is a marathon. This is not a sprint. This is a real, two-year endeavor.”

The Democratic primary could draw any number of candidates, particularly if Baker, a popular two-term incumbent, opts not to run, turning it into a race for an open seat. No current office-holders have officially indicated they, too, may seek the governor’s office, but party officials have long eyed state Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and others as possible, high-profile entrants.

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As a first-time candidate, Allen would face expected hurdles of building awareness among party activists and likely having to raise millions of dollars. She has also the challenge of introducing herself largely virtually in the coming months, running into similar limitations candidates grappled with throughout this year’s campaigns.

Allen, who has lived full time in Massachusetts since 2015, and previously served as a trustee at Amherst College, filed paperwork with the state’s campaign finance office on Monday afternoon. Hours later, she released a roughly two-minute-long video on Twitter.

The video included some biographical details, images of Allen appearing on national news networks, and footage of the fallout from the pandemic, which she described as the “last straw” in her consideration for public office.

“I had a profound sense of betrayal in the first few months,” she says in the video, adding: “It’s time for us to lay a new and equitable foundation for our life together in this Commonwealth.”

Allen focused in her video on a desire to address inequities in wealth and education, as well as mass incarceration, becoming emotional at one point in discussing a cousin who was first arrested at 15 years old.

She would bring to a race a lengthy resume from academia. She has led Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics since 2015, joining the center after working at the the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

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She was a 2001 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and in June, she won the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, a prize administered by the Library of Congress. Allen — who holds degrees from Princeton, the University of Cambridge, and Harvard — has also studied, and written extensively about, the Declaration of Independence and spoke in a 2015 Globe interview about the need to consider change within our political fabric, from campaign finance to redistricting questions to how Americans vote.

“What we need to do, in a certain sense, is go back to the question of that relationship between our ideals and our procedures and consider whether or not our procedures are actually getting us what we want,” she said.

Allen was a honorary cochair for the campaign that pushed a ranked-choice voting ballot question in November, describing it as a way to produce “leaders who better represent our electorate.” (Voters ultimately rejected the measure).

She has begun to build a campaign team, bringing on as campaign manager Reynolds Graves, who’s worked for Rasky Partners and served as an aide to former city councilor Tito Jackson and former governor Deval Patrick. Malcolm Salter, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, is serving as campaign chairman.

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Patrick has often been held up as an example of a relatively unknown political candidate who found success jumping into a gubernatorial campaign early. Patrick began formally exploring a run in January 2005, 22 months before he won his first election.

“Patrick had a lot of national experience and was well-known in legal circles. Allen is well-known in academic circles. But it still takes a lot of time — a lot of time — to introduce yourself to the Democrats around the state who are going to be crucial to winning the primary and the general election,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College.

“Getting in early is smart politics right now,” he said. “But Danielle is not going to have a field to herself for long.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.