Former Massachusetts state senator Ben Downing announced Monday he is launching a run for governor in 2022, making him the first Democrat to formally enter the race.
Downing, 39, said in an interview that he is running “to build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts.”
Downing, a native of Pittsfield, represented more than four dozen Western Massachusetts cities and towns in the state Senate before stepping down after 10 years in 2017. Since then, he has served as a vice president at Nexamp Inc., a Boston renewable energy company. Downing now lives in East Boston with his wife, Micaelah Morrill, and their two young sons.
While he is the first to officially jump into the race, Downing isn’t the first Democrat eyeing the corner office. In December, Danielle Allen, a Harvard University professor, said she was exploring a potential gubernatorial campaign. Should she decide to run, Allen would be the first Black woman to run for governor as part of a major party in Massachusetts history.
The Democratic primary could draw far more candidates, especially if Governor Charlie Baker decides not to run for a third term.
Political analysts say Baker, one of the most popular governors in the country, would be the runaway favorite should he decide to run again, though the less-than-stellar rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations could dent his resilient popularity.
Beating Baker will be tough “but it’s not as tough as it was a year ago,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. O’Brien said 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.”
Still, analysts say a successful Democratic challenger needs to tap into the sort of youthful, progressive energy that powered Senator Ed Markey to a primary victory over former representative Joe Kennedy III last fall, or that boosted Representative Ayanna Pressley to her primary win in 2018.
While Downing served in elected state office for a decade, he will nonetheless face challenges. He will need to raise millions of dollars and introduce himself to voters throughout the state, especially those in the metropolitan Boston area, far from the district he served in Western Mass. All while facing the restrictions of a still-raging pandemic.
“I’m in no matter what,” he told the Globe. “Regardless of what the field is in the Democratic primaries, regardless of if Governor Baker runs for reelection. I’m in this race, and I’m going to win this race.”
Downing recalled he proved the naysayers wrong when he won his first state Senate race in 2006, at age 25, even though he was told no one that young could win the contest.
His plan, he said, is to win over voters “Zoom by Zoom, ultimately door to door, one Democratic town committee to the next one, coffee shop to the next, organizing in every one of those communities.”
Downing indicated he plans to pitch himself as a “progressive, independent” leader who will prioritize solving problems such as economic and racial injustice, climate change, child care and affordable higher education, and transit investment.
He also plans to directly challenge Baker’s record throughout the primary, and into the general. Speaking broadly, Downing said, Baker has not used his considerable political capital to make Massachusetts more resilient or to help its least powerful residents.
“In the past, when Democrats have campaigned against Governor Baker, they pointed to the letter after his name as if that’s disqualifying and said, ‘Well, Charlie Baker is a Republican, the national Republicans are all crazy, so you should vote for us,’ ” Downing said. “Voters expect more from candidates and campaigns. You have to go out there and earn their trust, especially for the governor’s office, and they expect you to have a clear vision for what you’re going to do.”
Downing is the oldest son of Gerard Downing, the late Berkshire district attorney. He graduated from Providence College and received a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University, before going on to work for several Massachusetts congressmen.
He also highlighted climate change as another key issue he will campaign on, noting his work on that subject in the state Legislature and private sector.
Downing already has brought on some formidable talent, tapping Wilnelia Rivera and her firm to run strategy and operations for the campaign. Rivera served as US Representative Ayanna Pressley’s chief campaign strategist when the Boston Democrat toppled longtime incumbent Michael Capuano in a 2018 Democratic primary.