Harvard professor Danielle Allen will launch a historic campaign for governor on Tuesday, entering the Democratic field as the first Black woman to run for the executive office as part of a major party in Massachusetts at a time when women and people of color are breaking barriers in city and state government.
Allen, 49, joins what’s likely to be a crowded primary with a hefty academic resume but no experience holding elected office.
A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and the head of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics since 2015, Allen says she is running to bring the lessons of her career as a political philosopher — that government must meet a high bar, serving all people — to Beacon Hill.
And her bid solidifies a family legacy steeped in fights for racial justice: a grandfather who helped found the first NAACP chapter in his North Florida community, where doing so meant risking one’s life, and a grandmother, working as a nurse in the segregated South, who dreamed that one day her offspring would study at Harvard.
As Allen launches her campaign, its historic nature is both “meaningful and painful,” she said in an interview with the Globe.
“We are the first state to have abolished enslavement, and we should have gotten to a place where leadership is truly open to everybody a heck of a lot faster,” Allen said. She said she feels both immense gratitude and a sense of duty. “I’ve been given the opportunity to stand on a strong foundation of social infrastructure and to thrive. And that has equipped me to do this. So I feel an obligation to show that it is possible for every young woman of color out there.”
Since declaring in December that she might run, Allen has been on a monthslong “listening tour,” hearing from voters across the Commonwealth.
In those conversations, she said, housing has emerged as a top concern for voters. But boosting the state’s supply of affordable housing must be done in conjunction with efforts to strengthen transportation networks, job security, public health, and educational opportunities, she added. Allen said her campaign will not release specific policy proposals yet but is focused on expanding the state’s “social infrastructure” and equalizing its opportunities.
If she succeeds, Allen would be the nation’s first Black woman governor and the first woman elected governor of Massachusetts. (Jane Swift, a Republican, inherited the position when her predecessor became an ambassador.) Massachusetts has elected one Black governor, Deval Patrick, who had worked in the Bill Clinton administration and as an executive at Coca-Cola but started as a relative unknown in the state’s political scene.
Allen will formally launch her campaign Tuesday morning on Boston Common in front of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, which honors one of the first Black regiments in the Civil War, a deliberate nod to the historic nature of her candidacy. She enters the gubernatorial race just months after Kim Janey made history as Boston’s first Black person and first woman to serve as mayor, ending the city’s two centuries of white male leadership in the executive office.
This year is “really changing the face of leadership in Massachusetts, and frankly our reputation across the country,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization based in Cambridge that studies women’s representation in politics.
Massachusetts is sometimes seen as “the original old boys’ club,” Hunter said.
“Having a Black woman mayor, having multiple women of color in contention for the mayoral race, and now having the first woman to declare for governor . . . really says something about where we are as a state,” Hunter said.
While the rest of the Democratic field remains uncertain, it’s likely to be a hard-fought primary campaign. And like Boston’s mayoral race, the Democratic gubernatorial primary is shaping up to be groundbreaking in its diversity, as well. Ben Downing, a former state senator, has already launched his bid. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who would enter the race with the support of a number of young progressives, is exploring a bid, too; if elected, she would be the state’s first Latina governor.
Looming over the Democratic primary is the question of whether Attorney General Maura Healey, who has the advantage of high name recognition and a national reputation as a progressive, will run. Healey, who was the nation’s first openly gay state attorney general, has used her post to wage high-profile battles against the Trump administration and corporations like Purdue Pharma.
Allen said it’s a mistake to see elected office or business experience as the only appropriate precursor to serving as governor.
“Every sector of our economy requires leadership,” she said. “Sometimes we think that corporations are the only places that generate leaders. This is not true. Leadership emerges everywhere.”
Allen, who announced that she would explore a bid in December, has accumulated $283,278.57 in cash on hand, campaign finance records show — more than Downing and Chang-Díaz, but less than Healey, who has more than $3 million.
The Republican gubernatorial field remains uncertain, too. Governor Charlie Baker has not said whether he’ll seek an unprecedented third term as governor, but if he does, he would be a formidable opponent, carrying sky-high approval ratings among the state’s Democrats.
Allen said that under Baker’s leadership, “a lot of people have been left out of our prosperity,” disparities that were only widened during the pandemic. People should expect more from their government, she said.
“It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s gotten worse. We need to raise our expectations,” she said. “The popularity ratings are a sign of our having to settle for something that’s not good enough.”