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State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, veteran progressive lawmaker, launches bid for Massachusetts governor

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz hugged a supporter in Jamaica Plain as she began her gubernatorial bid.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz hugged a supporter in Jamaica Plain as she began her gubernatorial bid.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Calling for a government in which “audacity [is] the rule,” State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz launched a bid for governor on Wednesday, wagering that her progressive credentials and lengthy legislative tenure can make her the first Latina to hold the corner office.

Standing before a diverse crowd of supporters on the steps of English High School in Jamaica Plain, where a landmark school funding bill was signed in 2019, Chang-Díaz told supporters, “I am tired of waiting for government to live up to our hopes and our families’ needs.

“And that is why I am running,” the Democrat said.

A favorite among young activists, the 43-year-old is staking a firm claim on the primary’s progressive lane. Now in her seventh term representing a swath of Boston, the former teacher and first Latina elected to the state Senate has spent her years on Beacon Hill focused on education and criminal justice reform.

She enters a primary field that includes former state senator Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. Hanging over the 2022 contest is the question of whether it will grow to include one particularly formidable candidate: Attorney General Maura Healey, who would enter the field with 10 times more cash on hand than any of the three declared Democrats, much higher name recognition, and a national reputation for going after Donald Trump.

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And though it is far from clear that the Democratic nominee will face Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has yet to say whether he’ll seek a third term, Chang-Díaz has already begun to build her case against him.

She has been one of his fiercest critics this year, as COVID-19 vaccination rates for people of color lag behind those of white residents, saying in February that the state’s distribution system was “a textbook case study of structural racism.”

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She built on those criticisms Wednesday, arguing that he has taken a hands-off, don’t-rock-the-boat approach that leaves hundreds of thousands of struggling families behind.

Baker, she said, “is convinced that the government can afford to go small.”

“But the status quo doesn’t work for everyone,” she asserted over the sounds of a baseball game across the street.

Baker would be a formidable opponent, enjoying high approval ratings and popularity among Democrats as well as Republicans. Asked about his plans at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Baker said he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito were still discussing the question of reelection with their families and would have an answer “at some point.”

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz greeted a young supporter as she kicked off her gubernatorial campaign near English High School in Jamaica Plain.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz greeted a young supporter as she kicked off her gubernatorial campaign near English High School in Jamaica Plain.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Chang-Díaz cast herself as a problem-solver who can slice through the Beacon Hill bureaucracy to notch progressive victories. She said she has spent her life moving between worlds with immense privilege and those with none — coming home from school in affluent Newton to a single mother who had to stretch the grocery budget with powdered milk and soup nights. It’s evidence, Chang-Díaz argued, that she can translate the needs of the most marginalized into the policy language spoken in the halls of power.

She said the fact she was the daughter of a social worker and the country’s first Latino astronaut was instrumental in shaping her ambitions and approach.

Chang-Dίaz described her early career as a teacher in an under-resourced school in Lynn, which pushed her to begin organizing politically and, ultimately, to run for office. She fought for the landmark 2019 Student Opportunity Act, which pumped $1.5 billion in new funds into public schools and rewrote the school funding formula in an effort to bridge the educational opportunity gap between poor and affluent school systems. She was removed from her longtime post as co-chair of the education committee after a change in Senate leadership and before the bill passed, but said at the time she would still be involved in shaping it.

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She touted that bill as an achievement that seemed impossible when she began fighting for it but that she refused to abandon.

Chang-Dίaz will “be the clear definer of the progressive agenda in this governor’s race,” said state Representative Nika Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who is supporting her.

“A lot of people are strong in terms of their beliefs, their values, their rhetoric,” Elugardo said. But none can rival Chang-Díaz’s bona fides “in terms of actions they have taken when presented with a choice,” she said.

Her challenges, analysts say, will be enhancing her name recognition outside her Boston district, translating popularity with a hyper-engaged class of liberal activists to a broader base of support across the Democratic primary — and, should she win, to general election voters who have consistently preferred Republican governors.

A veteran lawmaker who nonetheless portrayed herself as something of an outsider in the Legislature, Chang-Díaz railed in her speech and in an announcement video against Beacon Hill power brokers who are “more interested in keeping power than in doing something with it.”

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“Power concedes nothing without demand,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat said Wednesday afternoon, but “we do have the power to win big for our communities.”

Chang-Dίaz cochairs the Legislature’s committee on cannabis policy and said her focuses as governor would include building eco-friendly infrastructure and closing the racial wealth gap.

She also held campaign events earlier Wednesday in Springfield and Worcester.

“I speak up, I organize, and I win,” Chang-Dίaz said in the video. “Our state is at a turning point now, and we face a choice: Do we go back to business as usual? Or do we run towards problems with the urgency and determination to solve them?”

Chang-Díaz had a leading role in “every major progressive accomplishment the state has had” during her tenure, said Jonathan Cohn, elections committee chair for the group Progressive Massachusetts, which has yet to make an endorsement in the race.

“She’s the candidate who excites progressive activists,” he said. “The universe of people who volunteer on campaigns know who she is.”

But that may not be enough, some analysts said.

Liam Kerr, Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that supports charter schools, and leader of the Democratic political action committee Priorities for Progress, said a progressive reputation could be a disadvantage for Chang-Díaz as she works to broaden her base.

“Being someone who will compromise, who’s pragmatic, focused on management, less partisan — that’s not just a general election strategy, that’s actually the most effective primary strategy,” Kerr said.

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Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.