Gubernatorial hopeful Downing visits with Athol Dems

  • Former state Sen. Ben Downing met with local Democratic Party activists at the pavilion at Silver Lake Monday to pitch his campaign for the party’s 2022 gubernatorial nomination. FOR THE ATHOL DAILY NEWS/GREG VINE

  • Former state Sen. Ben Downing, a Democrat who is running for governor, visits Athol, Monday. ATHOL DAILY NEWS

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 8/4/2021 3:09:25 PM
Modified: 8/4/2021 3:09:31 PM

ATHOL — Former state Sen. Ben Downing stopped by Athol Monday, Aug. 2, to pitch his campaign for governor to local Democratic Party activists.

A native of Pittsfield, he represented what became after redistricting the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden district from 2007 to 2017. Downing is one of four announced candidates for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

During a brief stump speech, Downing faulted Gov. Charlie Baker for squandering “opportunity after opportunity to take on the big challenges facing Massachusetts families; on transportation, housing, education, climate, child care and COVID-19 response.

“He has all the political capital in the world, and he hasn’t spent it on our behalf,” said Downing.

Following his speech, the former lawmaker took questions from the 20 or so people in attendance.

The first issue to arise was that of public transportation, including the possibility of passenger rail service extending through Massachusetts’ northern tier, including Athol and Greenfield.

“At the very least we should be studying it,” Downing said. “It absolutely should be part of a broader rail study for the entire state.

“And we shouldn’t just be thinking about these issues for the state of Massachusetts, we ought to be thinking about it for the broader New England region — at the very least southern New England and the eastern part of upstate New York. We knit to find a way to knit our communities together using non-car-based alternatives.

“If we’re going to actually get to a world that’s 100 percent clean energy,” he continued, “we not only need to change the energy that we use, we need to reduce the amount that we use. And part of that is getting all of us out of our cars and not using gasoline.”

Downing said the expansion of public transportation, including rail, would increase the likelihood of job creation outside the Boston area.

“We’ve tried to cram every job and economic opportunity into greater Boston,” he said.

That, he said, has increased pressure on the housing market and stress on the urban infrastructure while “taking away opportunities from the other parts of the state.

“We need to expand rail access throughout the state,” said Downing, “not just to get people into Boston but to strengthen all of our communities and to help us deal with climate change.”

Asked about the cost to small communities of education and the pressure to close small schools because it’s no longer cost-effective to operate them.

“It points out,” Downing began, “that we need more leaders in state government who even know there’s an issue when it comes to small towns. You’ve got to be out here and get our here to understand the scale of the towns out here,

“It’s not as simple ‘well, close the schools then.’ That puts kids on the bus an hour and a half one way. Getting them to another school might be more economically efficient, but you can’t tell me we’re sending the same message to that kid as we’re sending to every kid in other communities across the state.

“Secondly,” he went on, “we need to have had a greater sense of urgency around funding education generally. State leaders want to pat themselves on the back for passing the Student Opportunity Act, an important piece of legislation updating the equity funding program. But it’s phased in over seven years … seven years — all because we didn’t want to ask those (communities) who have benefited from economic growth over the last few years to pay a little bit more.”

Downing said funds from the Student Opportunity Act need to be made available sooner.

“There are still plenty of schools who look at that massive increase in funding in the Student Opportunity Act,” he said, “and it doesn’t mean much to them. We’ve got adjust the funding formula to provide a greater baseline of support to keep more schools open in the first place.”

Downing also called for universal early education and child care for children up to age 5. He said that would better prepare children for entering the K-through-12 system while providing child care for working parents.

Asked about diversity in a Downing administration, the candidate responded, “When you look at state government, generally speaking, it’s true of the legislature and too often true of the administration — Democrat and Republican — it has been far too Boston-centered, it has been far too white, it has been far too, quite frankly, upper income and education focused. So, folks whose only lived experiences have been grad school and beyond. It has not reflected the broad set of experiences across the state.

“So, yes, we will try to build the most diverse administration in the history of Massachusetts, on any variety of different metrics. That’s also true in the campaign we’re building.”

Asked which issues come up consistently at campaign appearances throughout the state, Downing said housing and transportation.

In addition to Downing, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, state Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, and air-duct cleaning contractor Orlando Silva are also seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Former state Rep. Jeff Diehl and perennial candidate Darius Mitchell are, thus far, the only Republicans who have announced their candidacies.

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