Tufts alumnus and former adjunct professor Ben Downing (AG’08) announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts earlier this year. Downing graduated from Tufts with a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning in 2008.
After graduating with a degree in political science from Providence College in 2003, Downing worked for former Rep. John Olver (AG’56), also a Tufts alumnus, who represented the Massachusetts 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives, before enrolling in Tufts’ graduate program for urban and environmental policy and planning in 2005.
Downing ran for the Massachusetts state Senate at 24, while he was a student at Tufts. He ran partly because he wanted to improve the communities in western Massachusetts where he was raised.
“My whole generation was basically told to study hard and get out,” Downing said. “I felt like I had a responsibility to give back to that community and to make sure that more kids got those opportunities and that we change that narrative we were telling people.”
Serving over 10 years in the state Senate, Downing was Senate chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy Committee; a member of the Senate Ways & Means Committee and chair of the Revenue, Higher Education, Ethics & Public Service Committee.
Many of his legislative accomplishments supported and progressed the liberal agenda in Massachusetts, and they involved topics including curbing climate change, increasing rights protections for LGBTQ individuals and establishing fairer tax reform for underprivileged communities and families.
Downing taught a class called “Massachusetts State Government: Learning While Doing” in the political science department every spring from 2016 to 2020.
“I was proud to collaborate with Ben on the development and support of the Tisch College course at the State House, which got terrific feedback from our students, and I have always found him to be an engaged alumnus who is dedicated to our students, to Tisch College and to the university,” Dean Alan Solomont of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life wrote in an email to the Daily.
Political science professor Deborah Schildkraut echoed Solomont’s sentiments.
“The course [Downing] taught in our department was very well received and provided fantastic opportunities for our students in MA state government,” Schildkraut wrote in an email to the Daily.
Downing said that a major goal of his as governor would be to reduce the vast economic inequities in Massachusetts, which he believes are hidden under an aggregated high standard of living across the Commonwealth.
“I think … the gaps in our society, many of which COVID has exposed and blown wide open … were present before COVID, and the normal that too many want to return to would be widening economic inequality, widening racial and gender, wealth and wage gaps,” Downing said.
Massachusetts’ Human Development Index, which tracks social and economic development, is the highest in the United States. Nevertheless, Downing explained that not all residents in the Commonwealth enjoy a high standard of living.
“That rings hollow to African American families in Suffolk County whose median wealth is $8 while the median wealth of white families in Suffolk County is $250,000,” Downing said.
Many of Downing’s solutions to these inequities involve improving education, introducing tax reform, strengthening emissions standards and rebuilding infrastructure.
“We’re going to finally invest in transportation in Massachusetts, in the way that we need, to allow us to solve climate change through investments in transit, and also to drive the economy forward, and we’re going to pay for all of it by asking the wealthy to do more through comprehensive tax reform,” Downing said. “Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest states in the nation. We don’t need to have crumbling infrastructure; we don’t need to have a fragmented childcare system; we don’t need to accept the status quo of widening racial wealth wage gaps.”
Downing also mentioned the ways in which his platform could benefit college students in Massachusetts. Specifically, Downing believes his transportation and housing reform proposals could improve student living and educational success for many.
If he wins the Democratic primary, Downing’s challenger would likely be incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, should Baker seek reelection. Despite progressive politics in Massachusetts’ state legislature, as well as several progressive representatives and senators from Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress, Baker is one of several Republicans, including Mitt Romney and Bill Weld, who has won Massachusetts governorship.
Solomont said he believes some Massachusetts residents vote for Republican governors to hedge against a progressive legislature.
“I think some Massachusetts voters are attracted to the idea of a bipartisan State House; and given the overwhelming majorities of Democrats in the legislature, some voters might see a GOP governor as a sort of partisan balance,” Solomont said.
Downing also pins the phenomenon on the higher standard to which voters hold a leader.
“Legislative offices are largely determined based on one test for voters: Does this candidate share my values?” Downing said. “A governor … is held to two tests: Does that candidate share my values, and can I trust the candidate will stand up for me, especially when it requires standing up to the majority in the legislature.”
Downing points to his history of standing up to his Democratic colleagues in the legislature as evidence he can pass a voter’s second test.
“I’ve had plenty of votes where I’ve been on the other side of a majority of my colleagues, and have still been able to work with them,” Downing said. “I think it’s the ability to be independent, to secure voters’ trust, and if you have their trust, I think they will allow you to lead with your values around a bold agenda.”
Downing acknowledges that running against Baker could be an uphill battle. He holds faith, however, that voters will choose the correct candidate. He hopes to enforce this belief by promoting a positive agenda and ensuring that any disagreements between himself and his challengers are purely professional.
“[Baker is] a good man and a dedicated public servant who I disagree with, and they are strong disagreements,” Downing said. “I think the voting public should see that debate … I think it’s an incredibly important [debate] for us to have. I think by focusing on the record, we get away from some of the petty personal stuff, and we can put before the voters a real choice on the issues. Who’s the candidate whose policies and positions will build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts? I’m convinced that it will be me, but that’s not up to determine when all is said and done.”