Q&A: Ben Downing discusses addressing climate change equitably in Massachusetts

Ben Downing (AG'08), Tufts alumnus and former adjunct professor, and now a Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor, is pictured. Courtesy The Downing Committee

After Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker decided not to run for a third term in the 2022 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, the Daily sat down with one of the election’s Democratic hopefuls, Tufts alumnus and former adjunct professor Ben Downing (AG’08) to discuss his platform and goals for transportation and environmental justice in the state.

After graduating from Tufts with a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning in 2008, Downing spent ten years representing a large portion of western Massachusetts in the Massachusetts state Senate. He then went on to serve as an executive of Nexamp, a Boston-based solar energy company, before beginning his bid for governor in February of this year.

The Tufts Daily (TD): The last time we spoke, we discussed a little bit of your campaign’s goals. How has your platform changed or become refined from when we spoke last spring?

Ben Downing (BD): I think more than anything, we’ve started to really add detail to those broad priorities. So, when we first talked, it was those same clear three themes on climate, economic inequality and on racial justice. And so we’ve started to roll out the policy plans around that: a climate plan that gets us to 100% clean electricity and clean energy by 2030 and 2040, with a commitment to environmental justice funding up front, a clear plan around targeting and reducing poverty across the state, a clear anti-poverty agenda, commitment to universal childcare, a transportation for all plan, a plan really focused on expanding investments in transit and fare free transit across the state and empowering regions to make those investments that we need to be making across the state to build stronger economies and tackle climate.

And then most recently, [we’ve established] a broad racial justice action plan that was reflective of a series of conversations that we’ve been having with leaders and communities of color across the state, where we don’t just wait to reserve a seat for folks at the policymaking table, but rather we’ve been bringing the table to communities that too often have been forgotten in the past. [We’re] trying to focus on closing the racial wealth gap, addressing the racial inequities that we see in everything from our housing system straight on through our prison system, our carceral system and the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems.

And so, all of those reflect those key principles and priorities of acting on climate, reducing economic inequality [and] promoting racial justice and equity, and we’re going to continue to do that in the policy plans that we roll out next year as well. 

TD: Recently, it looks like the Supreme Court is poised to overturn New York’s gun control law, which requires gun owners to show “proper cause” to receive an unrestricted handgun carry license. Massachusetts has a similar gun control law to New York that would likely be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. How would you address the rights and needs of both gun owners and gun control advocates as governor?

BD: It’s certainly something that we’re monitoring and looking to see what the court decides and if it provides any guidance around how you can model a law similar to what New York has done, this is presuming they were to strike it down. What is the guidance for what is a constitutional version of that same protection? We know that almost any step a state takes at this point is going to be insufficient until we have a federal assault weapons ban [and] federal background checks to avoid looser states serving as entry points to surrounding states with more stringent laws. I think it’s critically important we continue to ramp up enforcement of the laws that we have in place right now.

It’s interesting, in conversations with the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence and others, the majority of their focus hasn’t been on new laws, but on investments in community-based services and interventions to avoid the growth of violence in communities in the first place. To get that sort of upstream investment is what you want to focus on, so I think that’s more where our policy is leaning towards. We’re working on coming up with a broader public safety and public health plan as well that will be reflective of that.

TD: After Congress’ passage of President Biden’s federal infrastructure bill, what steps would you take as Governor to allocate that funding and improve some of the older infrastructure across the state? 

BD: I think this should be true of the country as a whole, but it ought to be true of Massachusetts in particular, is that all federal resources that are coming back, I’ve called for 80% of those resources to be targeted as climate investments and that’s going to look like a lot of different things. It’s going to look like supporting multi-family affordable housing near transit hubs, but it’s also going to be about hardening existing infrastructure to make sure that it can withstand rising sea levels and storms and the changing weather patterns that we’re going to see from climate change.

TD: Electric vehicles are becoming more mainstream and are proving to be a nice way for individuals to decrease their own emissions, but they are still incredibly expensive. How would a Downing administration ease the cost of electric vehicle ownership?

BD: First, electric vehicles are great, but they shouldn’t be the focus of our climate mitigation strategy when it comes to transportation. The focus ought to be improving transit, making it more reliable, more affordable and fare free both for buses and trains as I’ve committed to in my Transit for All plan. Making the investments at the state level to avoid the regional transit authorities, the MBTA and others relying on fares to fund their operations, fund them through general tax revenue, make them more reliable, more affordable and run more regularly. That’s going to get people off the roads, and that’s going to lessen our first-in-the-national congestion, which keeps people stuck in their cars and amps up tailpipe emissions generally in low-income communities and environmental justice communities, so the state can and should be investing more in transit.

We ought to also be investing more in building walkable communities so we’re less reliant on cars in the long run. [We should] try to build more of that dense, multifamily affordable housing close to transit hubs and economic opportunities, especially as there is this separation between where you work and where you live. We need to be building walkable communities, so you don’t have to get into a car to go everywhere you want to go.

TD: You mentioned transit. How much money would you anticipate adding to the MBTA budget or what are some other tangible benefits to the MBTA voters can anticipate under a Downing administration?

BD: A couple of thoughts. First, we’re going to rebalance how we raise revenue for our transit agency. So, we’re going to create regional transportation commissions. I would first increase state support to eliminate fares. That ought to be across the board. Then, if you’re talking about extending hours on some specific lines, that ought to be something that a local region can take on and can go to the voters in their region. I think you’re going to see a shift from the current stock at the commuter rail system to all electric lines. We’re going to electrify those lines to lessen emissions but also to improve service. To do that, the state needs to step up and make investment in those platforms to enable that to be possible.

TD: A lot of these changes would benefit residents in and around the Boston area, since that is the area the MBTA serves. How would you make transit work for those living in Western Massachusetts?

BD: We have proposed doubling the state funding for the regional transit authorities, so [this would include] the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority in Western Mass [and others] to enable them to go fare free. In some cases, they’ll need a little bit more support. I talk to constituents regularly who wanted to ride the BRTA, but it didn’t run the hours [they needed], it cost too much, it was unreliable. That doubling of state support is going to make it a much more reliable, affordable and a more relevant service to their day-to-day lives. We’re going to build East-West Rail all the way to Albany and we’re going to get it done by 2030. We have a once in a generation opportunity with federal resources. The state aid ought to step up with a match to make it possible.

TD: With Charlie Baker deciding not to run for re-election, a lot of focus is going to be on the Democratic primaries. What sets you apart as a Democrat, and how do you run against a Democrat in this election?

BD: There is no candidate in this race who brings my expertise, commitment and dedication to the issue of climate. It’s the issue that I’ve dedicated my career to. I was a leader on the issue when I was in the Senate. I dedicated my career in the private sector to the issue. The only board I joined when I left the legislature was the Environmental League of Massachusetts to help continue to work on these issues and craft the policy that we need to build a transition to a clean energy future and throughout that time — not just now when folks are starting to talk about it — I’ve talked about putting equity and justice at the focus of everything that we do so that we make sure that communities that didn’t benefit from our last economic expansions — communities of color and gateway cities like those that I call home — are at the center of our work in our investment in building a clean energy future and that we make sure that the prosperity of a clean future is felt directly first in those communities.

I would also add that of all the candidates that are in this race now and that are rumored around it, I’m the one that’s worked in the private sector. I’ve been a part of growing a clean tech company. I’ve seen the challenges of it. I’ve learned from it. I’m a better and more well-rounded candidate from it.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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