|Downing Ending Tenure In State Senate|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
12:22PM / Monday, January 25, 2016
|State Sen. Benjamin Downing is leaving the Senate after a decade representing the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing announced on Monday his decision not to run for re-election after 10 years representing the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District.
"This is something I thought about for a while. It's not a decision I came to lightly. I care deeply about the city. I care deeply about the Berkshires. I care deeply about the region and Western Massachusetts. I also care about it enough to know that if I didn't have it in my heart to do it 100 percent, I couldn't tell voters that I was," Downing said.
Downing remembers when there was an open state Senate seat for the 2006 election and friends and family urged the then 24-year-old graduate student to go for it. He got on the phone with his brother and told him all of the reasons why he wasn't fit for the seat. But quickly, he realized the phone had gone silent. His brother hung up on him refusing to hear the excuses.
Downing had a real chance at the seat and his brother didn't want to see him pass on the opportunity. On that urging, the son of late District Attorney Gerard D. Downing threw his hat into the ring and defeated Republican Matthew Kinnaman to win the seat.
"I was a 24-year-old kid who was in grad school. There was every reason for people to say 'you are a nice kid, you'll have your chance. I'll vote for you but I won't work for you.' But the amount of time and effort people put in. In a race that was decided by 243 votes, every bit of that mattered," Downing said.
Downing hasn't looked back in the last decade, easily winning re-election every other year since. But now the 34-year-old has decided not to run for re-election.
"I always thought about doing the job for 10 years. When I thought about running for office 10 years ago, I made a lot of promises to voters and made a promise to myself if given the opportunity, I would serve for 10 years," Downing said.
"I think the system we have set up is best served by talented people coming in and out of it with different points of views and backgrounds."
Since late last summer, Downing has been considering his options. And over the last weekend, he started calling his family and friends to tell them that it is time to look for a new challenge.
The Pittsfield Democrat says he doesn't know where he'll go in the future but it won't be with a lobbying firm nor will it be another immediate bid for public office — although he said he isn't completely shutting the door on a future run for higher office. His focus now will be to finish out the term.
"I don't have anything lined up. I made a commitment to voters and I plan to fulfill that. We've done a lot of good work this term and over the previous four but we have more work to do," Downing said. "We have a comprehensive energy bill to get done. We have net metering and a solar policy we need to solidify. We need to do the final bit of work on transgender and equal rights, legislation I authored in a previous session. There is a lot more work to do."
Downing says he is most proud of his work in turning Massachusetts into a leader for clean energy and combating climate change. He says when he took office, there were just 2 megawatts of solar electricity and only 50 solar companies.
"We now have north of 950 megawatts of solar energy and 270 firms employing nearly 1,200 people in every corner of the commonwealth from small local firms that have grown to big national firms that have come in," Downing said.
In 2007, when he took office, the infrastructure at colleges was falling apart and the senator helped push for improvements, which included the new Center for Science and Innovation at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He worked on increasing the minimum wage to combat income inequality and poverty. He raised funding for the earned income tax credits.
"The work is never done. You could talk yourself into staying forever. There is always going to be challenges," Downing said.
He is looking for a resounding vote from the Senate on a new transgender bill, which is "simply making sure people are not persecuted because of who they are.". He's looking to go even further with clean energy through a comprehensive energy bill and to raise the net-metering cap.
"This is all about combating climate change and it is also about making the case to federal regulators that there is a little need as possible for additional natural gas," Downing said.
He is hoping to finish the job of connecting every community to high-speed Internet, an effort he's been involved in for most of his tenure. In 2008, former Gov. Deval Patrick issued a $45 million bond for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to build out high-speed infrastructure. President Barack Obama later issued a stimulus bill that brought millions more to Massachusetts. And now, with partnerships with the MBI and organizations like Wired West, Downing feels the job is nearing completion.
"We're going to get there. We are going to have a plan in place and RFP out in the next couple months that is the framework for doing the last mile," Downing said.
The senator is also working on planning for the county's educational future.
"I don't think we need more schools in the Berkshires. If anything, we're going to need fewer high schools over time and we need a plan for how we get there in a way that ensures access," Downing said.
While he's dealt with complicated issues, the most trying time for Downing came in his personal life when his brother Nate, the same brother who hung up the phone on him six years prior, died in 2012.
"To lose my brother and my best friend in office was incredibly difficult. He was the person I would call when I was trying to think through things. It was a reminder to me. My family has been through this twice. People around here are just so kind, compassionate, and generous. People held me up when I could have fallen down. My colleagues in the delegation and my colleagues in the Senate," Downing said. "It reminded me how beautiful and awesome it is here in the Berkshires."
Not only did the community rally behind Downing but he remembers his colleagues from the Senate filling the church for the funeral. It is those relationships with both colleagues and in the community he built that he's going to miss the most.
"I know no matter what my heart is here in every way possible," Downing said. "This place is home. This is where my heart is."
On Monday morning, he reflected on meetings with constituents either in his office or during his "coffee and conversations" around the district.
"When somebody shows up here, it is the most important thing in the world for them. That could be 30 different things in one day but it is your job to think through all of those issues and figure out how they knit together, figure out which ones require a direct response and which ones require a policy change, which are a mix of the two. I like that challenge," Downing said.
"It's the tough part of the job because there are so many days when you push the rock up the hill and it rolls down over you. But, for the days when you do something little and it makes a big difference, the days when you actually get the rock all the way over, that's a reward beyond everything else."
Downing is particularly grateful for those members of the community who supported each election bid. He feels he listened, did the research to know the issues, and put in the effort to meet with voters and understand their concerns. In return, the voters "took a chance" in trusting him for the job.
"One of my real concerns is that young people look at politics and say it is not a way to have a meaningful impact on the communities I want to serve. It absolutely is if you do it the right way," Downing said.
After dedicating a decade of his life to the community, Downing says it is time for him to step down for personal and professional reasons.
"My wife and I have been married a little over three years now. We're talking about starting a family and no matter where you live, if you do this job you are on the Pike a lot. That's just the nature of the job," Downing said.
"And also it is the desire for a new challenge. I've been blessed to have this job for 10 years. I think I know how to do it. I don't at all pretend that I've done it perfectly but I think I've done it kind of well. I'd like to know, I have these skills and what else can I do with them?"
Senate President Stan Rosenberg issued a statement Monday afternoon praising Downing's work.
"Sen.Downing has been a progressive leader in the Senate and his voice will truly be missed. He has made a real difference for working families in Massachusetts, and I know that he will bring the same energy, intellect, and passion he exhibited in the legislature to his future endeavors," Rosenberg said.
Downing released the following statement on Monday morning:
"Ten years ago when I decided to run for the State Senate I made some promises. I promised to help the people of this district every day. I promised to bring fresh energy and a new perspective to the job. I promised to make decisions with future generations, not future elections, in mind. I promised to fight to make our economy, our schools and our environment better. I promised to help bring more clean energy and high speed internet to the Berkshires.I promised to fight for the poor and struggling middle class. With your help I have been able to keep those promises.
I also made a promise to myself that I would not serve more than 10 years. Today, I am keeping that promise and announcing that I will not be running for re-election as your Senator. Very few people get the chance to serve. Even fewer get to serve and leave on their own terms knowing they did the best job they could. And that is what I am doing today.
I am a very lucky person. From watching my father serve the wonderful people of the Berkshires to each day I had the chance to do the same, it has been a joy, a gift and an honor...and it always will be to me. While I worked hard to keep my promises, there is always more work to be done. I will spend the rest of my time trying to get more done that will make a difference in the lives of everyone here.
I will never be able to thank you enough for the chance to serve you. I have cherished every day and always will. The work to make our families, our communities and our future better will never end. I look forward to the days ahead with as much gratitude and hope as the day I started this journey with you. Thank you for everything you have done for me every day
I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region. My heart will always be here. I promise."