|IN THE NEWS: Downing Sets Priorities for Fall Session|
October 04, 2007
Downing Sets Priorities for Fall Session
By Tammy Daniels - October 03, 2007
PITTSFIELD - Berkshire County's freshman senator doesn't let the grass grow under his feet - when he's not attending hearings and sessions on Beacon Hill, he's tramping over the many hills and dales of his supersized district to meet constituents or working on his master's degree in public policy.
|Sen. Benjamin B. Downing
Two weeks ago, Sen. Benjamin B. Downing started off the fall session filing a bill to prohibit idling vehicles at schools, one of the environmental priorities on his list. Also in his sights are broadband availability in rural Western Massachusetts, a new science building for Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and homeless county residents.
While Downing easily won election in the heavily Democratic district last fall, some saw his age as a disadvantage. But being the state's youngest lawmaker (at 26) may well be an asset, allowing him to bridge his district's rural character and high-tech dreams. Poised and articulate, Downing seems to mix as easily with his seniors as he does with college students.
In a recent interview at his Pittsfield office on Bank Row, it took Downing only a few seconds to come up with the most difficult thing he's had to deal with so far: Time management.
"There's just so many issues you want to work on," he said. "You have to prioritize. I could get more done if there were two or three more days in the week and more hours in the day."
Downing represents the largest geographical Senate district. It includes all of Berkshire County and 16 towns in Franklin and Hampshire counties. Combined with those frequent 2-plus-hour trips along the Massachusetts Turnpike and back, that's a lot of ground to cover. This past weekend, he was at an event at Hancock Shaker Village, a benefit walk in Dalton and the Fall Foliage Festival Parade in North Adams.
"You have to be pragmatic," Downing said. "I'd like to be at every pancake breakfast, every select board meeting. I try to spend time with different sections of the district to get a flavor of Berkshire County. And I've got good staff who keep me updated."
He also credits Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-South Deerfield, for being "incredibly helpful" in making sure he knows what's going on in his non-Berkshire towns.
He finds that his efforts for rural Berkshire County are in sync with the needs of his Hampshire and Franklin towns. They, too, are rural and are concerned with broadband, telephone and cable service, public transportation, dairy and agricultural issues, family farms and regional schools.
"I kind of realized pretty quickly there are a set of issues for the very rural parts of the district and a set of issues for the greater Pittsfield area and for the greater North Adams area," said Downing.
Broadband Internet access is one of those issues that affects both rural and urban areas, and one issue Downing says must be addressed. He's solidly behind Gov. Deval Patrick's $25 million incentive fund to bring broadband to rural Western Mass. and, along with state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, has vigorously defended the plan on various blogs and message boards.
"I know we have an administration that understands the importance of the issue, the severity of the issue, and realizes that if we don't do something, the negative impact will be gigantic," he said. "The access to broadband Internet service is actually more tied to income than population density. In some of the more urban areas, because of the cost, people can't access it. Eighty percent of Boston Public School students don't have access - it's an economic decision."
Downing sees broadband access as the 21st century infrastructure - just as important as fixing the state's bridges, roads and utilities. The market has failed to provide that access because the cost has outweighed potential profits in this area, leaving the region's small towns cut off from an increasingly Web-based world.
"Dial-up completely ignores not only where our economy is going and but where our is economy is now," he said. He talked of a biotech consultant in Tyringham who can't teleconference with clients, and of how more and more state services are being provided over the Internet.
"Communities, especially rural communities, will wither on the vine if they don't have the bundle of services that we consider essential services for infrastructure."
The push for broadband ties into another of Downing's priorities - economic development.
The region has to look at broadband access, education and transportation issues as part of its economic package, he said. That means not just looking at Massachusetts, but looking across state borders, as the governor has suggested, in a shared perspective of how to grow the region. "That type of thinking leads to a lot more creativity."
Part of that growth means creating a skilled work force, which would be served by a new science building at MCLA. "That science building would show how higher education is responsive to what is happening in the work force," said Downing. "It would be an important message across the border to the [New York] Capital District - if you're looking for a highly educated work force, MCLA is where we're going to be producing it."
We should be telling high-tech industry, he said, to "bring in hundreds of people and grow the jobs here [like Sabic]. We have a quality of life we're willing to compete against anywhere in terms of recreation, housing, schools and higher public education. We have all these resources."
Along with the bond bills for higher education and broadband, Downing said lawmakers will have the Green Communities Act of 2007, an energy bill submitted by Bosley and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, and Rep. Brian S. Dempsey, D-Haverhill, on their plates. Described by DiMasi as a blueprint for the future, the $1.4 million initiative is designed to promote energy efficiency, conservation and the use of renewable energy sources.
Also on the legislative front, Downing, with Rep. Stephen R. Canessa, D-New Bedford, has filed a bill to prevent vehicles from idling on school grounds. A quarter of the state's lawmakers have already signed on to the legislation.
"The carcinogens that come out of the tailpipe of a bus are very similar to a massive amount of cigarette smoke and that gets pumped right into the school," he said.
The measure is based on the anti-idling efforts of Lenox resident Rick Gregg; some 36 communities across the state, including Lenox and Williamstown, are taking action to reduce emissions on school grounds.
"I think it's something you're going to see a lot of support for," said Downing. "It's a small, simple, pragmatic first step we can take to make schools better ... and to start reducing our carbon footprint."
The senator is also pumping new life into a moribund panel established to look at homelessness back in 2005. He's co-chairman of the Leadership Council to End Chronic Homelessness in Berkshire County, which has been meeting in subcommittees over the last nine months to come up with recommendations for a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the region.
Too many people think homelessness is a big-city issue, he said, because here, it's hidden in statistics, like schoolchildren who change addresses five or six times a year or families who are in and out of shelters.
"The truth of the matter is there's homeless issues in every one of our communities," Downing said, adding that Brad Gordon of Berkshire County Regional Housing and co-Chairman Daniel Dillon, former president of Berkshire United Way, deserved credit for their work on homeless issues.
Downing said he's gotten a lot of support navigating the ins and outs of the Statehouse in his first year from his colleagues in the Legislature and from next door - where his predecessor Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. now reigns as register of Central Berkshire deeds.
"A get lot of help from Andy. His office is right next door and I have all his numbers," laughed Downing. "I think if you're willing to listen and learn, people are going to respect the work you have to do and want you to succeed.
"One of the things learned in the last nine months is we have many of the same issues but they're expressed in different ways," he said. "The stresses are different, emphasized differently, but the goal is the same. When you start with a common shared value you can get through the regional bickering and get a lot more done."
Downing said he and other members of the Berkshire delegation do their jobs better when they hear from their constituents. If people pay attention to what's going on, they stay more engaged and are more likely to have a delegation that truly represents them, he said.
The senator describes his job as an incredible experience and an honor.
"Every time that I get to walk into the Statehouse and I see 'Senator Downing' on the door, I still get goosebumps," he said.
Tammy Daniels can be reached at email@example.com