By Cara Hogan, Eagle Boston Bureau
BOSTON — State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing defied expectations by becoming the youngest member of the Massachusetts Legislature at 26 years old, and he has continued to surprise the public with inventive and forward-thinking policy.
Downing is still a newcomer to Beacon Hill after serving his first year in office representing the Berkshires, but he has thrown himself head-first into economic and environmental issues since his election in 2007.
"Every issue is going to be an environmental issue in this century," said Downing, sitting behind a neatly organized desk. "The more forward-looking we are when it comes to climate change and sustainable development, the more jobs we're going to create."
He said he hopes to reinvigorate the Berkshire economy, and his bills, such as the Broadband Plan and Green Jobs Initiative, have found support in the Senate. His effectiveness as a freshman legislator defies those who thought he had little chance to make it to Beacon Hill in the first place.
The 2006 Berkshire Democratic primary echoed the race between presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, with youth and inexperience vying against an older veteran. Downing beat the well-established former state Rep. Christopher J. Hodgkins by 1 percent of the vote.
"The younger people whom he energized and brought into the campaign won it for him," said Downing's uncle, John F. "Jack" Downing Jr., who helped run his campaign. "Most of the Democratic power base in the Berkshires went to his opposition, but he didn't back down. The voters believed in him."
Youth 'a hurdle'
Benjamin Downing said he knew he faced criticisms about his youth and was prepared.
"We always knew from the first day I got into the race that my age was going to be a hurdle to go over," he noted. "We joked that, so long as I didn't show up on somebody's doorstep with a backwards hat, an iPod and chewing gum, then people would take me seriously."
After the close primary, Downing defeated the Republican candidate with ease and started working on the issues that matter to the Berkshires, including his work with the Biofuels Task Force.
"We want to bring on some renewable power generated locally, hopefully distributed locally, so that we can build a more sustainable economy in the Berkshires," Downing said. "We want to have an energy policy that not only reduces our dependence on foreign oil but also creates jobs and economic opportunity."
Downing enjoys a strong following in his home district. He has garnered awards including "Best Legislator of the Berkshires" and "Legislator of the Year" by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
And he doesn't lack a sense of humor, as exhibited during a meeting last month of the Joint Committee on Bonding.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick attended the meeting with a new and nearly bald hair style, and Sen. Mark Montigny suggested that he should talk to the balding Downing.
"Mine will grow back," Patrick said, and the crowd responded with laughter.
Downing quickly replied from the back of the room, "I just want to know if it'll grow back quicker if we get casinos."
Family history of politics
Downing's success in the Legislature may have surprised some, but not anyone who knows his family. Politics are in his blood. His father, the late Gerard D. Downing, was the district attorney in Berkshire County for 13 years and passed on a passion for politics.
"We always talked about politics around the kitchen table," Downing said. "And we always held signs for candidates. So I was lucky in that sense that politics wasn't a different path to take, it was something that was omnipresent in our lives."
Downing's father died in 2003, leaving a legacy for his community and his family.
"I've known Ben Downing his whole life, and he was always a very bright guy and very active in his father's campaigns," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "It didn't surprise me one bit that he went into politics. His father would be very proud of him to be in politics so young."
The lifelong connection between Pignatelli and Downing continues, with the two Berkshires legislators working together on issues that affect the region, including the Broadband initiative, which will bring the Internet to more communities in Western Massachusetts.
"We've worked very closely on the creative economy in the Berkshires and dealing with declining industry," Pignatelli said. "I think the world of Ben; he's a breath of fresh air."
With his father as inspiration, Downing attended Providence College and graduated in 2003 with a bachelor's in political science. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Reps. William Delahunt, Richard E. Neal and then John W. Olver, this area's congressman. Downing said he enjoyed Washington and learned firsthand the workings of government.
"I especially enjoyed working in Congressman Olver's office," Downing said. "It was a nice blend of being in Washington, gaining political experience, but also being able to serve the communities that I grew up in."
Returning home, Downing confided in his uncle that he wanted to go into public service, like his father.
"He continues to surprise me with his desire to serve people," Jack Downing said. "At such a young age, I wasn't that unselfish."
Even Benjamin Downing's former opponents now support his work. North Adams Mayor John Barrett III backed Hodgkins in the primary election and now has nothing but praise for Downing.
"He's doing a very good job," Barrett said. "I knew he was a very precocious young man, but the maturity and understanding of the legislative process in his first year has been remarkable."
Barrett said that Downing works hard for the people he represents.
"A lot of elected people go down to Boston and forget where they came from," Barrett said. "He knows the issues, and he's not afraid to take a stand and take on the governor. He's good; he just needs to stop telling jokes about how he's bald."
'A lot to do'
After one year, the future looks bright for Downing, although he will not reveal any of his goals.
"I still pinch myself every day," Downing said. "I can't believe I have the opportunity to do this. For now, I'm just looking at what's on my plate. There's a lot to do, and I don't feel like I've come anywhere near cleaning it."
His uncle, however, hopes that he'll keep dreaming big and go from the youngest Massachusetts senator to an even more illustrious position.
"His father was 5-foot-6 and spent his whole life saying it's not about the size of the person but the size of the heart," said Jack Downing. "For now, he wants to be the best senator Massachusetts ever had. I hope he wants to be president."