Democratic State Senator Ben Downing of Massachusetts visited the College on Friday afternoon to answer questions from students on politics, the Berkshires and his aspirations for the future.
Downing grew up in Pittsfield, Mass. and was first elected as State Senator in 2006, serving as the Senate’s youngest member. He represents Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin counties. His meeting was focused on discovering what students are thinking about on college campuses.
In the roundtable discussion, Downing opened the floor to students, who asked questions on the key critical issues at this time: energy, health care, education, drug policy and the 2012 elections.
Downing’s tone was optimistic but cautious on most issues. “We’ve done a lot,” Downing said with regard to energy and power for the Berkshires, “but there’s a lot more for us to do too. We have a lot of work to do even though we’re better than a lot of other states.”
The conservative climate that has swooped across the country has hit this state as well, according to Downing. He pointed to the special election in 2010 following U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death, which sent Republican Scott Brown to Washington to fill his ballot.
Brown is up for reelection in 2012, and Downing argued that “the candidate who would be best positioned to beat him is the governor,” Deval Patrick.
“The conservative national tide has forced us to remember what we are fighting for,” Downing said. “We don’t need to fight within the family; we need to fight to protect things we care about.”
Representing a rural area of the state poses unique challenges for Downing. In an area where transportation is critical to accessing education, Downing has stressed the importance of bussing and funding public transportation for his district. “There are a lot of things people wouldn’t understand unless you are from out here,” Downing said, such as what routes are unavailable in snow.
Downing said he believes that aiding public schools is a great means for students at the College to get involved in the local community. “It’s not as bad now as when I grew up, but I think that kids in this county too often get told there is nothing here for you – that there’s nothing to aspire to in the region,” Downing said. “Our region is not only a glass-half-empty region; it’s like somebody drank our water and then threw the glass back at us.”
To encourage children to recognize the value of their homes, Downing called for students to reach out: “You’ve come to this great school in the Berkshires for a reason,” he said. “Get out there are reach out to these kids. Let them know they live in a great area.”
The College is surrounded by public schools, and many students choose to volunteer – particularly at Williamstown Elementary School and Mount Greylock High School. Stevie Luther ’11 questioned the 1000-foot drug-free zone surrounding schools. The law requires that any individual caught for selling drugs or drug paraphernalia serve a mandatory two-year prison sentence. The majority of the College is under that 1000-foot purview. A new proposal would reduce the school zone to 100 feet in the state.
“I don’t know if I support everything in the bill,” Downing said about the specifics. Yet, “that two-year mandatory minimum is the same if it’s a joint or a kilo of coke. That’s kind of ridiculous.
“One of the few positives of an economic climate like this is when you have as little money as we have, relatively speaking, you can’t dismiss reforms that save money,” Downing added.
Going forward, Downing said he hopes to continue in public service. “If there is an opening for higher office, will I consider it? Absolutely,” he said.
“If we preserve two congressional seats in Western Massachusetts and Congressman John Olver decides not to run, yes, I’d run,” Downing added. “And I’d win.”