State Sen. Benjamin Downing in final year cites opioid epidemic, changing demographics as key issues

BOSTON — After almost 10 years in office, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing has checked many items off an impressive to-do list.

The Pittsfield Democrat has worked to increase the amount of solar energy in the state by more than 500 percent, and supported efforts to rebuild college campuses.

But Downing, who will be leaving his post come January, says other important issues remain, from demographic divisions in the state’s population to the spreading opioid epidemic.

“If we do nothing over the next few years, our population (in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden district) will be older, it will be smaller and it will be poorer, and that is all at a time when the state is actually getting younger,” he said.

Downing’s 52-community district — the largest geographically in the state — includes Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington in Hampshire County.

Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, is the only announced candidate for the Senate seat. Hinds is executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Downing’s successor will need to confront the demographic problem of western Massachusetts while working to eliminate it, he said. To do so, the next senator will need both short-term solutions to deal with the trends and a long-term fix to “change the trajectory.”

These changes impact the state budget and, in turn, the economy, as companies are faced with employment recruiting challenges, as school enrollments decline and as social services have less capacity to meet a greater need, Downing said.

The heroin and opioid crisis has been growing in recent years, and was a focal point of Gov. Charlie Baker’s state of the state address Jan. 21 and his proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The epidemic is also evident in the western Massachusetts region, where Downing said the policy solutions might be different from those in the greater Boston area.

Data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in January indicates that the victims of almost 1,000 of the 9,035 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts from 2000 to 2014 were from Downing’s district.

“We’ve seen a real surge … in deaths related to overdoses,” he said. “There is a great deal more that needs to get done and that’s something that doesn’t just impact this district.”

Demanding district

Downing’s district is demanding given its size and distance from Boston. The district is “the rural region of an urban and growing” state, Downing said.

Rep. Stephen D. Kulik, D-Worthington, who shares 13 of the towns in the Senate district, said that despite the regional diversity and the variety of issues covered, Downing has set a standard that must be met by his successor.

State Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said in a prepared statement, “Sen. Downing has been a progressive leader in the Senate and has made a real difference for working families in Massachusetts. We will miss his voice in the Senate, but we know he will bring the same energy, intellect, and passion … to his future endeavors.”

Downing previously worked as senior adviser to former U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, and served on the staffs of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, and former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Quincy.

When first elected to the Senate at age 25, Downing vowed to keep the seat for no more than 10 years. Downing believes that the system works better “when you have talented people coming in and out from different backgrounds, different points of view, who had different personal experiences.”

Downing has held more than 80 coffee-and-conversation meetings in his district, and his efforts are praised by community leaders.

John McVeigh, a member of the Huntington Select Board, said Downing is an effective senator in a state that often functions with the idea that “the buck stops at Worcester.”

“Ben brought a voice to western Massachusetts and was heard and was well-respected,” McVeigh said. “He never really shied away from anything.”

Richard Wagner, chairman of the Worthington Select Board, said he hopes that Downing’s successor will have the same commitment to rural and regional issues. Western Massachusetts communities “need strong voices in Boston in order for our issues to be heard and understood,” Wagner said.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 6, 2016.

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