When you’re not accepted into law school, pursue a career in politics—you could become the youngest member of the senate. Just look at Massachusetts Senator Ben Downing, the state’s democratic representative for the Berkshires, Hampshire and Franklin District.
Ask Downing’s Providence College, former-freshman-year-self in 1999 what he wanted to do with his life, and he would have responded, “International or environmental law.” Despite growing up under the roof of Berkshire County’s former district attorney, Downing had never considered a career in politics.
After graduating from Providence College, however, Downing returned home and was working on the grounds crew at Tanglewood mowing lawns, trying to figure out what move to make next. A friend serendipitously called and asked Downing if he knew anyone who would be interested in moving to Washington D.C. with him. Downing jumped at the opportunity, and went door-to-door on Capitol Hill, hoping someone would take him in.
U.S. Representatives Bill Delahunt and Richard Neal gave Downing his first break, before he joined the staff of Congressman John Olver as a senior advisor.
“Being young, you need to understand the opportunities aren’t just going to come to you,” Downing says, admitting that when he was first offered a part-time internship, he asked for 40-hours-a-week instead. “If you prove you know how to do the job, you’re willing to do the work and you take the job seriously, people forget how old you are.”
After nearly two years of working with Olver, Downing decided to return home yet again to attend graduate school at Tufts. While there, a senate seat opened up and he took the chance, claiming that when his classmates asked him what he did over the summer, he knew he could at least respond, “I ran for the State Senate and lost. What did you do?”
Downing was first elected in 2006 and was re-elected in 2008 and 2010. Twenty-four at the time, Downing admits he had the “backwards hat, iPod, bubble gum threshold” to cross and had to prove he understood the issues that were important to the area. After he did that, Downing says, “People were willing to take the chance on a younger candidate.”
Downing won his first campaign by nearly 250 votes, beating out a state representative with 20-plus years of experience. He pegs the victory largely on his ability to recognize the traditional ways of campaigning weren’t enough anymore. He created a Facebook page, and sent weekly email updates about his campaign every Friday to his growing list of supporters. Today, he’s also on Twitter and YouTube.
“The greatest service that social media—when used properly—has done for public service, is that it’s taken down the ‘wall’ between people and their government,” Downing says.
To help further tear down that wall, Downing typically posts his daily itinerary on Facebook, so that constituents can comment on it, and ask why he’s working on one issue and not another.
“This doesn’t just demystify the process, but creates a space where people are comfortable interacting with their elected officials,” Downing admits. “The key for elected officials isn’t to discard the old ways of connecting with people, but to use social media and new technology to supplement that.”
No matter the field, however, Downing tells today’s students they need to go where the activity is—hence his initial move to Washington D.C. “If you want to be involved, you absolutely need to be where that sector is the hottest, especially to make that first break in,” Downing claims.
And now, six years later, Downing can say, “I love that I wake up in the morning and can try and solve problems for the community every day.”