The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I ran for office full of anger and despair. I felt hope when I dropped out.

Danielle Allen visiting with volunteers at the Cambridge Community Center. (Zachary Goldhammer)

A year and a half ago, I put aside my column with The Post to explore running for governor in Massachusetts. Now, I’m back. Most of the people I know are not in politics, and many of them are asking: What happened? And what’s it like?

First, here’s what happened. The exploratory listening tour went well. It confirmed my sense that this is a time for change — so after six months, in June 2021, I jumped in in full. Then I spent the next nine months fundraising, stumping around the state and building out a policy agenda. I also worked hard to win support from those likely to be delegates at the state’s Democratic convention. Those party delegates are the magic key to placing your name on the primary ballot.

But in February, in the middle of caucus season, I dropped out. We weren’t securing the delegates we needed, and knowing that, I couldn’t raise money in good faith. And if you can’t keep raising money (or aren’t independently wealthy), you’re at the end of the road. It’s just like with sharks. Keep moving or die.

So that was that.

And what it was like? The short answer: It was a very expensive but very effective form of therapy.

I started the process full of anger and despair about the direction of my state and country. When I set out in December 2020, children weren’t back in school yet in Massachusetts, and the state government wasn’t providing clear, timely and stable guidance. We were on the cusp of what turned out to be a pretty unsatisfactory vaccine rollout. Nationally, state and federal governments were at odds — first because of covid-19 and then because of a defeated president seeking to overturn an election.

I wasn’t alone in my feelings. I met people in the trades seething that building inspectors were examining construction sites via Zoom. How could that possibly ensure safety? I spoke to people who took responsibility for feeding the families of workers in the collapsing hospitality industry. The pain of running out of food before the line had barely even begun rang in their voices. One woman broke down telling me how the program she runs for single mothers seeking financial literacy had to be transformed into a site simply aimed at getting people food and diapers.

People were stretched to extremes and felt so alone in the face of overwhelming need. Our state and federal governments let us down in many specific and tangible ways.

And yet. And yet. We did not let one another down. This was the therapeutic part.

When Massachusetts’ vaccine rollout failed to provide appropriate access to the elderly and those lacking transportation, networks of civic leaders pulled together and got the job done. The Black Boston Covid-19 Coalition used get-out-the-vote techniques to help get more of the city’s residents vaccinated. In the western part of the state, the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative organized a network of small health-care providers to serve as vaccine sites and got the state to knuckle under and deliver vaccine supplies, allowing rural-area residents to stay put for their shots.

After the murder of George Floyd, amid clear calls from communities of color to change the pattern of policing, forward progress was again achieved at the local level. The highly effective mayor of Lynn, north of Boston, helped forge a collaboration between a social justice civic organization and police that led to a pilot program, funded by the city, to build out unarmed response capacity for mental health crises. In Williamstown, in the northwestern corner of the state, community activism achieved an independent investigation into problematic policing practices, resulting in the resignation of the police chief and an effort to make a fresh start.

This is how it was throughout Massachusetts, and it was the antidote to my despair. Good work abounded. Everywhere I found people — with different perspectives — forging alliances to address some of our toughest challenges. Yes, our state government could and should do more to support and help scale it all up. Yes, our federal government is unable to answer even a shock as dire as a massacre at an elementary school. But it is also a fact that problem-solving is underway in every corner of my state. That’s bound to be true of every state.

Having had the chance to see that good work up close left me with a profound understanding of our resilience as a people and our capacity to meet even the exceptionally daunting challenges of our moment. That brought me hope. For this, I will be forever grateful.

I recommend this therapy to everyone losing hope in our democracy. All you have to do is pick an office and run for it. And this too, I believe, is how we’ll at last crack our national gridlock and get the solutions we deserve.

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