Sunday Sept. 2, 2012

Berkshire County will move on from the Representative John Olver era next year with the winner of the Thursday, September 6, Democratic primary. Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, the veteran congressman from the 2nd Berkshire District, which will become the 1st District following the loss of a Massachusetts congressional seat, is being challenged by Andrea Nuciforo Jr. of Pittsfield and Bill Shein of Alford. Because there is no Republican candidate, the Thursday primary will determine the new congressman.

A congressman since 1988, Mr. Neal brings experience and seniority to the table, with the latter earning him a seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee. He has been strong on issues affecting the middle class, such as preserving Social Security, shifting tax burdens away from the middle class, and penalizing businesses that move jobs offshore. He showed integrity and bravery in his early opposition to the second war in Iraq.

We disagree with some of his votes, such as those on Wall Street reform measures, but it is possible to cherry-pick wayward votes in the career of any long-term congressman. While his vote in favor of the Stupak Amendment limiting abortion funding, for example, was disappointing, he received a 100 percent score from the NARAL Pro-Choice America on women's rights issues two years later, indicating he is strong on protecting those rights currently under assault in America.

Representative Neal's opponents assert that he is not as progressive a congressman as is Mr. Olver, and while that is true, political litmus tests are counter-productive and it is significant that the retiring Mr. Olver has endorsed Mr. Neal. While a Berkshire congressman will be keenly aware of Berkshire interests, Mr. Olver, an Amherst resident, did well by the Berkshires during his tenure and we expect Mr. Neal would do the same with another election always around the corner. He has campaigned regularly in the Berkshires and as our congressman we believe his values, institutional knowledge and middle-class advocacy will make him an effective representative for the Berkshires.

Andrea Nuciforo Jr. was a capable state senator for the Berkshire District and would be a welcome voice in Congress on single-payer health reform, consumer protection and other traditional liberal causes he advocated strongly for on Beacon Hill. His roots in the Berkshires are deep, he knows the issues here, and he would have the interests of the city and county in mind in Washington.

Mr. Nuciforo has attacked Mr. Neal effectively from the left on Wall Street reform, but his criticism of Mr. Neal for the campaign contributions he has received from special interest groups have been less effective because he has received similar contributions in his political career. He justifiably criticized Mr. Neal for not supporting the Fair Elections Now Act toughening campaign finance laws but opposed a similar clean elections bill in the Senate.

We remain disturbed by Mr. Nuciforo's passing off of political statements from other Democrats such as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and former Massachusetts Senate candidate Alan Khazei as his own, often with little or no rewording, on his campaign website (the passages have since been removed). His initial reaction to the accusations, which was to attack Mr. Shein for drawing attention to this political plagiarism, then criticizing a former aide, compounded matters. Voters trust that a candidate's words and thoughts are his own and they expect him to accept responsibility for mistakes, and there was a worrisome lack of organizational control in evidence here.

Bill Shein, an experienced and knowledgeable writer and progressive political activist, has made the corrupting influence of money in campaigns and in governing the theme of his campaign. There is no disputing him, as The Eagle editorial page has expressed the same concerns, and Mr. Shein's idealism is refreshing. He would be independent and a watchdog of the politically powerful.

Pragmatically, however, we question whether Mr. Shein can be as effective on the mundane but important congressional duties of constituent services and shaking loose federal funds for local projects as an experienced congressman like John Olver or Richard Neal have been and in Mr. Neal's case will continue to be. At an editorial board meeting with The Eagle, Mr. Shein asserted that while candidates like Mr. Neal say "we can navigate a broken system" he wants to fix the system. Realistically, we don't believe the system will be fixed any time soon, if ever, and a congressman who can best navigate a broken system will best benefit the Berkshires. That candidate is Richard Neal.