Richard Neal, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud debate defense, health care, 'fresh blood' in 1st Congressional District

Television station WWLP news anchor Rich Tettemer, center, serves as moderator during a televised Democratic debate for the Massachusetts 1st Congressional District between incumbent Richard Neal and challenger attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, of Springfield, on Wednesday. Longtime U.S. Rep. Neal is challenged by Amatul-Wadud in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary.

CHICOPEE — The Springfield attorney seeking to mount an upset in the First Congressional District probed for weaknesses in the incumbent’s record Wednesday, questioning his support for defense spending and calling efforts to shore up the Affordable Care Act “the wrong fight.”

But Tahirah Amatul-Wadud’s primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, countered in a televised debate that his votes stand squarely in the Democratic tradition and bring benefits to the district, which since 2012 has included all of Berkshire County.

In a brisk and spirited exchange, the two candidates in the Sept. 4 primary found common ground, as both promised to use the seat to improve lives of people in the district’s 87 cities and towns.

Neal, 69, has been in Congress one year for each of the 30 minutes he and Amatul-Wadud exchanged views inside the main news studio at WWLP-TV, Channel 22 in Chicopee. The moderator was broadcaster Rich Tettemer.

Outside on busy Route 116, supporters of both candidates spread out along the road, waving signs and calling out to passing cars.

Amatul-Wadud, 44, who launched her campaign eight months ago and has not yet held elective office, argued that not all residents of the district receive the same opportunities.

“I will serve this community with the highest level of attention and care,” she said.

Watch the WWLP debate (story continues below video)

Neal told voters he has represented Massachusetts residents for a “considerable period of time” and, in closing remarks, said he had stood with them through good times and bad.

He vowed to work to defend Social Security and Medicare programs from cuts under a Republican administration.

When Tettemer asked the candidates how they would work with the Trump administration, Amatul-Wadud said she would use her legal training, and "tenacity," to win gains for the district. “I know how to come across the table and reach agreement,” she said.

Amatul-Wadud said as Congress approaches the midterm elections, it is time for “that fresh blood.”

Neal sought to position his bid for a 16th term as part of an admirable legacy, invoking the names of liberal icons like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, as well as John Olver, the district’s former representative, and current elected officials Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. James McGovern.

He said that if returned to office, he would work to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, which he said he helped to write. The law has faced challenges and setbacks in the current Congress and presidency.

Amatul-Wadud argued that she will push to make “single-payer” the law of the land through so-called “Medicare for All” legislation.

Of the Affordable Care Act, she said, “That’s just the wrong fight at this point. There are many things we can do with leadership that is accountable to the people.”

Paying for it

Tettemer asked Amatul-Wadud to explain how the country could pay for Medicare for All. She chose to suggest it was a matter of priorities. “First we have to value the fact that this is something worth paying for,” she said. 

On other money issues, Amatul-Wadud criticized the size of the U.S. military budget and faulted Neal for voting for it, while at the same time expressing support for strong national security. 

“We would give the defense bill a bit of a haircut,” she said. “There is a lot of waste there.”

Neal countered that some of that budget comes to the region in support for the Barnes Air National Guard field in Westfield and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. He cited $42 million in funding for Westover. 

“It’s a huge part of the economic structure of western Massachusetts,” Neal said. “Making sure those bases function the way they’re supposed to is an important responsibility.” 

Amatul-Wadud responded that Neal has received donations from defense contractors. She also questioned whether residents’ questions about water quality related to base operations have been taken seriously.

“There’s been no moral leadership to get ahead of contaminated water there,” Amatul-Wadud said. 

Role of family

Neal used the phrase “the American family” several times. Amatul-Wadud also spoke of family, including her own. 

In her closing statement, she mentioned relatives struggling with the high cost of medications. 

“The Congressman has not shown leadership in ways that would gain control over these costs and is not looking out for the people of the First District,” she said.

In his own closing statement a minute before, Neal had staked out his economic bonafides. 

“I’ve been an advocate of the working families of this district for all of these years, he said. 

Both candidates mentioned their children when Tettemer asked what Congress could do about the problem of college debt. 

Neal said he believes vocational education and expanded apprenticeship opportunities offer alternatives. He said more students should be able to attend community college without adding debt and said debt-forgiveness makes “a good deal of sense.”

He stopped short of backing free college education, saying that children of wealth should not attend at no cost. 

Amatul-Wadud said that college costs fall more heavily on poor families and people of color. 

Both candidates said they support calls to make $15 the federal minimum hourly wage. The Massachusetts Legislature has set the state on a path toward that wage. 

“In our district we have a vested interest in raising people to a level where they can actually live,” Amatul-Wadud said. 

Neal said he has voted for every minimum wage increase that has come before the House. 

That was only one of several issues on which they share views. Others extended in large measure to gun control, the fight against opioid abuse, immigration reform and high rates of incarceration.

The candidates also agreed about the need for additional controls over access to guns, with Neal noting that he voted in 1994 for an assault weapons ban. “My position on gun control has been entirely consistent,” he said. 

Both candidates said the opioid epidemic has touched households throughout the district. 

“We have to look at addiction in a broad capacity,” Amatul-Wadud said. “For me this is real and it is close to home.” She said the problem, while widespread, especially affects communities of color, whose residents face a “deep disparity” in access to treatment. 

Neal said more treatment beds are needed. The problem needs to be recognized as a disease so that people can get “back on their feet.” 

Gun control

Amatul-Wadud said she would back efforts to raise the minimum age to purchase a gun and for expanded background checks. 

“I recognize the importance of securing guns and keeping the community safe,” she said. 

Both candidates faulted President Trump’s stance on immigration when asked if they would under any circumstances endorse immigration reform that includes construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The candidates also agreed the rate of incarceration in the U.S. is too high. Neal noted that most people in jail face drug and alcohol problems and that issue needs attention. 

He and Amatul-Wadud voiced support for sentencing reform that could reduce the number of Americans behind bars. Amatul-Wadud added that reforms should revisit mandatory minimum sentences and said she would push also for bail reform. 

Neal said he wants to use a new term in Congress to push for infrastructure investment and to work to shore up problems with private pension funds systems. 

“Nothing would jack up and boost the American economy more quickly right now than a good healthy investment in infrastructure,” he said. 

The candidates next appear together Aug. 30, when WGBY-TV in Springfield will host a second debate.

The WGBY forum, also to run 30 minutes, begins at 8 p.m. and will be moderated by Carrie Saldo. It will be available online after the initial broadcast.

Larry Parnass can be reached at, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.