In redistricting, the districts represented by U.S. Reps. Richard Neal and Jim McGovern likely would trade towns in an exchange that, observers say, bolsters both incumbents’ reelection hopes.
Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has served in the House since 1989, represents the 1st Congressional District and chairs the Ways and Means Committee. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, has served since 1997 and chairs the Rules Committee as the representative for the 2nd Congressional District.
In a proposal that the Massachusetts Legislature released Monday, the 1st District would shed towns in the upper Pioneer Valley that favored then-Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse to Neal in the 2020 Democratic primary. The 12 towns that would shift from the 1st District to the 2nd Congressional District voted by a 61.9-38.1 percent margin for Morse, who challenged Neal from the left, although Neal won the district by a 58.4-41.2 percent margin.
House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal won his primary last year by 17.4 p.p. against Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Beacon Hill allies have now carved out a Morse +23.8 portion of the district, making him just a little safer against a challenge. #mapoli pic.twitter.com/wEJ5LBws25— Jessy Han (@hjessy_) November 1, 2021
“I think both Neal and McGovern got what they wanted,” said Matt Barron, a Democratic strategist from Chesterfield, one of the communities moving from the 1st District to the 2nd District. Barron worked on Chicopee attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud’s 2018 campaign against Neal.
“Neal gets rid of communities that didn’t vote for him, that despise him because he’s been so inaccessible to us, and McGovern gets rid of reddening Worcester County communities,” Barron said.
“It’s a little disheartening,” said Cheryl Rose, of Dalton, who supported Morse and holds leadership roles in town and county Democratic groups. “That makes our job more difficult, but I think the bigger part is we don’t have a candidate. Alex [Morse] was such a good candidate and will be a tough act to follow.”
While observers say that Neal and McGovern probably would have avoided a serious challenge, regardless of the new maps, the redrawn districts would make a challenge even less likely to materialize or to succeed. The 12 towns — Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Colrain, Conway, Heath, Leyden and Shelburne in Franklin County, and Chesterfield, Goshen, Westhampton and Williamsburg in Hampshire County — accounted for just 4.5 percent of votes cast in the primary, but all voted for Morse.
The district represented by McGovern, who is popular among progressives, picks up those towns while losing New Braintree, North Brookfield, Oxford, Spencer, Ware, Webster and West Brookfield in Worcester County, as well as Belchertown in Hampshire County.
Five of those Worcester County towns voted for the Republican presidential ticket in 2020, and Democratic President Joe Biden won Webster and West Brookfield by just seven and 10 votes, respectively. Belchertown, on the other hand, went for Biden by a 5,893-3,481 margin.
“In terms of the way the district got kind of surgically gerrymandered, in a way, it doesn’t matter,” said Sara Seinberg, who worked on the Morse campaign and lives in Leyden, another community departing for the 2nd District. “People are just waiting [for Neal to leave office].”
“The maps did kind of saw off the most Neal-hostile areas, the most prominent exception being Easthampton,” said Matt Szafranski, editor in chief of Western Mass Politics & Insight. “It does help Neal and McGovern, but I can’t say that I’m super surprised.”
Neal, who represented North Brookfield, Oxford, Spencer and Webster before his district was merged into the 1st District in 2013, expressed support for the redistricting proposal in a Monday statement.
“These proposed maps uphold our Commonwealth’s values of representation, democracy, and diversity,” he said through an email sent by a spokesperson. “It has been my honor to represent Central and Western Massachusetts in the U.S. House for the past 30 years, and I am glad that today’s new district maps maintain two western congressional seats, to fully represent our unique region.”
The 1st District needed to take on additional population, in redistricting, but some Berkshire County residents, including Rose, had expressed preference for the district to grow eastward in Franklin and Hampshire counties, at its northeastern edge, because they believe the Berkshires share more similarities with those communities rather than with Worcester County communities at the district’s southeastern border.
As the westernmost districts expanded eastward to pick up population, other districts shifted as well. The 2nd District, for example, sheds Mendon to the 3rd Congressional District in exchange for picking up Ashland, Hopkinton, Holliston, Medway, Southborough and Westminster.
State lawmakers are seeking feedback on the congressional maps. Residents can write to the redistricting committee at malegislature.gov/redistricting/contact, or can provide testimony at a hearing Tuesday. The hearing will begin at 11 a.m., and residents can sign up at tinyurl.com/3xm9vpaa to testify.