Challenger Amatul-Wadud tries to paint Neal as out of touch
SPRINGFIELD — The challenger arrived at her last debate having put more than 50,000 miles on a car traveling the 1st Congressional District.
The incumbent says he, too, has been canvassing the region, visiting with constituents at 600 events in the past five years.
Come Tuesday, election results will show which candidate is more in touch with engaged residents of 87 cities and towns in Western Massachusetts — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal or Springfield attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud — and most able to draw fellow Democrats to the polls for a September primary.
The two met for a second and final debate Thursday in the studios of WGBY-TV in Springfield, the public television station. Their half-hour exchange was moderated by Carrie Saldo, host of the station's "Connecting Point" program, and it aired at 8 p.m.
The winner of the primary goes on unopposed to the November general election. Neal, 69, is seeking a 16th two-year term. Amatul-Wadud, 44, has not held elective office.
From the first question, Amatul-Wadud tried to paint Neal as out of touch, after Saldo asked how they would serve people of backgrounds different from their own.
Neal, answering first, said growing up and working in politics taught him about diversity in "the mosaic we call the city of Springfield" and said a fundamental civic value is "unity without uniformity."
He acknowledged the need to help people living at the margins, but suggested that his background prepared him to serve, likening his time as Springfield's mayor to being "the conductor of a pretty big orchestra and you want to make sure that everybody gets to play an instrument."
Amatul-Wadud, after establishing that she comes to the contest as an African-American woman who is a practicing Muslim, questioned whether Neal has sought out the views of all, including voters who she believes seek "bold and progressive" policies.
"We have a large contingent of our lovely, beautiful district that feels like he hasn't embraced them," she said.
"I've been around this district. People know me," Neal countered.
During the course of the debate, Amatul-Wadud charged that Neal has come up short on issues important to people of the district, citing economic gaps and disparities in rural communities she encountered on the campaign trail.
"We need moral leadership that unites the district," she said. "We've given a microphone, if not a megaphone, to the needs of the folks in the rural district."
Neal peppered his responses with references to projects he helped secure funding for, at one point saying he is responsible for bringing hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the district in his 15 terms in office.
While Neal put the recently renovated Union Station in Springfield on that list, Amatul-Wadud charged that the congressman had exaggerated his role in the project and questioned how valuable the effort was for people in the district.
Neal expressed shock at the suggestion that the station makeover did not benefit the region and said Amatul-Wadud might be the first to criticize it.
"Union Station benefits everybody in the 1st Congressional District," he said — and even down into Connecticut.
Amatul-Wadud then took aim at whether Neal has the right to take credit for a project that Saldo noted had received $43.6 million in federal funding.
"I know that my opponent touts his work on Union Station as being important, and it is — anything that opens up access to transportation is important, especially to Western Massachusetts," Amatul-Wadud said.
"But it's simply not enough. And he takes too much credit, frankly, for Union Station," she said. "That work was built on the backs of and the shoulders of a number individuals, like Senator [Edward] Kennedy, who was relentless and tireless in looking out for the district. Just to be clear, this was a joint effort."
Neal was having none of it.
"There isn't anybody listening to this debate that wouldn't acknowledge the role that I played as the leader in the enhancement and rehabilitation of Union Station," he said. "What you just heard would not stand up under the magnifying glass of critical analysis."
The candidates disagreed about Neal's decision to vote against the 2014 farm bill, which he said was flawed because it came up short on funding for nutrition programs.
"I was simply not going to be part of it," he said. "I'm glad I voted against the farm bill."
When asked whether she would have voted against the measure, Amatul-Wadud said: "Probably not."
The candidates also split on whether Neal had done enough through his Democratic Party leadership seat on the Ways and Means Committee to aid Puerto Rico after it was hit by Hurricane Maria last year.
Neal said he was in close touch with the island's representatives in Congress and said repairs to the island's electrical grid were most important.
"We talk regularly about what needs to happen on the island of Puerto Rico," he said of its political leaders in Washington. "I helped to rebuild eight of the communities that were impacted by that storm."
Amatul-Wadud said that when it comes to rebuilding Puerto Rico, "the establishment has failed" and she chided Neal for not noting that the island is part of the United States.
She accused Neal of not doing enough for these American citizens.
"He has not properly used his capital this is an opportunity to change lives," she said.
When asked about campaign finance, the challenger sharpened her attack, saying Neal should stop accepting donations from the pharmaceutical industry because it leaves him "beholden" to special interests.
"You cannot legislate properly, putting the needs of the people first, when you are beholden to special interests," she said. "This is what I see consistently in looking at his voting record — what I've heard from the people. Why don't we have bold leadership? Why don't we have fresh leadership?"
When Neal responded, he moved to redefine the finance issue by referring to small donors. He thanked teachers, firefighters and trade unions for contributing to his campaign.
In her closing, Amatul-Wadud said she would push for a "Medicare-for-all" single-payer health insurance program and for lower drug costs. "I am the face of the future, and I look for your vote," she said.
Neal, going last, said that effective service as a lawmaker has a lot to do with showing up and casting votes. He ticked off what he termed achievements "big and small."
"That's a consideration," he said. "I've brought back hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to this district and it has created more economic opportunity that has given people a chance to aspire."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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