Our Opinion: Neal, Morse trade barbs from across Dems' ideological spectrum

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As a heated race enters the final stretch, the two candidates vying to represent the 1st Massachusetts District in the U.S. House of Representatives had a chance Monday to make their respective cases face to face. In a campaign defined and confined by the coronavirus crisis, it was the Democratic hopefuls' first debate only weeks out from the Sept. 1 primary — and neither pulled any punches.

In one corner is incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, a powerful member of the Massachusetts delegation running on his decadeslong record representing Western Massachusetts that has led him to the chairman's seat of both the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Joint Committee on Taxation. In the other corner is Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, a challenger from Rep. Neal's left flank with a full-throated critique of the congressman's moderate tack, which Mayor Morse claims is negatively influenced by corporate and special interest donors.

The candidates came prepared Monday night with withering criticism for each other's record, and both seemed to think the best defense is a good offense. Rep. Neal touted his seniority and experience as a proven boon to Western Massachusetts. Mayor Morse, however, continued his campaign's line of attack on the congressman's record as emblematic of being "bought and paid for by big corporations," frequently alluding to Rep. Neal's distinction in the House as the top receiver of corporate PAC money, and tying this to legislative moves — namely killing bills that would prevent surprise medical billing and allow free tax preparation and filing for low-income households.

The incumbent defended himself, pointing to his record of bringing federal dollars to the district as well as using his war chest to help solidify a "durable majority" of Democrats in the House. But the real riposte was turning the spotlight onto Mayor Morse's tenure in Holyoke, repeatedly accusing him of being a no-show at the city's School Committee and Pioneer Valley Transit Authority meetings. Rep. Neal sought to paint Mayor Morse as running for a promotion while neglecting his current job, chastising him that "if you were a real progressive, you would have cared about those children in the Holyoke public schools."

The stark differences offered by the dueling campaigns were only thrown into sharper relief during this first faceoff. While the candidates' scathing critiques of each other were often substantive, they sometimes veered into the unproductive. Both candidates, for instance, sidestepped a crucial question about increasing broadband access in the rural parts of the district ahead of a school year likely to rely heavily on remote learning, preferring to joust over unrelated tenets of the already passed CARES Act. Rep. Neal leaned heavily and repeatedly on dinging Mayor Morse's Holyoke School Committee attendance, sometimes to the point of departing from the subject of the question at hand. Mayor Morse dodged a question about funding for "Medicare for All" legislation, instead opting to repeat a jab at the congressman's financial backing from the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

This is a big race for Western Massachusetts, but it also refracts beyond as a window into the internal tug of war for the spirit of the Democratic Party between its progressive and moderate wings. Indeed, the contest does feature shades of the left-insurgent-vs.-party-establishment contests that began to emerge in Democratic primaries in the last midterm elections. Rep. Neal is certainly a more formidable incumbent than the ones felled in 2018, but it's also clear that, in Mayor Morse, the congressman faces a challenger who is making him sweat more than any primary opponent in recent memory.

Across all the issues raised in the debate, a prevailing theme was one that has come to essentially define the increasingly bitter contest: political power and the responsibility of wielding it. Rep. Neal touts his seniority — and defends his ample fundraising — as the backbone of a strong voice for Western Massachusetts and within the Democratic House majority more broadly. Mayor Morse acknowledges the congressman's power, but calls into question whether that power is being fully brought to bear for the constituents of the 1st District.

The voters will have their say on that question Sept. 1.

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