Though progressives stir, Neal's hold firm on Democratic center

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U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal fended off his last Democratic primary challenger and faced no opponent in November. But voters can turn against incumbents.

They did that last year by picking Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York's 14th Congressional District over two long-serving representatives.

"None of us are immune to a primary or general election," Neal said, when asked if he felt safe from a challenge, particularly after ascending to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee after 30 years in Congress. "I took that campaign seriously," he said of his primary rival, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who he beat by a 71-29 margin. "Oh yeah. And contrary to what some did, I got out there."

Neal's name recognition, personal determination and ability to raise money — 24 times more than his last challenger — are probably enough to keep him in office as long as he likes, observers say.

On top of that, when Massachusetts lost a congressional seat after the 2010 Census, the new district maps gave Neal territory that should be easier to defend from progressive primary challengers, since it lopped off Northampton and heightened the importance of the incumbent's home city of Springfield.

When asked to define his political DNA, Neal recently answered: "Look, I'm Springfield."

Neal has also just arrived in a position of power he's sought for years. "For me this is a pinnacle of a career achievement," Neal told reporters the day after Democrats retook the House. "It's been a steep climb." He didn't get here to bow out early.

But another challenge can come, particularly from someone eager to get his or her name in front of voters ahead of an inevitable pig pile of candidates once Neal, who just turned 70, opts to leave office.

Groups around the district that stand to Neal's left on issues like Medicare for All, and who backed Amatul-Wadud, recently linked up. Through the new CD-1 Progressive Coalition, they hope to find new muscle.

Drew Herzig, of Pittsfield, said his city's Indivisible chapter voted to join the coalition to increase the throw weight of smaller political groups. "It's difficult out here geographically to put real pressure on our elected officials," Herzig said. "We have to consolidate our efforts." He says he backed Neal's 2018 challenger hoping to see Democrats move to the left.

"I would think he's even more vulnerable unless he gets with the program," Herzig said of Neal.

Time will tell whether Democrats in the 1st Congressional District will move left with the national party.

David Greenberg, a member of the new coalition, said he's not sure how vulnerable Neal is at this point. The prospect of seeing a Massachusetts representative in the big chair at Ways and Means was a selling point for Neal last time. Now, that supposed advantage to the district could flip on him, if a future challenger makes a compelling case that Neal didn't deliver on his new power, says Greenberg, a member of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution.

"That's the argument someone can make," Greenberg said.

For now, the coalition aims to keep a focus on what Neal is getting done. "To make it easier to know what he's doing or not doing. There will be a lot of people watching," Greenberg said.

On the last Friday in February, the coalition held a "Town Hall for Constituents of Richard Neal." Organizers say they worked for weeks to persuade Neal to attend, but were resolved to meet without him. A spokeswoman for Neal's office said the invitation came too late to be accepted; that same week, Neal was home in his district and did not have public appearances scheduled.

Despite the event's bland title, Neal would have faced sharp questioning, including about his accessibility to constituents.

Penny Schultz, a member of the Indivisible chapter from Williamsburg, says she once tried unsuccessfully to set up a town hall-style meeting with Neal. "We knew he was really not up for town halls. It is our right as constituents to ask for access. And it's his duty to provide it," Schultz said. "He's a frustrating person to get straight answers from. He's a busy man. That's always the rap I would get."

She persisted in an effort to set up an appearance by Neal but in the end felt his staff's message was this: Don't call us, we'll call you. "I felt my face just beet up and felt scolded like a teenager," she said.

Schultz worked on Amatul-Wadud's campaign, wanting a representative in Congress more liberal than Neal. She came away from her candidate's primary loss feeling it will be hard to topple the incumbent. "I don't know that he is vulnerable, because he has so much money and he's more powerfully entrenched than ever."

Neal's office defends his visibility in the district, producing a list of 600 public appearances over five years. Neal says the question of his availability to constituents was "manufactured" by opponents who managed to get their beef picked up by the local media. But the question hangs on.

Looking back

Amatul-Wadud says she plans to run for office again, but it may not be the next election cycle, and perhaps not even for Neal's seat.

Though she's proud of having connected with voters in historically low-turnout areas, Amatul-Wadud, who is black and a Muslim, found the campaign uphill walking for someone without money or ties to a political dynasty.

"It's remarkably difficult. You almost have to be campaigning for two years," she said in her modest law office on the third floor of an old block in Chicopee. "The key to activating Springfield is lots of time and lots of love, giving people representation they can relate to. I know that I personally inspired those families in low-turnout communities."

She marvels at how much Neal raised and spent in the last election cycle. Between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, Neal raised $3.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. He spent $3.2 million.

"That's a lot of money to beat a girl with no name recognition," Amatul-Wadud said.

Some voters told Amatul-Wadud that they felt a need to stick with Neal because of what his leadership of Ways and Means could do for the district. She agrees with Greenberg that, down the road, Neal's new status could be used to probe what the chairmanship has accomplished locally.

"I think with his new national visibility and platform, he's vulnerable to national criticism and national accountability in a way that he really wasn't exposed to before," Amatul-Wadud said. "And that's a huge factor. I think that will also awaken people to the fact that he has this issue with his constituents, of them always accusing him of being absentee and not visible. That's going to be a double-edged sword for him."

Amatul-Wadud struggled to amass a campaign fund of $145,183. "Trying to raise that money was very, very hard," she said.

It isn't as hard for Neal; he ended the cycle with $3.3 million in cash on hand.

Of the $3.5 million he raised, $2.6 million flowed from political action committees. By industry, the leading donors were the insurance [$379,150], pharmaceutical and health products [$281,250], health professionals [$262,657] and securities [$215,500] sectors. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., based in Neal's district, gave $36,550, according to filings accessed through opensecrets.org.

As the magazine Sludge pointed out in a January article, Neal took money from companies he has criticized as inveterate tax-avoiders.

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When asked about those donations, which include gifts from two companies known to shelter profits offshore, the General Electric Co. and Caterpillar, Neal did not acknowledge any conflict.

He said GE's gift followed the shift of its headquarters to Boston. "You report the contributions. The public decides," he said.

Privately, Neal once told a Western Massachusetts mayor that when it comes to PAC money, the "toothpaste is out of the tube" and he wasn't going to be left behind.

Herzig, the member of Indivisible Pittsfield, said donations to Neal from the pharmaceutical industry trouble him. "That makes us very suspicious of his being impartial on this issue."

Matt Barron of Chesterfield, a political consultant who worked for Amatul-Wadud, says political donations likely influenced Neal's position on moves in the last years of the Obama administration to root out conflicts of interest in the investment advice industry that costs everyday Americans billions of dollars a year.

Neal told The Boston Globe in 2016 that he viewed a Department of Labor rule that targeted the issue as "cumbersome and overly complicated." He told the newspaper that donations he received from MassMutual had "no bearing" on legislation he files, though a consumer activist told The Globe that Neal's bill would allow investment advisers to continue to profit in ways that run counter to their clients' best interests.

After the Trump administration in 2017 blocked implementation of new consumer safeguards, Neal said the delay hurt consumers. In a Feb. 3, 2017, statement, Neal said the rule shaped by the Obama administration "ensures financial advisers act in their clients' best interests and provide conflict-free advice, looking out for middle-class families as they save for retirement."

Aside from that issue, Neal scores high on the kinds of lawmaker ratings that matter to centrist Democrats — 90 percent approval from Americans for Democratic Action, 92 percent lifetime from the League of Conservation Voters, 94 percent from the AFL-CIO, 100 percent from the National Education Association, 99 percent from the Alliance for Retired Americans.

Conservatives see Neal as solidly in the liberal camp. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 6.75 out of 100. He gets an "F" from a top gun owners' group, a 17 percent rating from the John Birch Society and a 5 percent lifetime rating from the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity.

Because of his acceptance of PAC money, Neal comes in with tepid ratings from Common Cause [44 percent] and Public Citizen [44 percent lifetime]. Pro-business groups like the Chamber of Commerce give him a bit more credit, with a recent rating of 61 percent approval.

Power of incumbency

People who know the district say it would take a mighty big crowbar to dislodge Neal.

Matt Szafranski, founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight, isn't expecting him to be toppled.

"Neal has built up a lot of goodwill, at least in the Springfield area. This still is an area where incumbency matters a lot," Szafranski said.

Though pockets of political resistance exist, there's a reason why Neal has so often gone unchallenged by either party. "He uses that Rolodex that he's developed to get things that help the district," Szafranski said.

The day after convening his first full Ways and Means hearing, Neal announced a $13 million contract to a General Dynamics division in Pittsfield. The Pentagon money extends a contract by the plant to make fire-suppression systems for a new generation of submarines.

And the next day, Neal stopped by Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee with even more money for the district, a $42.6 million infusion from the Defense Department to build a new aircraft maintenance hangar.

Szafranski questions whether the political views expressed by members of the new CD-1 Progressive Coalition will find purchase. "They just don't motivate people [in this district] as they tend to do elsewhere," he said. "What are you really pitching to these meat-and-potatoes Democrats other than purity? It's just not the way voting has worked in this area."

To beat Neal in Springfield, a primary challenger must understand that city's needs, problems and politics. "And put them into terms voters actually think about," Szafranski said. "Neal's built up a lot of goodwill, at least in the greater Springfield area."

While he doubts Neal is vulnerable, someone could make it closer than Amatul-Wadud did in 2018, and that might raise eyebrows. "Can someone get a high enough number against him that it looks bad in Washington?"

John S. Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, said recent renovations to Union Station in Springfield, the fruit of years of work by Neal and others, stand as a kind of monument to how this politician operates.

By that he means: Neal just keeps showing up. "Richard Neal has done his homework and has done his constituent services," Baick said. "He's certainly a politician, there's no getting around that."

To get the old rail station redone, Neal wrangled money from a variety of pots, working the legislative alchemy of obscure funding sources.

"They're boring, they're complicated, but they're impactful in the long run," Baick said of such maneuvers.

Because Neal doesn't pine for media attention, Baick thinks he might never get the kind of national recognition accorded past leaders of Ways and Means. But by pushing unsexy things like expanded access to retirement accounts, he believes Neal is in a position to live up to his New Deal Democrat claims by improving the economic outlook for working people.

And after redistricting went into effect in 2012, Springfield meant more than ever to Neal.

"In a way, he's returned to his roots," Baick said.

The most recent primary gave Neal yet another chance to define himself locally. He spoke of the importance of helping "the American family" and touted the millions in federal dollars he'd brought back to the district. He called himself a friend of labor and often name-checked Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died in office four years before Neal was born.

Eugene Dellea of West Stockbridge, an influential old-school Democrat, said that while a "small group" of progressives is nipping at Neal, a challenger from within the party would have to beat him in the heart of his home base.

"It's greater Springfield where any strength for a candidate would be," Dellea said. That wasn't the case before redistricting, he points out, when Pittsfield and Holyoke were decisive.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle journeyed to Washington for Neal's January swearing-in as chairman of Ways and Means. Though a progressive, LaChapelle endorsed Neal in last year's primary.

LaChapelle sees Neal as a fighter who doesn't let people get under his skin. She thinks Neal's new power will pay dividends for the district, further cementing his utility to people back home. "He'll hold the fort — and that makes him more valuable in Washington. I just don't see him as vulnerable. I want to see more women in Congress, but, shoot.

"He's a pretty down-to-earth, gritty guy who's not going to lose," said LaChapelle. "Richard Neal is a marathon runner."

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


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