Berkshire County produces two challengers to Richard Neal in 1st District
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
The Democratic candidates in the 1st Congressional District are, from left, Bill Shein of Alford, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield and Andrea Nuciforo Jr. of Pittsfield.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield, a Democratic candidate in the 1st Congressional District, says:
Andrea Nuciforo Jr. of Pittsfield, a Democratic candidate in the 1st Congressional District, says:
Bill Shein of Alford, a Democratic candidate in the 1st Congressional District, says:
In a year when U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has set the tone for Democrats nationwide with her staunch opposition to Wall Street special interests and promise of reviving the middle class, it is not surprising that a pair of Democratic congressional hopefuls in Massachusetts are echoing her approach.
What is surprising is who they are targeting - a Democratic incumbent.
Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., a former state senator from Pittsfield, and Alford writer Bill Shein have sounded strikingly Warren-esque in their bids to defeat U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal of Springfield in the redrawn 1st Congressional District.
Just as Warren has attempted to tie incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown to Wall Street interests, so too have Nuciforo and Shein sought to link Neal's campaign contributions from corporate donors to votes in favor of deregulating the financial industry.
Such votes, they argue, have advanced corporate interests at the expense of middle-class families.
"Congressman Neal is one of the Democrats who raises almost all his money from corporate PACs, lobbyists, the corporate clients of lobbyists, a lot of the same Wall Street PACs that support Scott Brown," Shein said in an interview earlier this month at the Gazette.
Of the $1.2 million Neal has raised in the 2011-2012 election cycle, 72 percent has come from political action committees aligned with corporate, labor and other interests, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Nuciforo, who now serves as Middle Berkshire register of deeds, struck a similar tone in a separate August interview at the Gazette.
"I will advance an agenda in Washington that serves everyday people," Nuciforo said. "Congressman Neal, with all of his seniority, has demonstrated he is advancing a Wall Street agenda."
A 24-year veteran of the House, Neal has been aggressive in countering his opponents' claims, with Nuciforo, in particular, on the receiving end of much of his criticism.
"I find it interesting that you can have this advice from someone who was at the registry of deeds, who sought the same campaign contributions that everyone did," Neal said of Nuciforo.
Neal said that in 2002 he cast the decisive vote in the House for campaign finance reform. Better known by its name in the Senate, McCain-Feingold, the bill ultimately was signed into law.
"I have voted for every single campaign finance measure," Neal said during an interview at the Gazette this month.
The influx of money into national politics is not the fault of Congress, he said, but a result of a series of Supreme Court rulings, including the 2010 decision to ease restrictions on campaign contributions in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. The ruling extended First Amendment protections to corporations and unions, enabling them to spend more freely in elections.
Neal, Nuciforo and Shein are on the Democratic ballot for the Sept. 6 primary. Because there are no announced Republican or independent candidates, the primary winner will likely be the next congressman.
The state primary is the first election since the Legislature redrew congressional boundaries last year, changing the political geography of western Massachusetts.
Hampden County, which was previously divided between two districts, is united in the new 1st District and combined with all of Berkshire County, the western halves of Franklin and Hampshire counties and a sliver of southeastern Worcester County. Hampshire County communities in the 1st District are Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.
The changes proved favorable for Neal, 63, who now represents the 2nd Congressional District. As a longtime congressman and a former mayor of Springfield, he is well known in Hampden County, where 63 percent of the new district's population resides. Furthermore, 57 percent of constituents in the 2nd District will now be in the 1st District.
The rest of what will be the new 1st District is now represented by retiring U.S. Rep. John W. Olver of Amherst.
Challengers face obstacles
Political observers said the makeup of the new district presents difficulties for the challengers.
"At one time a candidate with a strong base in Berkshire County had a congressional district he or she could run strongly in. That district no longer exists," said Ralph Whitehead, a former political reporter who teaches about politics and the media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "It doesn't reflect poorly on either Mr. Shein or Mr. Nuciforo - the laws of geography and population work against them here."
Shein promises to continue Olver's "progressive tradition," a reference to the Amherst lawmaker's reputation as one of the most liberal members of Congress. Nuciforo has made a bid for the same voters, casting himself as the only progressive candidate in the race. Neal shuns the term, but said he has received Olver's endorsement.
Tim Carpenter of Northampton, the national director for Progressive Democrats of America, a liberal advocacy organization, said some members are volunteering for Shein. He said he knows of no one in the organization who is working for Nuciforo and expressed surprise that the former state senator has sought the progressive label.
"We only wish he had been as aggressive in the state Legislature as he is now," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said many members of Progressive Democrats of America believe they are having an impact on Neal's decisions, given that the congressman agreed to co-sponsor a single-payer health care bill, a constitutional amendment seeking to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and a proposal to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. "We feel like we are making real traction," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Progressive Democrats of America will not endorse a candidate in the primary contest.
Other observers said they doubt that Nuciforo or Shein can successfully tie Neal to Wall Street interests. One reason: Warren supports the incumbent.
"It is hard to make a connection in the present case, because Neal would say, 'I voted for Dodd-Frank, I voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, who am I indebted to here?'" said Tim Vercellotti, an associate professor of political science at Western New England University in Springfield, referring to two pieces of legislation aimed at increasing oversight of the financial industry.
Whitehead said Neal has made a career of championing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, positions likely to win him favor among Democratic voters.
"Congressman Neal has the kind of voting record that does not make him as easy a target as his opponents might wish," Whitehead said.
Nonetheless, Nuciforo, 48, and Shein, 45, are both targeting Neal.
A first-time office-seeker, Shein began his professional life with a brief stint at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee before changing paths and becoming a comedian. In recent years he has worked as an information technology consultant and has written a column for the Berkshire Eagle.
He said a decline in middle-class income, a rise in foreclosures and a lack of progress on climate change, among other issues, can be attributed to the influence of special interests that do not want progress on those fronts. Democrats, Shein said, are as guilty as Republicans in accepting money from such interests.
"We have a crisis in our democracy, our economy and our natural environment that are all related and are going largely unaddressed," he said. "It starts with what's happening in our democracy, with elections overrun by an awful lot of money from a very small segment of our society."
Nuciforo has sought to focus attention on the plight of former manufacturing hubs, such as his hometown of Pittsfield.
"When I finished high school there were almost 10,000 people working at GE (in) Pittsfield or some affiliated companies," Nuciforo said. "Over the last 25 years or so this country has allowed the erosion of its manufacturing sector. ... That didn't have to happen. That was specifically the result of policy choices made in Washington, on everything from trade to labor to tax."
Neal bristles at suggestions that he has not supported Main Street and urges voters to consider his entire record, including his support for the savings and loan bailout in the late 1980s. He said Congress needs to do more to help expand oversight of risky trading ventures.
"I think we should be addressing the issue of proprietary trading. That is a critical issue," Neal said.
Matt Barron, an unaligned Democratic political consultant who lives in Chesterfield, said there is an opening for the two challengers because the Sept. 6 primary falls on a Thursday, a nontraditional voting day. Furthermore, there is no race for U.S. Senate or governor to bring voters to the polls, he said.
"Turnout is the real wild card. It's probably a struggle to hit 10, 15 or 20 percent - 20 percent would be high," Barron said. "Neal can have all these advantages of endorsements, money, whatever, but if they don't turn out to vote, what's it matter?"
Barron said Nuciforo will have a difficult time capitalizing on that, however, in the wake of charges that his campaign plagiarized policy platforms from fellow Democrats. News stories about the alleged plagiarism may have been the way many voters first learned of Nuciforo, he said.
"That is crippling. I don't know how you come back from that," Barron said.
Vercellotti agreed that low turnouts can produce surprise results. However, he said such an outcome seems unlikely in this race. "My impression is that Shein and Nuciforo haven't gained a lot of traction," Vercellotti said last week. "We're now entering into the (presidential) conventions, when all the focus in the political world will first be on Tampa and then Charlotte, going right up to the primary. Throw in the last holiday weekend of the summer and there is not a lot of time for people to make a splash if they haven't done so already."