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Hilltown group uses ‘missing person’ ad to needle Rep. Neal

  • U.S. REP. RICHARD NEAL, D-Springfield

  • This paid political ad ran in the Weekend edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.



@amandadrane
Monday, June 12, 2017

WILLIAMSBURG — Dissatisfied constituents of Congressman Richard Neal have taken their core grievance to a new level: They’ve issued a missing persons bulletin.

A tongue-in-cheek newspaper advertisement that ran in the Weekend Gazette featured a large photo of Neal and asked: “Has anyone seen this man? (yes, he’s your congressman).”

Those behind the ad wrote that five years have passed without meaningful dialogue between Neal and his Hilltown voters.

“All we’re saying is this: Come to Williamsburg to meet the voters in a Town Hall and let’s have a conversation about issues that are important to rural voters,” the ad states.

Dan Lederer, an organizer with Indivisible Williamsburg — which paid for most of the ad using $655 raised online — said the ad is meant to draw attention to the fact that “this guy just does not show up.” Still, he said, the group acknowledges the congressman has indeed set foot in the Hilltowns in the past five years.

“He appears at the photo ops, but he’s in and out,” Lederer said. “In terms of town hall connectivity? Zero. Nothing.”

Neal spokesman William Tranghese said in a statement the congressman works hard to make himself present in the communities he serves. Neal, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, serves the state’s 1st Congressional District.

“With 87 cities and towns in five counties, the district is the largest geographically in the state of Massachusetts. He has been to every region of the district, and nearly every community, hosting and attending events. Congressman Neal returns home from Washington nearly every weekend where he keeps an active public schedule,” Tranghese wrote.

The statement added that Neal has held nearly 50 public events in western and central Massachusetts since January.

“Congressman Neal has always welcomed the views of his constituents, and he will continue to be a strong and accessible voice for their concerns both at home and in Washington, D.C.,” Tranghese wrote in the statement.

Neal recently fielded a question from Boston Globe reporter Josh Miller on the neglect that some of his constituents feel in rural towns.

Neal responded to the question in a televised segment, explaining that Hampden County has the population centers accounting for “nearly 67 percent of the population” in his district, compared to 7 percent in western Hampshire County and 2 percent in Franklin County.

“In Springfield, people love him because he shows up there,” Lederer said of the segment. “For him we’re just flies on his lunch. We’re annoying but really of no consequence.”

Lederer said the group of about 35 Williamsburg organizers got to work on the issue of their “missing-in-action” congressman in February. He said the November election made clear that politicians need to pay closer attention to rural America.

The paid ad is also not the first time Neal has come under fire over time spent with constituents in his district. Last year, his visits to the rural areas he serves was the subject of news reports, detailing frustration among some of his constituents in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“The Democratic Party takes us for granted,” Lederer said of himself and his fellow rural Democrats. “(Neal) is being caught in the groundswell of anti-Trump sentiment.”

Lederer said Indivisible Williamsburg started calling on Neal for a Hilltown visit. He said weeks went by, then months. Lederer said the most they got was an invitation to attend a meeting he was holding about health care at Elms College in Chicopee.

Matt L. Barron remembers taking a call from Neal in January 2011, when his district shifted to absorb rural towns in Hampshire County. Barron, who was then the chairman of the Chesterfield Democratic Town Committee, said Neal promised that constituents would get “the same rural representation you got with John Olver,” who was retiring. But he said Neal has not made good on that promise.

“I get it. The population center is in Hampden County. But his voters here have issues that are not urban,” Barron said. “There are a lot of things people want to talk to this guy about. The last time I checked, a vote in Chesterfield is worth the same as a vote in Chicopee.”

Those interviewed named broadband as the leading issue they’d like to speak with Neal about, along with lack of medical services and school busing issues.

“He never shows up out here,” said Jim Drawe, who represents Cummington on the Hampshire Council of Governments and served for 25 years on the town’s Select Board. “He hasn’t contributed to anything that I’m aware of in the Hilltowns.”

Barron said that, as a political consultant, he understands politicians must focus their energies on their population bases, which is why he says he’s not asking for regular visits. He said a Town Hall every once in a long while would go a long way.

Barron said this issue is nothing new — he argues it’s a recurring problem — and the public fuss will soon dissipate.

“This, too, shall pass and everybody goes back to doing what they were doing,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I think Congress has a very low approval rating.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.