1st Congressional District: Neal, Amatul-Wadud spar in first televised debate

  • The two candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District — incumbent Richard Neal, left, and challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, right — take part in the first of two debates on Wednesday. Moderator Rich Tettemer sits between them. SCREENSHOT/WWLP

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2018 2:49:08 PM

CHICOPEE — It was short-lived, but for 30 minutes on Wednesday voters finally got a chance to see a debate between the Democratic candidates in a race that has drawn national attention.

With less than two weeks to go before primary elections, the candidates in the 1st Congressional District — longtime incumbent Richard Neal and challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, both of Springfield — squared off in the first of two debates, sparring on issues such as health care, defense spending, higher education and gun control. The debate was hosted by WWLP’s Rich Tettemer, and featured a speedy question-and-answer format that left little time for back-and-forth rebuttals.

In her opening remarks, Amatul-Wadud said she’s excited to be running the race on issues, and criticized Neal for “an absence of moral leadership.” Neal referred to his nearly 30-year record in office, saying he strives to protect programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Priorities

Tettemer’s first question was what each candidate’s first priority would be if Democrats take back Congress in November.

Neal responded by saying he would work to support and defend the Affordable Care Act, Social Security and Medicare, and to expand Medicaid. He noted that he is in a top position on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which will help him accomplish that work.

“If we win the majority, that would put me in a key position for that purpose,” Neal said.

Amatul-Wadud said she is deeply concerned with making sure constituents would have solid health care options, controlling the price of pharmaceuticals and ensuring access to high-speed internet in the district. She said to address those issues, she would co-sponsor a Medicare for All bill that would provide universal health care, and criticized Neal for not backing Medicare for All.

“That’s just the wrong fight at this point,” Amatul-Wadud said of Neal’s focus on the Affordable Care Act. She said Congress needs to back a policy like Medicare for All.

“I am not opposed to Medicare for All,” Neal said later. But in the current climate, he added, his focus is on protecting the Affordable Care Act.

The moderator drilled down on the question of Medicare for All in the next question, asking how Amatul-Wadud would pay for it.

“There are a number of ways we can pay for it,” Amatul-Wadud responded, mentioning that she would try to bring back more than $2 trillion in money that companies have stored offshore to avoid taxes. “We would give the defense bill a little bit of a haircut. It’s a bloated budget — my opponent voted for it.”

Neal mentioned the opportunity that defense funding gives to the thousands of people who work at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. That spending provides commercial opportunities, he said.

“It’s a huge part of the economic structure of western Massachusetts,” Neal said.

Although he voted for the most recent defense spending legislation — a $716 billion bill — Neal said he has opposed previous budgets when he felt they were bloated, and mentioned the $43 million for construction at Westover that was included in that spending plan.

“My highest priority is keeping our national security at the highest level,” Amatul-Wadud said, adding that she has many loved ones in the armed forces. “I would make sure they have everything they need.”

Amatul-Wadud said she was concerned about the role large defense contractors have played as campaign donors to Neal, and also said there has been “no moral leadership” on the issue of water contaminated with the dangerous chemicals PFOA and PFOS in Westfield as a result of firefighting foam used at Barnes.

Addiction, student debt

Tettemer asked how both candidates would address the opioid epidemic.

“For me this is real and close to home,” Amatul-Wadud said, mentioning that she has had friends, neighbors and clients suffer from addiction and overdoses. She added that it is important to address what she described as the “deep disparity” in access to treatment that exists between poor people and people of color in comparison to those with resources.

Neal referred back to his record, saying he was discussing the issue of addiction five years ago in Holyoke and has worked on bills to tackle the issue in the most recent Congress.

“More beds, treating it as a mental health disease and getting people back on their feet,” he said of his policies.

On the issue of student debt and what Congress can do to reduce what has become a major concern for American families, the candidates offered a number of different solutions.

Neal said there should be more emphasis on vocational education, apprenticeships and making community college debt-free. He referred to his record bringing money back to colleges and universities, and mentioned some debt forgiveness — like for those in medical school — as an option. On the question of free college tuition for all, however, he said he was opposed.

“I have not been convinced yet that very wealthy people should have free college,” Neal said.

Amatul-Wadud said that at 44 she still has student debt, and understands generational debt firsthand.

“It’s very, very real and it disproportionately affects poor families and families of color,” she said, suggesting loan forgiveness and interest-free government loans as policies she supports. The government shouldn’t be able to profit off the backs of poor and working-class Americans, she added.

Both candidates said they support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, though on that question they quibbled over how the district should be defined in economic terms. Neal referred to the district’s economy as better than average in a nationwide context, but Amatul-Wadud said that was deflecting, referring to her argument that the district is the poorest in the state.

Guns, immigration

Gun control was another issue that the candidates sparred over.

“My position has been consistent,” Neal said. “Reasonable gun control measures, I think, could have gone a long way to prevent what has happened in Parkland, Sandy Hook and Colorado.”

Neal said he voted in favor of an assault weapons ban, supported the 1994 federal crime bill, and said that Amatul-Wadud had been “wobbly” on the issue of gun control at a recent event in Pittsfield, though he did not elaborate.

Amatul-Wadud hit back at that comment, saying that she hasn’t been wobbly.

“I’ve proposed raising the age limit, I’ve proposed increasing background checks,” she said.

She added that she supports lifting a restriction that would allow the Centers for Disease Control to research guns from a public health standpoint. “I’ve not heard my opponent discuss that.”

Both candidates agreed that immigration reform was needed, with Amatul-Wadud coming out in support of a “clean DREAM Act” and Neal agreeing with former President Barack Obama that immigrants should “register and get in line.”

Tettemer asked the candidates about the fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and whether they believe too many people are put behind bars.

Neal and Amatul-Wadud agreed that too many people are incarcerated. Neal said sentencing guidelines should be redone, and that jail is not the best way to treat drug, alcohol and mental health problems. Amatul-Wadud said she was in favor of legalizing marijuana, addressing mandatory-minimum sentencing and eliminating cash bail.

Both candidates contended that they would be able to work across the aisle with President Donald Trump on initiatives that would benefit the district.

To close, Neal came back to his defense of Social Security and Medicare, saying that he has worked together with the working families in the district to accomplish big projects during his time in office.

For her closing, Amatul-Wadud again returned to the issue of Medicare for All and lowering pharmaceutical costs, and said she would have no divided loyalty between funders and the community she hopes to serve.

The second debate will take place Thursday, Aug. 30, at 8 p.m. on WGBY, the only station available to all households in the district. The primary election is on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

The 1st Congressional District includes all of Berkshire County and parts of Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, including the Hampshire County communities of Easthampton, South Hadley, Southampton, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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