Neal, Amatul-Wadud spar in final debate

  • The control room at WGBY Public Televison while taping a debate between Rep. Richard Neal and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud. COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, left, and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud. COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud appears in a debate with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on WGBY television in Springfield, Thursday. COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

  • Supporters of congressional candidates Tahirah Amatul-Wadud and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal congregate outside the WGBY television studios in Springfield, Thursday. Below, Neal and Amatul-Wadud debate at the WGBY studios. PHOTOS COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal debate on WGBY television in Springfield, Thursday. COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal speaks with reporters after a debate with Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, in background, on WGBY television in Springfield, Thursday. COURTESY WGBY PUBLIC TELEVISION

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2018 9:59:28 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Chanting supporters packed the streets around WGBY’s studios on Thursday, their campaign signs held high ahead of a debate between the two candidates running in a closely watched race for U.S. Congress.

“Two, four, six, eight, Tahirah is our candidate!” cheered supporters of Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a political newcomer mounting a challenge against 30-year incumbent Richard Neal. “Who’s the real deal? Neal!” his supporters answered back.

WGBY broadcast the debate, which was the second and final one before voters decide Tuesday who gets the Democratic nomination — and with no Republican on the ballot, who will represent the 1st Congressional District. The district includes the Hampshire County communities of Easthampton, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

Unlike the first debate on WWLP last week, the format on Thursday allowed for rebuttals, which meant more back-and-forth between the candidates but less ground covered in the 30-minute debate.

Carrie Saldo, the host of the show Connecting Point, moderated the debate, and began by asking the candidates how their identities influence their policymaking, and how they reach out to and understand those with different identities.

“Springfield for as long as I remember has been marked by diversity,” Neal began, remarking on growing up in the city. “You had an opportunity all the time to interact with people who are different than you.”

Neal said that experience of pluralism — “unity without uniformity” — defined his approach, mentioning his time as mayor of Springfield decades ago as an example.

“Identity is a wonderful opportunity to connect with folks on a universal level,” Amatul-Wadud said, mentioning her own identity as an African-American woman who grew up as a Muslim in Springfield. “I have served our community, recognizing there is a universality to what people want in western Massachusetts.”

Amatul-Wadud went on to criticize Neal, who she said hadn’t embraced the whole district, like those in rural areas.

Rural concerns

Rural communities were next to be discussed, with Saldo asking how urban projects benefit people in rural districts.

“We have to be intentional about including them,” Amatul-Wadud said, noting that she has put 50,000 miles on her car during eight months of campaigning in a district with 87 cities and towns. “We need moral leadership that unites the district.”

Bringing high-speed internet to rural communities, and access to health care to district residents, were the projects Amatul-Wadud mentioned in particular.

Neal began by hitting back at the notion that he hasn’t been present in the district, saying that he has attended 600 events during the last five years. He then mentioned his role in successfully pushing for renovations and increased rail service at Springfield’s Union Station.

“Broadband access in the 1st Congressional District reaches 95 percent of the population,” he said in response to Amatul-Wadud.

Amatul-Wadud responded that Neal overstated his role in the work at Union Station — a claim he categorically rejected.

Looking out for farmers

Saldo followed with a question about the legislation known as the Farm Bill, and how it can help farmers make a living while providing access to quality food for families in the district.

Neal immediately took up a talking point of Amatul-Wadud’s, who he said had criticized him for voting against the 2018 Farm Bill. Neal said he opposed the fact that the bill would have slashed funding to nutritional programs for low-income residents, and didn’t address rural development needs. He said he was “baffled” that someone would criticize his vote.

“I understand the politics, I understand the optics,” he said, but added that the criticism didn’t stand up to the facts.

Amatul-Wadud responded that she was referring to a vote on the 2014 Farm Bill.

“My criticism is around whatever vote is taken must be weighed in consideration to the entire district,” she said, adding that inner-city children who are so close to farms should also benefit from the region’s food. “We need leadership here on the ground looking to fill the gaps that exist in any type of legislation.”

“I’m glad I voted against the Farm Bill,” Neal reiterated about his recent vote, saying it did not aid the district’s urban communities. Amatul-Wadud responded that she would want funding for broadband internet included to help farmers with their businesses.

Internet access

High-speed internet access was again discussed during the next question, which was about infrastructure in the district. Amatul-Wadud came back to Neal’s claim that 95 percent of the district has high-speed internet, saying that even if that number is true, 5 percent without high-speed internet is too high for a vital tool that families need.

Amatul-Wadud also criticized Neal for taking donations from corporations, saying “he is beholden to them, and this is why he will not challenge them by holding their feet to the fire.”

Neal, answering the corporate cash criticism, directed attention instead to the money he has received from labor unions, which he said are made up of the workers who will build transportation projects.

“They’re supporting me, and I’m delighted to have their contributions,” he said.

Neal pointed to the district’s highways, bridges and airports, and the funding he has brought in during his career for that infrastructure. He mentioned a study of east-west rail service across the state, saying he had a hand in convincing Gov. Charlie Baker to approve that study, and again brought up his role in the Union Station renovations and the large federal investment in that project.

Amatul-Wadud responded that she had concerns about Union Station potentially raising transportation costs in the city, to which Neal said that Amatul-Wadud “is the first person I’ve heard criticize Union Station.”

The next question concerned federal aid to Puerto Rican evacuees living in the commonwealth after the devastating Hurricane Maria. Neal touted his relationships with prominent politicians in the U.S. territory, and said fixing the island’s electrical grid was the top priority.

“I’m on their schedule to talk about these very issues,” he said, referencing a recent visit from Puerto Rico’s governor.

Amatul-Wadud said Neal had not done enough to hold the federal government accountable to the Puerto Rican people, beginning her statement by saying, “Congressman, Puerto Rico is America.”

“The establishment has failed,” she said of federal efforts to aid the territory.

Campaign finance

The conversation again turned to campaign finance to end the debate, with Saldo referencing the two campaigns’ different philosophies. Amatul-Wadud has refused to take money from political action committees and corporations, relying instead on individual donors. Neal’s campaign, meanwhile, has around $3 million more on hand than Amatul-Wadud’s campaign, and has accepted donations from large corporations and PACs.

“You cannot legislate properly, putting the needs of the people first, when you are beholden to special interests,” Amatul-Wadud said, adding that she believes Neal is employed to maintain the status quo.

Neal, in turn, drew attention to the donations he has received from PACs associated with unions and groups like firefighters, as well as those associated with the life-sciences industry, which he said is a growth industry in the state.

“Today those industries employ 70,000 people in Massachusetts,” Neal said of the life sciences. “That’s important.”

To close, the candidates summed up their campaigns, both playing to their strengths.

“I promise you that I will have no divided loyalty between your interests and funders,” Amatul-Wadud said to the district’s voters. “I am the face of your future, and I look forward to your vote on Sept. 4.”

“This career has been marked by a lot of achievements, big and small,” Neal said, mentioning his work on everything from Union Station to Westover Air Base. “I’ve brought back hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to this district.”

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


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