Editorial: Stark contrast in 1st Congressional District

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud and Richard Neal GAZETTE FILE PHOTOS

Published: 8/30/2018 8:53:28 PM

Voters in the 1st Congressional District are presented with a stark choice in Tuesday’s Democratic primary: longtime incumbent Richard Neal or progressive newcomer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, both of Springfield.

This is the first primary election challenge for Neal since 2012, when he defeated former state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo Jr. and writer Bill Shein. Neal, 69, has been in Congress since 1989, first representing the 2nd District, and, after redistricting, the 1st District for his last three terms.

The sprawling district consists of 87 communities in five counties, including Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

Neal is the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law. If Democrats retake the House this year, Neal would likely become chairman of that committee and wield considerable influence.

Amatul-Wadud, 44, is a refreshing new voice, who describes herself as a progressive and champion of the disadvantaged, as evidenced by her years of legal work on behalf of civil rights. She received national attention during 2015 as the result of her involvement in a federal civil case representing a Muslim community in upstate New York that was targeted by a Tennessee man who plotted to bomb its mosque.

Neal said he is focused on protecting entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Amatul-Wadud has made campaign finance an issue by refusing donations from corporations and political action committees, and raising questions about the potential impact on Neal of campaign contributions from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Neal and Amatul-Wadud differ on a number of issues. On health care financing, Neal, who helped write the Affordable Care Act, advocates an incremental approach to restoring the individual mandate for insurance removed by Republicans earlier this year and working toward allowing a public option.

Amatul-Wadud favors a single-payer system and pledged to join the 123 Democratic House members who have co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation. She has said the system could be paid for in part by eliminating tax shelters for corporations and wealthy people, and by cutting bloated military spending while still keeping the troops and America safe.

On affordable education, Amatul-Wadud points out that student loan debt disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, and advocates for interest-free government loans for college.

Neal believes that loan-forgiveness and debt relief to certain people make sense, and emphasizes that vocational programs are an important alternative for higher education.

Amatul-Wadud, a black, Muslim woman, would represent a welcome change from the overwhelmingly white, male politicians that Massachusetts traditionally elects to the House. At the same time, she does not have the legislative experience and seniority that give Neal clout in Congress and strengthen his ability to secure federal money for the district.

In recent years, Neal has been criticized for being absent as a congressman and out of touch with the voters in his district’s rural communities. Members of a political group called Indivisible Williamsburg paid for an advertisement in the Daily Hampshire Gazette last year showing a photo of Neal with the words: “Missing. Has anyone seen this man?”

In response to the criticism, Neal said that during the past two years he has held town hall meetings in Chicopee and Pittsfield, as well as three “tele-town hall” events allowing voters to ask questions. However, that is a small number when compared with western Massachusetts’ other congressman, James McGovern, of Worcester, who is generally more visible in communities throughout his 2nd District.

The winner of the Sept. 4 Democratic primary is likely to represent the 1st District for the next two years, as there is no declared opposition in the Nov. 6 general election. We urge the winner to hold regular events in the district to respond to questions and listen to constituents.

Voters should carefully consider the positions taken by Neal and Amatul-Wadud, and weigh their strengths and weaknesses, before making a decision Tuesday.


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