Editorial: Rep. Neal should lift low profile in district 

  • Congressman Richard Neal speaks with select board chair Evan Johnson, right, and a handful of town officials outside the combined fire and police station Thursday in Worthington.

  • Congressman Richard Neal speaks to fire chief Kyle Challet and a small handful of town officials outside the combined fire and police station Thursday in Worthington.

Published: 7/17/2016 5:32:50 PM

When U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal took over the newly aligned 1st Congressional District in early 2013, the Springfield Democrat inherted vast new terrain, not all of which was familiar to him. 

That’s why in his earliest days as representative of the new district, Neal made efforts to visit with constituents and institutions in smaller towns in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties. 

There were trips to theaters, town halls, downtowns, farms, colleges and businesses. The 27-year veteran of Congress and former Springfield mayor carved out time to visit the less populated pockets of his sprawling realm, the largest of the state’s 10 congressional districts. 

He walked turf trod by U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, and the late Silvio O. Conte, R-Pittsfield – two lawmakers people knew well.

But since those early days of redistricting, many say Neal no longer spends as much time as he should in more rural parts of his territory. Neal’s presence, or lack of it, was the subject of recent stories in The Recorder and Gazette. 

Many constituents interviewed, including some local and state officials, said they simply haven’t seen enough of Neal in their towns, with some saying they would not recognize the congressman. 

We are not suggesting that Neal drive back roads of towns like Florida and Peru grinning and waving. That is not an effective use of the congressman’s time. But there is growing concern that some communities are neglected.

To be fair, Neal can’t be everywhere. He told the Gazette in a recent interview that he has been supportive of rural issues, including expanded rail service, broadband access and improved federal Medicare reimbursements for western Massachusetts hospitals. His time working in Washington, D.C., seven months a year, campaigning for Hillary Clinton and hosting officials like the chair of the Federal Reserve board, head of the federal opiate task force and president of General Electric fills up his schedule in a way that he enjoys. 

“I’m chairman of New England congressional caucus; I’m the head of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, the dean, so that’s another time constraint,” he told the Gazette last month. 

We agree with Neal that more populated cities like Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee command his attention. These communities are where the vast majority of his constituents reside. As disadvantaged urban centers, they also face pressing challenges and problems that need solving. 

But there has to be a balance and we question whether Neal has struck it during his first three and half years in the new district.

The 1st Congressional District covers all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, and dozens of cities and towns in Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. It’s a huge area. Redistricting meant that 10 lawmakers instead of 11 must stretch to provide representation. 

Even so, Neal must make a greater effort to connect with the people he serves and make himself more accessible. 

It may take a serious challenger to get Neal out more in his district. U.S. Rep. James McGovern offers a good model. He has been connecting with constituents in the new areas of his district, some of them part of Neal’s former stomping grounds. A Worcester Democrat, McGovern has been highly visible in Hampshire and Franklin counties since redistricting.  

If Neal’s time demands are too much, we suggest he send staff members out more in his district. This can be an effective way of connecting with constituents and was a method the former congressmen used to make their offices visible and accessible.

An early getting-to-know-you tour was a good idea for Neal and the right way to familiarize himself with his new district. Such tours are still needed.

Staying connected to people in the district is essential, especially for someone in office as long as Neal, to remind him he was sent to the nation’s capital to serve the people who work and live here. 

 




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