Inside one rep’s reputation: Hampshire County constituents want to see more of U.S. Rep. Neal

  • Congressman Richard Neal, from left, speaks with select board chair Evan Johnson and fire chief Kyle Challet, as well as a handful of town officials outside the combined fire and police station Thursday in Worthington. —DAN LITTLE

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

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

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and Worthington Select Board Chairman Evan Johnson share a laugh Thursday outside the fire and police station. DAN LITTLE

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, left, speaks Thursday with Worthington Select Board Chairman Evan Johnson, Fire Chief Kyle Challet and Select Board member Charlie Rose, from left, outside the town’s combined fire and police station. DAN LITTLE

  • 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. —DAN LITTLE

  • 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. —DAN LITTLE

  • 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. —DAN LITTLE

  • Congressman Richard Neal shakes hands with fire chief Kyle Challet after speaking with a small handful of town officials outside the combined fire and police station Thursday in Worthington. —DAN LITTLE

Published: 7/1/2016 10:20:22 PM

WORTHINGTON — Fire Chief Kyle Challet and a handful of town officials waited outside the fire and police station Thursday for a visit from their congressman — Springfield Democratic Rep. Richard Neal.

The last time Neal came to their community of approximately 1,150 residents was during a townwide “meet your Congressman” event about 18 months ago, said Select Board chairman Evan Johnson.

“He stayed as long as anyone would ask a question; I think he was there two hours or so,” Johnson said. “He answered any question anyone would ask and didn’t obfuscate anywhere. I thought he did a fine job.”

Others in Neal’s district of 87 cities and towns — the largest geographically in the state since a 2012 redistricting added chunks of Hampshire and Franklin counties — say they have not had much, if any, interaction with Neal.

One of them, Huntington Town Clerk Andrea McKittrick, said she couldn’t recall seeing Neal in Huntington.

“Richard Neal. I wouldn’t know him if I saw him,” she said.

In June, The Recorder of Greenfield published an article titled “Where’s Richie Neal?” in which reporter Richie Davis spoke to dozens of residents, officials and politicos in Franklin County who said they seldom saw the congressman or didn’t know him at all.

Residents of Hampshire County voiced similar sentiments about how visible Neal has been in their towns in interviews with the Gazette (which is a sister paper to The Recorder.) Neal represents Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg, and Worthington in Hampshire County as well as a dozen towns in Franklin County. His district also covers Berkshire County and cities and towns in Hampden and Worcester counties.

In an interview Thursday, Neal said he has been supportive of rural issues, including rail, broadband and fighting for improved federal Medicare reimbursement for western Massachusetts hospitals.

At the same time, he has constraints on his time, which includes seven months of the year in Washington, D.C., he said.

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

In addition to chairing the New England caucus, his duties in the capital include hosting officials such as the chair of the Federal Reserve board, the president of General Electric and head of the federal opiate task force.

“My office has to do all that, and it’s an honor,” Neal said. “So I’m not looking to deny that responsibility. In fact, I enjoy it immensely.”

He said he has also been actively campaigning for Hillary Clinton for president.

Asked whether, with all those responsibilities, he could do a better job coming to rural areas, he said, “Look, you always want to be more available; that’s the better answer.”

He said he has plans to return soon to Hampshire County with more “good news stories.”

Covering ground

While prominent political figures in Hampshire County say Neal and his staff have always been accessible and responsive to their needs, his visits with constituents and local government officials in some of the smaller, rural towns have lagged since the realignment of his district, according to interviews.

“Richie Neal responds whenever I have an issue,” state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. But the state representative added, “I would have to concur that it would be nice to see Congressman Neal in the small towns more than we do.”

Kulik said he recalled the days when late Republican Congressman Silvio O. Conte traveled the 1st Congressional District in a mobile trailer office, parking it in small towns like Worthington where Conte or his staff would mingle with constituents.

“I thought that was very effective with dealing with a large, rural area,” Kulik said, noting that Democratic Congressman John W. Olver, of Amherst, who was Conte’s successor, also was a strong presence in places like the Hilltowns and Franklin County.

During the tenures of Conte and Olver, the district was smaller. It included West Springfield, Holyoke, portions of Hampshire County and all of Franklin and Berkshire counties.

“These were towns that were used to seeing people over the course of five decades between the two of them,” Kulik said. “They were highly visible in a way that Congressman Neal is not.”

As an elected representative, Kulik said it’s important for him to get out and meet people in his district, which covers areas of Hampshire and Franklin counties. It’s how he stays connected, he said.

“It’s where I pick up a lot of what the needs are in my district and hearing what’s on people’s minds,” he said. “It’s a great way to stay connected to people and hearing about what people think their government should be doing for them.”

As a district director for Conte, Jeffrey Ciuffreda was responsible for coordinating the late congressman’s office hours and visits in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

“We had a schedule,” said Ciuffreda, who is now president of the Springfield Regional Chamber in that city. “We had to visit each town hall twice a year. If he (Conte) was around. He would be there.

“I distinctly remember Phillipston, Winchendon, and Templeton,” Ciuffreda recalled. “We’d try to do four or five a day. We’d put it in the local paper.”

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz played a similar role as a staffer for Olver covering territory in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

“He (Olver) always had a very busy in-district schedule,” Narkewicz said. “He logged a lot of miles. I can tell you personally, we drove many, many miles of it.”

Narkewicz said he recalled Olver “constantly meeting” with city and town officials, chambers of commerce and county planners while representing the former 1st Congressional District from 1991 to 2013.

“There was a fairly regular schedule,” Narkewicz said. “He had a lot of deep connections and roots in Franklin and Hampshire counties, and I think that was always a natural base for him.”

Narkewicz said he could not provide an opinion on Neal’s presence in the cities and towns he serves because Northampton is no longer part of the congressman’s district and he is not likely to be at events where Neal might be.

“The times I’ve interacted with him have typically been in Springfield and when he’s visited Northampton,” the mayor said.

Neal’s appearances

Neal’s staff told the Gazette Friday that his schedule is not finalized until about a week in advance, after the newspaper requested his schedule for the rest of the summer.

According to staffer Elizabeth Quigley, Neal is participating in Pittsfield’s Fourth of July parade on Monday and then heading to the nation’s capital for the remainder of the week because the House is in session.

Despite Neal’s recent visits to Hampshire County — the trip to Worthington last week and a speaking engagement in Easthampton on June 17 as part of an event sponsored by the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce — Neal has been more visible in Hampden and Berkshire counties this year.

His 2016 schedule has included more than a half-dozen appearances at events in Springfield, breakfasts with Democrats in Ludlow and Longmeadow, and trips to Wilbraham to present a congressional gold medal to a World War II veteran and Chicopee to declare the winner of a congressional art competition at Holyoke Catholic High School.

He marched in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade in March and has also traveled to Berkshire County for a variety of events that included get-out-the-vote efforts for Hillary Clinton in Pittsfield, a library ribbon-cutting in Stockbridge and a trip to Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire in May, when he celebrated a student being accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy and spoke with other students.

He traveled to Keene, New Hampshire, to canvass voters for Clinton on Jan. 16 and the following month made an appearance at South Hadley High School, according to published reports.

State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, said he has seen Neal and his staff at various events and finds the congressman “responsive and receptive” every time he’s called on him and needed something.

“Office hours aren’t what they used to be,” Scibak said, when asked whether he thinks Neal has been spending enough time in his district, which covers Easthampton, South Hadley, Hadley and Granby. “I guess the question is, what is the expectation on the part of the constituents? I don’t know what people’s expectations are.”

Despite the congressman’s busy schedule, he remains a bit of a mystery in some of the smaller towns of his expanded district, particularly in more rural areas of Hampshire and Franklin counties, according to local officials interviewed in several towns.

“I have no memory of him ever being here, no memory of even reading anything about him being here,” said Robert Floyd, Southampton’s town moderator.

A photographer who often captures images by dignitaries when they come to town, Floyd said he would know when a politician comes to Southampton.

“I can tell you when Humason comes in, Kocot and Sullivan, the DA, but not Neal,” he said, referring to state Sen. Donald F. Humason, state Rep. Peter V. Kocot and Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met him, not in the the last five years I’ve been here,” said Williamsburg Town Adminstrator Charlene Nardi. “He’s an unknown to me.”

Neal, a former Springfield mayor, lives in Springfield, and has lived in the same house for 35 years, he said. His city has given him handsome victories over multiple decades, he said.

While much of Neal’s district is rural, the population centers in his district are largely urban, centering around Springfield.

“Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, they command our attention,” he said.

Asked if he had learned anything from new constituents he had acquired during the redistricting process completed in 2012 — when he acquired most of the Franklin and Hampshire County towns his district now includes — Neal instead emphasized the similarities between voters across the state.

“People have the same aspirations: decent schools, nice communities, livable communities,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a big divergence.”

Addressing the Recorder’s earlier story about Neal’s appearances in Franklin County, the congressman described himself as available whenever asked.

“You don’t last as long as I’ve lasted in this business without paying attention to people,” he said. “If you call me, it might be a day or two, but I’ll call you back.”

Bringing home the money

Neal staffer William Tranghese said Neal has helped bring high-speed Interent access to underserved areas of western Massachusetts, secure federal money needed to improve the rail line from New Haven to Vermont, which restored Amtrak service to the Pioneer Valley and helped through his advocacy on Capitol Hill to secure federal grants for fire departments.

“For many years, Congressman Neal has enjoyed a reputation for being one of the most accessible public officials in the state,” Tranghese wrote to the Gazette.

Last week in Worthington, a town in western Hampshire County, the fire chief said he was looking forward to meeting with the congressman Thursday, but that it would be a first meeting.

“Personally I’ve never met or talked to him, but it seems like he’s doing his job, I guess,” Challet said.

Challet got word the past week from Neal’s office that his department would be receiving a $98,000 Federal Emergency Management Association grant and that Neal would be there to congratulate him.

The money will pay for 14 sets of turnout gear and 10 sets of self-contained breathing apparatuses.

“This whole grant process is just great for small towns like this trying to keep up with the full-time departments that have a lot more money and more budget to spend,” Challet said.

He said his fire captain was the one who put in for the grant and Challet was not aware that the congressman had played a role in securing it.

Neal arrived on time at 2 p.m. Johnson, the Select Board chairman, took advantage of the congressman’s presence to immediately bring up the problem of rural access to broadband internet.

Johnson said one of the main issues Worthington faces is that little of the town has access to broadband. He said he was confident Neal would help his community with that issue.

“We have our fingers crossed that this will go in the right direction,” he said.

But Johnson’s main focus was on the fire gear grant and the struggles his town is facing. “It’s great they got this money; it’s great they got this equipment, but we also need firefighters who are willing to volunteer to do this,” he said.

Firefighters in small towns are hard to come by, because the pay is low and the work is hard, he added.

“It’s getting harder and harder to be a small town in western Massachusetts,” he said.

Staff Writer Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

 




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