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Political newcomer takes on 30-year incumbent in 1st Congressional District

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, left, and Richard Neal. GAZETTE FILE PHOTOS



Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2018

EASTHAMPTON — All eyes will be on western Massachusetts next Tuesday as a political newcomer mounts a challenge against a nearly 30-year incumbent Democrat for a seat in Congress.

The race in the 1st Congressional District between U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a family and civil rights attorney from Springfield, is one that political observers say mirrors a nationwide battle within the party over issues, messaging, identity and how campaigns are run. And with no Republican on the ballot for November, the Sept. 4 primary will undoubtedly decide who represents the state’s geographically largest congressional district.

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, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

Amatul-Wadud’s campaign is a check-list of progressive platform essentials. She supports raising the minimum wage and debt-free public higher education, making health care universal through a Medicare for All program and bringing high-speed internet to a district with many broadband-starved rural communities. She is also a woman of color challenging a white male incumbent at a time when progressive advocates are pushing for the Democratic party to diversify its ranks of elected officials.

“The party, in my opinion should be and is moving to the left,” said David Greenberg, a member of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, a group that emerged out of the Bernie Sanders campaign and was an early backer of Amatul-Wadud. “I think Tahirah fits into that whole profile.” 

Neal, meanwhile, has made his campaign about his extensive experience and protecting previous legislative accomplishments. He has stressed his role in crafting the Affordable Care Act, and the fact that as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee he could be in a powerful position to protect that legislation should the Democrats take back Congress.

“Western Massachusetts needs an advocate that is going to fight for the ground we have right now,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, a Neal supporter. LaChapelle described Neal as “someone who has the track record and the voting record to know when to make the fight, to make the best forward move on each piece of legislation.”

A central issue around which those differences have played out is health care. 

In an editorial board meeting at the Gazette this month, Neal called a Medicare for All bill — like one put forth by Sanders and backed by Amatul-Wadud — “unrealistic.” That message has been echoed by some of his supporters.

“When the message is something very exciting, a flashy program like universal health care or Medicare for All, that is very difficult for a voter to come to the polls and vote for and to see their hopes dashed,” LaChapelle said.

But Amatul-Wadud says that while she would support the Affordable Care Act as an in-between measure, the United States is the only advanced democracy in the world without guaranteed universal health care, held up by the kind of incrementalism Neal advocates.

“That is the exact same messaging he has had for the past few years, that’s not new,” Amatul-Wadud said of Neal's health care vision. People like her parents, she added, can't afford a policy of "wait and see" as high medication costs eat up their Social Security checks. "It is reactionary conduct. It’s not leadership."

Outside of policy issues, the race will also hinge on the differing strengths of each campaign.

Neal has a lot of name recognition to rely on, having first made a successful bid for City Council in Springfield in 1977 before becoming mayor of the city and eventually landing in Congress in 1988. 

“Rep. Neal begins with a head start, he has an existing base,” retired University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professor and longtime political observer Ralph Whitehead said. 

In a primary race during a non-presidential election year, Whitehead said that the electorate that comes out to the polls tends to be older and committed to preserving Medicare and Social Security — issues Neal and his supporters have been emphasizing at every opportunity.

For her part, Amatul-Wadud said protecting programs like Medicare and Social Security that are “as American as apple pie” should be the bare minimum expectation for a politician. 

Neal also has a massive money advantage over his opponent.

As of mid-August, Neal had $3,095,755 on hand, compared with the $37,021 Amatul-Wadud had from individual donors as of June 30. (Amatul-Wadud recently missed a filing deadline for the period from July 1 to Aug. 15, and has until Aug. 30 to file a report on receipts and expenditures.)

Unlike her opponent, however, Amatul-Wadud has refused to take corporate money, and has knocked Neal for that on the campaign trail. In a recent interview, she mentioned a POLITICO analysis that found Neal has raised $735,565 from corporate PACs in 2018 — up 43 percent from 2016. Insurance and pharmaceutical companies are the top industries that have contributed to Neal’s campaign committee during the election cycle, according to numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Corporations want to shore up their investment in him,” Amatul-Wadud said. “I think that’s unconscionable.”

In response, Neal’s campaign said in a statement that the congressman has backed “every campaign finance reform measure,” and also believes in ending the influence of “dark money.” However, the campaign refused to address the Gazette’s question about corporate money and its influence on Neal, instead noting donations from labor unions.

“Congressman Neal is grateful for the overwhelming support and contributions from voters across the district and the hardworking men and women of organized labor,” the statement reads.

While Amatul-Wadud’s campaign may lack in financing, it has made up ground elsewhere with hustle and grassroots organizing, according to supporters. Greenberg, of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, said he and others have seen the fruits of that labor when they go door-to-door canvassing for Amatul-Wadud.

“A couple of months ago, they hadn’t heard of Tahiria,” he said of voters. “We’ve certainly put that aside, that’s certainly not what people are thinking any more... Lately with the canvasing, we’ve gotten a pretty good response. Especially in the rural parts of the district.”

Amatul-Wadud said that as a political neophyte going against an establishment candidate, there wasn't a lot of guidance available to her campaign; there had been few challengers to Neal lately, so her campaign couldn’t rely on mailing lists or other valuable tools from others’ past experiences.

“Everything that we’ve done, we’ve had to create on an epic scale from scratch,” she said. “Every single thing... At this point nobody can unorganized us, nobody can steal our morale.”

That movement against the Democratic establishment will continue on, win or lose, Amatul-Wadud and her supporters say. And Whitehead, the former UMass professor, said the divide in the party likely will too.

“I think that philosophical division does exist here, it is important,” he said. “My guess is it will continue beyond this election and it will be very interesting to see how it evolves in the future.”

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