Congressman Richard Neal, 27-year incumbent, faces challengers

  • U.S. REp. Richard Neal

For the Gazette
Published: 10/31/2016 11:17:24 PM

The Nov. 8 elections will mark the 13th time that U.S. Rep. Richard Neal is seeking re-election to the congressional seat to which he was first elected in 1988.

The former Springfield mayor is a 67-year-old Democrat who, after 27 years on Capitol Hill, is the dean of the Massachusetts delegation. Yet it’s only since 2013 that his 3,100-square-mile 1st Congressional District, the largest geographically in the state, has included more than half of Hampshire County’s 20 towns.

The fifth-ranked Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee — and the ranking Democrat on its Tax Policy Subcommittee and a member of its Trade Subcommittee — Neal faces two independent challenges on Election Day.

In the 2nd Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Rep. James McGovern of Worcester faces no election challenge.

The independent, nonpartisan website, places Neal near the ideological center of the House. He calls himself “center-left Democrat.”

The site also gives Neal mixed ratings — including the highest percentage of all Massachusetts delegation members who joined bipartisan, co-sponsored bills, but relatively low marks in number of bills he sponsored or co-sponsored.

The site also gives Neal bad marks for percentage of votes missed, 5.6 percent, which is far higher than the median 2.3 percent for all members of Congress between January 1989 and September 2016.

And it ranks him lowest of the nine-member state delegation and lowest of all Democrats in support of any of 29 government transparency bills it tracked this session.

More than half of the bills Neal has filed concern taxation, shows, with another 33 percent concerning foreign trade and international finance, and another 15 percent concerning health.

Neal says of the most recent tax legislation, “My fingerprints were all over it,” especially the extension of new markets tax credits — federal subsidies to spur development in disadvantaged communities — as well as tax credits for research and development.

Neal also favors tax reforms such as extending earned income tax credits to single filers and closing tax loopholes to return to the U.S. at least part of the $2.6 trillion in “stateless income” that’s estimated to be parked overseas, to help fund improvements to highways, bridges, rail and other infrastructure projects that have been estimated at $270 billion.

“The country is longing for a major investment in public works,” says Neal, who’s been an advocate for funding passenger rail in the region.

Project VoteSmart describes Neal, based on his votes, as generally supporting anti-abortion legislation, gun-control measures, federal regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions and money to develop renewable energy, while opposing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In September, Neal co-sponsored the Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, designed to help stop synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil from being shipped across the border to U.S. drug traffickers.

Neal told The Recorder, “The federal government could do a better job of providing resources” to fight the opioid crisis, which is affecting families throughout the congressional district and the state and “is a national problem, no longer confined to cities. Part of it’s that there’s going to have to be more beds.”

Neal, unlike Libertarian opponent Thomas Simmons of Shelburne Falls, says he opposes a Massachusetts ballot question that would legalize marijuana in the state.

“There is some irony to the idea that there’s some handwringing over what to do about opiates, but then saying, ‘Let’s make the next gateway drug available,’” Neal said.

Affordable Care Act

A strong proponent of the Affordable Care Act, Neal says he favors improving the legislation that has added 20 million additional Americans to the ranks of the insured, especially if Democrats can regain enough seats in the Senate and in the House, which has voted more than 50 times on repeal of the law.

The main fix, he said, needs to be in convincing healthy Americans to buy health insurance to spread the risk and pay for the system to work.

“A lot will depend on what those House and Senate numbers look like (after the election,” he said.

Yet Neal, who earlier this year faced media criticism for accepting more than $220,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies since 2006 — far more than any other representative in Massachusetts — says this has no effect on his stance as a legislator.

“That represents 3 percent of campaign funds over the course of my career,” he said, adding that’s less of an issue than another reality: “Many of these companies have thousands of people who work in Massachusetts, and when we make our (research and development) tax credit permanent, that means a lot more of them are coming to make investments.”

Neal has faced criticism this year for not having more of a presence in Franklin County and Hampshire County, where his district includes Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington, along with 12 Franklin County towns, all of Berkshire County, Hampden County, and seven southern Worcester County towns.

“I think I’ve paid attention,” said Neal, pointing out that the 1st District includes 87 cities and towns stretching from Williamstown to Dudley in Hampden, Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties, and that “most of this job is still in Washington.”

“There weren’t many of us that opposed the war in Iraq, but I was one of them. I opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, I spoke against them. Nobody ever says I’m lazy or ineffectual.”

In terms of vote distribution, Neal’s district remains heavily skewed toward Hampden County, with voters there accounting for 58 percent of his tally in the 2012 election.

“You try to get to as many communities as you can, and you measure that against the schedule,” he said. “I think we’ve been pretty faithful to that principle.”

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