No Dems step up to challenge Rep. Neal in primary

  • RICHARD NEAL

  • House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, second from left, stands with Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark on Nov. 19 after the House approved a Democratic budget bill. AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2022 7:02:13 AM
Modified: 5/21/2022 7:00:18 AM

SPRINGFIELD — During the past two election cycles, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal has been the target of progressive challengers looking to oust the Springfield Democrat.

As campaigns for Congress take shape this year, however, no other Democrats appear to be mounting campaigns to challenge Neal, who is a member of party leadership in the U.S. House and the chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. Federal election filings show that no other Democrats besides Neal have organized campaigns yet for the primary election that takes place Sept. 6.

Two Republicans and an independent candidate have created campaigns in the district: GOP members Dean Martilli and Louis Gregory Marino, and unregistered candidate Frederick Mayock. It is not clear, however, whether those candidates have collected the 2,000 signatures needed ahead of a deadline last week to submit them to local election officials. None of these candidates have raised any money yet either, according to campaign finance filings.

Neal has represented the district since redistricting in 2012, and has held his House seat for 32 years. Since 2018, he has been chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. The 1st Congressional District covers all of Berkshire County, all of Hampden County except one precinct in Palmer, and parts of Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties.

A spokesperson for Neal confirmed that Neal is running for reelection in November — a fact borne out by his own fundraising. Since January 2021, Neal has raised $1.9 million in campaign cash and spent $1.4 million of it.

Neal has long been one of the top recipients in the U.S. House of money from corporate political action committees, or PACs. This election cycle, 64% of the money he has raised has come from PACs — the third highest percentage of any House candidate, according to the campaign finance-tracking website OpenSecrets.

As of the end of March, Neal is sitting on a total of $2.9 million in cash in his campaign account. During this election cycle, Neal is the second highest recipient of money from the insurance industry in the entire U.S. House, pulling in $222,250, according to OpenSecrets. He is also the fifth-highest recipient of money from venture capital firms at $123,400.

Federal campaign records show that in the first quarter of this year alone, Neal’s campaign spent more than $89,000 on fundraisers, events and fundraising consulting services. That spending includes wine-and-dine functions at locales across the country: $16,644 at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, $9,187 at Dauphine’s seafood restaurant in Washington D.C., $3,342 on a limo and stays at the boutique North Beach Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, $2,034 on food and resort stays in the Virgin Islands and $2,709 at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

For the past two election cycles, progressives across the region and country backed candidates to challenge Neal, a conservative Democrat who has staunchly opposed some key progressive policy wishes including Medicare for All from his perch on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over all legislation having to do with taxation. In both cases, Neal won reelection handily.

In 2018, Neal defeated attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, winning 71% of the vote.

“It’s hard to really know why nobody would challenge him,” Amatul-Wadud said in a phone interview Thursday. “But we can’t underestimate the toll that it takes to run against an incumbent, and especially an incumbent of his magnitude.”

Amatul-Wadud is now the executive director and chief legal officer of the state’s chapter of the Council on American–Islamic Relations. She said that contested races — especially primary races in deep-blue districts like the 1st Congressional District — allow for the issues to be debated and generate enthusiasm that carries over into other races and boosts voter turnout.

She said she is sad that no Democrats have stepped up to mount a challenge.

“For sure his having a strong war chest is a deterrent to a challenger because we know what you can do with money,” Amatul-Wadud said, noting that the district is very large geographically. Having lots of money lets you flood the district with ads, mailers and staffers, she noted. “This is a district that can be hard to activate ... [Neal] has a system in place, he has relationships in place, which make it easier and smoother for him.”

In 2020, then-Holyoke mayor Alex Morse took up the issues including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in a campaign to oust Neal in the primary. And unlike Amatul-Wadud, he was himself able to raise big money: spending $2.11 million during his campaign against Neal after raising a total of $2.19 million, 98.7% of which came from individual contributors. But Neal spent more than double that: $5.89 million.

Outside groups also spent big on that race, dropping $3.4 million. Of that outside PAC spending on advertisements, $1.9 million was spent to support Neal or oppose Morse. The highest-spending PAC was the Neal-supporting American Working Families PAC, which spent $1 million on the race.

In the final weeks of the race, federal filings showed that another super PAC, Progress United PAC, received a $250,000 donation from the American Economic Freedom Alliance — a conservative group with ties to Marty Obst, an adviser to then-vice president Mike Pence — and then funneled $185,000 of that money to American Working Families, which used its money to run attack ads against Morse.

Other donors to American Working Families included Peter Picknelly and three other members of the Picknelly family, who run Peter Pan Bus Lines, real estate developer Harold Grinspoon, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, MassMutual, and South Hadley’s Andrew and Sarah Yee, owners of the Bean Restaurant Group.

Those attack ads included messaging about a letter college Democrats at the University of Massachusetts Amherst had written raising nonspecific, evidence-free allegations of inappropriate behavior against Morse, who taught classes there. Reporting in The Intercept later suggested that some Neal supporters had political motivations in boosting those allegations, and a Massachusetts Democratic Party-commissioned investigation found its party’s own chairman violated party bylaws during the incident.

A UMass investigation later found that Morse did not violate UMass sexual harassment policy or its policy on consensual relations.

After that bruising campaign, Neal handily defeated Morse, winning nearly 60% of votes and defeating Morse in Holyoke, his own hometown. Morse, who is now the town manager of Provincetown, did not respond to interview requests this week.

Morse was backed by the influential progressive group Justice Democrats, which has successfully supported left-leaning Democrats — including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston — seeking to unseat more conservative members of the party in primary races. But this election cycle, Justice Democrats decided not to focus on backing a challenger to Neal.

“We have not sought a candidate in that district this cycle,” Justice Democrats spokesperon Waleed Shahid said Thursday, though he did not say why.

Possible challengers and their supporters may now see just how much power the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee can wield, both in terms of fundraising and bringing dollars back to the district, said political consultant Anthony Cignoli of Springfield.

“It’s also daunting to take on a sitting member of Congress, especially when they’re that powerful,” Cignoli said.

Cignoli said that a smaller number of local Democrats may see Neal as an important member of the party when it comes to fundraising for others in an attempt to keep Democrats in the majority come November. Neal has transferred $325,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over the past year. He’s also often back home in the district, reminding constituents of his work in Washington, D.C., with frequent events.

“He comes home to the district — he gets the drift,” Cignoli said. “It can’t all be Washington.”

Since Morse’s defeat, congressional redistricting took place this year, resulting in the 1st Congressional District shedding some of the hilltowns that had backed Morse and Amatul-Wadud. Those towns will now be in the 2nd Congressional District, represented by the more liberal U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester.

“It’s kind of like an amicable divorce,” said Matt Szafranski, the editor in chief of the news website Western Mass Politics and Insight.

Szafranski said that he thinks campaign cash may have been the biggest factor in no challenger stepping up to take on Neal. He noted that state or municipal candidates couldn’t transfer money from their existing campaign accounts, so unless a candidate was independently wealthy they would have a hard time raising enough money to be credible or successful. He noted that Amatul-Wadud announced her candidacy in January of her election year, and that Morse announced more than a year in advance.

“Even if it was a last-minute candidate who came into this, how much time do they really have to change perceptions?” he asked.

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

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