The question, asked by Jim Madigan, host of the WGBY debate: “Why are you making this race against a senior member of your own party, a member of the party leadership, a person who’s been picked by the Obama campaign to be a surrogate spokesman for the presidential campaign?”
The debate, which can be viewed here, is one of only two that will take place prior to the Sept. 6 Democratic primary. (Several others were planned but than scrapped after incumbent U.S. Rep. Richie Neal declined to participate.) In the weeks leading up to the WGBY event, I’d heard more than one political observer predict that the debate—like much of the media coverage of the race—would be overly deferential to Neal. (You know, the “senior member” of the party, the “member of the party leadership, a person who’s been picked by the Obama campaign to be a surrogate spokesman for the presidential campaign.”) Certainly, Neal operated throughout the WGBY debate as if he had the home-field advantage, interrupting his opponents and, at times, ignoring Madigan’s futile attempts to reign him in when he went over his allotted time limits.
The incumbent also did a good deal of Democratic-party name-dropping, slipping in references to personal conversations with Nancy Pelosi, for instance, or words of praise he’s received from insiders in the Obama administration. One reference I didn’t quite get: in a short discussion on Medicare, Neal proudly noted that he’d “stood in the living room in Harry Truman’s home where Lyndon Johnson flew to sign that Medicare act.” (If Nuciforo or Shein has ever visited, say, the Lincoln Monument, or Plymouth Rock, they failed to mention this vital information. Nuciforo did, however, assert his commitment to protecting Medicare and Social Security. And Shein pointed out that he believes the benefits of Medicare should be available to all Americans, through a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health care system.)
Shein and Nuciforo both made mention of the large amounts of money Neal accepts from corporate interests and how that affects the decisions he makes. Neal went back after Nuciforo on that point, noting that the latter took corporate money himself during his time as a state senator and suggesting that the donations Nuciforo accepted from the auto-insurance industry steered him to kill a proposed insurance-reform bill. “Andy, you were not exactly a shrinking violet on getting campaign contributions when you were in the Senate,” Neal chided.
Shein, in turn, took the opportunity to point out that neither of his opponents can claim the moral high ground on the issue of corporate donations. “I hope we’re not going to spend the whole time letting these two long-time politicians bicker about who has taken more money from corporate interests like insurance companies,” he weighed in. (Shein, who advocates for public financing for candidates, has run a deliberately low-budget campaign, accepting no donations of more than $99, and no money from PACs, lobbyists or executive of companies that hire lobbyists.)
One issue that, surprisingly, didn’t rear its head—at least, not directly—during the debate: the recent news, broken by Shein, that Nuciforo’s campaign appeared to have lifted large portions of its position papers from other candidates’ campaigns.
Shein did refer to that scandal obliquely, after Nuciforo offered a backhand compliment about Shein’s background as a political humor writer: Shein, Nuciforo said, is a “funny comedian,” but the district needs “serious people” with “serious solutions” to its problems. “I have written far more words than anybody at this table, with all due respect, about serious issues and about the things we need to do,” Shein responded.
At several points, Neal appeared to frustrate his opponents by deliberately misinterpreting their comments—for instance, when Shein made the point that an incumbent shouldn’t be judged solely on his voting record, but on what bills he works to advance, and whether his agenda is shaped by the donors filling his campaign coffers. Neal’s response was a feat of rhetorical acrobatics: voting records don’t count? he demanded. Are you saying that my vote against the war in Iraq was meaningless?
The debate covered a number of important topics—Medicare and Social Security, campaign finance, trade agreements, tax policy—although somewhat fitfully and rarely in as great depth as they deserve. Still, it was a lively debate that offered viewers some insights into the three candidates.
And, indeed, the fun didn’t end when the hour-long debate did. Shein later issued a press release addressing what he called “substantial misrepresentations” made by Neal during the debate, including underplaying the amount of corporate money his campaign accepts and saying he voted against the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ proposed “Budget for All” because it lacked transportation spending. In fact, Shein noted, the progressive budget included transportation spending proposed in Obama’s own budget.
In addition, Shein corrected another curious statement made by Neal, after Shein nudged him about his failure to join the Progressive Caucus, as Olver did and as Shein, himself, said he would do if elected. “I’ve never joined a caucus. I’m not one for joining caucuses,” Neal replied. “I think it labels you.” Neal, in fact, belongs to two caucuses: the New England Caucus (of which he is co-chair) and the Friends of Ireland Caucus.