When Sara Weinberger moved from her longtime community of Northampton to neighboring Easthampton three years ago, she mostly loved it. The worst part, she said, was changing congressional districts — going from being represented by Worcester Democrat James McGovern to Springfield Democrat Richard Neal.
After having a responsive congressman in McGovern, who Weinberger said listened to what she had to say, she was surprised to have the experience of being routinely ignored by Neal and “treated like crap” by his staff when she tried to get in touch, she said.
“He’s my congressman; he’s not the king of some country,” she said of Neal.
It’s led to the question: Is the district stuck with the longtime incumbent no matter how he treats his constituents outside of Springfield?
The First Congressional District, in which Neal serves, consists of 87 communities making up all of Hampden and Berkshire counties as well as parts of Franklin, Hampshire, and Worcester counties.
Neal, who spoke to the Advocate at an event in North Adams on June 16, denied that he had been absent for his constituents, at least in Berkshire County.
“One of the things I asked my staff to do was to compile the number of events I’ve done in Berkshire County in the last four-and-a-half years,” he said at the event. “With this one here, it’s 141 events in Berkshire County.”
But recent letters to the editor in the Berkshire Eagle offer a different perspective, including one written by Susie Kaufman of Stockbridge and Richard Brown of Sheffield.
“At a time when residents of Massachusetts are under siege by a government in Washington that does not represent our interests or our values, we need a representative in Congress who will meet with us, listen to us and strengthen our resolve. Read your mail, Congressman Neal,” the letter reads.
Another letter-writer said he tried Neal’s office multiple times with no response.
“After four attempts, I have given up on Neal and his staff,” wrote Jim Edelman of Monterey. “I believe it is time to elect a new representative for the First Congressional District of Massachusetts.”
In North Adams, Neal said Edelman’s criticisms, which were echoed by Weinberger in a column she wrote in May for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, were “blatantly untrue.”
“If they call the Pittsfield office, they would get a response. If they call the Springfield office, they get a response. You don’t last as long as I have without responding to people,” he said.
Not everyone outside of Springfield is upset with Neal. He has allies in the area, including former North Adams mayor John Barrett. Barrett served as mayor from 1984 to 2010, which overlapped with the time Neal was mayor of Springfield.
Barrett, who was mayor when Silvio Conte and John Olver represented North Adams, said he supports Neal, and that he believes Neal does come up to see his rural constituents often. He added that Neal, as a leader in the Democratic party, has responsibilities that take him away from the district.
“I find it unfortunate that he’s going through these attacks because I know him and he really cares about people,” Barrett said. “If individuals feel slighted, it wasn’t done intentionally. He’s not afraid to stand up and say what he believes.”
Earlier this month, anger boiled over for a group in Hampshire County’s Williamsburg — Williamsburg Indivisible — which ran a political ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette featuring Neal’s photo and the words: “MISSING. Has anyone seen this man?”
The ad stated it has been five years since Neal has been to Williamsburg and seven other Hampshire County hill towns he represents and ends with the challenge “You know what happened last time rural voters were ignored.”
Weinberger said she was pleased to see the ad, but questioned how effective it would be in getting Neal to hold more events in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
“I just don’t think he cares,” she said. “He thinks, ‘I’m in this until I retire; they can’t touch me.’ I’m sure he looked at [the ad] and laughed if he looked at it at all.”
Weinberger said she had been trying to set up a meeting with Neal for her group Pioneer Valley Action since February with no progress. It took two months to get a scheduler on the phone, and when she did, Weinberger was told the congressman was too busy and that someone would be back in touch, she said.
No one was.
Neal has pointed out that it is difficult for him to be everywhere in his large district. In a statement responding to the ad, Neal spokesman William Tranghese wrote, “With 87 cities and towns in five counties, the district is the largest geographically in the state of Massachusetts. He has been to every region of the district, and nearly every community, hosting and attending events.”
State Representative Steve Kulik of Worthington was another person who advocated for Neal. Kulik’s district covers 19 communities, including Williamsburg and other Franklin and Hampshire county towns.
While he said that he personally has never had trouble reaching Neal, he added that he hasn’t been as visible as his predecessor, John Olver.
“If constituents feel that he should have a greater presence, then that is something he should respond to, absolutely,” Kulik said.
Neal was present when the area needed him, Kulik said. Following a damaging tornado centered in Conway this past February, Neal assessed the damage with Kulik and worked to get federal and state aid to the community, Kulik said.
Regarding the ad placed by Indivisible Williamsburg, people who are Kulik’s constituents, he said he was not aware they were upset, but he said he planned to meet with the group soon.
When Neal was asked if he would meet with the Williamsburg group, he offered two words:
Follow the Money
Matt Barron, a Chesterfield-based political consultant, said that money would be the main obstacle for anyone who would want to challenge Neal.
Neal is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the House committee on raising revenue.
“He is on a prime fundraising committee,” he said. “He writes tax law.”
Since redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census redrew Neal’s district, Neal ran unopposed in 2012, unopposed in 2014, and faced what Barron described as “token” opposition in 2016 from more right-leaning candidates.
“It’s not going to be a Republican in that district; that’s never going to happen,” Barron said. “But if there was a real alternative in the Democratic party, a credible choice, it would be interesting to see what would happen.”
Across the country, a dynamic is playing out with establishment politicians, including Neal, and the progressive, activist wing of the party, that was energized by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, he said.
“To the extent that folks on the left are paying attention to him and what he’s doing, the more they learn, they get a little more upset,” he said.
Neal, like many long-time politicians of both parties, gets the majority of his political donations from wealthy corporations, according to campaign finance website opensecrets.org run by the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the 2016 election cycle, he raised more than three-quarters of a million dollars from the insurance, financial, and pharmaceutical industries — his top contributors. Of the approximately $1.8 million Neal raised in the cycle, about three-quarters were in contributions to his Political Action Committees, which can accept unlimited contributions. Small individual donations made up just 3 percent.
Neal said he welcomed campaign contributions from corporations and pointed out that former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama campaigned using large donations from corporations in order to match the fundraising prowess of their opponents.
“It’s the Supreme Court that opened the spigot; it’s the requirement that you have to do,” Neal said.
He said his donations come from Massachusetts interests.
“Where would Pittsfield be if they didn’t have those 500 jobs at Berkshire Life?” he said.
Neal has advocated broadening the Democrats’ voter base, but said the focus should be on more conservatives rather than straying from a centrist platform to attract progressives. In several appearances, Neal has said that one-third of Democrats in the House now come from California, New York, and Massachusetts, and that Democrats should be more competitive in more conservative states.
Neal said the party should welcome more candidates from the South, even those who oppose abortion rights.
“I’m in favor of a Democrat that can get elected,” he said. “If they’re pro-life, fine.”
A Visit to North Adams
On a rainy afternoon Friday, North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, Fire Director Steve Meranti, and a couple of other fire department officials waited for Neal to arrive at the North Adams Fire Station on American Legion Drive. Apart from reporters, those were the only ones present for Neal’s visit, announced the prior day.
Neal scheduled the visit as part of a three-community swing through Berkshire County to announce fire grants received by Great Barrington, Williamstown, and North Adams.
He pulled up in a large black car with a few staff members, shook hands with the mayor and the fire department officials and announced a $450,000 grant for the department to purchase 73 self-contained breathing apparatuses, known as SCBAs.
“Thank you for being my friend and a friend to the city,” Alcombright said.
Both Alcombright and Meranti praised Neal for helping the city get the money. They said federal grant money had supported many purchases the department has made over the years.
Dan Lederer, an organizer with Indivisible Williamsburg, which placed the “Missing” Neal Gazette ad, said that Neal had made occasional visits to his area, like in 2016 when he came to Worthington to announce a grant to the fire department, but that he has not held an event to hear from the voters.
Lederer, who did not attend the North Adams event, called the visit “classic Neal.”
“Yes, he shows up for photo ops; he shows up for these events and then gets his photo taken and then he’s gone,” Lederer said. “Our issue is: we want to talk to you; we don’t want a prepared speech.”
Lederer’s group has requested a town hall forum. Neal said his most recent town hall-style event was at Elms College in Chicopee a few months prior — on March 11 — and he is planning an event in Berkshire County for the fall, but did not have details about where or when.
In North Adams, Neal said he had a bad experience with a town hall forum at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester in 2009 to defend the Affordable Care Act with Congressman James McGovern.
“I did not get to answer one question because of the yelling and screaming and the shout-down,” he said.
Neal said as a result of his experience in Worcester, he has seen the darker side of town hall events.
“There’s an allure to the excitement, I got it, but there’s another part of it, and that’s, ‘Is there a substantive achievement that comes with it other than just the idea that there’s going to be yelling and screaming?’” he said.
For Lederer, however, a town hall forum would be an opportunity to talk to Neal about important rural issues. Those include lack of broadband, scarcity of medical facilities, and lack of money for school transportation, he said.
Lederer pointed to a “Political Happy Hour” interview with Neal in which the Boston Globe’s Joshua Miller pressed Neal on his absence from rural communities. Neal responded by noting most of his voters live in Hampden County. (Full video here. The question is posed at minute 37.)
“He was basically being honest,” Lederer said. “He was saying ‘I don’t deal with them because there’s nobody home.’ Unfortunately though, what is clear is we have a small handful of issues unique to the hilltowns that his followers in Springfield wouldn’t know anything about.”
Several people interviewed for this story compared Neal to Congressman McGovern, the Democrat serving the Second Congressional District in Massachusetts. Based in Worcester, McGovern also has a large district — encompassing 63 communities compared with Neal’s, which spans 87 — but also has a reputation for being present for his constituents.
A visit to McGovern’s Facebook page shows that in June alone, McGovern held sit-downs with voters at 11 separate events in 11 different communities — Ware, Greenfield, Sunderland, Amherst, Princeton, Barre, Orange, Northfield, Shrewsbury, Northbridge, and Mendon — spanning the three counties in his district.
Could the neglect Neal’s rural constituents feel lead to a challenge that could successfully unseat him? Lederer didn’t see it as very likely.
Two candidates, both of whom challenged Neal from the right — Independent Frederick Mayock and Libertarian Thomas Simmons — lost miserably in 2016. Neal racked up 73.4 percent of the vote.
“He has it made in the shade; he’s loved by the people that comprise these big cities,” Lederer said.
According to 2010 U.S. Census numbers, approximately 64 percent of the population in Neal’s district resides in Hampden County. Berkshire County has 18 percent of the population, while Hampshire and Worcester counties contain 8 percent each. Franklin County has 2 percent.
Beloved in Springfield
Walking around downtown Springfield recently, several people approached by the Advocate — particularly younger people — said they didn’t follow politics and weren’t familiar with Neal. But it wasn’t hard to find Neal supporters, or people who had a personal connection with him. The Advocate spoke to over a dozen people randomly. One happened to be Joe Tranghese, a distant cousin of Neal spokesman William Tranghese. Another was a woman who declined to be interviewed because her daughter works for Neal. (“She loves him,” she said.)
Tranghese, a longtime Springfield resident who now lives in Wilbraham, said Neal watches out for Springfield.
“I’ve always supported Richie Neal,” he said. “Richie’s from Springfield so he’s always had the city at heart. He’s never forgotten Springfield or where he’s come from.”
Tranghese said he was pleased to see funding for Springfield’s Union Station, which Neal helped secure. Previously, the site was an eyesore, Tranghese said.
As far as complaints from the rural parts of the district, he said that Neal can’t be everywhere.
“I can’t say whether he should be in really smaller towns, but he’s been around here plenty,” he said. “Maybe the spin-off from what happens here can affect the smaller areas. I’m not sure.”
Tranghese said he would not consider voting for another candidate because he believes Neal has done a great job for the district.
Billy Smith, a Springfield resident, said he, too, always votes for Neal.
“Neal has always had a good head and he’s always thought of his people,” he said.
Going back to the 1970s, Smith has observed Neal work for Springfield schools, jobs, and development, he said.
Smith’s message to people who want to see more of Neal in their rural communities — they can watch him on television.
“He must be doing good — he’s getting the votes. He’s getting mine,” Smith said.
Gene Giles and Stephanie Cote, who are both homeless residents of Springfield, said they wish that Neal would do more to establish services for the homeless in the city, including establishing more shelters and providing access to tutoring and education — getting people off the street.
Nevertheless, they support him, though they don’t always vote.
“Neal’s been in office for a long time,” Giles said. “I’m going to keep him there.”
One Springfield resident who is not a Neal supporter is progressive political organizer Karen Lee. Reached by phone, Lee said Neal has not supported progressive causes like Medicare-for-all or her pet cause, debt-free higher education.
Neal has said he would like to see the Affordable Care Act, which compels all citizens to buy private insurance, stay in place. He said he is open to a single-payer option like Medicare for all, but that he wants to see it in a state like California first. He does not believe Massachusetts should host that experiment, however, because the state is too small, even though Massachusetts, under Gov. Mitt Romney, pioneered the program that led to the Affordable Care Act.
“[California] has 41 million people; it has an economy that’s larger than Russia’s,” Neal said in North Adams.
Asked whether Neal is unassailable in his district, Lee isn’t sure.
“I think it’s a narrative that can be changed,” she said. “People are assuming that, but that’s not the truth. He is not in the corner of the people who need relief.”
Bernie Sanders, whom she supported and organized for during the runup to the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary in Massachusetts, carried the first congressional district despite losing the state and losing big in Springfield.
Sanders captured about 38 percent of the vote in Springfield — barely one-third of the roughly 19,000 votes cast. However, he beat Hillary Clinton in the First Congressional District by about 4,700 votes, a margin of approximately 4 percent.
Now, Lee is a member of a political group that emerged from Sanders’ campaign, called “Our Revolution,” and is in the process of putting together a meeting to look for someone to challenge Neal in his district in 2018.
“I had this conversation with a Bernie supporter who is savvy about the politics of what Neal has done in this area,” she said. “He thinks it would be a kamikaze mission to put someone up against Neal. I respect that opinion, but I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
Lee thinks it would be an uphill battle to replace Neal. But even if a challenger didn’t beat him, she said a few might give him a run for his money.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.