Storming the Castle: Springfield progressive Amatul-Wadud challenges entrenched Congressman Neal

I … I … I believe … I believe … I believe that we will win! … I believe that we will win! … I believe that we will win! … I believe that we will win! So went the call-and-response led by Springfield attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud at a women’s march in Northampton attended by about 2,000 people on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration day.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud announced her bid for Congress at McCuskers Market in Shelburne Falls on her 44th birthday, December 19, 2017. Paul Franz photo.

But despite her words, winning will not be easy for Amatul-Wadud. The African-American Muslim woman is taking on longtime and well-funded Congressman Richard Neal in the September 4 Democratic Primary for the First Congressional District of Massachusetts.

Neal has represented Springfield in Congress for nearly 30 years, and before that was mayor of the city. Redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census moved many rural communities into his district as well, and some constituents from smaller cities and towns have complained that they don’t see much of Neal, who is the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which crafts tax law in Congress. In June of 2017, anger at Neal boiled over in Hampshire County’s Williamsburg, and a group called Indivisible Williamsburg placed an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette that said “Missing: Has anyone seen this man?” with a picture of Neal.

Meanwhile, progressives throughout the First Congressional District of Massachusetts, in which Neal serves, have claimed Neal is out of step with his district by opposing a single payer health plan and by accepting the majority of his donations from PACs and large corporations including insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

In an interview in her office in Chicopee, Amatul-Wadud said she admired Neal as she was growing up in Springfield and said she bore no ill feelings against him personally, but that he had not delivered results for the vulnerable people, both in rural areas and the inner city, in his district.

“What I’d want to see is with 30 years in that office, that the people of your district benefit off of the capital of that,” she said. “With you as a ranking member of the Democratic Party … your district should be the most on point district in the country.”

Instead, the First Congressional District has the lowest median income in the state, according to the U.S. Census. Amatul-Wadud said own parents have recently had to make difficult decisions delaying getting asthma medication due to complicated health care laws unfriendly to seniors and low income individuals.

“We’re lucky. Most people in the district are not as lucky as we are and don’t have the resources that we have,” she said. “So what does 30 years get you if somebody like my dad is still having to make decisions like that?”

Neal, who declined to be interviewed for this article, did not seem to be worried about the challenge posed by Amatul-Wadud, based on a statement from his spokesman, William Tranghese, focusing on the fact that candidates in the race will not be certified until June.

“Congressman Neal always welcomes a spirited discussion of the issues that concern the people of western and central Massachusetts and encourages citizens to become part of the democratic process. Until there is a certified challenger, he will continue to stay focused on important issues like health care, jobs and education that have a direct impact on the lives of families in the 1st Congressional District,” the statement read.

Rankled Voters Outside Springfield

Easthampton resident Sara Weinberger, who last year wrote a scathing column about Neal’s staff not responding to his constituents, said 2018 presents a perfect time for a challenge to Neal, especially from a woman.

“I think that she is in many ways the perfect candidate,” Weinberger said of Amatul-Wadud. “She’s bright. She lives in Springfield. She knows the community. She loves the community. She’s a person of color, and a woman, and speaks to the things Neal doesn’t speak to.”

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud. Paul Franz photo

Weinberger said she personally met Amatul-Wadud through a Jewish and Muslim women’s group called Salaam Shalom and found her to be accessible and focused on human services and human rights.

While the seat is under Democratic control, Weinberger said she does not feel represented.

“My congressional representative isn’t interested in anything I have to say,” Weinberger said, something that was very different when she was represented by Congressman James McGovern, who represented her when she lived in Northampton.

“While I really would like to see Neal out of here, that’s not the main reason I want Tahirah,” she added. “I don’t want to replace bad with bad. I think Tahirah would be really good for Western Mass.”

Mehlaqa Samdani, a Muslim who lives in Longmeadow and grew up in Pakistan, had similar trouble getting Neal to respond to her. Her concern was with an uptick of hate crimes in Western Massachusetts following the 2016 election.

“As a constituent of Neal, I and a lot of other people had called for a town hall and were hoping there would be a town hall to express to him our concerns about vandalism,” she said. “I had called his office asking to speak to his aid to register our concerns and they were not at all responsive. I never got a person we could talk to.”

Samdani even went to Neal’s Springfield office to try to speak with someone and was told he would not meet with them or hold a town hall event.

“I was very discouraged and dismayed,” she said.

On the other hand, Samdani has felt energized by Amatul-Wadud’s candidacy and plans to donate and volunteer for her. She was particularly impressed by Amatul-Wadud’s speech at the women’s march in Northampton on January 20.

“The response she got from the crowd … people went wild,” she said. “If we can translate some of that energy into actual votes, I think she has a very, very good chance to win.”

Growing Up in Springfield

Amatul-Wadud’s family moved to the Maple High Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield when she was 9 years old. She is the oldest of 10 siblings, and growing up she said her family oscillated between middle class and lower class.
She became awakened to activism at the age of 17 when two young boys in the neighborhood were snatched, taken to a nearby abandoned building, beaten, and left for dead. She and her family joined a movement to get the city to pay for the building to be demolished so nothing like that could happen again.

“We got accustomed to living in an area where blight was acceptable,” she said. “I didn’t know we had a right not to have this death trap in our neighborhood.”

Homeschooled through high school by her stay-at-home mother, Amatul-Wadud went on to attend Elms College in Chicopee, majoring in paralegal studies. From there, she went to work for MassMutual, ISO New England, and Western Mass Legal Services, now known as Community Legal Aid. She got her law degree from Western New England University School of Law in 2005, and was recently honored with the 2017 Dean’s Award.

In her practice in Chicopee, which opened in 2009, she specializes in civil rights and domestic relations law. She received national recognition in 2015 through her work representing a Muslim community in upstate New York that was targeted by Robert Doggart, a Tennessee man who plotted to bomb their mosque.

In her candidacy, Amatul-Wadud’s positions mostly match the progressive wing of the party. She is in favor of a single-payer health care system. She believes in universal preschool and a universal college option – she still has student loans herself while putting two of her children through college. She thinks that student loans should be interest-free.

“I don’t believe that the government should be making money off of us, and high student loan debt also suppresses job growth and economic stability and brings in feelings of desperation for people,” she said. “It’s cyclical.”

She believes that it is up to Democrats to push through legislation that will help regular people just as Republicans pushed through their tax plan, which she said primarily helps corporations.

“I don’t have a problem with creating tax benefits for corporations, but it must be done in a way that is not selfish and that recognizes that but for our people we don’t even need corporations,” she said.

On the opioid crisis, she said it is important to recognize that there are other drugs, including cocaine and crack, that are also causing a crisis, and which affect primarily black and brown communities.

A Town Hall in Shelburne

On Sunday, Jan. 28, in a small building called Fellowship Hall in Shelburne, Amatul-Wadud held her first town hall event to meet voters. More than 60 people attended, which was just what Ken Eisenstein, a member of the host group of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, was hoping.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud speaks at a town hall event in Shelburne on Sunday, Jan. 28. Dave Eisenstadter photo

“She’s a true progressive,” Eisenstein said of Amatul-Wadud. “She more reflects my personal views and the progressive views of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution than Representative Neal does.”

For member Mary Malmros, who introduced Amatul-Wadud to those assembled, there was another thing important about her:

“She actually knows how to find Franklin County,” Malmros said to cheers from the audience.

Amatul-Wadud spent two hours answering residents’ questions about single payer, public schools, and her commitment to reach out to all people, even those who might be put off by her Muslim faith.

After the event, Malmros said that despite Neal’s senior position in the Democratic party, she thought that Amatul-Wadud would be more effective for residents of the Massachusetts First Congressional District in Congress.

“He is on the Ways and Means committee but that is not translating into prosperity for our district,” she said.
Wendy Ferris of Buckland said she was “inspired and energized” following the event. She signed up to volunteer for Amatul-Wadud’s candidacy following the talk.

“Every response I thought she was really on point,” Ferris said, in particular commenting on Amatul-Wadud’s commitment to strengthening public schools.

Rob Stinson from Williamsburg said he came away from the event strongly considering voting for Amatul-Wadud.

“She has a gravitas, charisma, command of the issues and ability to relate,” he said.

Eisenstein hopes that Amatul-Wadud can be a part of a strong coalition of committed progressives.

“People are talking about this being the year of the woman,” he said. “I think that’s a great thing. They have to be qualified, but the more women we can put in office and the more that they can take strength in numbers from one another, the better off we’ll all be.”

‘A Challenging Campaign for a Challenger’

Political Consultant Anthony Cignoli, head of the A.L. Cignoli Company in Springfield, said 2018 is an interesting year politically. He is familiar with both Neal and Amatul-Wadud and listed off Neal’s advantages, including a large campaign team, a long record, a solid war chest.

“It’s a challenging campaign for a challenger,” he said. “I think that Neal has such a base in Springfield among the Latino community, the African American community, and being a major player in Washington.”

Cignoli sees one of Amatul-Wadud’s best-polling issues as being her support of single payer, which Neal has spoken against.

Still, Neal will bring with him many allies from over the years, especially in Springfield.

“He’s a significant member of his party, and of Congress, obviously, when you have that ranking seat in the Ways and Means Committee,” he said. “The amazing thing about Neal is you see him home on the weekends.”

What Cignoli hopes is that the two candidates will meet and hold a debate, particularly on health care.

“What a great opportunity if the two of them have a conversation on either side of that,” he said, adding that he knows both candidates to be civil.

Where Cignoli sees another challenge for Amatul-Wadud is in her commitment not to take money from special interests and large corporations.

Neal, by contrast, has amassed nearly $1 million from PAC contributions for the 2018 election cycle, according to the campaign finance website opensecrets.org. That contrasts with just under $7,000 from small individual contributions for Neal. Financial information for Amatul-Wadud is not yet available.

“That’s the unfortunate reality: you’ve got to raise the dough to get elected,” Cignoli said.

For Bill Shein of Alford in Berkshire County, who ran unsuccessfully against Neal in 2012, the funding piece is important. During his campaign, he met many people who felt sidelined from politics and disconnected from what was happening in Washington, but that is beginning to change.

“This is an important year and a lot of activists and a lot of Democrats are working to retake the House and throw some sand in the gears of the destruction the Trump administration has unleashed in so many quarters,” he said. “If they are successful, Congressman Neal is in line to be chair of the Ways and Means committee, and his record on tax policy and what he has championed for many years is not what most Democrats support.”

Shein said that while Neal has said he works to close loopholes, he at the same time sponsors legislation that allows for companies, some of which make significant campaign contributions to Neal, to avoid paying taxes and that reward shifting profits overseas.

He believes that for Amatul-Wadud to win, she will need to bring up voter turnout across the district, and especially in Springfield.

Graphic by Jennifer Levesque

And that’s the heart of Neal territory.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, for instance, is firmly in Neal’s camp.

“Richie has been an excellent partner, always accessible, and continues to deliver for his district,” Sarno said in a statement for this story. “I’ve had a great personal, professional, and political relationship with Congressman Neal. He has risen to become the top ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and has delivered time and time again, not only for the City of Springfield, but the entire First Congressional District. We cannot afford to lose him.”

Sarno continued that he had met Amatul-Wadud, but had little knowledge of her professional life or accomplishments.

Leon Moultrie, chair of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee in Springfield, said he believes that the Springfield and the First Congressional District should stick with Neal.

“He’s done a great job assisting in getting jobs, with the federal building, with Union Station,” he said. “He’s worked tirelessly for the district in terms of bringing resources home financially.”

Marcus Williams, a Ward 5 representative on the Springfield City Council, said he looks forward to hearing Amatul-Wadud’s thoughts and watching her campaign.

“I always encourage people to join the Democratic process if they have the desire to do so,” he said.

As far as an endorsement, Williams said he tends to stay out of Democratic primaries and wait until the voters have their say.

Amatul-Wadud said she is used to having to win people over and that she looks forward to the opportunity.
“We’re going to have to work twice as hard because we’re not going to be receiving funds from large corporations,” she said. “But in my life and in all of my different identities and in the communities that I’ve come up in, working twice as hard or three times as hard is nothing new.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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