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Congressman Richard Neal ‘an unknown’ in Franklin County towns he represents

  • Rep. Richie Neal with Calvin Carr, Jan Carr, Paul Marks in Heath Town Hall on June 11, 2012 Richie Davis—Submitted photos

  • Rep. Richie Neal with Calvin Carr, Jan Carr, Paul Marks in Heath Town Hall on June 11, 2012 Richie Davis—Submitted photos

  • NationalAtlas.gov NationalAtlas.gov

  • Congressman Richie Neal visits Boyden's Sugarhouse in Conway and Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne in March 2015. These photos are from his Facebook page. Neal’s Facebook page—Facebook

  • Congressman Richie Neal visits Boyden's Sugarhouse in Conway and Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne in March 2015. These photos are from his Facebook page. Neal’s Facebook page

  • Congressman Richie Neal visits Boyden's Sugarhouse in Conway and Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne in March 2015. These photos are from his Facebook page. Neal’s Facebook page

  • NEAL

  • Congressman Richard Neal is greeted by Greenfield Community College Librarian Eric Poulin, left, in the new light filled library as Rep Paul Mark and GCC President Bob Pura look on. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Rep. Paul Mark and Congressman Richard Neal are given a tour of the Double Edge Theater in Ashfield in 2012 by Production Director Carlos Uriona, right, walking past a mural that was painted for a past performance. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • John Merrigan welcomes people to the Drug Court openeing ceremonies at Greenfiedl Community College on Friday.

  • Dunlavy

  • Representative Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

  • KULIK

  • MCGOVERN

  • Bill Perlman of Ashfield. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Director John Waite inside the bank building on bank Row in Greenfield that will be converted into movie theaters and a barSTORY09/9/3 MacDonald

  • Shein

  • EISENBBERG

  • Schwenger

  • At the Franklin County Selectmen’s Association dinner for John Olver in June 2012, the man of the hour talks with Jim McGovern and Richie Neal at the Greenfield Grille. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ



Recorder Staff
Monday, June 20, 2016

One person say it’s John Olver. Some guess at Stan Rosenberg or Stephen Kulik.

But nearly all of the 30 people quizzed along Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls one recent day stare back blankly and simply say, “No,” when asked if they know who represents them in Congress.

“Sad, isn’t it?” says one Hawley woman, one of the many 1st Congressional District constituents who can’t name their congressman.

Most sound embarrassed when they’re told that it’s Rep. Richard “Richie” Neal, the Springfield Democrat who’s represented their town since 2013. For most, the name sounds familiar, but they can’t quite place it.

Sure, their ignorance may reflect a failure to keep up, or maybe it’s forgetfulness. But some observers say it also reflects a lack of effort by Neal — whom they describe as “invisible.”

Neal is a 27-year veteran of Congress and a household name in Springfield and the other Hampden County communities he has represented for most of his career. It was only after the 2011 redistricting that eliminated one of the state’s 10 districts that Neal began representing the western half of Franklin County, along with 13 Hampshire County towns and all of Berkshire County.

“He’s largely invisible, largely a nonentity, and not nearly as responsive as Congressman (John) Olver was known to be,” says Bill Shein, one of two Berkshire County Democrats who unsuccessfully challenged Neal in a three-way 2012 primary contest. Shein, a writer, says he has no plans to run for election.

“I think he’s incredibly inattentive to his rural constituents,” said Ashfield Town Moderator Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg of Ashfield.

“John Olver ... was sort of shoes-on-the-ground in the hilltowns. If there was an issue, he was responsive to it,” Eisenberg continued. “He was the face of Congress in this district, and he was available to us, like (his predecessor) Silvio Conte.”

Eisenberg said many Ashfield residents were disappointed by Neal’s failure to join other state and local officials in taking a visible stand on the Tennessee Gas Pipeline project that had been planned to cross his district, stirring ferocious opposition among farmers, residents and environmentalists.

Neal did write to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in February 2015 disapproving of that project and calling for “a transparent evaluation process.” The project has since been halted because the company has experienced insufficient customer interest.

Ben Markens, a Springfield businessman who lives in Ashfield and first met Neal when he was still Springfield’s mayor, said that after several calls to the congressman’s aide to let him know about the pipeline — which would have affected Markens’ property— he had a face-to-face meeting with Neal.

“He was very cordial,” said Markens, adding that Neal made a campaign visit to Elmer’s Store in 2012. “I told him, ‘You should come back to Ashfield.’ He said, ‘I’d love to.’”

The revamped 1st Congressional District includes Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne in Franklin County. There’s also Easthampton, South Hadley and Hampshire County’s hilltowns west of Northampton — along with all of Berkshire County, Hampden County, and seven southern Worcester County towns.

That’s 87 cities and towns, the largest district geographically in the state, encompassing an estimated one-third of Massachusetts’ land mass. But 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, with Franklin County accounting for just 3 percent of Neal’s vote, 8.7 percent in Hampshire County and 20 percent in Berkshire County.

Franklin County, where Neal’s district represented about 44 percent of the registered voters in 2012, accounted for just 4.5 percent of the registered voters in the congressional district.

A former Springfield mayor, Neal has a hard act to follow in the more rural communities that were added to his district. Olver, a seemingly ubiquitous Amherst Democrat, retired in 2012 after 20 years on Capitol Hill. He was preceded for 32 years by Congressman Silvio Conte, a Pittsfield Republican who also made his presence known around a district that at the time included all of Franklin County.

Neal faces no major challenge in this year’s party primary or November election. Despite repeated attempts by The Recorder since mid-April to meet with Neal, he has not made himself available to respond to this article.

A Neal aide, William Tranghese, said Neal has been “very busy.”

Among his most recent scheduled appearances was as guest speaker at the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce on Friday.

Seldom seen

Neal handily won the three-way 2012 Democratic primary with 66 percent of the overall vote in his district, but in his 12 Franklin County towns, he captured a smaller majority: 54 percent. Nearly half of those towns preferred his challengers; in Charlemont, Neal won less than 41 percent of the vote.

Once past the primary, Neal has cruised. Nobody from the GOP or another party emerged to challenge him in the general elections of 2012, 2014 or this year.

Asked how helpful Neal has been to Franklin County, Colrain resident Michael Slowinski said, “The congressman is very supportive of West County. … He’s responsive; he’s always been there when I call.”

But Slowinski’s enthusiasm for Neal was unique among 20 Franklin county officials, activists and residents interviewed for this article.

Arthur Schwenger of Heath recalled the enthusiasm of townspeople when Neal turned out at the town hall when he began running for election in 2012, but said he and his neighbors haven’t seen much of the congressman since.

“It would be nice to see him here more,” said Schwenger.

Although he was endorsed in 2014 by the Sierra Club, the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters, the Human Rights Campaign and labor organizations including the United Auto Workers, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, labor leaders, progressive Democrats and environmental activists have since grown disillusioned with Neal and his staff.

They say they miss the accessible styles of former Reps. Olver and Conte — along with current Rep. James McGovern of Worcester, whose 2nd Congressional District includes 14 Franklin County towns.

Jane Winn of Berkshire Environmental Action Team said Neal has been absent not only on the pipeline but on other environmental issues as well, including pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to force a thorough cleanup of PCBs from the Housatonic River downstream from General Electric’s former Pittsfield factory site.

“He hasn’t been on that issue at all, whereas Olver had been consistently,” Winn said.

Local officials say they, too, have been disappointed.

“Other than when he first campaigned and took part of this region, I haven’t seen him,” said John F. Merrigan, Franklin County Register of Probate and a former state representative. “If you contrast him with Jim McGovern, there’s no comparison. McGovern is here all the time, and his staff is always reaching out to you. I had lunch with (Neal) in Shelburne when he first came on board, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him.”

McGovern and his staff provided steady support as Merrigan spearheaded a pioneering opioid addiction task force that has become a model around the state and beyond, he said. Neal, by contrast, is “a big money congressman who will take money from anybody” — something he said “takes you away … from local interests.”

The $1.8 million raised by Neal’s campaign in 2014 — a year when he faced no opposition — is more than twice the $874,500 raised by McGovern, and his $2.6 million cash on hand is well above McGovern’s $373,400. McGovern’s top contributors gave $10,000, while Neal received $61,000 from MassMutual, $22,500 from Hartford Financial and $20,000 from Ernst and Young.

Neal’s fundraising, described by the website OpenSecrets.Org as comparable to the average for members of Congress, is repeatedly mentioned as a major reason he rarely faces opposition.

Bill Perlman, a longtime member of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Committee, is among those who said he has tried to contact Neal but gotten no response.

“Neal as far as I’m concerned, is missing in action,” said Perlman. “He seems to be unresponsive to his constituents.

“Springfield is his base; that’s why he spends time there,” Perlman concluded. Hilltown residents, by contrast, feel “we have nobody.”

Split County

Before redistricting, one member of Congress represented all of Franklin County. Now, the county’s interests are divided between two very different representatives, Neal and McGovern.

“In theory, having twice the voice should be good, because you’ve got two guys working for you,” said Perlman. “In reality, we don’t have two guys working for us.”

Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, says McGovern’s staff has bent over backwards to respond to the region’s needs, often working to line up support for the region’s initiatives from Neal and the state’s two federal senators.

When Olver was in office, he had seniority on the House Appropriations Committee and frequently earmarked federal cash for Franklin County projects. Local officials say those days are gone.

“It’s very different than it was, and I can totally understand why people feel less love,” Dunlavy said. Neal’s position on House Ways and Means and McGovern’s on the Rules and Agriculture committees, are important, said Dunlavy, “but that doesn’t bring money home.”

Among the projects Franklin County leaders would like Neal’s help in gaining funding for are rural broadband service, passenger rail connecting Springfield with Greenfield and the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership project.

McGovern has been more helpful, said Franklin County Community Development Corp. Executive Director John Waite.

When McGovern began serving part of Franklin County, Waite said, “I must say I felt there was some outreach,” and McGovern’s staff has been helpful when the CDC has sought grants.

He added, “When we applied for a (federal) grant that covered Northern Berkshire, I’m pretty sure we asked for Neal’s support and got it. But that’s like the easiest thing for a congressman to do.”

Engaged on energy

Unknown to many of his Franklin County constituents, Neal did visit Ashfield in January, to hear a private presentation about what would be the state’s first closed-loop wood-fired heat and electric energy plant at Roberts Brothers Lumber Co. The meeting was not open to the public.

“It’s not necessarily all that common to see him hosting events in the rural part of his district,” said Evan Dell’Olio, spokesman for Roberts Brothers Renewables. “We gave him a presentation, and he does appear to be very engaged.” Even before that, Neal had written a support letter for a federal grant sought for the project in 2015.

Neal is “very much open-minded when it comes to energy,” says Dell’Olio, a former aide to Sen. John Kerry who also worked for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

But he acknowledges, “I think Franklin County has gotten the short end of the stick in redistricting and has gotten the short end of the stick on many fronts, with the highest percentage of poverty in southern New England. ... At times, I think it can be sometimes challenging to have a voice for the interests of rural Mass. when there is no congressman who happens to be specifically from rural Mass.”

A group of progressive Democrats and labor leaders who took part in a February 2015 protest over Transpacific Partnership (TPP) legislation at Neal’s Pittsfield district office were surprised to discover he’d downsized the office so much that there was no longer a space to meet with a group of constituents and was now “little more than a closet,” said Shein, one of the group. “That seemed an apt metaphor for his commitment to spending time here.”

The 2012 Democratic challenger said the group was happy that ultimately Neal voted against fast-track approval for TPP, but wished that he’d come out against it earlier.

With little advance word of appearances to announce federal funding of a project or support a political ally, he said, “There are no unexpected interactions with voters who might want to make sure he knows what’s on their minds.”

Shein said, “He advertises on his website that he has tele-town hall meetings. I have not been able to find recordings of any of those. I believe he and his team over many years have mastered the ability to say only the bare minimum on issues large and small, including responding to reporters’ inquiries with prefabricated statements that have been issued almost verbatim many times before.”

Shein, in a critique that echoes criticism from Chesterfield political consultant and former Olver aide Matthew Barron, and others, said that it seems Neal “spends a lot of time with folks who have a world view that puts the interests of these larger enterprises at the top of the list as opposed to the rest of us. In that sense, it seems related to his lack of presence, and apparent lack of interest in the day-to-day lives of people here.”

Barron says, “Early in a congressperson’s career, they usually come home every weekend and work hard at staying in touch with constituents. But with Neal, as time has gone on — and he is coming up on 30 years in the House — he has gotten away from that. That is why I call him the ‘inaccessible congressman.’”

Reflecting on what he described as Olver’s methodical reaching out to every community in the district and keeping track of the frequency, Barron pointed to the fact that Neal hasn’t issued a press release since April 2015 as another sign he isn’t interested in reaching out to his district.

Neal’s Facebook page and Twitter feeds do reach out to the public, as with a statement of Neal’s “outrage” over last week’s Orlando’s shootings. Primarily, they keep a running account of where he’s been in the district — receiving an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College, marching in Southbridge’s bicentennial parade, dedicating a new environmental center in Springfield’s Forest Park and the reopening of the Stockbridge Library. ... He also toured Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, where he stressed the importance of farming. That was in February 2015.

Springfield

To the south, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said Neal “has been a great partner” in the redevelopment of the city’s Union Station and in park improvements as well as other projects. “He was my go-to guy with FEMA to make sure we got every dime for tornado recovery.”

Yet, contrasted with other congressmen who have represented the rural Franklin County, most people interviewed painted a picture of Neal that was not as positive.

“I’ve been to many meetings with John Olver with people who vehemently disagreed with him on something,” Barron said, “but he’d give them time of day, give them a chance to make a case, and then say, “I’ll tell you why I’m opposed.’ And many times, they’d say, ‘OK, I never thought of that.’ They’d leave having learned something. But Neal just doesn’t accept criticism well.”

Added Frank Farkas of Berkshire Brigades, the official Berkshire County Democratic organization, “He doesn’t brook opposition, and he’s in a very powerful position.

“Nobody opposes him,” Farkas said of Neal. “He’s king of the hill. Richie’s got a fortress around him. If his M.O. is to keep a distance from people who disagree, it serves his purpose.”

On the Web:

bit.ly/24P8UUZ

bit.ly/1UTATg6

1.usa.gov/1T949A5

ballotpedia.org/Richard_Neal

bit.ly/28K7xP7