Following Morse’s campaign bid, Neal pays Shelburne Falls a visit

  • Richard Neal, U.S. representative for the 1st Congressional District, answers questions at Baked in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Richard Neal, U.S. representative for the 1st Congressional District, answers a reporter’s questions on Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Richard Neal, U.S. representative for the 1st Congressional District, with his back to the camera, meets with West County residents and officials at Baked in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2019 9:55:06 PM

SHELBURNE FALLS — Sitting at an outdoor table with a couple buttons undone on his blue linen shirt, the longtime Congressman Richard “Richie” Neal looked relaxed Wednesday as he discussed presidential history, rural school aid and the “fundraising princess” that is Nancy Pelosi with a dozen residents and local officials.

Neal’s visit marks his third to Franklin County this year — and his second in two days. The trips came about a week after Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse announced he is running as a Democrat for the 1st Congressional District, a seat Neal has held 30 years.

The lunch at Baked was arranged by former Mohawk Trail Regional District School Committee member Poppy Doyle of Ashfield, who gathered friends to meet Neal after the congressman requested a catch-up. The two have known one another since the late 1960s, when Neal was a Springfield high school teacher and she was working on a presidential campaign, Doyle said.

Morse and Neal, the two Democrats vying for the 1st Congressional seat, differ both in age and experience. Neal, 70, has held his position since he was first elected to Congress in 1988. Meanwhile, Morse, 30, became Holyoke’s mayor in 2011 at age 22, making him the youngest person to be elected mayor in the city.

Neal holds some power in Congress, serving as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Over lunch, Neal spoke empathically about House Speaker Pelosi, calling her second appointment to that role “extraordinary.” He added that he speaks to Pelosi several times a day about Democratic strategy.

The congressman of 30 years has represented the western part of Franklin County since districts were redrawn in 2011. All up, Neal represents 87 cities and towns. In Franklin County, that includes Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne. He also represents all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, parts of Hampshire County, and seven southern Worcester County towns.

Neal has received some scrutiny from West County residents about his limited presence in the area. Since 2013, when he began representing West County, he has visited the area 17 times (including Wednesday’s visit) according to a list provided by his aide: once in 2013, once in 2015, four times in 2016, four times in 2017, four times last year and three times this year. Some visits included multiple locations.

While some Democrats have recently announced they will not accept money from corporate donors or Political Action Committees (PACs), Neal said he will continue to raise money this way. His current campaign trove totals $4 million, according to the non-profit, non-partisan research group Open Secrets. The main source of this money is from PACs, making up 53 percent of his fundraising in the 2019 to 2020 period, while 23 percent of his efforts came from large individual donations. Neal’s smallest source of money in that period came from minor individual contributions: 0.23 percent or $3,215.

Below is a transcript of the in-person interview Neal gave the Greenfield Recorder on Bridge Street Wednesday at about 1:30 p.m. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Greenfield Recorder: What brings you here today?

Neal: Here in Shelburne, I wanted to meet with some friends and supporters. And then we’re headed up to Florida, to take a look at the turbines because I’m interested in an expansive energy initiative in the fall but I also have been the lead sponsor of the wind production tax credit and the investment tax credit. Those undergird wind power in America, and offshore wind as well. So we’re going to go up and take a look at those. And Poppy Doyle’s an old friend.

GR: How do you know her (Doyle)?

N: We’ve been in like 500 campaigns together, way back. Back to the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.

GR: When was the last time you were in Franklin County?

N: We were in Franklin County — we’ve got a list for you.

GR: I’m wondering, you haven’t had a serious primary challenger in some time ...

N: I had one 11 months ago.

GR: How seriously are you taking Alex Morse’s candidacy?

N: I take every campaign seriously.

GR: How do you view his candidacy?

N: It’s extraordinary to me that somebody could be running for Congress whose schools have fallen into receivership during his time as mayor, and that he missed 28 out of 60 School Committee meetings while the schools fell into receivership. That’s really a disservice to the children, and the parents of those in the Holyoke public schools. The schools are in receivership, and I think that he should be concentrating on the schools.

GR: Franklin County is the poorest county in Massachusetts. What have you done to improve the lives of its residents?

N: Guarding those turbine initiatives. Making sure that those communities receive the benefits that derive from the turbines. In addition, I’ve been a champion of federal initiatives, I’ve helped the schools out, here in the county. The tax work I’ve done. Medicare, making sure that Greenfield, the hospital, has necessary financial support. Most of that comes from Medicare, which I’ve protected, and Medicaid over the years. I helped write the Affordable Care Act, which benefited everybody in Franklin County. So those are all, I think, very important initiatives.

GR: Several young people have recently been elected to the House of Representatives, which has sparked some excitement about politics among young professionals. Do you see value in having new faces in Congress?

N: I do, I think what’s important to remember is that of the 42 that got elected, 36 either defeated Republicans, or won Republican seats. So that means that having them in Congress or keeping them there, which I did, is going to be really important as we go into next year as well. I made sure that they were recruited, financed and understood messaging.

GR: Why do you see your own candidacy as preferable to Alex Morse’s, who has a younger voice?

N: I think that if you’re interested in many of the growth economics in Massachusetts, having the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee I think is more important than having a freshman member of Congress who couldn’t find the time to show up for School Committee meetings.

GR: You’ve spent some time working on high-profile, national issues, like Donald Trump’s tax returns and Robert Muller’s report. How do you balance advocating for national issues with local ones?

N: Well, I mean, I got 71 percent of the vote in the last election, so apparently there’s somebody that understands the balance. I think you can do both. I’ve been a champion of Social Security and Medicare and health care and environmental issues. But simultaneously I’ve also I think paid great attention to the needs of local communities over the years.

GR: How so?

N: Well, whether it’s Westover. (Neal announced Jan. 31 plans to spend $42 million on a new aircraft maintenance hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.) That’s one example that comes to mind. Barnes in Westfield. That’s another example that comes to mind. Many of the biggest employers in Berkshire County and Hampden County and Worcester County would say that I’ve paid attention to the issues that are important to them. The research and development tax credit, which makes Massachusetts stand out in the world, not just in the United States. I’ve been their champion as well.

GR: Alex Morse recently said that he wouldn’t take any money from corporate PACs. This is something you have done regularly. Will you continue to accept money from corporate PACs?

N: I will, I’m going to continue. I’m glad to have the support of the Teamsters and the teachers and the firefighters across Massachusetts and nationally. You know, I’m happy to have the support of those who support renewable energy. That’s part of it as well.

GR: How do you ensure you’re not influenced by corporate donors?

N: That’s the genius of the Federal Election Commission report. That is that you report your contribution, and then the public makes up their minds.

GR: Thank you. Do you mind if I ask you a couple indulgent questions?

N: Go ahead.

GR: What is your position on Donald Trump’s impeachment?

N: The position that I’ve taken is that to continue to search for the facts and let the facts take their course. I think that we may get there. But I also think that, one of the things that Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi has repeatedly said, and I think it’s correct: where in the Senate do you go for 20 Republicans who would vote for conviction? Where do you go to get the first one, never mind the next 19? So I think letting the facts play out, and pursuing them on the basis of inquiry, is where we belong and where we need to be.

GR: Do you think he should be impeached?

N: Well, at the moment, we’re better off concentrating on defeating him.

GR: There are quite a few Democratic candidates running for president at the moment. Do you have a favorite, or a couple of favorites?

N: Well, I have a long-standing friendship with Elizabeth Warren, so I like her a lot. I think that watching these debates and watching the candidates perform is also going to be an important part of the consideration as we go forward. And I’ll certainly let my preference be known at the right moment. Probably sometime at the first of the year, we’re talking about now how to do that.

GR: What is it about Elizabeth Warren that you like so much?

N: I think she’s running a very substantive campaign.

GR: In what way?

N: She lays out plans. She talks about how she’s going to do certain things. I’m very sympathetic to that, because that’s the way I do things.

GR: And what ideas of Warren’s do you support?

N: Well, I think that she calls attention to the wealth gap in America. And she’s absolutely right about it. Part of the challenge with the wealth gap in America she has suggested is that there’s more concentrated wealth. So trying to figure out how to solve it, she’s talked much about that. I’m pretty sympathetic to what she says.

GR: Who do you think has the best chance of beating Donald Trump?

N: It’s hard to say. One of the problems with these debates is that they replicate reality TV. It’s very hard to answer substantive questions by putting your hand in the air.

GR: Yes. And the time limit isn’t great either.

N: Right after the first of the year, the rapidity of this election process will really occur. We move from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Nevada, lickety split. And then before you know it, California is a week later. So you’re likely to know, I think, after New Hampshire, who’s for real.

GR: And my final question: what will your priorities be if you are re-elected?

N: My priorities are going to remain the same. Health care, renewable energy, tackling the concentration of wealth in America and being chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Reach Grace Bird atgbird@recorder.com or413-772-0261, ext. 280.

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