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Rep. Neal’s Berkshire County Critics Welcome Morse Primary Challenge

LG Polito with Mayor Alex Morse
LG Polito with Mayor Alex Morse

As longtime Western Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal faces a Democratic primary challenge, political groups in Berkshire County are responding.

When news broke that Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse planned to challenge Democrat Richard Neal in the 2020 primary for the 1st Massachusetts District, Neal received a chorus of support from the Berkshire state legislative delegation. One of those voices was 1st Berkshire state Representative John Barrett. Neal has been in Congress in 1989.

“I’ve listened to people say that he has not been in the area, he has been in the area," said Barrett. "And I can speak from the prior congressman who was one of the best, Silvio Conte, and Richie Neal ranks right up there with him with what he has brought back to this district.”

Elected officials stressed the significance of having a local representative in a position of power, as Neal chairs the House Ways & Means committee. But some political organizers are excited for change.

Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP, had harsh words for Neal when the congressman declined an invitation to debate his 2018 primary challenger – Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud.

“As a public official, it’s your obligation to communicate to people who want to vote for you," said Powell. "And I think people have a right to know what your agenda is, what issues are near and dear to you, and for you to hear what issues are near and dear to the community.”

Powell characterized Neal’s Berkshire presence as little more than “photo-ops” in the county. At the time, Neal explained that a scheduling conflict prevented him from attending the debate. The NAACP president says Neal then did not return for a follow-up meeting with the branch, and has not been in contact since.

Powell says Morse attended a community event in Pittsfield’s West Side in July.

“And he just didn’t come and go, he actually stayed at the Gather-In probably a good two and a half hours, really talking with people, getting involved and really just enjoying the festival for what it represented," Powell told WAMC. "So yeah, it was quite different, quite a different contrast.”

He underscored that his observation about Morse’s community involvement did not constitute an endorsement from the NAACP.

“But I think it is important, I think this whole progressive movement has proven very positive for change," said the branch president. "I look at a lot of what’s going on at the DA’s office, and that’s very positive for our community. And when you look throughout the country, there’s been some really positive steps forward by the progressive candidates.”

Another local group cheering on Morse is the Berkshire chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“We would be particularly interested in seeing someone replace Representative Neal like Alex Morse, because Representative Neal is completely out of touch with the first congressional district of Massachusetts," said Amilie Coster, the communications coordinator for the chapter. While the group hasn’t endorsed Morse, Coster says Neal deserves a challenge.

“Filings have shown, people have reported that he is by far considered one of the more corporate Democrats, very moderate, and that he’s taking a ton of PAC money  from the corporations that are making things difficult for our community and the nation at large – in particular, the healthcare, insurance, real estate, and Wall Street Industries,” she said.

The Berkshire DSA spokesperson described Neal as insulated from voters in his district.

“Whereas someone like Alex Morse has made politics accessible to the public," Coster told WAMC. "He’s knocking on doors, he’s really engaging the Spanish speaking population in Holyoke, and it’s something that really excites us and that’s someone we’d be interested in getting to know more and absolutely replacing someone like Representative Neal.”

Neal, speaking to reporters in Pittsfield after a closed door meeting with District Attorney Andrea Harrington in July, pushed back against the idea of a progressive tide coming within the party, citing congressional victories in 2018.

“I think that in a sense that the narrative that was created by the national news media a year ago was that there had been this huge change in the national dialog," said the congressman. "But when you look at the retention rate for incumbents, and you look at the members of congress that got elected in new districts, that beat Republicans – four in New Jersey, four in Pennsylvania, one in Kansas, one in South Carolina, one in Oklahoma City, and four in Orange County, that’s where the majority came from. So this argument that there was this revolution – I think it might sound good for soundbites, but when you peel back the evidence, there’s not a lot to substantiate it.”

In 2018, Neal easily defeated Amatul-Wadud, taking in almost 50,000 votes to her 20,000. The former Springfield mayor is seeking a 17th term.

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