Friday, August 13, 2010

Neal...Before Your Constituents...

Neal's Wikipedia Photo.
Partly due to percolating over this and partly due to laziness, WMassP&I returns to reality with a new posting focusing on a figure oft-mentioned, but rarely explored.  There is little doubt that he is a giant in the political establishment of the Greater Springfield area, and easily the region's most recognizable figure.  Despite his relatively lengthy tenure, he has kept a low profile outside of the 413.  Still, he might not go unrecognized in the capitals of the British Isles.  If you have not guessed or have not read the postings title, we speak, obviously, of the Congressman for the Second District of Massachusetts, Richard Edmund Neal.

For the residents of the Second Massachusetts Congressional District, many know of or have even met Neal.  He is a master of the constituent connection aspect of politics.  He may have met a person at an event ten years ago and would remember that person despite the decade between encounters.  Indeed, his attention toward district-based nuts and bolts issues (some would call it pork, but that is not entirely correct) and not a few particularly headline-grabbing national issues is part of his success (or entrenchment, again as detractors see it).  However, that picture people have is not the whole story.  Today, WMassP&I seeks to explain, who and what Richard "Richie" Neal is, why he is important, why we need him, and what our and his future are.

Neal's District (from Wikipedia)
The impetus for this posting was not the embarrassment of having failed to go into any depth on Springfield's Representative-in-Congress (Neal's district also includes Agawam, Chicopee, South Hadley, Northampton, and Springfield's eastern suburbs continuing into Worcester and Norfolk Counties along the Connecticut border).  Rather, it is the electoral climate of this year and the appearance of some media about the Congressman and his would-be opponents.  Neal has not faced a Republican challenger of any substance since the 90's.  This year, two men have stepped forward and, once their battle for the Republican primary ends, the victor will face Neal in November.  However, it was actually two media pieces--one in the Reminder looking at one of the Republican candidates and the other on Valley Blog Pioneer Tommy Devine's blog--that spurred WMassP&I to consider the Congressman.

Devine's July 22 blog posting focused on commentary from Red Mass Group the antithesis of the better known Blue Mass Group blog.  The Red Mass excerpts described the chances of Republicans taking either Neal's district or that of John Olver, whose district encompasses all of Berkshire and Franklin Counties, most of Hampshire County, Hampden County West of Springfield (save Agawam) and a healthy chunk of Worcester County.  Red Mass Group echoed what most political advisers believe: that the only hope in Hell the GOP has of taking a Massachusetts congressional seat lies on the Cape and South Shore where Bill Delahunt is retiring.  Devine, however, outlined his own astute, but flawed roadmap to GOP victory in Olver's and especially Neal's districts.  In his estimate if voter enthusiasm in "corrupt" Springfield and "partisanly passionate" Northampton, the epicenters of Democratic control in Neal's district, could be dampened, Neal would fall to a Republican.  Indeed, Devine, notes, Scott Brown won virtually all the Springfield suburbs.  

Campanile with Monarch Place (WMassP&I)
While the likelihood of either cities' voter base not showing up is low, Devine's estimation of the situation denies two essential facts about Neal's district.  One, he is loved by many.  Not everyone, but a wide swath of voters liberal, conservative, Republican and Democrat like him and would vote for him.  In other words, Neal is better liked than Martha Coakley.  Many suburban voters were once Springfield residents during Neal's mayoral term and remember remember the good, real or perceived, that he brought as mayor and are unlikely to blame him for the economy or turn on him in general..   Second, the Springfield's political establishment does not stop at the city's edge.  Much power is wielded outside its boundaries, even on issues that are entirely within the city.  Longmeadow, for one, which is more or less the ATM for Western Mass politics, exerts incredible influence over any race within a hundred miles of it and Neal has often enjoyed that community's support in the past despite it voting Republican for its State Rep until 2008

Devine is not the topic of this discussion, but it is important to understand his position.  He is a well-respected member of the Springfield media, particularly in its less mainstream outlets like in Blogs or in the Valley Advocate.  Devine is neither a Democrat nor Republican, but the one-time Springfield native is an avowed Neal-basher.  That history runs deeper than his seemingly libertarian values that drive his more generic animus toward Democrats.  Those views are very likely derived from living in Massachusetts, where Democrats often epitomize the worst of liberal stereotypes.  Devine's feelings about Neal go back to the latter's terms as Mayor of the state's third largest city.

Hall of Fame Spire (Wikipedia)
The Reminder article focused on Tom Wesley.  The Republican nominee hopeful held a fundraiser in July at Pazzo, an Italian restaurant at the Basketball Hall of Fame.  Wesley attacked Neal for never holding a "private sector company."  While Neal's credentials do not include head of any major corporations, he has worked in the private, non-profit sector.  The congressman's time as a teacher at Cathedral and professor at area colleges were private sector jobs.  Wesley also assails Neal's support for bailouts (supported then-President George W. Bush), stimulus, and health care reform as too much change, but like it or not that is what voters asked for in 2008.  Some may have buyers remorse now, but since when is any change inherently bad as Wesley implies.  The Republican candidate also voiced support for tariffs (although avoided the word) forgetting the lessons of history.  His support for tax cuts targeting industries that pack up and move overseas is nice, but naive.  It is the unbelievably low cost of living (and currency manipulation) that sends jobs to China.  The candidate's example of Ireland forgets that that country also borrowed itself into its own present fiscal crisis to lure jobs there.  To Ireland's credit, they spent it on infrastructure and not war (Ireland also has little more than a rudimentary defense force).  But on to Neal, himself.

Mayor Neal in the 80's (Neal's Facebook page)
Richard Neal was born in Worcester on Valentines Day, 1949.  His family later relocated to Springfield where he ultimately graduated from Tech.  After graduating from HCC and AIC, he went on to work as a mayoral assistant during the administration of William C. Sullivan, a common proving ground for Springfield area politcos-to-be.  From there, he was elected to the City Council, and contrary to Tom Wesley's belief, held a real job as a teacher at Cathedral High School and lecturer at colleges in the Pioneer Valley.  In 1983, he was elected Mayor of Springfield.  The fairest  harsh description of his tenure could be called Springfield's last significant hurrah.  Notable projects like Monarch Place would add the first major addition to the city's skyline and needed modern (Class A) office space.  The budget was balanced and investment in the city was real.  In any event his tenure is remembered fondly by many residents who saw it as a period of relative prosperity somewhat common in the 1980s.  The worst of urban decline seemed past the city--at the time.  Otherwise Neal's time at City Hall was too short to adequately attribute municipal later stumbles to him.  The fall of the downtown area and de-industrialization began before he was in office.  Downtown's fall accelerated as Holyoke Mall exploded and, most notably, during the 90's, May Company acquired Steiger's, and renamed the latter's stores Filenes or Lord & Taylor.  May opted to locate its Western Mass Flagship at an expanded Holyoke Mall rather than maintain the old building in downtown.

Perhaps a deeper criticism of Neal stems from charges that he is a major link in the city's Democratic political machine responsible for installing losers, cronies, and crooks into higher office.  Truly Neal's success has been due in part to the city's machine, which gave us great public figures like Albano.  However, that machine does not run at Neal's behest nor is it uncommon for such machines in America to produce failures as well as successes.  Indeed, the machine predates him, and kept his predecessor in Congress, Edward Boland, in office.  It is often further said that Neal was groomed for his position and was Boland's hand-picked successor.  Probable rumors notwithstanding, none of this actually impugns Neal.  In a city like Springfield it would be naive to think such machines do not exist or could be completely dismantled (or that reformers could one day found new machines).  Historically, Neal's district has encompassed both the city and a fairly large suburban/rural area only partly related to Springfield's machine.  Given the city's own small, but significant conservative community, Neal's continued success and ability to scare off challengers is necessarily due to support throughout his district, anchored in Springfield.

Charles Ryan, 2007 (WMassP&I)
As for the machine producing bad politicians, this is simply an unintended consequence.  Most of the city's political villains owe their success not to the machine itself, but their own charisma and appeal.  The Network, as the machine is often called in the Springfield Intruder, has failed when its candidates lack enough connection to voters and/or set themselves up for a scandal a la Charles Ryan's defeat of Linda Melconian in 2003.  Arguably, despite the obvious problems in his administration of the city, Albano continued to win, not because of the machine, but because of his person to person appeal and exploitation of it.

Back to Neal.  His time in Congress has, too, been criticized for being lackluster.  This, too, is unfair.  Neal, who while extremely gregarious and outgoing, possesses not, at the same time,  a personality meant to scream into C-SPAN cameras.  Though attacked for a voting record that mirrors Nancy Pelosi's (something common among the voting records of representatives of both parties and their leaders), it also give him some power and clout.  Since many issues that run before Congress do not necessarily possess and absolute right or wrong vis-a-vis the fate of the country, Neal can leverage a yes vote today for an issue he favors later.  Dispel your illusions, ladies and gentlemen.  This is how politics really works and how it always has.

Platform Level, Springfield Union Station (Wikipedia)
Still, in that time, Neal has come out forcefully for reforms to the Alternative Minimum Tax, corporate tax dodges, and a peaceful resolution in Ireland.  As a member of Ways and Means, he has been a vocal supporter of Social Security.  Millions of dollars of federal money has been directed into Springfield, far more than other communities in his district, in part because the city actually needs it.  While that aid is part of the government and social service economy rightly derided by many, similar moneys flow into communities nationwide whose economies are both healthier and sicker than Springfield's.  Additionally, most federal money in recent years has gone been targeted to infrastructure improvements that the city could otherwise not afford and the state would usually be unwilling to fund.  Union Station and State Street top the list.  Even projects less clearly needed like the Federal Courthouse can be justified as sparking investment along the heretofore moribund corridor.

Neal's record has not sent textbook publishing running to include him among notable Congressman, but he has served his district faithfully and well.  There is always room for improvement, but then again where isn't there? 

Neal's Facebook Photo
At the beginning of this election cycle, one may argue, Neal did not take Jay Fleitman and Tom Wesley, the competitors for the Republican nod, too seriously.  However, once the mood of the country began to shift from panicked to disgruntled, Neal awoke his campaign apparatus while engaging seriously, for the first time social media as a campaign and communication outlet.  The municipal election last year showed how utilizing the internet and Facebook assisted the victors in winning their elections.  Among the ward races for example, save for two or three contests, the victor had an effective digital presence online and outreach to new media and the blogs.  Neal's steps into the modern digital political landscape suggest that the savvy he has utilized to connect with voters during a thirty plus years career of public service also gives him the wherewithal to adapt to the evolving challenges that face his district and the country at large.

A common criticism laid before Neal seeks to undercut even that assertion,namely his response, again as mayor, to the devastating effects of de-industrialization.  On this the critics again at best only have a half-truth.  They can only realistically point to Neal's mayoral tenure and what plant closings happened during and immediately after.  However, that too suggests that Springfield's fate in this regard is wholly unique.  It is not even unique in Massachusetts.  Policies out of Washington and Boston left the forces at 36 Court Street with little in their arsenal to effectively fight back.  It is armchair revisionist history to say that those in power should have seen it coming, when stories across the country relate the same sad and at times shocking decline of once great cities.  Could more have been done?  Absolutely, but one can pick almost any moment in history and say more could be done without demonizing those in history we count on the side of the angels.

Richard E. Neal neither parts the waters nor stands upon them.  To expect that from our elected representatives is as foolish as expecting any one person to do so.  What he has shown, time and time again, is a willingness to stand with those he represents when an oncoming deluge gathers before them.  Exercising compassion better than some conservatives once claimed for themselves, when his ability to act is hindered by either politics or the limits of his own office, he has reached out as a person to his constituents in need.  When he can act, the humanity of his response is not at all diminished.

Assuming the Democrats hold the House, Neal stands a good chance of becoming the chairman of Ways and Means.  This could leverage increasingly scarce federal dollars toward Springfield and cities like it. Even if Neal does not become chairman, the city could not ask for a better advocate at this time.  Barring some future challenger from within the city, it is unlikely that anyone who replaces Neal would have the same history and genuine personal investment in the city.  The combination of our society's "throw-away" nature and the often pervasive popular despair about Springfield, an "outsider" would likely turn away from the city and leave it to rot.  Richard Neal has not and will never allow that to happen.

Some critics have solid political and philosophical differences with the Congressman, which both sides can do little more than agree to disagree.  These people will not be won over.  However, if their argument ends up resting on the efficacy and commitment of Neal's work as the representative of Springfield and a dozen or so other Massachusetts communities (as it often does), then they have no argument.


I'm Just Musing said...

I would like to comment on two points in your post.
1. You, as does Neal seems to forget there is more to the district than just the Springfield - Northampton district. As you did state there is more to the district outside of the 413 area code.
2. Neal has seemed to forgotten that he has any constituents out this way. While he has done plenty for Springfield, he has done nothing east of there. We have not seen or heard from Neal in years until last month (I'm sure because he does now have a serious contender)when he showed up at an event in the area.

He has voted with Pelosi 98% of the time, and at least one voter, me, believes this is not in the best interest of the district.

Matt S. said...

Dear Mr. Musing:

I am not ignorant of the scope of Cong. Neal's district. Indeed, I included a map and verbally described its boundaries.

Secondly, I understand that a lack of visibility which I am unable to confirm or deny, suggest a disconnect. However, the urban ills of Springfield, Chicopee, and Northampton are stunningly similar if less dense in rural regions such as east of the Springfield area. Moreover, not having left any clue as to your locality, I am unable to provide a better comparison from your community to Springfield.

Finally, while I respect your right to oppose, without any substantive complaint, Neal's like voting with Speaker Pelosi, it does not mean much. Pelosi, as Speaker does not often vote so that she may chair the House. Moreover, what votes are we talking about? It seems unlikely that you would support Neal one way or another as he does, in general support your views and likely never would or has.