Go West, My Congressman…
PITTSFIELD—In the aftermath of redistricting, eight incumbent Congressmen are vying for nine seats. Therefore, in much of Massachusetts, voters will probably have the same representative as before and if not, it is only because their incumbent was shifted elsewhere. In Berkshire County that is not the case and some would argue Congressman Richard Neal is not their incumbent, especially after twenty years with retiring Representative John Olver as their voice in Congress.
However, during a visit to events to the urban center for the commonwealth’s westernmost county, that opinion was not self-evident. Local leaders, political luminaries and service organizations greet, guide and treat Neal like he is already one of the political family.
After the Commonwealth lost a seat in Congress and Olver retired, Western Massachusetts’ representation in Congress underwent its most dramatic reworking in decades. Olver’s district was divvied up among Neal, James McGovern and Niki Tsongas.
The Berkshires joined Neal’s district, renumbered to the First. Also joining the district were the western flank of Hampden County he did not already represent and western fringes of Hampshire and Franklin counties. Northampton was bounced into McGovern’s district, the new Second District.
Redistricting also brought challengers, both from Berkshire County. Andrea Nuciforo of Pittsfield, a former State Senator and current Middle Berkshire Registrar of Deeds, and Alford Activist Bill Shein face Neal in the September 6 primary.
Neal came to two Pittsfield stops last Wednesday to tout the development of broadband internet access for both business and for veterans. Members of the county’s State House delegation, Mayor Dan Bianchi and officials from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute traveled with Neal.
During the first event at Soldier On, a housing community for veterans, Neal spoke about the importance of infrastructure improvements in the more rural areas of the state. The event was centered around the Commonwealth’s unveiling of a new central, search-able website. Massachusetts’s Veterans Affairs Secretary Coleman Nee announced the website, a collaboration with the Broadband Institute, while it was demonstrated by Kyle Toto, a recent veteran who managed the project.
Although Neal’s district shifted considerably in redistricting, he has for most of his congressional career represented rural or isolated areas as well as Springfield and emphasized the importance of Internet access. He related a story of kids being driven to libraries in winter to access the Internet to do their homework, one which he repeated later in the day in Pittsfield and during a debate Monday night.
“I have never run away from the idea of public expenditures for investments,” he told the conference room filled with vets. However, Neal also tied that investment in broadband to a commitment to veterans.
Neal, who voted against the Iraq War, said many politicians who are eager to go to war balk at paying to take care of veterans upon return. “…In my book, if you voted for the war, you voted to take care of them [veterans] afterward,” he added.
Judy Dumont, Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, also praised the work of Neal and Olver to include broadband funding to the tune of $7.2 billion in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“The private sector did all that it could,” Dumont said, echoing comments Neal had made earlier. She also noted that funding broadband infrastructure is all the more necessary in an era of expanding wireless technology, which still relies on physical cables to function.
Neal was introduced at the event by Jack Downing, the president and CEO of Soldier On and the uncle of Senator Benjamin Downing. He explained his support for Neal came about after testifying before Congress on veteran’s issues with the help of Neal and Pittsfield’s current congressman, John Olver.
Downing explained how Ben, the state senator, would love to run for Congress himself following redistricting and the retirement of Olver, an old boss of the younger Downing. However, Jack Downing told his nephew that Neal, also a former boss of Ben‘s, would have the elder Downing’s backing.
This support from local officials at Soldier On was typical at such events. At the Berkshire County Chamber of Commerce, an event that touted broadband’s impact upon the local economy, support for Neal was also visible.
After the Chamber meeting, Bianchi, Pittsfield’s mayor, praised Neal, as a former Mayor himself, who could relate to the problems Berkshire County’s largest community faced.
Officially, neither Bianchi nor other Berkshire politicians have endorsed Neal. However, their presence and willingness to show Neal around their communities may speak louder than words.
Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, one of the reps at the broadband events offered some perspective on what makes a difference in Berkshire County. She noted that Berkshire County has not had a resident congressman in decades, but that what residents want is “somebody who has a presence.”
Farley-Bouvier illustrated how important that presence is to maintaining a familiarity with local issues. She cited among other examples, the challenges Berkshire County and Pittsfield in particular face regarding transportation and the inequitable distribution of state funds.
In a brief interview with WMassP&I after the Chamber event, Neal described his reception in Berkshire County as positive. He added that Pittsfield and the surrounding towns offer opportunities for person-to-person or “retail” politics, which he also enjoys.
Neal may have earned the tacit support of many politicians, and campaign officials describe Berkshire canvasses and outreach as very successful. However, along Routes 20 & 7 between the turnpike off ramp in Lee and downtown Pittsfield, many lawns sport Nuciforo and Shein signs.
Furthermore, both Nuciforo and Shein have made some inroads into the Springfield area. Nuciforo once spoke positively of his outreach in and around the city, which remains the center of gravity in the district. Signs for both challengers, though much rarer than the incumbent‘s, dot some lawns through the Springfield area.
Aside from the apparent support of locals and the official endorsement of Olver, however, Neal may have one other advantage. His current district, the Second, includes Northampton, which is decidedly more progressive and active than the district’s Hampden/Worcester County bloc. Redistricting Berkshire and Hampden Counties together integrated two more similar places.
Although the Berkshires is more politically active and probably a bit more progressive than Hampden County writ large, the two areas share a challenge of post-industrial reinvention. Colleges like Williams are in the Berkshires, but no community stands out like a college town the way Amherst or Northampton do. Likewise, Springfield, the home of four colleges, barely feels like a college town at all.
Cooperation within the district may be critical as the two regions come closer together. Farley-Bouvier noted that the small size of Berkshire communities and geographic isolation make this essential in the county itself. “Collaboration is what we do,” she said referring to Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation, a public-private partnership whose work helps surrounding communities, too.
Pittsfield has redeveloped its downtown and become a powerhouse in the arts community. This success has been replicated elsewhere in the Berkshires, which sought to capitalize on its popularity with vacationing New Yorkers.
Joint representation under one district could allow for some of that collaboration between east and west and help guide Holyoke and Springfield toward developing their arts communities.
Neal, a longtime advocate of the arts, agreed that the new district may offer such opportunities. He noted how that commitment in Berkshire County has transformed businesses and could do the same in Hampden County cities. “The arts here are really something,” Neal said.