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Richie Neal Making Rank in an Uncertain Time…

US Rep Richard Neal last month. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Last month United States Representative Richard Neal was visiting Union Station once again, this time to unveil the waiting room’s restored clock. Neal is always beaming during visits to the station, but the renovation impending completion will close a chapter in his career. Nearly 40 years ago, he kicked off his first campaign on a platform of reopening the station.

Now the Democrats’ top member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, Neal enters a new era that began 25 years ago when he joined the panel. With Barack Obama’s healthcare law, Medicare and other social programs in Republican cross hairs, Neal assumes the post and a degree of prominence at a critical time.

“It’s pretty auspicious to start your 25 year and be ranking member,” Neal remarked during an interview last month.

Even at that, Neal had to fight for it. An attempt at the spot six years ago faltered and Neal nearly had to battle Los Angeles Congressman Xavier Becerra for the gig. Luckily for the Bay State rep, California governor Jerry Brown appointed Becerra to become state Attorney General.

Yet being ranking member shall ratchet up the 67 year-old congressman’s role and stature in the caucus and in Washington.

An Earlier Station

The invitation to the kickoff of Rep. Neal’s 1977 campaign for Springfield City Council. (courtesy Office of Rep. Richard Neal)

A framed invitation from Neal’s 1977 kickoff at Union Station, which likely watched Neal lobby and cajole millions for the station’s renovation, hangs in his Cannon Building office overlooking the Capitol. Despite the current place of honor, Congress may not have been the objective then.

“The mayor’s office was always in the vision,” Neal, a former history teacher, said. “The 5 pretty decent years that the city had sort of encouraged me,” referring to his mayoralty.

Politically connected for some time—at 23, Neal worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign— heserved three terms on the then-all at-large Springfield City Council. Neal became mayor in 1983 before running for Congress in 1988.

Neal, who adds color to conversation with anecdotes and historical factoids, recalled reading a book about Joseph Kennedy, II’s first House race, shortly before his own congressional run.

Neal’s predecessor Cong. Edward Boland (via wikipedia)

Now Pioneer Valley political lore, Neal’s own story included developing  campaign plans while predecessor Edward Boland was on retirement watch. Potential primary opponents, like Chicopee State Rep Kenneth Lemanski, did not, assuming Boland had decided to stay one more term. Meanwhile Neal toured, if not campaigned in, the further flung areas of the district, per contemporary Worcester news reports—the district then curled around that city’s suburbs.

A recession-induced fiscal crisis in Springfield shortly after he left for Washington notwithstanding, Neal would rarely face serious opposition. Notable exceptions include stiff, but ultimately unsuccessful primary and general election challenges in 1992.

Walk This Ways (and Means)

Neal settled into Congress easily, first on the Financial Services Committee and later Ways & Means. There he would devour the minutiae of committee work even as he pursued cause like peace in Northern Ireland and made friends on both sides of the aisle.

“Woodrow Wilson correctly noted the real work of progress takes place in committee,” he said.

President Franklin Roosevelt Signs the Social Security Act in 1935. In addition to its best known pension program, the act also included aid for dependent children and unemployment benefits. Medicare joined the club in 1965. All are overseen by Ways & Means. (via FDR library)

On Ways & Means he dug into the policy, nuances and impact of the safety net. It was a good fit for a former beneficiary of Social Security’s survivors benefit program. Neal’s parents had died when he was young.

Constituents know his fervent defenses of the programs, but others have noticed the his willingness to dig into the detail. House leadership asked Neal to travel the country in opposition to President George W. Bush’s stillborn plans to privatize Social Security.

Rep. Kevin Brady (via Twitter/@repkevinbrady)

Way & Means Chairman Kevin Brady, a conservative Republican from Texas, has found common cause with Neal too. They worked on a bill last session to treat public employees receiving Social Security benefits more equitably.

“I think he’s deliberative,” Neal said of Brady. “We have a reasonable tone. That doesn’t mean we are going to agree. In all likelihood we are not going to agree a lot.”

For his part, Brady spoke approvingly of Neal’s knack for complex legislation in a statement released when Neal secured the ranking member spot on Ways & Means.

“Whether it’s improving our broken tax code or ensuring equal treatment by Social Security for all workers, he’s always been willing to lead on a range of consequential policy issues,” Brady said of Neal in the statement.

Neal at his 1989 farewell address. For much of his tenure, Neal cultivated relationships in the Capitol, not on national TV. (via Youtube)

While ubiquitous at home, Neal studiously avoided the glare of Washington’s television cameras for much of his time in Washington.

“The members of Congress that are in the well of the House everyday, they generally have political problems back home,” he told WMassP&I.

Neal in the Spotlight

As dean of the House delegation in 2013, he has taken a more conspicuous role among Massachusetts Democrats.

Some former staffers have attributed newer Massachusetts Reps’ prominent assignments to Neal’s influence with leadership, perhaps paying forward consideration senior reps shown Neal as a junior rep. In 2014, Neal rounded up House members for a fundraising push on behalf of gubernatorial nominee Martha Coakley. Sources say he remains one of the state and national party’s more important fundraisers.

Since becoming the lead Democrat on Ways & Means, Neal has made television appearances to defend the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“I am always happy to debate the genius of Mr. Roosevelt’s social security program and Mr. Johnson’s Medicare act,” Neal said.

Neal along with much of the Massachusetts congressional delegation at the Boston rally to save the ACA (WMassP&I)

At the healthcare rally Democrats held at Boston’s Faneuil Hall on January 15, Neal made a spirited case for the entire safety net. Before extolling the ACA’s virtue, he mocked GOP accusation about reading the bill. “Not only did I read it, I helped to write it.”

Perhaps previewing Democrats’ rejoinder to Republican efforts to gut Medicare and Medicaid, Neal bound the entire safety net closer together.

“Here’s what’s happening to Medicaid, and I defy this to be challenged,” the congressman declared in Boston. “Medicaid has now become a middle-class benefit because of nursing home care, because of Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

“We need to dig in on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act because they are all wed,” he said.

As with Medicare now, in 2005, Nancy Pelosi and Democrats defended Social Security in its current incarnation. (via wikipedia)

The ACA has been at risk since its passage. However, Speaker Paul Ryan has designs on cutting Medicaid funding and substituting Medicare’s guarantee with a voucher program. Neal told WMassP&I Democrats would take a page from the Social Security battle 12 years ago if Ryan moves on Medicare.

“We do not intend to offer an alternative to the Medicare proposal, he said. “We intend to defend Medicare as it is.”

“Party of Aspiration”

The direction of the party is on Neal’s mind as well, which, obviously, affects Neal’s path to Ways & Means’s chairmanship.

Worrying about becoming a coastal party, he called for a return to Democrats’ roots as the “party of aspiration.”

“The idea we can’t compete for congressional seats in 40 states, in 45 states is ridiculous,” he said. A leaked agenda for a Senate Democrats retreat would seem to concur with that.

US Capitol. (WMassP&I)

When Neal joined Congress, Democrats held most seats in almost all southern states “and how about Kansas,” he said. They did not vote with coastal Democrats all the time—Neal, too, has faced criticism on occasion for not always voting with the left—but they voted for Democratic control of the agenda.

More than Democratic governance suffered last year, however. Neal said the truth was a casualty last year, too, which presents a problem to find a common narrative in the country.

“There is one title that is higher than president in a representative democracy and that is citizen,” he said. He looked to the rising generation of citizens who have a commitment as one bright spot. Yet Americans must also confront news and views they disagree with for the country to move on.

As he bid farewell to City Hall 28 years ago, the newly elected rep said “the city is the teacher of the man.” Among the things Neal learned were about community and “even, on occasion, about humility.”

Perhaps the latter, in particular, is a lesson Washington could use in these troubling times.