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McGovern’s Rise Could Mean Double the Influence for Western Mass…

Rulemaker-in-waiting? Rep. James McGovern in his Capitol Hill office last month. (WMassP&I)

WASHINGTON—For some time now, the punditocracy has given Democrats an edge in the race for the US House of Representatives this year. For Western Massachusetts that would elevate Springfield Congressman Richard Neal to chairman of Ways & Means. He may not become the only rep for Western Massachusetts with new clout next year.

Following the passing of House Rules Committee Ranking Member Louise Slaughter, Worcester Representative James McGovern became the panel’s top Democrat. A Democratic majority would make McGovern chair and one of the House’s most consequential members.

“Every bill goes to the Rules Committee,” McGovern said. “The Rules Committee decides whether a bill can be amended or not.”

Neal’s 1st district covers virtually all of Hampden and Berkshire Counties as well as select towns in Franklin and Hampshire County. McGovern’s 2nd district is anchored in Worcester County, but extends West to encompass Amherst, Greenfield, and Northampton.

There’s no obvious precedent of Western Mass gaining such influence in Congress. Neal pointed to Edward Boland and Silvio Conte—along with Worcester’s Joseph Early—service on Appropriations as a rough parallel.

Speaker (and later Senator) Frederick Gillett: the Massachusetts Occident at the top….in the 1920s. (via wikipedia)

Before that one must reach back to 1925 when Springfield Congressmen Frederick Gillett stepped down as House Speaker.

Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based political consultant at Dewey Square Group—and a Greenfield native—said the region would secure rare and considerable leverage. McGovern and Neal chairing top House committees would benefit the commonwealth’s entire delegation, too.

“It’s been a long time since anybody had a chance to help out” each other Marsh said. “Massachusetts has always been really good as a team.”

‘Cause I don’t shine if you don’t shine…

Although ideologically similar in many ways, McGovern and Neal’s styles and backgrounds differ. Neal, 69, rose up through Springfield’s hazardous political ecosystem. He built coalitions and adapted to changes. In Washington that has yielded quiet, but potent influence.

By contrast, McGovern, 58, began his career as a Hill staffer. The Worcester Democrat wears his liberalism on his sleeve, particularly on priorities like hunger and human rights.

Rep. Richard Neal in 2011.

“We work really well together,” Neal said in a recent interview. “We have a great working relationship and we’re great friends.”

Their Washington offices are above one another and many members of each other’s staffs have worked together on races in the 413.

“I think the people of Massachusetts will have two members who are basically the chairman of the most powerful committees in Congress,” McGovern said.

The good old days, the honest man

In an interview last month in his Capitol Hill office, McGovern discussed his career and the prospect of chairing Rules.

The prospect of becoming Rules chair is something of a homecoming. As a staffer, McGovern, 58, primarily worked for the late Joseph Moakley, South Boston Democrat. Moakley chaired Rules from 1989 to 1995.

Before working for Moakley, he worked on George McGovern’s—no relation—1972 presidential campaign.

“I was overjoyed because George McGovern won Massachusetts comfortably,” the congressman said with a touch of irony. Of course, Richard Nixon won the other 49 states.

Sen. George McGovern (wikipedia)

While attending American University, the younger McGovern worked in Senator McGovern’s office as an intern. The McGoverns would remain close.

At the senator’s funeral, McGovern recalled people telling him they were supporters of his dad. “They always seemed a little shocked when I told them my dad owns a liquor store in Worcester, Massachusetts. I urged them to keep supporting him!” the congressman said at the time.

Levity aside, he remembered the South Dakotan’s decency and convictions. “Even after the 1972 campaign, even after losing 49 states, even after losing his Senate seat in 1980, he maintained his optimism, his faith in democratic government, his belief that America’s best days were always ahead.”

Moakley also heavily influenced McGovern, who held almost every job in the former’s office. Later McGovern was sent to El Salvador investigate the murder of 6 Jesuit priests and two others. The injustices he saw there informed not only Moakley on the temporary protected status program, but McGovern’s own commitment to human rights.

McGovern’s interest in ending hunger began while his boss was on the Select Committee on Health & Nutrition. After winning his seat, McGovern remembers a family coming to his newly-opened district office looking for food assistance. He later joined the Agriculture Committee, which oversees food stamps.

“I’ve seen hunger everywhere, in Massachusetts and all throughout this country,” McGovern said. “We live in the richest country in the history world and there are 42 million Americans who are food insecure.”

The Ag posting has been doubly helpful when his district shifted took in the Upper Valley’s farmland.

Got the green light, got a little fight

The Cannon House Office Building where both congressmen for Western Mass have their office. (WMassP&I)

When McGovern first ran in 1994, his district reached southeast from Worcester down to Fall River. The incumbent, Peter Blute, was the first Republican to hold the seat in decades. McGovern came in second in the primary, but Blute rode the GOP wave to reelection.

Two years later, he tried again. Winning the nomination, he tied Blute to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “If you wouldn’t vote for Newt, why would you vote for Blute?” McGovern recalled saying to great effect that year.

Still, many wrote off McGovern early as too liberal for the district. After a perfunctory editorial board meeting—in McGovern’s recollection—even The Globe endorsed Blute.

“I told people I’m a liberal,” he said reflecting on his early campaigns. “That’s who I am. I thought it would be disingenuous to hide who I am and what I believe.”

On election night the networks called the race for Blute immediately. “How could I lose in a minute?” he remembers thinking.

He didn’t. In fact, he won 53% of the vote, withstanding challenges since.

Current Massachusetts’s Districts. The 1st (Neal) is in brown/red. The 2nd (McGovern) is in bright red. (via wikipedia)

The shift west has made his district bluer. Half-jokingly, McGovern admitted to wondering whether his support for Hillary Clinton would prompt a primary challenge. He is unopposed this year.

Before you jump, Tell me what you find

Joining Rules was not planned. Moakley and McGovern had remained closed as colleagues, but in 2001 Moakley called him into his Boston office. He had leukemia and only months to live. He asked his former aide to give up a plum spot on Transportation to ensure Massachusetts maintained a spot on Rules. McGovern could not refuse.

Rep. Joe Moakley (via wikipedia)

McGovern recalls Moakley telling him he could became chairman if he didn’t “do something stupid” like run for Senate. Although, it took some haggling and another vacancy, by the end of the 107th Congress, he was on Rules.

Sixteen years later, Nancy Pelosi appointed him ranking member—and chairman-in-waiting.

“Jim has long been a steadfast advocate for the human rights of people throughout the world,” she said in an April statement. She highlighted “his defense of the vital lifeline of SNAP that has helped lift up millions of Americans who struggle with hunger.”

Pelosi’s office did not return a request for additional comment.

Being in the minority is no fun in the House. That’s especially true on Rules. Nicknamed the “Speaker’s Committee,” it sets the terms of debate for all bills.

Rules Committee Democrats claim Republicans have set records for the most “closed” bills or those with no realistic opportunity for amendments. From guns to immigration, bills that could pass have been asphyxiated by Rules at Speaker Paul Ryan’s direction.

A spokesperson for Texas Republican Pete Sessions, the Chair of Rules, did not respond to a request for comment.

A chamber ossified. (via wikipedia)

GOP leadership’s legislative blockade, “increases resentments. It increases polarization and it’s not good for our democracy.” McGovern said.

Were he to become chairman, McGovern would seek rules that accommodate more debate. “If you have an idea that you think is worth bringing before the full house, even if it’s an idea I disagree with, I think people deserve to be heard.”

Lower Valley political talk of Neal becoming Ways & Means chair predates his ranking membership.  It is so dominant his primary challenger, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, felt compelled to question the post’s significance.

On the other side of the Tofu Curtain, McGovern’s rise has captured attention among politicos and at organizing meetings.

“It plays a powerful role in shaping the policy agenda in Congress, so having Congressman McGovern chairing Rules would be big for our region and state,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz emailed.

Marsh, the political consultant, noted former speaker Tip O’Neill and Moakley taught newer reps how the balance Washington and their districts. Being ranking member has not slimmed Neal’s schedule of public appearances or advocacy.

Natalie Blais, a former McGovern staffer and candidate state rep, was confident the district would continue getting attention if he became chair of Rules.

“That would not fall by the wayside,” she said. “He cares deeply about the district and Mass as a whole.”

Gonna turn this thing around

Rep. McGovern (via

“Western Mass is not going to be an afterthought. It’s going to be front and center,” McGovern assured. “If things work out the way we want them to, I think people will feel the change.”

Much separates both congressmen from their committee gavels. Yet they are both promising more scrutiny of Donald Trump’s agenda as well as making the House more equitable for all members.

“Procedure and regular order are still staples of how a legislative body functions,” Neal said. He added “You have to grant the minority amendments.”

McGovern added that accommodating members more doesn’t have to mean compromising values.

“I’d want to help people, I’m in this business to help people.” While others think power is the ability to say no, he continued, “Power to me is the ability to say yes. That’s the kind of attitude I want to take.”