If the Democratic Party is to regain the trust of its traditional working-class base, it must begin to talk seriously about economic development, US Representative Richard Neal said Tuesday.
“I think that we’ve lost touch with the aspirations of people who really want to do something with themselves,” he said. “They see us as not caring anymore.”
Neal, a Springfield native, brings years of perspective to that issue. He was first elected to Congress in 1989 and has served ever since. He spoke with Globe reporter Joshua Miller Tuesday in a live interview at the AT&T store in Back Bay as part of the Globe’s Live Political Happy Hour series.
Neal, who dedicated much of his political career to the peace process in Northern Ireland, also said he would like to see a referendum vote soon on reuniting Ireland and Northern Ireland.
And he expressed pessimism about the possibility of reforming the federal tax code while Congress is mired in partisan gridlock.
The fact that Democrats lost the working-class strongholds of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania should be a wakeup call for the party, Neal said.
“We used to bring in the poorest and the middle and the richest, they were all under our tent,” he said.
Neal said he found it astounding that West Virginia, a state won by Democratic presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton and narrowly lost by Al Gore, went for Republican Donald Trump in November. Especially because the state’s residents depend heavily on Medicaid and Social Security, programs created by Democrats, he said.
“We were the party of aspiration. You stuck with us, you were going to have job security and you were going to have pay raises, and I think that we’ve moved in the direction of more grievance than aspiration,” Neal said.
Neal said he believes Democrats could regain the majority in the House next year if they stop depending simply on Trump-bashing to win votes.
To be successful in all parts of the country in addition to the liberal strongholds of New York, California, and Massachusetts, Democrats must adopt a more welcoming view and embrace voters and candidates who agree with the party platform most but not all the time, he said. Democrats need to begin talking about how to create jobs, raise wages, and afford college, Neal said.
He called the current tax code under-productive and inefficient, but amid the current partisan division in Washington, he said, the best lawmakers can hope for on tax reform is status quo.
Neal, whose grandparents were Irish nationalists, also talked about the political situation in Ireland. He said he would like to see a referendum vote soon on reuniting Ireland and Northern Ireland in the wake of the Brexit vote, in which Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the European Union while England did not. Whatever happens, he said, there should be no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Much of the controversy in Ireland has traditionally broken down over Protestant and Catholic lines. Neal said those who want to see all of Ireland united will have to convince skeptics that the different regions would still be able to hold onto their respective culturesif they were unified.
Neal was a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s including the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a ceasefire that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. And he was among US lawmakers who met with leaders of the Irish nationalist political party Sinn Fein in 2005, and he invited Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.
Neal said his work with Ireland has taught him about the United States’ influential role in foreign relations.
“The world is still motivated by what we think here in America, and our foreign policy has to remain fully engaged,” Neal said. He said he does not believe there will be peace in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world “unless America is fully engaged as an honest broker.”
Neal served as mayor of Springfield from 1983 to 1989. He is the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee in Congress.
Neal’s rural district is the largest in the state and includes most of Western Massachusetts including his hometown of Springfield as well as Pittsfield and Holyoke.
Asked what he thinks about Governor Charlie Baker, Neal said he has done “fine” and has been “good to work with.”
Neal defended himself against accusations that he rarely visits the more rural parts of his district and criticism he has missed 5 percent of floor votes in Congress during his years in office. Neal said he is proud to have made the other 95 percent.