SPRINGFIELD — For years, Richard Neal avoided the spotlight. During his three decades in Congress he has favored the inside game, quietly moving up the Democratic ranks until ascending this year to one of the more coveted positions in the House.
As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Neal has had a central role in the probes of President Trump and the efforts of top House Democrats to pursue an impeachment inquiry. But that new prominence has come with a potential downside: a spotlight on his cautious, methodical approach, which has triggered unrest among liberal activists back home.
In his district, which encompasses most of the western third of the state, Neal faces his second consecutive Democratic primary challenger next year amid increasing frustration by progressives. They are upset with what they call his lack of urgency on key issues and limited opportunities for constituents to question him.
“I understand that he has worked very many years to achieve the position that he is in,” said Erin Freed, a local activist. “What I don’t understand is why he believes that he should keep that position without talking to his constituents.”
The groups are considering endorsing Neal’s 2020 primary challenger, Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, who said people in the district are frustrated.
“They feel like they don’t have a member of Congress that’s accessible and listening to their concerns,” said Morse, who is backed by the national progressive organization that helped Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York upset incumbent Democrats in 2018.
Neal, 70, the longest-serving House member from New England, has fought back against the criticism. He rejected the idea that he is unavailable to constituents, saying that he meets with anyone who comes to his office, in Washington or Springfield, whether or not he agrees with them.
He cited the many federal issues he is working on in Washington, including a new international trade deal with Mexico and Canada, passing a bill to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and holding a hearing on climate change.
“You have competing obligations, and many of them are here as well as back in the district,” he said, speaking from Washington after a second of two days drafting a health care bill.
Neal’s district is in many ways a microcosm of America.
It includes Springfield, his hometown and a majority-minority city, as well as the Berkshires. With that comes an equally wide gamut of challenges, from struggling inner-city schools to a lack of broadband Internet and transportation in rural areas.
It’s traditionally been home to moderate Democrats who have shown that they value a representative who can reliably deliver federal funding and projects to the district, rather than an outspoken firebrand, said Jerold Duquette, a professor at Central Connecticut State University who follows Western Massachusetts politics.
“The average Western Mass. voter doesn’t wince when someone is called a transactional politician,” he said. “You don’t win in Western Mass. if you’re just railing against the system. This is not a hotbed of insurgency.”
There are signs that might be changing. Springfield has seen a recent burst of political newcomers running for local and federal offices. After years of feeling disenfranchised, activists say people are slowly starting to realize the power of their votes.
“People are tired. And when do things change? When you get sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Tanisha Arena, the executive director of Arise for Social Justice, Springfield, which works to increase civic engagement in the city.
That’s a potential problem for Neal, whose position as Ways and Means Committee chairman has increased the pressure on him from some constituents to take a more active role in challenging Trump. The committee has the power to demand Trump’s tax returns, and Neal has faced criticism that he’s slow-walking the process.
Neal’s committee has been in a legal battle with the Trump administration for the returns since April. One reason for obtaining them would be to determine whether Trump has used his office for improper personal gain.
Activists also fault him for what they say are a lack of town hall events at home. According to his office, Neal held 16 events around the district during the two-week congressional recess in October. They included ribbon-cuttings, facility tours, and a speech to college Democrats, but not a town hall. His staff said he held a telephone town hall in August.
The local activist groups have held four town hall meetings this year and invited Neal, but they said he declined to attend. A visit to his office in Springfield is intimidating, they say, because it is in the federal building, which requires leaving cellphones at the door and passing through security. Neal disputed that concern.
The activists raise other concerns. They have called on Neal to release his own tax returns, which he has not. And they criticize him for taking large campaign donations from the pharmaceutical industry.
During the recess, Neal attended the opening of online retailer Wayfair’s new customer service center in Pittfield, saying that was as good a use of his time as a town hall meeting. He said he is considering whether to hold a town hall in the future and would like to attend one organized by the progressive activists, but there have been scheduling conflicts.
Neal said he plans to release his tax returns shortly, and he defended his fund-raising, saying his ability to contribute some of his money to other candidates helped Democrats win back the House majority in 2018.
If anyone understands the complex political environment in Western Massachusetts it is the woman who challenged Neal last year. With no political experience and a fraction of the money, attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud won 30 percent of the vote to Neal’s 70 percent, an indication that Neal could be vulnerable to a better-funded challenger
“That job is remarkably hard,” she said of running against Neal. “And it’s not because an incumbent can’t be beat. It’s really hard because so many of the people are so disconnected to these issues, to politics, there is a level of oppression, there are high levels of poverty, and that plays into the apathy that we see.”
Amatul-Wadud, a progressive who supports Medicare For All and debt-free public college, said she ran because she saw people struggling with the new reality of a Trump presidency but didn’t see Neal stepping up to support those rallying, marching, and protesting.
Now Morse is running on a similar platform of progressive change.
The 30-year-old mayor, who is gay, has earned praise for his work to remake Holyoke, where he has revitalized the downtown, established a needle exchange to help confront the opioid crisis, and begun to improve the local public schools, which are in receivership.
“I think that the way in which Neal has handled a whole host of national issues . . . is just a reflection of who he is and how he governs,” he said. “And I think that it just has made clear to people that he is not the leader for this moment that we are in.”
Morse has raised $217,000 so far, more than Amatul-Wadud raised during her entire election. Still, Neal has about $4 million in his campaign account.
Neal has not had a Republican challenger since 2010, and he slammed progressives for what he said were invented criticisms of him.
“My suggestion is we’re going to have an election and then people get to decide, and I’m entirely comfortable with that,” Neal said.