Congressional Race Pits Civil Rights Lawyer Against 29-Year Incumbent

Aug 27, 2018

In the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts, a 15-term incumbent who hasn’t faced a serious challenger in years is up against a black, female Muslim lawyer with only a fraction of his campaign money.

In her first run for office, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud -- a 44-year-old family and civil rights attorney -- appears undeterred by her steep political learning curve.

One recent evening, she walked around her campaign headquarters in Chicopee -- a narrow, wood-trimmed office building where she also has her law practice. She greeted several volunteers who came in to call area voters for her campaign.

Amatul-Wadud said she's been to more than 300 campaign events since she announced her candidacy last December against Richard Neal, who's been in Congress 29 years.

Even Neal suggested she’s got a chance. On a recent visit to his own campaign office, he pointed to four tables of volunteers.

"You can see by the number of people in the campaign headquarters here this morning -- it's pretty substantial," he said. "So I'm taking it seriously."

In the last couple months, this primary campaign has gotten national attention as a race to watch. That’s after another woman of color – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – beat a longtime incumbent in New York City.

Amatul-Wadud certainly doesn’t mind the comparison. Both women are running on progressive issues like single-payer health care, universal preschool and debt-free education. But she also points out the Massachusetts district -- 87 urban, rural and suburban communities -- has a very different population than New York.

Attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud at an August 2018 press conference.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

"I always look at myself as being independent in terms of my own identity," Amatul-Wadud said, "and not necessarily rushing to align myself with the next exciting thing because that fades."

That said, Ocasio-Cortez’s win did give her campaign a boost of adrenaline.

"There was an uptick in donations," Amatul-Wadud said. "We had 146 individual donations within a 24 hour period. And volunteers signing up saying if it could happen there it can happen here at home."

That’s hardly moved her out of underdog status.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Amatul-Wadud's campaign has raised about $72,000 this cycle to Neal’s $2.4 million. She says that's partly a result of Neal taking PAC money from defense contractors, banks and insurance companies. She ties those contributions to his recent vote for the large defense bill and his lack of support for single-payer health care.

"Having taken this much money from various industries, it's hard [for Neal] to now go and advance policies that may require those industries to take responsibility where they might not want to," she said.

Attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Both Amatul-Wadud and Neal concede that unless Democrats take back Congress, neither of their agendas will have much of a chance.
Congressman Richard Neal, at left.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Neal denies any connection between his legislative record and campaign contributions, which also include some labor unions. He opposed the Republicans’ corporate tax cut, and said he voted for the defense bill because western Massachusetts has two military bases.

He said he’s not against single payer health care, but rather he's "suggesting that there is an approach that we would take that's evolutionary in nature," he said, "but first making sure that the Affordable Care Act is what we build upon."

Neal, who's 69, has the higher name recognition. Before he ran for the House, he was mayor of Springfield. He commonly attends local ribbon cuttings, including many at Union Station, which he pushed to renovate.

At a recent event for the Springfield Innovation Center, Neal told the crowd stories of his wrangling in Congress to save low-income tax credits during the recent tax-cut showdown.

Neal has worked his way up to be top Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

As for why he wants to keep going back to Washington in such a contentious era, "I think part of it's public duty and part of it is a sense that you can have some impact and influence," he said. "I mean, it's ambition, and part of it is now the fulfillment of a career of work which has been generally pretty well-regarded by colleagues who agree and disagree with me."

Last year, Neal was the subject of a minor revolt, when residents in the hilltowns took out a newspaper ad accusing the congressman of ignoring his rural districts. He called that "manufactured" outrage.

"When you consider that you're in session about eight months a year and trying to get to the 87 cities and towns," he said, "I think we've really done pretty well."

Congressman Richard Neal at far left.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Neal doesn’t talk much about his opponent's campaign, though he did criticize Amatul-Wadud for a vote she cast in the 2012 election -- for Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Elizabeth Warren. That vote only became public when Amatul-Wadud herself tweeted that she regretted the decision.

In that earlier election, Amatul-Wadud said, she didn’t know much about Warren and liked that Brown was a veteran. Going forward, she said, she's devoted to progressive causes.

"I tell people: look at not only my history and the things that I've done, the causes that I've championed, and the promises that I've made, and excuse me for that one vote," she said.

Amatul-Wadud has also had to answer questions about her Muslim faith. She wears a hijab, and some reactions to her have been blatantly Islamophobic, including an anonymous flyer sent to area voters.

In other cases, progressives have wondered whether she would support gay rights or legal abortion if they go against her religion.

Absolutely, she said.

"I'm not here running to be anybody's religious leader," she said. "I'm here running to be a public servant. So I'm going to remove the conversation about my personal belief, and say I will protect members of the LGBT community, and I will protect a woman's right to make the decisions she needs to make for her body."

Both Amatul-Wadud and Neal concede that unless Democrats take back Congress, neither of their agendas will have much of a chance.

Whether or not the House goes blue, Neal said his decades of experience position him to get things done.

"You might frame it this way: I don't think many people want to go in for emergency surgery and have the doctor having been on the job for two months," Neal said.

Amatul-Wadud said she’s a quick study, and her legal advocacy for clients has given her a strong grasp of policy.

"My hope is that more like-minded Democrats are elected," she said, "so that we have an alliance of folks who think the same way in terms of what's important to our community, what's important to the nation."

The Massachusetts primary takes place September 4. Whoever wins the 1st Congressional District for the Democrats will be on the November ballot with no Republican challenger.

Take a look at NEPR's Massachusetts Primary Voter Guide 2018.