A progressive mayor announced a primary bid to unseat Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the House Ways and Means Committee chairman whose coziness with corporations and glacial pursuit of President Donald Trump’s tax returns has elicited criticism from the left.
Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse rolled out his insurgent campaign against Neal on Monday morning with a two-and-a-half-minute video chronicling his modest upbringing as the son of working-class parents and his success leading a majority-Latino city struggling with poverty.
“There’s an urgency in this moment in our country and that urgency is not matched by our current representative in Congress,” Morse says in the video.
Neal’s re-election campaign responded with a neutral statement, affirming that “Congressman Neal will welcome anyone into this race.”
“Richie has been a champion for working families in Western Massachusetts and has fought tirelessly to ensure that the people of our region are not forgotten and receive our fair share,” the campaign statement continued.
Morse, 30, became Holyoke’s youngest-ever and first openly gay mayor when he was elected in 2011 as a recent college graduate.
In many respects, Morse fits the profile of many of the other progressive newcomers seeking elected office in Democratic cities and states across the country. He supports single-payer health care ― commonly known as “Medicare for All” ― and was the first mayor in Massachusetts to endorse marijuana legalization.
As a mayor, he also benefits from a level of executive experience that primary challengers often lack. He has made Holyoke a “sanctuary city,” declining to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration enforcement, and fought to combat the impact of the opioid crisis by implementing a needle exchange program. The stakes of the epidemic are personal for Morse, since a brother of his has struggled with heroin addiction.
Neal, who at 70 has represented Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District since 1989, is a stark ideological and generational foil for Morse.
Neal has earned notoriety in progressive circles for the slow pace with which he has used his perch atop the House committee responsible for tax policy to compel the release of Trump’s tax returns. Neal waited until April to ask for the returns and then, following the Trump administration’s refusal to provide them, took until July to sue for the returns in court.
Now he has declined to take advantage of a New York law that the state’s Democrats passed empowering the chairs of congressional committees that oversee taxation to obtain the state tax returns of public officials after other efforts have fallen short. Neal has said he worries that obtaining the state returns would jeopardize his federal lawsuit, but some experts dispute that.
Morse does not enter the race with a bevy of progressive institutional backers. Justice Democrats, which has recruited candidates to challenge two Democratic incumbents and endorsed several others, has not yet decided to endorse in the race.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group backing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid, cited Neal’s foot-dragging on tax returns and support for a giveaway to tax processing company TurboTax, in a statement saying the group would “very likely” support the challenge against Neal.
Neal “consistently sides with giant corporations and the political establishment against progress for his constituents,” PCCC co-founder Adam Green said.
Neal supported an early version of an IRS reform bill that included a provision that preserved the tax prep industry’s control of online tax filing. Though the provision had become controversial earlier this year, the broader bill passed the House without a single Democrat voting against it, as progressive freshmen representatives like Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) declined to ask for a roll call vote, which any lawmaker can do.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers who cosponsored the original bill later reintroduced it without the tax filing provision.
Neal is not among the most conservative members of the House Democratic Caucus, but he has steered clear of the progressive priorities championed by other members in solidly Democratic districts. He is not a supporter of Medicare for All and though he hosted a hearing on single-payer health care in June, he advised members of Congress against using the term “Medicare for All” ahead of the hearing, urging them to focus the hearing on broader concepts like “universal health care” instead.
Massachusetts’ first covers a wide swath of Western Massachusetts that includes the left-leaning Berkshires region, the city of Springfield, a cluster of liberal college towns and assorted other rural towns with a more conservative profile.
The Democratic hegemony in the district ― Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the district by 20 percentage points in 2016 ― suggests some of its liberal residents might have an appetite for a bolder Democratic representative in Congress.
But as head of the powerful Ways and Means panel, which oversees international trade, Social Security and safety net program policy, in addition to taxes and revenue, Neal has amassed a fearsome campaign war chest. As of the start of the month, Neal had a staggering $3.4 million in cash on hand.
Morse has signaled that he plans to make the sources of that largesse an issue in the campaign. Neal relies heavily on donations from the political action committees of corporations that have business before his panel, as well as wealthy individuals. In the second quarter of the year, just 0.8% of the more than $260,000 he raised from individual donors came in increments of $200 or less. Over the same period, he raised nearly $440,000 from PACs representing corporations, unions and other interest groups.
Morse declared in his video that he would not be accepting corporate PAC donations ― a point of contrast with Neal he hopes to highlight.
“It’s no accident that we have the disparities we have in the district. There’s no transparency,” he says in the spot, as the camera shows images of life in the district. “It sends the message that wealth donors and corporate PACs and corporations are far more important than the interests and needs and struggles of the people that we interact with each and every day.”
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