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Congressional race nears conclusion

Date: 8/15/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs


In the last weeks leading up to the Sept. 6 primary election, the roles of the three men campaigning for the newly formed First Congressional District have gelled — if not in the minds of prospective voters than at least with the candidates themselves.

Congressman Richard Neal is running on his accomplishments in Congress, Berkshire Middle District Registrar of Deeds Andrea Nuciforo Jr. has positioned himself as a progressive alternative to Neal, while the supporters of political activist and writer Bill Shein see him as a true progressive who has made campaign finance reform a central message.

The conventional wisdom of this race is to beat Neal, the opponent has to carry Berkshire County and Holyoke — both new in the district. With no Republican in the race, the primary will decide the next representative.

With an incumbent congressman, "campaign" is a slippery word. Neal has continued an active schedule of public appearances, many of which are linked with the announcement of allocations or grants of federal funds. Recently he was at Holyoke High School speaking about the importance of the "Build America" program, which was followed by a stop at the Springfield Police Department speaking about the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement to that city for cleanup costs from the October 2011 Nor'easter. All of these appearances are job related, but also all of them underscore his work in the Congress.

Neal has been doing stand-alone campaigning as well. He has worked on behalf of Elizabeth Warren's senatorial campaign, picked up the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve and Protect Social Security and made appearances with other elected officials.

Last week, Neal released a statement on the budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan. Neal said, "I refuse to stand by as Republicans promote their policies as fiscally responsible. In reality, the Ryan budget proposes draconian cuts that would destroy programs the Democratic Party established on behalf of the workingman and the workingwoman. Now is not the time to slash Medicare; now is not the time to ration health care to individual states; now is not the time to give more tax breaks to the wealthy as the middle class struggles; now is not the time to increase defense spending at the cost of America's infrastructure. I will continue to challenge any Republican who claims we can right our economy on the backs of working Americans."

Like many incumbents, Neal has sought to control his appearances and limit his exposures to his challengers. Shein and Nuciforo called for a series of debates, but Neal has committed to only two: a televised debate over WGBY to be taped on Aug. 20 and a debate carried by radio stations in the Berkshires broadcast on Sept. 2.

Patrick Tool, the director of communications for Nuciforo's campaign, told Reminder Publications that Neal's refusal to debate further is "unfair to the candidates, but also unfair to the press."

He added, "Neal is playing a classic incumbent move."

Tool hopes that pressure on Neal through the media will compel him to participate in more forums.

Nuciforo stated, "I am disappointed, but not surprised, that Congressman Neal has chosen to avoid four debates. He sees the same data we see, and these data show that we have widespread support and solid positions on issues that resonate with voters. Neal knows that this race is neck-and-neck, and he thinks he will lose fewer votes by declining most debates."

Shein, who writes a column for the Berkshire Eagle, has injected some biting satire into the campaign, a welcome addition for reporters. During the same week that First Lady Michele Obama made a campaign swing through Western Massachusetts that included a $2,500 a plate lunch at the Basketball Hall of Fame and a $20,000 a plate dinner at Gov. Deval Patrick's home, Shein staged a $2 a plate fund-raiser at his home in the Berkshires.

Shein's announcement underscored a principal message in his campaign to unseat Neal: that the big money must be removed from elections.

Adept at using social media, Shein recently posted on his Facebook page, "I'm running for Congress because the response to the Wall Street-fueled economic collapse — ongoing now for half a decade — has been wholly inadequate. Part of the answer is, and was, ongoing direct investment in public works jobs programs to put millions to work, stimulate economic activity, and end the unnecessary suffering of millions of families. A freeze on foreclosures and requiring principal reduction and renegotiation for many underwater mortgages. Student debt relief. Along with many other bold initiatives to build a durable, fair, and sustainable economy. That we restored big banks and Wall Street in mere months, despite their role in massive fraud, and have let millions suffer for years, is unacceptable. We need to do things differently. Starting now."

Nuciforo released a booklet several weeks ago titled "An Eight Point Blueprint to Restore Economic Justice in America," which details his legislative agenda and philosophy.

His plan calls for re-establishing manufacturing, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, investing in education, providing middle class tax relief and repealing the Citizens United decision, among other points.

Shein, though, has released a carefully annotated release charging that Nuciforo plagiarized other politicians to compose his position paper.

For instance, Shein wrote, "Since last December, Mr. Nuciforo's website has featured a 'values' statement in which he says, "We believe that our method is just as important as our solutions." It details the process he says he uses to develop policy ideas. But it is, in fact, a slightly edited version of a process outlined several years ago by two-time progressive U.S. Senate candidate Alan Khazei called 'The Khazei Principles.'"

Shein added, "After three full years as a candidate for Congress — first running to unseat progressive Rep. John Olver and now against Rep. Richard Neal and Bill Shein — Mr. Nuciforo has unveiled his proposals and positions on issues. And he has done so by lifting the ideas and plagiarizing the words of Alan Khazei, John Edwards, President Obama's White House, and Democratic Congressional candidate Stacey Lawson.

"While political activists and candidates often advance similar ideas and proposals, to rely on the words and position papers of others, and claim them as one's own, is dishonest and wrong. Mr. Nuciforo's massive plagiarism represents an ongoing fraud against the people of the First Congressional District.

"With four weeks until the Democratic primary, I'll continue to advance important ideas that will fix our democracy, expand voter participation, create jobs and economic fairness, and address our unprecedented environmental crisis. On the full range of issues, I'm saying the same things I've said for many years. A large majority of progressive Democrats and unenrolled voters in western and central Massachusetts share the very same concerns and priorities, and that bodes well for the outcome on Thursday, Sept. 6."

Nuciforo replied, "Rather than advancing his own candidacy, Mr. Shein has resorted to the desperate politics of a desperate campaign. Voters in the new First Congressional District deserve better. I stand fully behind the progressive ideas I have put forth in this campaign. The truth is that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Like all policy makers, the ideas advanced by our campaign have been developed and advanced by like-minded Democrats."

If there is one issue Shein and Nuciforo have shared, though, it's the contributions made by political action groups and other contributors outside of Massachusetts. Shein led Nuciforo on the issue of reforming campaign funding as Nuciforo initially downplayed the importance of attempting to compete with the Neal war chest. Recently, Nuciforo has been more critical of Neal.

Money or not, this race may be reduced to sheer math — a form of political analysis Neal employs. Are there enough people in this new district both upset or unimpressed with Neal and his record to pick a new member of Congress?