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In Massachusetts' First Congressional District, A Powerful Dem Faces A Primary Challenge

On a stunningly beautiful morning in central Massachusetts, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud got a crash course in animal husbandry at Charlton's Signal Rock Farm. She approached the sheep raised there by Kevin and Marianne McCarthy, but pulled back after getting a pointed glance from the no-nonsense guard llama. Later, she listened attentively as Kevin McCarthy explained — in great detail — that companies aren't investing in new treatments to de-worm sheep.

"Oh," Amatul-Wadud said, drawing the syllable out to convey her concern. "Okay."

The stop at Signal Rock was the second item on Amatul-Wadud's one-day "farm and forest" tour of Hampden and Worcester counties. The goal, it seems, was to show rural voters that a Muslim, African-American lawyer from Springfield can represent them at least as well as incumbent Richard Neal, who was first elected to Congress in 1988.

"I’m hearing that there are challenges to keeping their farms vibrant, that there’s bureaucracy," Amatul-Wadud told me afterward. "There’s an opportunity, as an advocate and a policymaker, to be able to alleviate some of that burden from them."

As Amatul-Wadud tells it, a few key developments prompted her candidacy. Donald Trump was elected president. She became convinced that many of Neal's constituents view him as unresponsive. And she concluded that, compared to the rest of Massachusetts, the First District is falling behind.

"Of the nine congressional districts, ours is last in median income," Amatul-Wadud said. "We have a higher than average unemployment rate."

Blaming Neal for disparities he can’t necessarily control might seem like a reach. But Amatul-Wadud insists it isn't.

"He’s a 29-year member of Congress," she said. "He’s a ranking member of [the House's] Ways & Means [Committee].

"He has a district where 43 percent of Franklin County doesn’t have access to ... high-speed internet. Thirty-three percent of another county, Berkshire County, doesn’t have access to high speed internet. I’m hearing that businesses will not develop there, that families who are intelligent and have degrees cannot work remotely."

"Unless he has affirmatively opened up opportunities to close that gap," Amatul-Wadud said, "he owns this problem."

It's a proposition that Neal emphatically rejects.

"That’s nonsense," he said of Amatul-Wadud's median-income critique. "When you consider there are many pockets of high-income people, middle-income people as well. ... Remember this: the economy in Western Massachusetts has always been different from the economy in Boston."

That’s the sharpest criticism of his opponent that Neal offered during a brief interview at Springfield’s Union Station, where he was celebrating the opening of a new Springfield-to Hartford rail line. Instead, he accentuated the positive, touting the economic impact of that new route ("1,800 to 2,000 people a day more through Union Station!") and the policies he could shape if Democrats retake the House and he becomes the chair of Ways & Means, one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.

"When you consider that the biggest employers in Massachusetts are now our hospitals — and you throw into that equation that those hospitals, they are heavily dependent on Medicare — the Ways & Means Committee determines formulaic spending on Medicare," Neal said.

"I don’t think there’s a member of Congress that knows more about Social Security than I do," he added, saying he's been a staunch defender of that program for years.

Before Neal can lead Ways & Means, though, Democrats will have to retake the House, an outcome that's hardly guaranteed. And, of course, he'll have to get past Amatul-Wadud's challenge in the Democratic primary election on September 4.

Asked if he'll debate Amatul-Wadud beforehand, Neal demurred — first saying that he’s never ducked a debate before, then that Congress's schedule is in flux, and then, that he’ll have to “measure the metrics.”

Pushed to elaborate, Neal said, "Well, I think there's always a seriousness of purpose." Asked if that was a reference to a trait Amatul-Wadud might or might not possess, he replied, "Well, I think that's up to you to decide. After all, you're the referee."

A decision not to debate Amatul-Wadud could be smart politics. Recent federal filings show that at the end of March, she had less than $22,000 in the bank compared to Neal's $3.2 million — a disparity which, according to conventional wisdom, bodes poorly for Amatul-Wadud's chances. Not engaging her directly could be a way to keep Amatul-Wadud's campaign from gaining traction and allow Neal to cruise to an easy win.

But not engaging Amatul-Wadud could also end up backfiring. After all, this is a year in which women are seeking higher office, and in which being a white male might be as much a liability as an asset. If Neal doesn't debate, Amatul-Wadud might find a way to turn that decision into campaign fodder.

For her part, Amatul-Wadud says she's eager to share a stage with Neal and hash their differences out directly.

"I support that opportunity," she said. "I want people to know that they have a choice."

This article has been updated.

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