Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary
Progressives energized by last week’s congressional primaries have another high-ranking House Democrat in their sights: Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts.
Neal, 71, is facing a challenge from Alex Morse, a 31-year-old mayor who was born just a few weeks after Neal began his first term in Congress.
Morse spent Tuesday in New York campaigning for progressive insurgent Jamaal Bowman, who holds a double-digit lead over House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel as officials continue to tally up the votes.
He hopes to build on last week’s strong showing by the left in New York and Kentucky with a primary victory on Sept. 1 against Neal in the 1st Congressional District, which spans the western and central parts of Massachusetts.
“Eliot Engel and Richard Neal were elected to Congress on the same day back in 1988,” Morse said in an interview with The Hill. “They’re both chairs of committees that are part of House Democratic leadership, and are out of touch with their districts.”
Morse — the mayor of Holyoke, a city with a population of about 40,000 — faces an uphill climb against a prominent member of Congress. In 2018, Neal easily fended off a progressive challenger and had no Republican opponent in the general election for the solidly Democratic seat.
His campaign is confident he will be on the ticket in November this year as well.
“Richie Neal has consistently delivered for Western Mass and Central Mass, and we’re very confident that he’ll be reelected to continue to deliver for the people there,” Neal campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton said.
But progressives sense momentum. In addition to Bowman’s growing lead over Engel, progressive Mondaire Jones, 33, is atop the Democratic field to fill the seat held by retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Also in New York, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, 74, is clinging to a small lead against her primary challenger, 36-year-old Suraj Patel.
Absentee ballots have yet to be counted in the New York races.
In Kentucky, progressive Charles Booker is leading Amy McGrath, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-endorsed candidate in the race to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in November. Most votes are still being tallied.
Morse said he sees the results of Tuesday’s primaries as a sign Democratic voters want more progressive policies from lawmakers.
“It indicates the winds of this country and the strength of the progressive movement,” Morse said. “I think it really also just shows that since the Democratic presidential primary wrapped up that a lot of energy and enthusiasm has shifted to down-ballot races and congressional races.”
Morse has gone after Neal for being among the top recipients of donations from corporate PACs while also criticizing him for not endorsing prominent progressive proposals such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.
He also said Neal hasn’t conducted enough oversight of President Trump, referencing the issue of the president’s tax returns. Several progressive groups have argued that as chairman of the tax-writing committee, Neal has not been aggressive enough in his efforts to obtain the documents.
Neal’s spokeswoman countered that “it was absolutely critical that no mistakes were made for Donald Trump or his various attorneys to capitalize on, so Richie Neal worked closely with House counsel and followed direction on how to proceed.”
Neal requested Trump’s federal tax returns from the IRS in April 2019, but the administration has refused to provide them, prompting Neal to file a lawsuit. The case is still tied up in the courts.
In response to criticisms about corporate donations, Neal’s campaign said he has raised and contributed a substantial amount of money to other Democratic candidates during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles — between direct contributions, contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and fundraisers — helping Democrats win back the House in 2018.
If he wins the primary, Morse would be poised to become one of several new LGBTQ members of Congress. Jones and Ritchie Torres, another progressive candidate leading in a House race for an open seat in New York, are also LGBTQ and would be the first openly LGBTQ Black and Afro-Latino members of Congress, respectively.
“Given I’m a 31-year-old, openly gay, young person, I think it’s time we have a body that reflects the life experience and identity of the people we represent and what our country looks like,” Morse said.
Morse has been endorsed by Bowman, 44, as well as some notable progressive groups such as Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement.
“We’re very, very excited about Alex Morse’s primary,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group focused on aggressively fighting climate change. The group has praised Morse for putting Holyoke on a path to 100 percent renewable energy.
Weber said his group plans to invest heavily in Morse’s race and that the Sunrise Movement has eight local chapters in the district. He didn’t specify how much the group would be spending.
Norton argued that Neal and Morse are not that far apart on policy issues, noting that Neal has played a leading role in recently introduced legislation aimed at tackling climate change.
But Neal’s campaign isn’t holding back on its criticism of Morse, pointing out that the school district in Holyoke was put under state receivership in 2015, three years after Morse became mayor.
Morse called the attacks on his mayoral record “pretty desperate criticism” and said the schools have improved.
Some political observers say there are notable differences between the Neal and Engel primary races.
Dave Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report, said Engel, 73, came under criticism late in the race for comments he made on a hot mic after not having been in his district in a while. He also noted that, unlike the 1st Congressional District in Massachusetts, Engel’s district is majority nonwhite and that Bowman was running at a time when Democratic primary voters “really want to elevate Black voices to elected office.”
Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said the 1st District is less progressive than both Engel’s and the Boston-area district that progressive Rep. Ayanna Pressley won in 2018 over a Democratic incumbent.
He said Neal follows an “old-school model of delivering for your district” that works in Western Massachusetts, a part of the state that Ferson said is often overshadowed by the Boston area.
The primary is still about two months away. That leaves plenty of time for a late-race surge in progressive support for Morse like the kind that benefited both Bowman and Booker. But it also makes it more challenging to maintain any momentum from last week’s primaries.
Samantha Petty, a political science professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the western part of the state, said it’s too soon to say how the race will ultimately play out. She said the outcome may depend on turnout, particularly among younger voters who would be more likely to back Morse.
“I think there’s a long way to go,” she said.
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