Pittsfield — Though there were stirrings of discord, a mostly friendly crowd greeted U.S. Rep. Richard “Richie” Neal (D-Springfield) as he fielded questions and held forth during a town-hall style forum.
About 200 of Neal’s constituents attended the event in the half-full Boland Theater at Berkshire Community College late on a Friday afternoon. In addition, other elected officials showed up to lend support to Neal, a relatively moderate Democrat who has been accused by some progressive activists of avoiding the give-and-take of a town-hall-style meeting.
One Hampshire County progressive group even ran a newspaper ad depicting the congressman as a missing person. Both Neal and his staff have denied the charge that he has avoided his western Massachusetts constituents.
“I’m glad you asked that question,” Neal said in response to a query about his availability to his Berkshire County constituents. “I can’t figure out for the life of me how that narrative got started. My office will send you the number of visits I’ve had the last five years.”
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) quickly took the stage with Neal to defend his record, noting, as Neal’s aides have, that the congressman has held numerous public forums in Berkshire County including in April at BCC and the 4 Freedoms March in Pittsfield in January. He also participated in two well-attended and highly publicized town halls recently in Chicopee and Boston.
“He’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” Farley-Bouvier said.
But there was also plenty of time during the two-hour forum to talk about the issues Neal is working on in Washington, where he is the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for writing tax legislation.
One questioner who declined to identify himself hectored Neal on why he did not support the repeal of the payroll tax, which funds Social Security, and simply place a 40 percent tax on “Wall Street speculators.”
Before losing his patience with the persistent audience member, Neal calmly explained that everyone must buy into Social Security in order to assure its stability and that simply taxing Wall Street, with its unpredictable earnings fluctuations, would not be a sustainable way to fund what for some people is their only retirement plan.
On tax reform, which is a big question mark in Washington, Neal reiterated his position that, “Part of my mission is to try to hold the president at his word that tax relief will be for the middle class.”
The congressman spoke of the so-called “boomerang generation,” millennials who graduated from college and had to move back into their parents homes “after 12 years of an economy that’s grown so slowly.”
“The evidence is clear: there is a greater concentration of wealth in America,” Neal said. “The smartest kids used to make things. Now they go into finance.”
Neal also answered questions on climate change. He insisted that “we need to follow the science” and noted the frequency of severe weather, including the two recent hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, that devastated southeastern portions of the country. Neal and others are convinced that human-caused climate change was a key factor in the severity of other two storms.
“This is about science, not about theology,” Neal said.
Neal added, however, that even though great gains have been made in the field of renewable energy, “plentiful natural gas” should remain an option, in part because it “does less harm” to the environment. One audience member, Cheryl Rose, challenged him on that assertion, insisting that when you take into account the environmental cost of hydraulic fracturing (a k a “fracking”), which is how most natural gas is extracted, then the harm to the environment is comparable to the production of other fossil fuels.
“Fair enough,” Neal replied, echoing a phrase he used dozens of time during the two-hour-long forum.
He added in response to another question that he was opposed to the controversial Connecticut expansion pipeline whose construction is ongoing in Sandisfield.
Of the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Neal also recalled that, “Last week 90 members of the House refused to offer relief for those two states because they wanted offsets. Maybe we should insist on offsets for tax cuts, too … Our national principle should be that it shouldn’t matter whether it’s a red or blue state. ”
Both Joyce Hackett of New Marlborough and North Adams City Councilwoman Lisa Blackmer asked Neal about the scarcity of high-speed Internet in Berkshire County and whether “broadband should be a utility?”
Neal hesitated before answering her question directly, perhaps because it’s more of a state and municipal issue, but he did say he has spoken about the issue with Gov. Charlie Baker several times.
“The private sector has looked at it and they decided they couldn’t do it,” Neal said. “The state will have to spend some money. This has to be done. I will continue to stay after the MBI (Massachusetts Broadband Institute).”
Pittsfield resident Jordan Wood challenged Neal’s characterization of the racial violence this summer in Charlottesville, Va. See video below of the exchange:
Neal also addressed — umprompted — General Electric’s challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed cleanup plan for Housatonic River. He said he had spoken with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt because “there has been some conversation as to any backpedaling” on the plan.
Pruitt told him the EPA is not backing off the plan and the agency is merely waiting for a decision on GE’s appeal, with the company insisting that contaminated river sediments containing PCBs be disposed of on-site at three dumps in southern Berkshire County.
“I continue to believe that we should stick to the decree and the consent order that was rendered originally,” Neal said. “I hope that there won’t be any backing away from that and I expressed that to him concisely.”
And Neal continued to expound on the subject: “At some point this is going to end up in court if people can’t find any accommodation. And in court you’ll be talking to probably two or three congressmen down the road because that’s how long these decisions play out. So I think there is an opportunity, challenging as it might be, to continue the conversation about the Housatonic but not back away from the decree.”
Another questioner, Ed Hughes of Pittsfield expressed his frustration, common especially among older residents, that NBC affiliate WWLP in Springfield isn’t available on most Berkshire County cable systems.
See Hughes’ question and Neal’s answer in the video below:
Neal did not satisfy those in the audience who want a single-payer or Medicare-for-all approach to healthcare, insisting that the Affordable Care Act (a k a Obamacare) should be reformed first, though he did advocate for expanding Medicare to allow those over 50 to “buy into it.”
Neal answered a question about foreign policy and has words for those who question his progressive credentials: “There aren’t many of us who voted against Iraq. I was one of them.”
On the situation with North Korea, which has moved aggressively to test and deploy its nuclear weapons program, Neal said to much applause, “I still think a diplomatic path is the one we should proceed on … The president needs to come back to Congress if there’s an act of war.”
Cathy Cogan of Great Barrington asked about the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump. Neal said he was a congressman when then-President Bill Clinton was impeached and he still to this day cannot see how the man committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” — the standard the constitution sets for the impeachment of a president.
Neal said he will reserve judgment until special prosecutor Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who has been tasked with looking into whether Russia improperly influenced the 2016 presidential election, completes his investigation.
“All I’m looking for here is a path that Mueller sets,” Neal explained. “I intend to follow his direction.”
One woman complained that when she watches the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, she sees all manner of congressmen on Maddow’s show — and on other shows as well — and wanted to know why she couldn’t “see my own congressman there?”
Neal said he occasionally appears on CNBC’s Squawk Box, a business news program, as the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means. But he otherwise avoids cable news show because of the emphasis on conflict to drive ratings.
“I am not in the business of entertainment. I have avoided those talk shows like the plague,” Neal shot back. “I’ve earned a reputation for thoughtful deliberation over a long career and I’m not going to surrender that to cable television.”