Pittsfield — It’s an underdog candidacy if ever there was one: a woman attorney with little-to-no political experience going up against the dean of the Bay State’s congressional delegation.
But Tahirah Amatul-Wadud proceeds undaunted in her quest to wrest the Democratic nomination away from incumbent Richard Neal. Like Neal, Amatul-Wadud hails from Springfield, which includes the state’s first congressional district. But there the similarities end.
Amatul-Wadud makes no apologies; she is challenging Neal from the left. And there is an opening for her in that space. Left-leaning Democrats in the state have long been wary of Neal, whom they regard as less accessible and more moderate than they would like.
Indeed, Michael Wise, who chairs the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee, has described Neal as “a relatively conservative Democrat, [who] has come down on the right side of the big issues.”
Amatul-Wadud’s raison d’être was evident, as about 50 people came to the Berkshire Athenaeum auditorium Monday evening (April 9) to hear her give her spiel and take questions from the audience. The event was sponsored by Indivisible Pittsfield, a Trump resistance group advocating for social justice.
See video below of congressional candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud describing her platform and taking several questions from the audience:
Amatul-Wadud has seized on a handful of issues she thinks need addressing and will play well in her district. At 3,000 square miles, it’s the largest, poorest and most rural congressional district in the state. Since Massachusetts underwent redistricting after the 2010 census, the 1st District stretches from southwestern Worcester County westward to include all of Hampden and Berkshire counties and portions of Franklin and Hampshire counties.
And it’s a truism that rural areas of the state have struggled to gain the kind of access to high-speed internet enjoyed by those in urban and suburban areas of the state. So Amatul-Wadud has an issue tailor-made for her district.
“Every candidate likes to talk about infrastructure. Where I think we are at the greatest risk is the lack of broadband Internet in too many of our communities,” said Amatul-Wadud, who walked about the floor with the confidence of a courtroom trial attorney, which she is.
“I’ve heard people say we are neglected and no one’s hearing us and why aren’t we in the 21st century?” Amatul-Wadud said.
She then threw out a few statistics: 43 percent of the communities in Berkshire County lack high-speed Internet. In Franklin County, it’s 30 percent. Amatul-Wadud characterized that lack of service as “a quality-of-life issue, a safety issue and an economic prosperity issue.”
“Teachers tell me they can’t assign homework because students don’t have the ability to do the research,” added Amatul-Wadud, who sees a federal role in wiring areas that are currently unserved. “It creates a gap and it’s a gap they may not be able to recover from.”
Amatul-Wadud would also like to see a “Medicare-for-all” approach to health care, while Neal has taken a more cautious approach, arguing instead that he’d like to see how single-payer health insurance performs in individual states before broadening it to the federal level.
Amatul-Wadud related the story of her 7-year-old daughter, who was born with a rare and chronic heart defect. When she and her husband brought her to Boston Children’s Hospital, the girl was almost dead.
“One thing we didn’t have to worry about was whether we could afford to have her treated,” Amatul-Wadud said. “You deserve to have the same peace of mind that we have. All of our children deserve that level of care.”
Andrea Sholler, a member of the Four Freedoms Coalition, asked Amatul-Wadud if she thought the American people should have access to the same level of health care that members of congress enjoy.
“Congress are the servants of the people, so we should all be on the same level,” she replied.
Amatul-Wadud has seven children and is herself the youngest of 10 children. Her family moved to Springfield when she was 9 years old. Her parents converted to Islam when she was 3.
She graduated from Elms College and the Western New England University School of Law, from which she recently received the alumni award last fall from dean of the law school. Amatul-Wadud is also a commissioner on the state Commission on the Status of Women, which promotes the rights and equality of women statewide. She announced her candidacy on Dec. 19, her birthday.
Some have questioned why anyone would want to vote for Amatul-Wadud when Neal is the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. If Democrats take over the House of Representatives in this year’s midterm elections, then Neal would presumably become chairman.
In order to address that oft-asked question, Amatul-Wadud put out a news release last week on what will happen “When I defeat Mr. Neal on September 4 [primary] and then secure the general election.” And she told her audience in Pittsfield much the same thing.
“I’ve heard people say that, if he becomes chair, that will be great for us because we will get things — stuff,” Amatul-Wadud said. “My answer to that is who is in succession?”
If Neal loses his seat, the second-ranking Democrat on Ways and Means will be Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon who worked closely with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Behind Lewis is Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, whom Amatul-Wadud insists “has compiled a very progressive record during his tenure on the committee.”
“The Democratic Party would be in great hands with either of those two at the helm,” she declared.
One audience member who did not identify himself said he was uncomfortable with Neal’s top sources of campaign funding, which he said are insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
Amatul-Wadud pointed to opensecrets.org, an arm of the Center for Responsive Politics that tracks campaign finance. Sure enough, Neal’s page reports that, of the more than $1.6 million he has raised so far, the top sources are financial, insurance, pharmaceutical and health care companies. Also contributing significantly are what Amatul-Wadud calls “war profiteers” — or defense contractors such as Raytheon.
“There are manufacturers of war weapons who also fund him,” Amatul-Wadud said. “When we think about conflict, we know that manufacturers make money when we are at war.”
As if to tease her audience with a cliffhanger, Amatul-Wadud added, “So we will be spelling it out for you the next couple of weeks and you will be astonished.”
And speaking of pharmaceuticals, Amatul-Wadud channeled Andrea Harrington, the recently announced candidate for Berkshire district attorney profiled earlier this month in the Edge. Harrington suggested a different approach to illegal drugs.
“We had a crack crisis, now we have an opioid crisis, a heroin crisis,” Amatul-Wadud said. “There is a disparity between how addiction is looked at in black and brown communities and in majority communities. Until we move away from a punitive model, we’re not going to solve it.”
There is a reason Amatul-Wadud cares so much about people. It’s because, as a lawyer specializing in probate, families, custody and visitation rights, “I get to see people in their most intimate spaces.”
There is one topic that did not seem to resonate so well with the progressive audience in the Athenaeum: Indivisible Pittsfield leader Drew Herzig asked her about her stance on guns. Amatul-Wadud’s husband is a gun owner and she herself has taken gun safety classes.
“I support that we have a Second Amendment,” she replied. “I support that we don’t criminalize legal gun owners, or vilify the mentally ill and say, ‘Well, you know,’ and just say its their fault.”
Amatul-Wadud says she is “listening very close to families and gun owners” and supports raising the minimum purchase age, universal background checks and “thorough vetting where those who are prone to violence can be tracked.”
“I support looking at banning assault weapons … To me, that’s cliche. My husband says to be careful how you define assault weapons.”
Soum Bance, an investigator for Berkshire Elder Protective Services, suggested Amatul-Wadud — and all politicians, for that matter — needed to do a better job of reaching out to young people.
“Take a look around here,” said Bance, who was born in Africa. “What do you do exactly to get the youth more involved? Because I don’t believe you have many people here under 30 tonight.”
“I agree 100 percent,” Amatul-Wadud replied. She regularly asks a lot of people under 30 and if they want to sign her nomination forms and when she tells them they need to be registered voters to sign the papers, they often shrug.
“There’s never a good answer but it’s because they’ve checked out. I try to tell them: ‘Everything about your life is political. Don’t give up your right to help shape that.’”
“Maybe the youth is tired of hearing promises from politicians that are not coming,” Bance added. “All of the big companies have moved out of this area. The economy is basically relying only … on tourism. Hotels are growing everywhere like flowers … If we can do something to get youth involved, maybe perspectives might change a little bit.”
Amatul-Wadud is still collecting signatures to ensure that she is on the ballot for the September 4 primary. She said she is not yet aware of any Republicans running for the seat.
Neal used to represent the 2nd Congressional District until the bulk of it was absorbed into the 1st District after the 2010 census. He has faced several challenges since being elected to Congress in 1988 after serving two terms as mayor of Springfield.
In 2012, Neal easily fended off a primary challenge from Alford writer and activist Bill Shein and register of deeds and former state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo. Neal has been criticized for his reluctance to hold town hall-style meetings in the Berkshires, though he did hold one at Berkshire Community College in September.
In response to a request for comment, Neal campaign spokesman Peter Panos said:
“As Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are cutting taxes for the wealthy and running the national deficit to over $1 trillion a year while asking the middle class to pay the bill, Congressman Neal is fighting on behalf of working families to expand access to affordable healthcare, defend Social Security and Medicare from Republican attacks, and increase economic opportunities to combat the growing gap of income inequality.”