Richie Neal’s big moment
An old-school pol takes power with a new political dynamic in the air
RICHARD NEAL, consummate policy guy and inveterate old-school pol, had come to talk pensions. But after a March 21 roundtable in Boston, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was yanked back to the issue dogging him for months — when would he request President Trump’s tax returns?
The question seemed to annoy Neal. He told the press huddle at the State House that it had to be done right and he wouldn’t “succumb to the emotion of the moment.” What’s the timeline, a reporter began to ask.
“You weren’t listening,” Neal snapped back. An aide broke in: Any questions about pensions? “Yeah,” Neal said with sarcasm. “There are other issues we might want to consider talking about.”
For decades, that was a fine aspiration. It worked well for Tip O’Neill, a man of the House and bipartisan bonhomie who remained beloved in his uber-liberal hometown of Cambridge. But Richie Neal’s moment in the spotlight is coming at a very different time.
People tell pollsters they admire bipartisanship, but exit interviews at the last midterm election found angry Democrats who want standard-bearers like Neal to be as civil to Trump as the president is to others. Their message, in other words: Go for the jugular.
Weeks into his powerful new post, Neal was being pegged as slow to use his party’s new majority power in the House and painted by outfits like Stand Up America and Tax March, groups that formed to fight Trump and his policies, as an obstacle to the goals of progressive Democrats.
And then there is California billionaire Tom Steyer, whose Need to Impeach initiative has been pounding at Congress to begin proceedings to remove Trump from office. The day before Neal’s confab on pensions, Steyer’s group unveiled three billboards in his district, in Chicopee, featuring the congressman’s bespectacled face and this not subtle message: “Rep. Neal, Get Trump’s Taxes Now.”
Earlier in March, Steyer himself parachuted into Hampden County and worked a capacity crowd of Neal’s constituents from a stage in Agawam in the heart of the 1st Congressional District. “We’re asking Rep. Neal to be a man of the people. His constituents want him to do this,” Steyer said in an interview before the event, speaking of the pursuit of Trump’s returns. “He should be listening to them.”
“Chairman Neal has the power and responsibility to swiftly make this request — and these continued delays are indefensible,” Maura Quint, executive director of Tax March, said in a statement.
All the talk of going to war against the White House is far from the political bearings Neal has honed over more than three decades in politics. His bread-and-butter orientation had him talking during his reelection campaign last year of the importance of helping the American family and touting the millions in federal dollars he’d brought back to the district. He called himself a friend of labor and often name-checked FDR.
Given Neal’s bookishness, it wasn’t a surprise history was on his mind the day after the November 6 midterms as he walked into the sunlit lobby of the US District Court in Springfield to tell local reporters what the election meant to him. “For me this is a pinnacle of a career achievement,” Neal said. “This is it for me. It’s been a steep climb.”
It had been 147 years since a lawmaker from Massachusetts led Ways and Means, he pointed out. Now, after 26 years of working his way up in seniority, and eight years after a failed effort to jump the line over former Michigan lawmaker Sander Levin, Neal was thinking of those who’d come before. “Eight American presidents have served on the Ways and Means Committee. I think that demonstrates the historic responsibility,” Neal said.
Two months later, Neal switched chairs with Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who led the panel in the 115th Congress. Neal ticked off his priorities — help Americans prepare for retirement, lower the cost of medications and health care, create a fair tax system for the middle class and fix the nation’s infrastructure. He vowed to hold hearings, mark up bills and work across the aisle.
“I hope that we can do a lot of this work on a bipartisan basis. For any legislation before this committee, I will do my best to first try to find common ground,” he said in late January.
But his party’s ascendant progressives weren’t buying the history lessons. The question of when his committee would request Trump’s tax returns came almost daily, to the point where stories in Politico and the Washington Post began to note they’d been unable to get a response from Neal’s office.
The Trump tax return battle has landed in Neal’s lap because the Ways and Means can ask the Treasury Department for anyone’s returns, as part of its oversight of the tax system. Until now, however, it has never used that authority to seek a president’s tax returns. Every president since Gerald Ford has made his returns public. As a candidate, Trump said he would release his as well. He then said an ongoing IRS audit prevented their disclosure, which isn’t actually the case.
In a March 14 appearance before Neal’s committee, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that if he gets a request for the president’s tax returns, he would consult his department’s lawyers. But he hinted at the court fight that Neal expects. “We will protect the president as we would protect any individual taxpayer under their rights,” Mnuchin said.
It isn’t just the DC media that’s restive about Neal. Though Neal rebuffed a left-leaning Democratic primary challenger in September, progressives in his district are gearing up with a new political group uniting people who find Neal aloof with constituents and out of step with their goals, as the party shifts to the left.
“The leading edge of the party is moving in that direction and he doesn’t seem to be riding that wave,” said Drew Herzig of Pittsfield, a member of his city’s Indivisible chapter, which joined the new CD-1 Progressive Coalition.
Matt Barron of Chesterfield, a political consultant who advised Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, Neal’s primary challenger last September, sees the lawmaker’s caution on the tax returns as foot-dragging by a corporate pol. “He shot his mouth off quite a bit after the election and now we’re getting a lot of excuses,” said Barron. “Pick up the pace. Put some effort into it.”
Other Democrats, though, agreed with Neal that since the Trump administration would fight release of his tax returns, the request had to be well-honed. “He wants to ask for these taxes in a boring way,” said John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield.
Eugene Dellea of West Stockbridge, a veteran of scores of Democratic campaigns, said Neal’s wish to build alliances illustrates his practicality. “That’s how things get done. If you are on one extreme or another, right or left, it’s difficult to come to the middle,” said Dellea, a Neal ally.
Regardless of how Neal is handling the tax-returns issue, Nicole LaChapelle, mayor of Easthampton, values his understanding of unglamorous issues like new markets tax credits, which benefit her city. “He literally has always been there for things that I’ve needed. He gets it, and has a very forthright way about him,” said LaChapelle, a progressive Democrat. “He’s a very eye-on-the-prize kind of guy.”
For weeks, those urging patience on the Trump tax returns were saying Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to Attorney General William Barr might provide a useful justification.
When the report was submitted on March 22, that argument deflated. While the report itself isn’t public, Barr’s four-page summary letter to Congress didn’t seem to provide much support for the effort, a development likely to increase pressure on Neal to use his committee’s power based on other evidence of irregularities in the president’s financial life.
The big ask for the returns could come any day. Meanwhile, other House committees in the 116th Congress, particularly Jerrold Nadler’s Judiciary, are revving up for deep inquiries into Trumpworld — and seeming to embrace a new Democratic agenda.
Neal has been steering his committee his way, with less partisan flavor and lower cable TV news visibility. He prefers CNBC to MSNBC, policy briefs to sound bites. Neal is more reader than ranter. The day after his party retook the House in November, Neal made a point of mentioning his devotion to the Oxford comma.
“I’m nothing if I’m not a member of this institution,” Neal said in an interview in late January, sitting at the head of a polished table in the Ways and Means room off the House Chamber, the eight dead presidents who have served on the committee watching from their portraits on a long wall. “I have tried very hard to master arcane details. And I always will say what I said to my own children: check emotions at the door. This is about getting something done.”
Given his longevity, Neal can seem a kind of living and breathing piece of infrastructure. He went off to Congress more than a generation ago, in 1988, when George H.W. Bush became president, and for a quarter century worked his way up the ladder on Ways and Means.
In that time, he earned a reputation as “pro-business” (The Hill) and “institutionally minded” (the New York Times).
Though others in the House say they’ll no longer accept donations from political action committees, Neal continues to take such money and is one of his chamber’s top PAC darlings. Between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2018, Neal raised $3.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and spent $3.2 million. Of that, $2.6 million flowed from PACs. By industry, the leading donors were the insurance ($379,150), pharmaceutical and health products ($281,250), health professionals ($262,657) and securities ($215,500) sectors. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., based in Neal’s district, gave $36,550, according to filings accessed through opensecrets.org.
“That’s a lot of money to beat a girl with no name recognition,” said Amatul-Wadud, his primary opponent last fall.
As the magazine Sludge pointed out in January, Neal took money from companies he has criticized as longtime tax-avoiders. When asked about those donations, which include gifts from two companies known to shelter profits offshore, General Electric and Caterpillar, Neal dismissed any suggestion of inconsistency. He said GE’s donation followed the shift of its headquarters to Boston, though that city is far from Neal’s district. “You report the contributions. The public decides,” he said.
Privately, Neal once told a Western Massachusetts elected official that when it comes to PAC money, the “toothpaste is out of the tube” and he wasn’t going to be left behind.
Because of his heavy acceptance of PAC money, Neal comes in with tepid ratings from Common Cause (44 percent) and Public Citizen (44 percent lifetime). Pro-business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce give him a bit more credit, with a recent rating of 61 percent approval.
Neal had promised the day after the midterms to request Trump’s returns, but he was moderate and cautious even then, after his party’s big win. He said that day he believes it best to prepare a legal case able to weather challenges, even as he offered a nod to voter sentiment.
“I think that we have to in some measure reflect the emotions that were offered last night,” Neal said November 7.
More than four months later, “some measure” remains the X-factor. The methodical approach is classic Neal, in keeping with his instinct to balance competing legislative interests.
In Neal’s view, the race belongs not to the swift, but to bridge-builders who forged laws protecting civil rights and created landmark social welfare programs.
“People don’t understand that when you are abusive to the minority in the process, they’re waiting for you when they become a majority,” he said.
That stance comes across as too historical, too mannerly, to an expanding Democratic caucus more inclined to counterpunch. That fuels talk in the district of the next primary challenge, and whether Neal’s new power on Ways and Means, and Springfield’s enhanced importance after the last redistricting, insulates him further.
Polling in the 1st Congressional District by Change Research — paid for by Steyer — suggests a go-slow approach on Trump’s tax returns could hurt Neal. The survey of 813 likely 2020 Democratic primary voters found that 72 percent said they would be less likely to vote for Neal if they see him as reluctant to use his authority to request Trump’s returns. And according to the survey, 90 percent of those polled would be less likely to back Neal in 2020 if he opposes impeachment.
Amatul-Wadud, his last Democratic challenger, plans to run for office again, but it may not be the next election cycle, and perhaps not even for Neal’s seat. “It’s remarkably difficult. You almost have to be campaigning for two years,” she said in her modest law office on the third floor of an old block in Chicopee.
Some voters told Amatul-Wadud they felt a need to stick with Neal because of what his leadership of Ways and Means could do for the district. But she thinks the big job also offers rivals an opening to pose a pointed question: What has that chairmanship actually accomplished locally?
“I think with his new national visibility and platform, he’s vulnerable to national criticism and national accountability in a way that he really wasn’t exposed to before,” Amatul-Wadud said.
Herzig, the Pittsfield resident and Indivisible member, thinks that if Neal fails to embrace his party’s turn to the left, a challenger inspired by last year’s upsets by Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could paint him as an out-of-touch lifer. “I would think he’s even more vulnerable unless he gets with the program,” Herzig said of Neal.
“None of us are immune to a primary or general election,” Neal said, when asked if he felt safe from a successful challenge. “I took that campaign seriously. Oh yeah. And contrary to what some did, I got out there.”
People who know the district say it would take a mighty big crowbar to dislodge Neal.
Matt Szafranski, founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight, isn’t expecting him to be toppled. “Neal has built up a lot of goodwill, at least in the Springfield area. This still is an area where incumbency matters a lot,” he said. Though pockets of political resistance exist, there’s a reason why Neal has so often gone unchallenged by either party. “He uses that Rolodex that he’s developed to get things that help the district,” Szafranski said.
Despite what he said November 7, Neal seems unmoved by midterm election “emotions” and may doubt the longevity of those who pulled off upsets in the midterms.
“You know, I’ve watched them come and go — the rock stars,” he said. “And I’ve watched those who were famous in the moment. Give me the steady performers. Don’t get too excited when it’s going well, and don’t get too upset when it’s going badly.”
Baick, the Western New England University professor and a longtime Neal watcher, says patience is the 70-year-old congressman’s hallmark. “He is someone who plays a very long game when it comes to politics,” Baick said. “He doesn’t hunger for the spotlight.”
Szafranski notes that when Neal met with reporters the day after the election, he seemed to say enough about opposing Trump and about protecting the social welfare safety net to satisfy people on his political left.
By the same token, some of Neal’s message that day — including a mini-speech on the importance of saving multi-employer pension funds — seemed to Szafranski calculated to keep the future chairman out of the line of any Fox News-type fire. “To ward off the werewolves of the right-wing media,” Szafranski said, likening talk of pension funds to wolfsbane. “How is that going to rile up that base?”
That’s the kind of balancing act that Richie Neal has always performed, and it’s helped him climb methodically to the powerful perch he has long coveted.The question now will be how he handles the scrutiny that comes with that prize, especially as he navigates his way in a climate very different from the collegial one he speaks of so fondly. “He’s never had this kind of spotlight on him in Washington,” Szafranski said.
Larry Parnass is investigations editor for the Berkshire Eagle.