Columnist Sara Weinberger: Congressman Neal should be more accessible


Published: 05-14-2017 10:34 PM

I moved from Northampton to Easthampton nearly three years ago.

Although I was reluctant to leave the city that I had called “home” for 30 years, Easthampton, or as I fondly call it, “The New Brooklyn,” is a great place to settle. The bike path, less than half a mile from my front door, the culinary delights at Small Oven, a growing downtown area, and of course, free parking, have made me pine for Noho less than I imagined.

What I really miss about living in Northampton is my former congressional representative, Jim McGovern. Congressman McGovern is known for reaching out to his constituents. His aide, Keith Barnicle, was always responsive to my requests for meetings with his boss. At every encounter I ever had with Congressman McGovern, I felt as if what I had to say mattered.

In early February, I contacted my new congressman’s office, expecting the same kind of treatment. A small group of members of my Easthampton-based advocacy group, Pioneer Valley Action, wanted to meet with Congressman Richard Neal to discuss issues of concern.

After phoning his office, I immediately followed the aide’s instructions to email Neal’s scheduler. Three and one-half months and many unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls later, no appointment has been scheduled. In February, I was told the congressman’s March calendar was full, but appointments weren’t being booked yet for April. In April, when I finally got the scheduler on the phone, she told me she was feeling “overwhelmed,” and promised to call me the next day. I’m still waiting.

In between all of this, Pioneer Valley Action members were busy phoning Neal’s offices, asking him to convene a town hall meeting. When nothing happened, we demonstrated in front of his Springfield office, where his staff refused our request to address the 35 people standing in front of the federal courthouse. On the afternoon of March 9, we received a last-minute notification that Neal would be hosting a town hall at Elms College at 9 a.m. on March 11. Our persistence paid off.

However, persistence has not yet rewarded us with a face-to-face meeting. I recently phoned the congressman’s Washington office and was promised that somebody would call me back. I’m sure you know the rest of the story.

Sadly, I am not the only person slighted by our congressional representative. An acquaintance recently told me it took her 11 months to schedule a meeting with Congressman Neal. Last July, a Gazette editorial emphasized, “Neal must make a greater effort to connect with the people he serves and make himself more accessible.” In a story in The Recorder last June, Greenfield residents described their representative as “invisible,” some negatively comparing Neal to his predecessor, John Olver of Amherst, who, like McGovern, had a solid presence in his district.

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Since the November election, people are organizing to resist the daily injustices committed by the Trump administration. The Valley has dozens of local activist groups, anxious to attend town halls and to meet with legislators. We hear about Republicans who are afraid to schedule town halls with their constituents. Their voting records give them good reasons to be afraid. What is Neal, a Democrat, afraid of?

A recent posting from a Williamsburg resident on Facebook asked for donations to “run a display ad in area newspapers calling attention to his lack of accessibility.” Members of the Williamsburg Indivisible group had spent months trying to get Neal to hold a town hall in the Hilltowns. Why should we have to go to such lengths to meet with our elected representatives about issues that concern us?

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ report for 2015-16, the top five categories of corporations contributing to Neal’s campaign were insurance, securities and investment, pharmaceuticals/health products, health professionals, and accountants. Only 3 percent of individual campaign contributions were from people donating less than $200, and 74 percent of contributions came from corporations, not people. I doubt that corporate campaign donors have to wait months to get the congressman’s ear.

Neal is the ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He has done a fine job speaking out against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but his accomplishments in Washington don’t absolve him of his responsibility to be accessible to those in his district.

These are terrifying times; we are dependent on our legislators to fight for us. How can Neal adequately represent his district if he doesn’t take the time to talk with his constituents?

Richard Neal has been a congressman for 29 years. Ostensibly, he doesn’t need to care about what I think or how his staff treats me. His seat in Congress is secured until he retires.

John Olver served more than two decades in Congress, yet he never removed himself from the communities he represented.

A democracy is strong when our elected representatives listen to their constituents. Congressman Neal, treat us like we matter.

Sara Weinberger, of Easthampton, is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.