When the final campaign filings from the Pioneer Valley 2010 political races came out on Monday, November 22, 2010, eyebrows were raised behind closed doors at the report filed by south Valley Congressman Richard Neal. I say behind closed doors, because the general public was never informed of the figures by the mainstream local media, which is typical regarding matters pertaining to "The Congressman" that might be interpreted as embarrassing.
But the mind-boggling sum spent by Richie Neal to win re-election last year was really the great uncovered story of our local elections in 2010. How much did Richie blow this time around? According to his filing he spent a staggering $2,235,180, which I believe qualifies as the most expensive local race in Pioneer Valley history.
What also makes Richie's money bomb so unique is not just its gargantuan size, but the target against which all that cash was directed - Neal's penniless, unknown opponent, political novice Tom Wesley. To attempt to unseat Neal, Wesley raised a paltry $123,203, which on the congressional level is the equivalent of challenging your opponent on the proceeds of a lemonade stand.
Even more awkward for Neal is how little he got for firing this cannon of cash against a housefly. Although Republicans of a certain stripe can occasionally win in the Pioneer Valley, Wesley was not of that type. He had a military background in a district of peaceniks, was anti-abortion among rabid feminists, and against gay marriage in one of the queerest parts of the country. Wesley was also running as a Republican Tea Partier in a year when Massachusetts (and California) were unique in resisting the GOP wave that swept the other 48 states.
And yet, even with all that against him, the final tally was startlingly close, with Wesley winning a very solid 43% of the vote. It is hard to believe that a sudden attraction to Wesley's right-wing views can account for that turnout, especially since there was no Republican surge in any other races. Although Wesley did have an enthusiastic base, his high vote total can only be fully explained as a personal anti-Neal backlash. In other words, there were a surprisingly large number of voters out there who were prepared to hold their nose and vote for a candidate they disagreed with rather than cast their ballot for Richie Neal.
And no doubt they had their reasons. Years of unchallenged incumbency had made Neal appear as if he took the seat for granted, with many voters even asking "Richie who?" since the lack of the need for Neal to campaign for the seat for 16 years had left much of the public uncertain of who he was. No doubt Neal's inside polling showed him in deep trouble, thereby explaining his frantic spending spree, even against an unpopular opponent with no money. That is the only logical explanation for how you end up with the bizarre sight of a two million dollar race against a guy with pocket change.
Yet Neal won by a margin slim enough to leave one wondering whether Neal could have lost the seat had the GOP had the sense to have nominated the much more electable libertarian Republican Dr. Jay Fleitman of Northampton, who had challenged Wesley in the primary. But that's just idle speculation at this point, in politics the winner takes all, whether victory comes by a sliver or a landslide, and under normal circumstances Neal would be able to sigh with post-election relief and enjoy another term.
But these are not normal circumstances. As a result of slow population growth in Massachusetts, we are losing one of our ten congressional seats. That means that if all ten incumbents want to run for re-election, one of them is going to have to be forced to run against a fellow incumbent. And if you know anything about the way things are done in Massachusetts politics, it ain't gonna be somebody in Boston who is going to have that problem. As usual they will shaft - I mean shift - that difficulty to us here in the Wild West, and make our two congressmen, Neal and John Olver of Amherst, do an electoral duel to the death in a Democrat Party primary.
Both Neal and Olver (like the other eight incumbents) have publicly announced that they are seeking re-election in 2012; but how seriously can we take their intentions? There is no doubt that Neal is sincere, he is poised to possibly become chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the unlikely chance that the Democrats retake the House. Neal is also just in his early 60's and considered still young by congressional standards.
Olver however is a another story. For one thing, doubt is raised by the fact that Olver is required to say he is running in 2012 even if he has no intention of doing so, just to preserve any chance of saving the two Western Mass seats from consolidation. The ten incumbents are just dying to be relieved of the pressure of removing a seat by having someone retire, since then they could just wipe out that person's seat and leave all nine remaining incumbents safe and sound. So if Olver did not say he was running, it would become an irreversible certainty that we would lose the second seat, with no chance of escaping Boston combining Neal's and Olver's districts.
Despite such political posing, everyone is all but certain that Neal and Olver's districts will be combined anyway, it just isn't possible to imagine the scenario where Boston would kill off one of their own to accommodate Western Mass. So would Olver really participate in such a brutal political death match? He is well into his seventies and did not impress people with his doddering, spacy performance in last year's debates against his challenger Bill Gunn. Many suspect that if push comes to shove, Olver will defer to Neal by retiring should it turn out that only one of them can have the seat.
But of course the Pioneer Valley political universe does not consist only of Richard Neal and John Olver. Some powerful Democrat could come forward, and the whispering is growing louder that the someone who may step in to challenge Neal if Olver steps down is Amherst State Senator Stan Rosenberg. After all, Rosenberg is widely considered to be Olver's hand-picked heir, and previous speculation about Olver's retirement has regarded Rosenberg's candidacy to be a foregone conclusion. Why should that certainty be changed should the seat have Richie Neal competing for it?
My personal opinion is that if it is a Neal versus Olver Democrat primary, Neal will win because of his relative youth and the lopsided margin the Democrat machine in Springfield can deliver to Neal to overcome all the small towns that comprise Olver's base. However, a Neal versus Rosenberg race, now that's a whole other story. It's early yet, but meanwhile let us watch with keen interest as events unfold.
The rising sun hits the woodland way into downtown Northampton.
Transforming it into a golden road of unlimited devotion.
Singing along to animal posters in Northampton last week.
On the street by Tony Mateus.