In last Thursday’s primary election, Richard Neal became the Democratic Party’s candidate for our district’s seat in the 2012 election for the United States Congress. Because there is no Republican candidate, Neal’s primary victory means that after the general election in November, he’ll automatically replace our current representative in Congress, the retiring John Olver.
Because of its stagnant population growth, Massachusetts was required by the federal government to give up one of its ten congressional seats this year.
If you’ve ever seen the Harlem Globetrotters perform, you know all you need to know about politics in Massachusetts. The leadership of the Democratic Party is the Globetrotters. Everyone else in this state is playing for the Washington Generals, the sad sack exhibition team that stands around dumbfounded while the Globetrotters work their entertainment magic.
Building up to their final decision, the trick dribblers on Beacon Hill in charge of redistricting talked a lot about preserving the best government for the most constituents. When they were done throwing buckets of confetti into the laughing crowd, they had achieved what anyone over the age of 10 who had been watching with a clear eye knew was their real goal all along.
The politicians in charge of slimming Massachusetts’ congressional districts down from ten to nine had one main objective, and that was to make sure not one incumbent faced a serious re-election battle.
This effort was made a little easier by the retirements of incumbents John Over and Barney Frank. Surprise, surprise, after the final buzzer sounded, not a single one of the incumbent members of congress had come close to being dethroned. See you next time we’re in town, folks!
State leaders did do some fine-tuning to eastern districts, but the heavy lifting in redistricting was achieved by transforming the state’s two westernmost districts into one, combining much of Neal’s former district with ours. Nobody in a position of authority seemed to notice, or care, that the resulting monster district which they created was an improbably huge land mass, a new New England state.
Richard Neal was already a member of Congress from the district which included his hometown, the city of Springfield. Absent another well financed and well known Springfield based challenger, he was not going to lose a Democratic primary in Massachusetts. No serious challenger from the center of gravity of our new congressional district emerged, and he won easily.
We don’t really know him up here in the north country, but by most media accounts, Representative Neal is a decent man and a good public servant. This popular, one time Mayor of Springfield has long held a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, often described as the most powerful one in Congress.
So it would seem, at first glance, that Northern Berkshire hasn’t been treated all that badly by redistricting, and that we have only exchanged one experienced and well regarded representative in Congress for another. Hopefully, that will prove to be true.
But Springfield is a long ways away from Northern Berkshire, not only as the crow flies, but also in terms of its economy, its history and its culture. Whoever is tasked with tending to the needs of this gargantuan new district will have to possess an extraordinary commitment to the job at hand in order to even begin to serve the entire district fairly. For a busy person not directly familiar with our remote corner of Massachusetts, it would seem an easy thing to do to lump all of it together under the generically convenient, but mistaken label of "hill towns" and proceed from there.
Again, hopefully, Representative Neal won’t make that kind of oversight. Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, it’s now, more than ever before, the responsibility of our local institutions to become our local champions, to fill the silence of the artificial void created by the exile of the latest federal census. Our three local colleges and our two big health systems are now, by virtue of their size and the resources which that size represents, the economic and political leaders of our area.
Bill Donovan writes regularly for The Advocate. Feedback is welcome at email@example.com.