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Can This Progressive Woman of Color Pull Off an Ocasio-Cortez-Style Upset in Massachusetts?

Amatul-Wadud is confident that a progressive agenda is her best selling point. Her campaign platform centers “Medicare for All,” a strong social safety net, and civil rights protections as top priorities.

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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud campaigning in MA First Congressional District, Charles Krupa/AP
 
In the weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s surprise victory in New York’s 14th District, the Democratic Party has been waking up to the possibility that a progressive wave could overturn the party’s leadership and usher in a new guard — one led by young women of color. Ocasio-Cortez said as much in her victory speech, delivered from a bar top at the pool hall in the Bronx that hosted her election night party.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of primaries to go. When we get to November, we should be electing a caucus,” she said.

That’s what Tahirah Amatul-Wadud is hoping will happen in Massachusetts’s 1st District, where she’s mounting an insurgent campaign against Richard Neal, one of the longest serving Democratic representatives in the House.

According to Amatul-Wadud, Neal represents everything that’s wrong with Washington Democrats. He’s an uninvolved career politician who puts the interests of his national donors in front of the people he represents, Amatul-Wadud says, and his seniority in the House hasn’t brought much benefit to the region. While Ocasio-Cortez effectively dinged her primary opponent, Joe Crowley, by pointing out that he and his family don’t live in his congressional district, Neal’s reputation among his constituents might be worse: Last year, some of his rural constituents took out an ad in the local Weekend Gazette asking, “Has anyone seen this man? (yes, he’s your congressman).”

Amatul-Wadud hopes to fill that absence.

An African-American lawyer, Amatul-Wadud has spent most of her life in the Springfield area. She has been Muslim since the age of 4, when her parents converted to the religion. Now 44, Amatul-Wadud has run her own law practice since 2009. In addition to her legal work, which includes civil rights advocacy for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Muslims for America, Amatul-Wadud has served on the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and was a member of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Family Advisory Council.

It’s an impressive resume. But Amatul-Wadud’s campaign isn’t focused on her identity — professional, racial, religious, or any other. It is focused on her politics.

Amatul-Wadud is confident that a progressive agenda is her best selling point. Her campaign platform centers “Medicare for All,” a strong social safety net, and civil rights protections as top priorities. It’s a vision that has netted her endorsements from Indivisible and the Progressive Democrats of America. And though she hasn’t signed on to the popular “Abolish ICE” movement, which calls for an end to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is becoming a litmus test of sorts for Democrats this year, Amatul-Wadud says that’s because she thinks a slogan won’t address the root policy causes that have led to the agency’s brutal crackdown on immigrants.

“In my back pocket, I have being a lawyer and my other skills and where I’m from,” said Amatul-Wadud. “But my constituents are better served by having a candidate that puts vision first.”

“I feel a real sense of momentum growing,” said Jackie Neiman, co-founder and co-leader of Rise Up Western Massachusetts Indivisible. “I think it could be one of those campaigns that wins from the grassroots.”

Neiman pointed out that Amatul-Wadud’s challenge is one of only two that Neal has faced in the 1st District — Neal’s last challenge occurred when 2nd District, where he was a congressman, was combined with the existing 1st District in 2012. Neal defeated both challengers — Bill Shein and Andrea Nuciforo — easily, winning 65.5 percent of the vote. This time it’s different though, said Neiman.

“People are looking at what that their vote means and voting for candidates that represent their ideals,” she said. “And Tahirah seems more in touch with the average person in District 1: She’s an active member of the community, a local attorney, she’s involved in social action, and active in her own religious community. She’s very connected in terms of local people.”

Amatul-Wadud’s district is geographically large but sparsely populated. The biggest vote share comes from the city of Springfield, where Neal was mayor from 1983 to 1989. And the congressman’s perceived inattention to the rest of the district is highlighted by his affection for his home turf. “Neal plays to his audience in Springfield, and that’s where most of his votes come from,” said David Greenberg, a member of the coordinating committee for the progressive organization Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution.

Neiman told The Intercept that in a political climate where progressive issues are being amplified, a solidly blue state like Massachusetts should be an example of how to make ideals a legislative reality. And for a district that’s as left-leaning as the 1st — the majority of voters in the district picked Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, and the entire district voted for Hillary Clinton by a sizable margin in the 2016 general election — Neal isn’t cutting it, says Neiman.

“I think the most important thing about her race is that this is the first time since I became involved that there seems to be a really viable alternative,” said Neiman.

Multiple attempts to reach Neal for comment on this article were unsuccessful once the congressman’s office found out that this article was for The Intercept — despite the fact that the author of this piece, who lives in the district, has interviewed Neal on multiple occasions in the past for other publications.

Amatul-Wadud is one of three women challenging congressional incumbents in the Bay State. In the 7th District, which includes parts of Boston and Cambridge, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley aims to topple 20-year Congressman Michael Capuano. Next door, in the 8th District, game developer Brianna Wu is challenging nine-term incumbent Stephen Lynch. All are Democrats.

Amatul-Wadud’s race is a test of how deep the discontent with longtime incumbents within the Democratic Party goes. So far, she is running without the support of national groups like Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, #VoteProChoice, or others that can help with organizing and fundraising, and has raised significantly less than Ocasio-Cortez did. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Pressley — who also campaigned for and endorsed Ocasio-Cortez — but has not backed Wu or Amatul-Wadud. If even with all of those disadvantages, and with little support beyond Indivisible, Amatul-Wadud can dethrone Neal, nobody is safe.

Amatul-Wadud says she has made over 310 campaign stops across the district since her December 19, 2017, launch, reaching over 14,000 voters and distributing 6,500 pieces of campaign literature. In an area like the 1st District, where get-out-the-vote efforts can make the difference in the farther-flung, rural areas, a strong ground team is essential. Amatul-Wadud has 289 volunteers across the district knocking on doors to spread her message, and she’s targeting the cities of Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, and Pittsfield to reach the population centers of the district, she says.

Unlike Neal, Amatul-Wadud has rejected corporate money, but she has not replaced that with a robust small-dollar operation yet. By the end of first-quarter reporting, she had raised only $35,208 to Neal’s $1,900,408, which is itself only a fraction of his $3,449,784.59 campaign war chest. (Amatul-Wadud’s total fundraising through June tops out at just $72,646.51).  

But Amatul-Wadud says those numbers don’t tell the whole story: Both candidates raised roughly the same amount of money from individual donors in the first quarter of 2018, indicating that Neal’s bigger war chest is not indicative of a bigger fan base. Of Neal’s earnings in the first quarter, only 0.42 percent was from individual donors, compared to 58 percent of Amatul-Wadud’s.

Ocasio-Cortez showed that a massive financial disadvantage isn’t fatal, but a campaign does need to pay for the basics, which means having at least several hundred thousand dollars. Whether Amatul-Wadud can hit that target remains a key question.

Neal is a senior member of the party’s congressional delegation, and has had a three-decade political career. He rode to the top of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over taxation, as the ranking Democrat, and could make a bid to chair the panel if Democrats retake the House in 2018. He’s a politically connected member of the House Democratic Caucus — a longtime power player on the verge of reaching the peak of his career.

In New York, Crowley was vulnerable to substantive attacks from Ocasio-Cortez, who was able to draw a strong contrast between Crowley’s enmeshment with the New York machine and her own people-powered movement. Amatul-Wadud is hoping to draw similar distinctions in Massachusetts’s 1st District — focusing on Neal’s long held reputation in the district as uninvolved.

“We’ve felt his absence, especially on the heels of the election of Donald Trump,” said Amatul-Wadud. “The district is suffering.”

As an incumbent, Neal has a home-field advantage, and perhaps as a result, hasn’t felt the need to engage with Amatul-Wadud directly. In a June 20 interview with Springfield’s WGBH, Neal implied that he doubted Amatul-Wadud’s “seriousness of purpose” and said he would have to look at “the metrics” before committing (or not) to a debate. That attitude has only contributed to the sense that Neal is an arms-length congressman. “In terms of retail campaigning, he’s not around,” said Russell Freedman, an organizer with the Berkshire wing of the Progressive Democrats of America.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘If you want to see Richie, have a parade, he’ll come march in it,'” added Freedman. “In terms of coming out and talking to voters, he does not do it.” By contrast, Amatul-Wadud has been criss-crossing the district since she announced, making herself a district fixture, and appearing everywhere from town anniversaries to social justice protests.

But the recent success of Ocasio-Cortez, who made a campaign issue out of her opponent’s unwillingness to come to the podium, seems to have changed things: Only after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory did Neal’s team respond to requests to attend a debate hosted by the Western Massachusetts Young Democrats, who are based in the 1st District. Still, Neal hasn’t yet responded to an invitation from the Berkshire County NAACP, which is planning to host a separate debate on August 15. Amatul-Wadud, on the other hand, says she’s ready to go.

John Krol, a local television host based in Pittsfield, told The Intercept that Amatul-Wadud is doing the right things to get people excited for her candidacy. “She has been knocking on doors, talking to people, understanding the issues regular people face,” said Krol, adding, “Mr. Neal’s ‘sense of purpose’ comment is another indication that he may very well be out of touch.”

The worst case scenario for Amatul-Wadud is that once Neal perceives her as a threat, he’ll use his formidable political war chest to blanket the district with ads, cinching the primary in the last month.

“He’s going to come out swinging with ads in late August,” said Greenberg of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution. “And that’ll reach a lot of people.”

Amatul-Wadud, though, is staying positive. She says the race is about ensuring that the district has a representative that reflects its progressivism — and one who shows up. She hopes her consistent messaging and the desire for change in the district will lead to an upset. And as the Ocasio-Cortez upset shows, this isn’t a normal year.

“Berkshire County is a very progressive part of the state,” Freedman told The Intercept. “And we really need a progressive legislator to represent our views in Washington, and Tahirah is that.”