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Off to the Races at Last

Andrea Nuciforo hits the campaign trail for the new 1st Congressional District.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012
Kevin Gutting Photo
On a tour of the newly redrawn 1st District, Nuciforo talks with a prospective supporter.

In a way, Andrea Nuciforo's Congressional campaign kickoff event last week was a bit beside the point. After all, Nuciforo, a former state senator from the Berkshire District, first announced his intention to run for Massachusetts' 1st Congressional seat way back in 2009—so early that not only was it not yet clear who his opponents in the race would be, it wasn't even clear what the district would look like by the time the election rolled around.

But now, finally, the election is within sight. Nomination papers for candidates are available this month, and are due to be filed by May 1. On Sept. 6, Nuciforo will vie with his Democratic rivals—incumbent Richard Neal and political writer and activist Bill Shein, from the tiny Berkshire town of Alford—for the party's nomination. And that, not the Nov. 6 general election, will in all likelihood decide the race; so far, no Republicans or third-party candidates have stepped forward, and even if one did, his or her odds of winning in such a Democratic stronghold—the Scott Brown phenomenon notwithstanding—would be slim.

With the campaign season finally officially underway, an energetic Nuciforo hit the road on Feb. 8 for a tour of the 1st District. The boundaries of that district were changed dramatically during the recent redistricting process in ways that could be particularly challenging to Nuciforo's campaign. But the candidate, who currently serves as Register of Deeds for the Berkshire Middle District, insists he's up for that challenge. As Nuciforo begins his campaign in earnest, he's pitching himself as the underdog who will fight for regular people, and against the corrosive political and economic forces that have knocked them down in recent years.

*

Nuciforo's first stop of the day—he arrived by rented school bus with several dozen sign-waving supporters—was Holyoke's Open Square.

Holyoke was a fitting place to start his tour, Nuciforo told the crowd, because of its history as a place where newcomers have come to build new lives. As the descendant of Polish and Sicilian immigrants, Nuciforo said, he understands the immigrant experience; later, when Nuciforo introduced his wife, Elena, to the crowd, he noted that she, too, was an immigrant, born in the then-Soviet Union. (The candidate also introduced his one-year-old son, Eric, an impressively agreeable child who even at his tender age seemed to intuit the political value of an adorable baby clutching a campaign sign.)

In other ways Holyoke was an apt place for Nuciforo to kick off his campaign. It's similar in many ways to his hometown of Pittsfield, another industrial city that's struggled in a post-industrial economy. These days, Holyoke is riding high on a wave of fresh civic energy, reinforced by the election last fall of its new mayor, Alex Morse, a bright newcomer fresh out of college.

The 47-year-old Nuciforo is hardly a newcomer to politics, with a resume that includes a law degree and a decade as a state senator. (His late father, Andrea Sr., also served in the state Senate, then as a judge in Berkshire probate and family court.) But he does portray himself as a breath of fresh air in a stale political climate, a reformer bent on shaking things up.

"I'm running because middle-class and working-class people in this country are falling behind," a beaming Nuciforo told his listeners in Holyoke. He spoke of an economy that's "rigged against" ordinary people, instead serving a select handful of powerful individuals and corporations. He spoke of a political culture in Washington that refuses to take responsibility for the economic crises faced by ordinary Americans, much less do the work that's need to fix them. He spoke of the "pettiness of our politics," in which meaningless partisan bickering gets in the way of real progress.

And, in a more or less direct swing at the incumbent Neal, Nuciforo called for new blood to replace the old players. "We can't possibly trust the same people who led us into this mess to get us out," he said.

Nuciforo outlined some of his key goals: making college affordable, developing good manufacturing jobs, ensuring quality healthcare, protecting consumers against "Wall Street tactics." He vowed to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid against privatization or defunding. And he promised to have an "active conversation" with voters about their priorities, which he would then carry to Washington as his legislative agenda.

*

From Holyoke, Nuciforo went on to events in Southbridge, Easthampton and Charlemont before ending the day with a party back home in Pittsfield.

Conspicuous by its absence from the day's itinerary: the city of Springfield, by far the largest of the district's 86 municipalities and, not incidentally, the hometown of incumbent Richie Neal.

Asked by the Advocate why he wasn't stopping in Springfield, Nuciforo said that he'd love to visit all the communities in the district but only had time for five. His campaign organizers, he added, wanted to make sure he visited at least one community in each of the four counties in the district; in addition, he said, he wanted to highlight some of the smaller communities in the district—hence his decision to stop in Charlemont (population 1,300).

Still, by skipping so important a community as Springfield, with 153,000 residents and almost 95,000 registered voters (many of whom, admittedly, rarely show up at the polls), Nuciforo runs the risk of looking as though he's ceding that ground to Neal, who worked his way up the ranks of that city's government, as city councilor and then as mayor, before moving to Congress in 1989.

Neal is, of course, the big foot in the race. He sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and had been considered a frontrunner to chair that committee after New York Rep. Charlie Rangel was forced by a rising tide of scandal to resign the post in 2010, although, in the end, Michigan Rep. Sander Levin got the job. Neal's also a successful fundraiser, whose war chest, at the end of 2011, showed $2,453,188 in cash on hand compared to Nuciforo's $136,606 (which included a $30,005 personal loan from the candidate). In 2010, Neal dropped a whopping $2.3 million in his race against Republican challenger Tom Wesley, who spent a modest $144,000. Neal beat Wesley 59 percent to 41 percent.

When Nuciforo first announced his plans to run for Congress, his likely Democratic primary opponent, it appeared, was U.S. Rep. John Olver of Amherst, who'd represented the 1st District since 1991. Nuciforo's declaration ticked off many in the Democratic establishment, who felt that it was presumptuous and disrespectful for him to challenge the veteran Olver. Nuciforo, for his part, dismissed those charges as indicative of the sort of insiders' games that hurt a healthy democratic system. "There is no etiquette book affixed to the United States Constitution," he told the Advocate last year. "Voters are entitled to decide who will represent them in the U.S. Congress."

Nuciforo may have been banking on the possibility that Olver, who turns 76 this year, would retire before the 2012 election, leaving a vacant seat up for grabs. And indeed, Olver, who initially had said he intended to run again, last October changed course and announced that he would not stand for re-election.

But that news didn't leave the 1st District without an incumbent—at least, not for long. As a result of the 2010 U.S. Census, which saw population shifts away from the Northeast and toward western and southern states, Massachusetts will lose one of its 10 Congressional seats beginning with the 2012 election. A legislative committee was charged with redrawing the state's district lines to reflect that loss. Shortly after Olver announced his plans to retire, that committee released its new plan, which included major changes for Western Mass.

Under the old plan, the 1st District covers all of Berkshire and Franklin counties, much of Hampshire County, and parts of Hampden, Worcester and Middlesex counties. While it is home to several small cities, including Pittsfield, Holyoke and Westfield, it's largely a rural district, with many of the smallest municipalities in the commonwealth. Under the new plan, the district will now stretch eastward to include Springfield, previously the heart of the 2nd Congressional district, forcing Nuciforo to compete with an entrenched and well-funded incumbent in that incumbent's home town.

Nuciforo maintains that the 1st District does not, in fact, have an incumbent; Neal, after all, is still the incumbent for the 2nd District, and will be competing for the 1st District seat this fall, along with Nuciforo and Shein. And, Nuciforo suggested to reporters at his Holyoke event, given the economic and political mess we find ourselves in, it's not so certain that incumbency is a benefit. "We don't hear a lot of incumbents bragging about incumbency these days," he said.

With a Gallup poll last week showing that only 10 percent of Americans approve of the job being done by Congress, the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment role could pay off for Nuciforo. He's recently called for Congressional term limits and a five-year year waiting period before former members of Congress or their top staffers could become lobbyists. "The advantages conferred by incumbency and special interest money have led not to representative government, but to lifelong membership in Congress," Nuciforo said in a press release. "Given the realities of American politics today, this problem can be solved only by mandatory term limits and by closing the revolving door between Congress and K Street."

Nuciforo also advocates a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which opened the doors for unlimited political spending by corporations, and the passage of the Fair Elections Now bill, which would create a public funding system for Congressional candidates. While six members of Massachusetts' Congressional delegation—including Olver—have co-sponsored the bill, Neal is not among them.

"Congress and politics is awash in corporate and special interest money. That money is drowning out the voices of everyday citizens," Nuciforo said in a campaign release.

But in his bid to be the race's anti-establishment reformer, Nuciforo faces some stiff competition from Shein, who jumped into the race last month. Shein, who writes a sharp, politically left column for the Berkshire Eagle (and who describes himself on his Facebook page as a "writer, activist, IT guy, duck farmer"), supports a ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists and a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists, among other progressive proposals. Shein has also promised that his campaign will accept no corporate or PAC money, but only individual contributions of $99 or less, and has jabbed Nuciforo for his track record, while in the state Senate, of taking money from lobbyists, banks and other corporate interests.

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