Neal debates issues with challenger in congressional race

August 22, 2018
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Springfield attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a Democratic candidate for 1st Congressional District Massachusetts is seen during a televised debate at television station WWLP against incumbent Richard Neal, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Chicopee, Mass. Amatul-Wadud hopes to be the first Muslim elected to Congress from Massachusetts. (Frederick Gore/The Republican via AP)

CHICOPEE, Mass. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and his Democratic primary challenger, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, discussed health care and defense spending among other issues Wednesday during their first campaign debate.

First elected to the House in 1988, Neal defended his long record in Congress and touted his leadership role as ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Amatul-Wadud cited an “absence of moral leadership” in Washington as one reason she’s running in the western Massachusetts district.

The candidates agreed on several matters while disagreeing on others during the mostly friendly televised debate at the WWLP-TV studios.

A black Springfield attorney and mother of seven, Amatul-Wadud hopes to be the first Muslim elected to Congress from Massachusetts. She faces a formidable task in unseating Neal, who previously served as the city’s mayor.

The challenger highlighted her support for a proposal to make the government-run Medicare program available to all Americans regardless of age, while suggesting Neal had not done enough to help rein in the high costs of prescription drugs.

“The congressman has not shown leadership in ways that would gain control over these costs and is not looking out for the people of the 1st District,” she said.

Neal said he played a leadership role in Congress during the passage of the Affordable Care Act and if re-elected said his first priority would be protecting the law from Republican attempts to dismantle it.

While not conceptually opposed to “Medicare for All,” Neal stopped just short of fully backing the proposal.

“That is a desirable outcome and I want that to happen,” he said. “But we have to discuss how best to get there.”

Asked how the Medicare expansion could be financed, Amutal-Wadud suggested money could perhaps be shifted from the Pentagon by giving the defense budget “a bit of a haircut.” She criticized the incumbent for backing a recent defense spending bill, but Neal responded that the bill contained funding for key military installations in the district, such as Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

Neal also defended his record on gun control, including his vote for a federal assault weapons ban, and at one point said his challenger was somewhat “wobbly” on the issue. Amatul-Wadud responded she has consistently supported strong gun control measures, including a hike in the minimum age for purchasing firearms.

The candidates are scheduled to debate once more before the Sept. 4 primary.

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