Young mothers question Neal in Holyoke
HOLYOKE — The smell of pizza filled the ground-floor room at The Care Center on Monday as a group of around 30 women gathered to ask questions of a man who has represented their community for around 30 years — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.
The Springfield Democrat was in Holyoke for a question-and-answer session with students and teachers at The Care Center, which among other services provides education to parenting and pregnant teens. Neal, who is challenged by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District, also paid a visit to the the Library Commons affordable housing project.
“You’ve got someone here who is in the heart of government,” Care Center Executive Director Anne Teschner said to those gathered before immediately opening up the conversation to questions.
The questions spanned a wide range of topics, from Neal’s large role in the House impeachment process to immigration. One woman in the audience asked Neal what his goals were when it came to ending the opioid crisis in Massachusetts.
“It’s like a cancer that goes through society,” Neal said.
Neal explained that he is in favor of opening more beds in treatment programs and providing more economic opportunities to those struggling with addiction. He used the analogy of a trampoline, saying that when those battling addiction fall they should have a soft landing.
He also said that society should take a less punitive approach to those with addiction issues. He did, however, make a distinction between them and drug dealers, who he said have “no soft spot with me.”
Another attendee asked about Neal’s stance on the high cost of rent in the region and its effects on residents — in particular, senior citizens.
Neal said that the problem is barriers to creating more affordable housing and that local officials bear a lot of the burden of solving that complex challenge. He noted that zoning laws have made it more difficult to build more housing units in municipalities.
“It’s like squeezing toothpaste with a cap on,” he said.
Having a good job was a theme Neal returned to several times. He said the so-called “gig economy” has left workers with irregular hours and no union, and that he supports community colleges, retraining and mentorship programs to help people get into the workforce.
Though the audience didn’t ask about Neal’s race against Morse or the ongoing presidential primaries, Neal did address the ideological divide in the Democratic Party between progressives and the center-left.
Neal said he wouldn’t name names, but “litmus tests” that politicians develop “about perfection” are bound to disappoint. He said voters should look at what a candidate has accomplished.
“I gave up voting for perfection after my first election,” Neal said. “There’s a real danger in public life in over-promising.”
One of the last questions came from Lukiki Akola, of Springfield, who asked Neal about supporting immigrants coming to the country and needing help with education and learning the language. Neal had noted earlier that when his mother died when he was 13, he was raised by his grandmother.
“You can’t have immigrant grandparents and not believe in immigration,” he said. He noted that he supports immigration reform that would allow more immigrants into the country. “The economy needs them,” he said.