More and more insurgent progressive candidates are betting that they can face off and win against incumbents and more moderate challengers in Democratic primaries nationwide. In Eastern Massachusetts, progressive City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is taking on 10-term Congressman Michael Capuano in 7th District, and Brianna Wu is challenging Stephen Lynch, a nine-term congressman. Likewise, in Delaware, Kerri Harris, a black, lesbian, military veteran, is running to unseat establishment senator Tom Carper. And, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the party when she ousted Joe Crowley, the King of Queens, and signaled to other progressive insurgents that they have a chance.
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a black Muslim mother of seven, is betting that she, too, can take down a high-ranking career politician in the September 4 Democratic primary In Massachusetts’s First Congressional District. An attorney from Springfield, Amatul-Wadud has been knocking doors and crisscrossing the majority-white and significantly rural district, hoping that her progressive message can turn out voters. Amatul-Wadud is one of three women challenging congressional incumbents in Massachusetts. If successful, she would be one of the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. (Last week Rashida Tlaib, a former state legislator and community organizer, won the primary to to replace John Conyers in Michigan. She is slated to become the first Muslim woman and Palestinian-American elected to Congress.)
She’s up against incumbent Richard Neal, a congressman of 30 years and a ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. Neal recently dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, saying that it couldn’t happen in his district. “Every congressional district in America is different, and I think that needs to be acknowledged,” he said at a campaign event, echoing similar statements from politicians like Tammy Duckworth and Nancy Pelosi. That said, Bernie Sanders carried much of Neal’s district in the 2016 primary over Hillary Clinton, suggesting that voters support more progressive policies. Speaking to this race, Ryan Grim, who is the DC bureau chief of The Intercept, tweeted, “If Richie Neal goes down, nobody is safe.”
Although she is new to electoral politics, Amatul-Wadud has been extremely active locally. In addition to running her law practice, she serves on the board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Massachusetts, volunteers on the Family Advisory Council of Boston Children’s Hospital (where her daughter received open-heart surgery as an infant), and is on the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, which helped pass equal pay in the Baystate. She took classes through Vote Run Lead and the Women’s Fund of Massachusetts, both of which help women prepare to run for office.
Amatul-Wadud’s approach to politics is grounded in her life experience. Her support for Medicare for All is rooted in her daughter’s heart surgery. “I didn’t have to make a decision about whether or not we could afford to have her healed,” Amatul-Wadud said. “And I want every family to have that sense of assurance.” She sees the opioid crisis as an opportunity to incorporate criminal-justice reform into her stump speech. “If we had clinical and compassionate approach to how we dealt with addiction [during the crack epidemic], we would not have the opioid crisis. And if we did, we’d have a model for how to fix it,” she said, referencing her childhood “in a community that was ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic.”
As the primary has heated up, her opponent has become more vocal about issues like retirement security, the cost of prescription drugs, and PAC money. Last month, he introduced legislation to lower the price of prescription drugs, despite his receiving $191,750 from pharmaceutical and health industries this election cycle. He defended his use of PAC money, telling a local NPR affiliate that PACs are a way for working people to influence politics, citing his support from unions. “Teachers, firefighters, tradesmen, construction workers; they’re just pooling their money,” Neal told NEPR. “The bank presidents can write checks for $1,000, what’s wrong with the AFL-CIO getting 100 employees to give $10?” However, Neal gets a lot more money from bank presidents, big pharma, and lobbyists than he does from organized labor or working people. In a tweet, Amatul-Wadud noted that only six percent of his PAC contributions come from labor groups.
In an interview with the The Nation, Amatul-Wadud said her campaign platform centers on Medicare for All (which Neal doesn’t support), access to broadband Internet service, and nonpunitive and “compassionate” solutions to the opioid crisis. Amatul-Wadud believes Neal’s conflicts of interest with his financiers have prevented him from governing on behalf of his working-class constituents. While Amatul-Wadud has vowed to not take corporate money and wants to repeal Citizens United, Neal has raised $2,396,752 to Amatul-Wadud’s $72,047, according to the most recent reporting. Approximately 75 percent of Neal’s cash is from PACs. But in our interview, at an NAACP event in Pittsfield, she noted a different contrast first: their diverging approaches to constituent services.
Neal has received flak for being unresponsive to his constituents. Indivisible Williamsburg, a rural chapter of the national group, took out an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette last year depicting Neal’s face with the text “Has anyone seen this man?” The ad noted that Neal hadn’t “spoken” or “listened to” residents from Williamsburg or several other nearby communities in over five years.
“You don’t last as long as I have without responding to people,” Neal told the Valley Advocate. But many of his constituents throughout the geographically large district don’t feel heard by their representative. Several letters to the editor in newspapers throughout the district tell a similar story of constituents not being able to get his ear. When asked by the Advocate if he would visit his Williamsburg constituents, Neal said: “Probably not.”
“I would always be responsive to the constituents,” Amatul-Wadud tells The Nation. “I sincerely believe that you cannot be a defender of democracy when you have a divided loyalty between your constituents and your financiers,” she said, speaking directly to the crux of the conflict between herself and Neal.
Another key issue for Amatul-Wadud is access to broadband internet. Telecoms—some of which, like Comcast and AT&T, are Neal donors—have left much of the district behind. “I consider it not only a quality of life issue, but an economic crisis issue,” she said, noting how both rural and urban people in the district can’t access the job market without internet service. She believes that state and federal resources are needed to invest in internet infrastructure, with or without the private sector’s support.
But during the final weeks of the campaign, Amatul-Wadud is facing attacks that have little to nothing to do with her platform. She has begun receiving hate-tinged-smears for her religion and professional work. First came Islamophobic mailers from an anonymous source that, according to the Gazette, made “convoluted and unsubstantiated” claims about her religion, and also attacked her advocacy work. Likewise, an article in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette asked Amatul-Wadud to answer to statements associated with her law clients that she didn’t espouse or issue. Asked if she sees these types of comments as related to the post-9/11 ideological climate that has justified endless war, Amatul-Wadud said: “None of this is coincidental, and there are many entities would rather me not win. That’s why these distractions have crept into the race.”
Still, there is plenty of grassroots support for Amatul-Wadud. She has been endorsed by Indivisible, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Progressive Democrats of America, along with Indivisible Williamsburg, Rise Up Western Massachusetts, and Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution (FCCPR). Maryelen Calderwood of FCCPR told The Nation that it “was an easy endorsement. She certainly met—or exceeded—the expectations of FCCPR, and our own values.” When asked about the campaign’s grassroots support, a spokesman for Neal’s campaign told The Nation that “Congressman Neal, along with our team of volunteers, paid interns, and supporters, looks forward to talking with voters across the district.”
“There’s really grassroots enthusiasm,” said Elizabeth Caretti Ramirez, a schoolteacher active in local politics, and now a volunteer for Amatul-Wadud’s campaign. “People love her…. Lots of people are flocking to the campaign, our numbers are growing.” she said. “They want her buttons, her pins. They want to talk about her.” Ramirez, who is bilingual in a city with a large Puerto Rican population, has her eyes set on young people and new voters before the August 15th voter registration deadline. “We’re also focussed on getting people registered, distributing lawn signs, [and] getting out name recognition.”
“I worked on the Bernie campaign, and it’s reminding me of that,” Ramirez said. “Since the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win, people are feeling more and more like ‘we can do that.’”
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly characterized Amatul-Wadud’s legal clients referenced by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette as part of a group which had members who were murdered in a hate crime.