SPRINGFIELD -- During the first debate of the campaign season, 1st Mass achusetts District challengers Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. and Bill Shein accused incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of bowing to corporate interests and failing to provide meaningful leadership in Congress during the economic collapse of 2008.
"I fear that Congressman Neal has not done what has to be done to stick up for the people that were really whipsawed in this economy in 2008 and 2009 as a result of the economic collapse," Nuciforo said. "If you take a look at the congressman's record, that record has to do with advancing a Wall Street interest while forgetting about the people back on Main Street."
Neal vigorously defended his work in the House throughout the debate, hosted by WGBY in Springfield and televised throughout the district Mon day night after being taped earlier in the day. Neal cited his work with federal and state officials throughout the foreclosure crisis.
"Every time there has been a consumer question raised over the course of my career, I've sided with the consumer," he said.
In the absence of any Republican challengers, the winner of the Sept. 6 Democratic primary election between Neal, Nuciforo and Shein will likely go on to represent the 1st District.
The debate's moderator, WGBY station manager Jim Madigan, began by addressing what he characterized as the elephant in the room: Why Nuciforo and Shein would choose to run against Neal, a senior member of their party who was recently chosen by the Obama campaign to work as a campaign surrogate.
Both Nuciforo and Shein focused on what they characterized as Neal's record of accepting money from political action committees and other corporate interests while failing to stick up for regular people stuck in the midst of an economic collapse brought on by Wall Street.
"More than 90 percent of the money [Neal] has raised has come from corporate PACs, from corporate lobbyists that throw fundraisers for Congressman Neal at their offices in Washington, at fancy restaurants," Shein said. "It is the overwhelming amount of money that he raises and what I've argued in the campaign is that that money is drowning out the ideas that we need."
Nuciforo said that, as the Middle Berkshire Register of Deeds, he's been at the forefront of the foreclosure crisis. He said Congress hasn't done enough to help people in financial distress.
Neal responded that he has worked directly with state Attorney General Martha Coakley and the Obama administration on the issue. He said he supports letting mortgage holders who are current with their payments renegotiate the terms of their loans.
"My office has been aggressive in helping people who come through those doors with foreclosure issues," he said.
Neal went on to criticize Nuciforo's record as a state senator representing the Berkshires for 10 years until 2007, pointing out that as chairman of the Legislature's insurance and banking committee, Nuciforo effectively killed auto insurance reform legislation while taking huge amounts of money from insurance companies.
"You couldn't have taken any more money from Commerce Insurance," Neal said.
Nuciforo said the auto insurance reform bill would have been bad for the state.
At that point, Shein interjected with a plea to the debate moderator: "I hope we're not going to spend the whole time letting these two longtime politicians bicker about who has taken more money from corporate interests."
Shein outlined how his campaign accepts only contributions of $99 or less, which he said means he could truly represent the interests of the district and bring new ideas into Congress.
"I'm being outspent 100 to 1 in this race," Shein said. "Most candidates wouldn't want to talk about that, but I mention it because I am proud of it. That 100 represents continuing to do things the same, broken way. That 100 means handing over the keys of our democracy to Wall Street, to wealthy interests that have been playing both sides of the aisle for too long."
Shein said it's difficult to judge Neal on his voting record because many important ideas regarding climate change, campaign finance reform and Wall Street reform never make it to the floor of the House because representatives who are beholden to their donors don't bring them up.
"That money means silence on a lot of issues," he said.
Shein promised to support progressive proposals and join the congressional progressive caucus, which Neal is not a member of, but outgoing 1st District U.S. Rep. John Olver was.
Neal twice noted that Olver had endorsed him. Neal said he would continue to provide steadfast support for job-training initiatives, community colleges and social safety net programs. He also highlighted his past work on local infrastructure projects, including extending broadband to rural areas.
Nuciforo and Shein both said they'd support a single-payer health care system.
Nuciforo also said he would do whatever he could to bring manufacturing jobs back to places like Springfield, Chicopee and Pittsfield.
The debate Monday was one of two in which Neal agreed to take part. Six had been proposed.
The next debate will be hosted in Pittsfield on Aug. 30 by WBEC radio. It will air from 6-7 p.m. and will also be carried by WSBS in Great Barrington and WNAW in North Adams.