PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The three contenders for the 1st Massachusetts District seat expressed stark disagreements this week over the extent of scheduled debates for the upcoming election, which will be decided at the Sept. 6 Democratic primary.
Candidates Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. and Bill Shein both criticized current 2nd District Rep. Richard Neal this week based on reports he has accepted only two of at least six debate invitations put forth to the candidates over the past several months.
"I am disappointed, but not surprised, that Congressman Neal has chosen to avoid four of the six proposed debates," said Nuciforo in a statement. "He sees the same data we see, and these data show that we have widespread support and solid positions on issues that resonate with voters. Neal knows that this race is neck and neck, and he thinks he will lose fewer votes by declining to attend. By evading debates, the congressman is doing a disservice to voters, and is further eroding faith in our democratic system."
Shein similarly called the decision "disappointing, but not surprising."
"Regardless, we'll continue our substantive campaign about the big changes we need in our politics and economy that I've been advocating for years," said Shein. "At the two debates we are having, I look forward to contrasting my views and very different priorities with the other candidates and wish Rep. Neal well with his very busy schedule."
Neal's campaign maintains that he is not unwilling to debate, and that the candidate readily accepted debate invitations in both Pittsfield and Springfield.
"Congressman Richie Neal always debates his political opponents during election season and this year will be no different," said spokesman Matthew Fenlon in a statement. "In fact, Congressman Neal was the first candidate in this race to accept debates in Springfield and Pittsfield, both of which involve multiple media outlets and are already scheduled."
These debates include a pre-taped studio debate for WGBY public television that is scheduled to air on Aug. 20, and an AM radio debate that may include loose participation by local media outlets. The latter debate, at WBEC in Pittsfield, will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 30, one week before the election, and will also air on WNAW 1230-AM in North Adams and 860-AM/94.1-FM in Great Barrington, all part of the Berkshire Vox Radio Group.
Nuciforo and Shein, both from the Berkshires, have challenged Neal during the campaign to commit to a debate schedule since early July, and questioned why he has not accepted several offered invitations.
In mid-January, iBerkshires extended an invitation to the three candidates to participate in a debate to be held in Pittsfield, which would be open to the public and media as well as streamed online, and therefore potentially accessible to more residents throughout the entire district than any other media broadcast area.
By Jan. 23, both Shein and Nuciforo had responded affirmatively to these invitations.
Following several follow up emails and phone calls to Neal's office over the four months, iBerkshires received word from Neal's campaign on June 2 that it was "currently receiving many debate requests and will be back in touch as we finalize the Congressman's scheduled for the summer." Continued queries in late June and through July received similar responses.
Invitations for a planned debate Aug. 27 organized by the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television at Berkshire Community College initially sent out in May never received a response, according to Gazette editor Jonathan Levine.
"I think Neal would prefer to debate at 7:45 at night, on Sept. 6," Shein told iBerkshires last month with regards to the candidate's lack of clear response to debate requests.
"If Congressman Neal believes so strongly in the importance of debating, then why has he declined the majority of debates?" asked Nuciforo, who sent a letter challenging Neal to commit to a debate schedule in early July.
Neal's campaign disputed this Wednesday, pointing to a misunderstanding over the logistics of the scheduled WBEC debate on Aug. 30. Fenlon told iBerkshires that sometime after its debate request, it received one from WBEC, which it accepted on the understanding that the other local media outlets who had proposed debates would be included.
"They gave us the impression that they had already worked it out with everyone," said Fenlon.
It was only after controversy had already erupted in local press Wednesday, however, that announcement of this debate was sent to those media outlets, in a mid-day release from WBEC's Larry Kratka. According to the Kratka, the debate will feature some measure of involvement by some local media organizations, in that it will be recorded and aired sometime later on PCTV, and feature some questions by iBerkshires Editor Tammy Daniels.
"We've had no communication whatsoever from Congressman Neal's office," said Levine. The Gazette will not be covering the radio event, he said, as the Thursday, Aug. 30, timing of the event makes it impractical to cover for a paper that comes out on Thursday.
"Thursday night before an election is basically pointless for the purposes of any weekly newspaper," said Levine.
Fenlon declined to comment on any of the other debate requests around the district, beyond the official statement above. These include invitations from WWLP22-News, Westfield News Group, and New England Public Radio. He also declined to speculate on why Rep. Neal had agreed only to two closed-studio interviews, but did say the congressman will be making additional public appearances with opportunities for questions over the next month.
"I'm a little disappointed that there's no debate open to the public," Levine, who has been responsible for most of the major local political debates for Pittsfield and Berkshire area-wide elections in recent decades. "I always think candidates should do something where people can come in person and see them."
Editor's Note: The Berkshire News Network has frequently included us in its local election debates and we have shared access to those we have hosted with the radio network.
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The state is holding a special election to fill the seat vacated by John F. Kerry, who has been confirmed as U.S. secretary of state.
The state primary is Tuesday, April 30. The last day to register to vote or to change party affiliation for the primary is Wednesday, April 10. Enrolled voters may only vote in their party primary; unenrolled voters may select a primary to vote in without changing their status.
The special election is scheduled for Tuesday, June 25. The last day to register to vote in the election is Wednesday, June 5.
To register to vote, one must be at least age 18 by the date of the election, a U.S. citizen and a resident of the municipality in which you are voting.