by Catherine Walthers
Indivisible Williamsburg set two objectives for their work: to help further progressive politics in the state and improve western Massachusetts’ quality of life.
Early on, the group was confronted with what to do with their U.S. Rep. Richard “Richie” Neal (D-Springfield) who would not respond to any of their requests to hold a town hall in Williamsburg. In fact, he hadn’t held a town hall in eight years.
They repeatedly called his office, talked to aides — even tracked him to the Chesterfield July 4 parade he always attended.
“It’s always how busy he is and how important he is in Washington,” says Penny Schultz, a resident of Williamsburg, retired teacher, musician and choir director. “He’s been very non-present in the Hilltowns, which is where we live.”
Neal’s district includes most of the Western third of the state, including Springfield and Pittsfield, as well as smaller towns near Williamsburg and Goshen in the Berkshire foothills. “We want to protect the lifestyle out here,” explains Schultz. “It’s rural, it’s community-based, small-town, and it’s progressive, but there are a lot of conservatives. We’re hoping to keep the progressive energy flowing, and keep it vital and relevant for people.”
Has anyone seen this man?
With help from another group member, Matt L. Barron, a former congressional aide and current political consultant, they created a series of wanted posters: “Has anyone seen this man?” (“Yes, he’s your congressman”) “Richie, it’s OK, you can come Out Now.” The ads set off a political firestorm getting news coverage around the state.
Group members said Neal, a Congressman since 1989, opens his door to corporate donors, but not to them. “Someone asked him why he won’t come to the Hilltowns and he basically answered with they’re only 5 percent of my vote, it’s not worth my time,” says Williamsburg resident Jean O’Neil, an ecologist who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. O’Neil, Schultz and Barron all talked about their love of their western Mass. towns with open spaces, natural beauty and tight-knit communities, but also their frustration of being overlooked by Boston and Washington.
They wanted a more progressive candidate to unseat Neal. In 2018, the Williamsburg group endorsed Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a well-liked attorney, activist, Muslim and mom from Springfield. She lost in the primary, garnering 29.3 percent of the vote. In 2020, area Indivisible groups favored challenger Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who also lost to Neal.
O’Neil says the group will keep their focus on Neal, as well as a variety of other issues. “We’re a small group, and you can’t do everything, but we also have climate change and an emphasis on the rural policy movement, things like the tax base in western Mass., natural landscapes, schools, legislative strategy, and voting rights.”
The group has been advocating for more transparency in the Mass. legislature. Barron says last year 19 towns in their district placed a non-binding question on the ballot instructing their state Rep. Natalie Blais to vote in favor of rules reform to make all votes public and available on the legislature’s website. The ballot question passed in all 19 towns with 84% in Chesterfield, where Barron lives, and 89% districtwide.
Barron says the Massachusetts House is one of the least transparent in the country, but it wasn’t always that way. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he said, under former house speakers George Keverian and Charles Flaherty the house was much more open and transparent. It started getting worse in the late ‘90s under Speaker Tom Finneran.
The group joined the Transparency Campaign spearheaded by Act on Mass and have continued to push Rep. Blais, who they said is generally responsive to constituents. “She’s voting with majority,” says Schultz. “That’s the core of the problem, the speaker has so much power, we’re trying to figure out how we can help affect that.”
Of course, there’s always the eye on Washington, and lately with concern. “I’m just so f**ing pissed off,” says Schultz. “I just feel like we are in such a precarious state in our country and do not see a way forward, unless people, unless I at least, just go all in.”