Neal seeks top job on Ways and Means

Courts major contributors

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — On a Cape Cod bluff, amid cabanas that overlook the swimming pool and ocean beyond, a group of major campaign contributors this weekend will join US Representative Richard E. Neal at the Chatham Bars Inn, far from his Springfield district.

The price: $5,000.

In return for their money, Neal’s financial supporters will get a “Summer Weekend on Cape Cod’’ with the 11-term Democrat, a key element in Neal’s campaign to raise his relatively low profile and seize one of the most powerful perches in Congress: chairman of the tax-writing Committee on Ways and Means.

If Neal’s effort is successful, it could give the already-powerful Massachusetts delegation ex traordinary influence on the nation’s financial policies, complementing Representative Barney Frank’s chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee. The Committee on Ways and Means has broad oversight of Social Security, Medicare, tariffs, and trade agreements. Every tax proposal that raises revenue begins in the committee.

Neal’s quiet quest is already producing results. His campaign contributions have jumped, giving Neal the ability to curry favor in the House by distributing money among his fellow lawmakers, who could be asked later this year to support him for the chairmanship.

It is a surprising mission for a congressman who has mostly preferred to operate out of the limelight, in the shadow of more quotable figures such as Frank.

Neal has a respectable, though not assured, chance at winning the post. Neal declined to discuss his plans for seeking the chairmanship, but did not dispute reports that he is interested in it.

“It’s kind of the worst kept secret that he’d like to be the chairman of the committee,’’ said Representative James P. McGovern, the Worcester Democrat.

Born in Worcester and raised in Springfield, Neal was 13 years old when his mother died of a heart attack. His father, who battled alcoholism, died several years later, and it was survivor benefits available under the Social Security system that helped Neal attend American International College in Springfield.

He majored in political science, was the Western Massachusetts cochairman of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential race, and served as a mayoral aide in Springfield. Despite being a rabid Yankees fan, he then managed to find electoral success in Massachusetts, going from being on the Springfield City Council, to mayor, to winning the region’s US House seat in 1988.

“Richie Neal was not any part of a dynasty growing up,’’ said Anthony Cignoli, a political consultant from Springfield. “This is a guy who just grunted it out on his own.’’

Neal rarely makes the usual Washington rounds of television programs, begrudgingly carries a BlackBerry, boasts of his bipartisan work with Republicans, and has never sought much of a statewide role, much less a national one.

“I’ve really stayed away from fiery rhetoric on talk shows,’’ Neal said in an interview. Instead, he teaches a course called “The Politician and the Journalist’’ at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I know that people see the klieg lights or the trendy little comments and they think that’s what it is,’’ Neal said, referring to the life of some of his congressional colleagues. But Neal said he is interested in the art of the deal, which helps explain his passion for the process-oriented Ways and Means Committee. “It’s really just going into a room and saying, ‘Well I can live with that,’ ’’ Neal said.

Neal’s financial and political backers are eyeing the prospect of his advance in the House hierarchy. Among the 30 contributors expected to attend this weekend’s festivities is Daniel M. Crane, a Massachusetts native and Washington-based lobbyist for a variety of interests such as AT&T, Clear Channel Communications, and Holyoke Community College.

“He has got the right temperament and common sense to bring people with different points of view together to get a problem solved,’’ Crane said. “I think he would be absolutely the best choice to lead that committee.’’

There are uncertainties in Neal’s bid. Democrats could lose their House majority in this year’s midterm elections, and Republicans will get the chairmanships of committees. But even if Democrats hold on, the internal politics of the House could stymie Neal’s campaign.

The possibility of an opening looms because Representative Charles B. Rangel resigned as committee chairman in March amid ethics allegations; he could decide to run again after an investigation is complete. Even if Rangel decides to step aside, Sander M. Levin of Michigan has temporary hold of the gavel and could fight to keep the seat. Levin, 78, has more seniority, but Neal, 61, is popular among his colleagues and is seen as a fresh face.

“He does his job well,’’ Rangel, 79, said of Neal, while hinting at a potential fight by saying, “Seniority appears to still have some breath around here.’’ He declined to elaborate.

Hilarie Chambers, Levin’s chief of staff, would not say explicitly what Levin’s plans were for the chairmanship but said “absolutely not’’ when asked whether he saw his role as a six-month placeholder.

“His intention as chairman is to be effective right now, and help all of his colleagues retain a strong majority,’’ Chambers said.

Three others with more seniority than Neal have not expressed interest in the post.

All this politicking and calculating is taking place behind the scenes. By the clubby rules of Congress, it is considered poor form to run openly for a leadership position before it is technically vacant. As a result, lawmakers say, Neal has not been asking for firm commitments from his colleagues. (A vote of the majority party would take place after the midterm elections; it is unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will try to exert her influence.)

Instead, as this weekend’s event at the Cape demonstrates, the effort is being waged through the use of political money, both given and received. Neal, who is expected to be easily reelected to his House seat in November, has been raising large sums, which he in turn has been donating to other members of Congress, to demonstrate his leadership and curry favor.

So far this year, Neal has donated $49,000 to other House candidates, more than the combined amount he gave directly to candidates from 1997 through 2007. He also donated $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which separately funds House races.

As Neal has risen in stature, more of his contributions are coming from out of state. Last year, three-fourths of his contributions came from outside Massachusetts, compared with one-fourth in 2004. Steven Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft and a frequent political contributor, for example, donated $1,000 to Neal for the first time in December. Ballmer could not be reached for comment.

Despite the recent attention Neal has been getting from moneyed interests around the country, those who have known him for decades say he hasn’t lost the approach of the Springfield city councilor, or the mayor who would speak into a tape recorder while driving through the city, forcing aides to transcribe it and work on fixing the problems he spotted.

“We used to joke when we were in 11th grade, that when he was president we’d all have jobs,’’ said Barry Metayer, a longtime friend.

“I was going to be his gardener. We were going to live in the White House.’’

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