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How to fix the left-behind places

Voters in Western Mass. are being asked one of America’s biggest unanswered questions: What will it take to revitalize struggling post-industrial cities?

A mill building in Holyoke.
A mill building in Holyoke.Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

Is the world on fire?” I ask Richie Neal.

Richard “Richie” Neal is the longtime US Representative for Massachusetts’ First District, a big swath of the western part of the state that stretches up to Vermont in the north, down to Connecticut in the south, and all the way west to New York. Since 2018, he has also been chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful legislative positions in the country.

We’re talking in January of 2020, in the beforetimes, while I follow Neal on a brief swing through the district. The world doesn’t yet include a global pandemic or massive protests against police violence. It is Donald Trump and opioid addiction, climate change and political polarization, Twitter and declining life expectancies. It’s the craziness of the last few years, before things got even crazier.

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The question (is the world on fire?) is less for Neal himself than for the Democratic voters of the First district, who on Sept. 1 will vote in a primary for either the 71-year-old incumbent, a business-friendly moderate, or his liberal challenger Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke.

The race is another front in the battle between the party’s left flank and its centrist establishment. It’s also a moment of reckoning for a region that has never recovered from the deindustrialization of the last few decades, one of the left-behind and wounded places in America that Trump’s campaign in 2016 brought to the foreground and promised to heal.

It’s not Trump country yet. It’s safely blue, and will elect a Democrat in November, but it has been trending red over the last few elections, and it poses a challenge that Democrats would be wise to heed, particularly in the face of the pandemic and the economic damage it’s causing. Is there a politics that will enable the small towns and cities of western Massachusetts not just to regroup on the other side of disease and recession, but to be revitalized?

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Neal and I are at Holyoke Medical Center, the largest employer in the small city of Holyoke and its main provider of health care services to poor residents. Holyoke is about 10 miles north of Springfield, where I grew up. Both cities suffer from the kinds of poverty, addiction, and hopelessness that we tend to associate with rust belt dystopias like Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Mich., with many of the same causes. Of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, Springfield is either the poorest or the second-poorest, depending on how Lawrence is doing in a given year. Holyoke is a close third, and both have proven tragically vulnerable to the opioid epidemic over the past decade. When public health scholars talk about deaths and diseases of despair, these cities and their people are among the afflicted.

These are not abstract issues for either Neal or Morse, both of whom are the children of addiction. Neal’s father died of alcoholism when he was 17. His mother had died a few years before, and he and his sisters, taken in by an aunt, were kept afloat by Social Security benefits. Morse’s mother was haunted by addiction and mental illness her whole adult life. She died of related causes in 2018, when her son was in his third term as mayor. Alex’s older brother Doug, whom I interviewed for this article, died of a heroin overdose in February of this year. (The campaign’s first television ad, released on July 22, is about Doug.)

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Neal and I are touring the Holyoke hospital’s recent $25 million expansion, about a quarter of which was financed by federal tax credits that he steered its way. Near the end of the tour we’re shown the new mental health ward, where Morse’s mother was an occasional patient. It’s one of hundreds of places around the region that have benefited from Neal’s influence and attention over the past few decades. Such attention hasn’t changed the overall trajectory of the region, but it has softened the pain. In normal times, this would be more than enough to assure Neal’s re-election. For most of his career it has been. But he is too big a player now, in too fraught a moment, to avoid challenge.

“Are we on fire?” I ask Neal again, and his answer reflects the delicate balance he has to strike as a moderate figure in immoderate times. “The world’s on fire,” he says, “but our institutions are strong.”

Congressman Richard Neal.
Congressman Richard Neal.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

MORSE DOESN’T LOOK like anyone’s idea of a giant-slayer. He’s physically slight and rather pale, with reddish hair and a regular-guy aesthetic. His charisma comes through in the ease with which he lives politics. He’s been doing this work since he was in middle school, and his whole identity has grown up around it.

“The earliest thing I remember about him,” his brother Doug told me, “was I came downstairs one morning, when I had to be about 15 or 16, and he was watching CNN. He was 6 years old on a Saturday morning, where I’d have been watching cartoons, and he was watching CNN.”

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At 16, Morse came out as gay and almost immediately founded Holyoke High School’s first Gay-Straight Alliance, which was also one of the city’s first gay rights organizations. In high school he served two terms as student representative for the Holyoke School Committee.

He went to college at Brown University without exactly leaving Holyoke or its politics. The summer before his senior year in college he began assembling a campaign team and raising money for a mayoral run. He announced his candidacy in January of 2011, graduated in May, bested the incumbent mayor by one vote in the September primary, and then beat her again in the run-off by 600 votes.

When he won that first election he was 22, the youngest mayor in the city’s history. He was also its first openly gay mayor and the first mayor who, though himself white, openly and strategically represented the city’s Latino plurality, which has since become a majority of the city’s 40,000 or so people.

“Old Holyoke makes way for New Holyoke,” as the Springfield Republican newspaper put it the day after election night. Nine years on, now in his fourth term as mayor, Morse is still the standard bearer for New Holyoke.

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He is also, now, the most visible local champion of a national progressive movement that is hoping to transform the Democratic Party and through it the basic structures of the American government and economy. On issues like renewable energy, affordable housing, and drug treatment and legalization, Morse has taken real political risks in Holyoke, though it’s not yet clear whether they will bear fruit. As a congressman he would advocate for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, universal basic income, criminal justice reform, and a host of other social democratic policies that, if passed, would make the United States look a lot more like Canada and western Europe.

“When Neal talks, he’s in this realm of what’s possible given the perceived political reality, and so embedded in compromise that nothing is possible,” says Morse. “The conversation starts with [what’s] not possible, rather than what should be possible in a country like ours.”

Morse and I are talking in a conference room in Cubit, a former wire manufacturing plant in downtown Holyoke that has been converted into a very 21st century work/live/study complex. In the basement, where Morse and his team rent space for their campaign, are small offices and co-working spaces. On the first and second floors is the new Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, a collateral benefit of the recent arrival in Springfield of the MGM Springfield, one of the state’s two sanctioned casinos. On the top two floors are lofts with stunning views of the city’s canals, which once helped power the paper mills and now feed into the power grid.

A few blocks away from Cubit is Gateway City Arts, an arts and office complex that inhabits the husk of an old paper company. In a different direction lies Canna Provisions, a legal marijuana dispensary located in another former industrial space. A bit south is a 45,000-square-foot indoor marijuana farm inside a former paper mill. Morse, who was the first mayor in Massachusetts to come out publicly for legalizing recreational marijuana, has said he would like to see Holyoke become a kind of Amsterdam of the United States, a destination for pot growers, sellers, consumers, tourists, and maybe even cannabis café owners.

This kind-bud version of Holyoke’s future owes its promise to a combination of Morse’s hustle and the organic overflow from nearby, more affluent communities like Easthampton and Northampton. He has worked to bring in the developers and entrepreneurs and has been responsive to the expectations of the gentrifying newcomers. The idea of a truly gentrified Holyoke, however, like a casino-driven renaissance in Springfield, is an attempt to apply a local solution to structural deficits that are national (and in some ways international) in scale.

“Legacy cities,” as the scholars sometimes call the class of small- and mid-sized post-industrial cities into which both Holyoke and Springfield fall, have been rebranding and re-envisioning themselves for decades. The basic macroeconomics, however, haven’t changed. There is money in almost every region. Sometimes it shifts around. But the good jobs for working people, at the scale they’re needed to really change things, haven’t come back. Absent some much larger change, which is impossible without a broad federal response, a Holyoke that got fancy would mean that many of its poor and working-class residents had just moved, or been pushed, elsewhere in the district.

The question for the First District and its representative isn’t how to turn western Massachusetts into a high-skills, high-tech, high-sheen adjunct of its big brother to the east. That may happen, but if the last few decades are any guide it probably won’t. The question is whether there’s an alternative to aping Boston and hoping for the best.

 Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke.
Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke.Frederick J Gore/The Republican via AP

IF MORSE IS a candidate of the social media age, with its emphasis on the strategic revelation of vulnerability, Neal was formed by an era when John F. Kennedy was the template for aspiring young Massachusetts politicians, when the goal was an appealing but remote glamor. Neal saw Kennedy during the last days of his 1960 presidential campaign, when the candidate stopped in Springfield and gave a speech on the steps of City Hall.

“My mother was smart enough to keep us home from school so that we could see Jack Kennedy,” remembers Neal. “Forty-eight hours later he was the president-elect. I never forgot that inspiration of idealism. You want to be part of something.”

That something, Neal decided early on, was Springfield politics. The path was the conventional one, traveled with uncommon urgency and discipline. It helped that he was charming and good-looking, Kennedyesque by Springfield standards, and that he was a son of the local Irish-Catholic machine, which by the 1960s had displaced the older WASP establishment as the dominant power in Springfield politics.

“They come out of the womb knowing how the game is played,” says Ray Jordan, a former state representative from the district and longtime ally of Neal. Jordan was a key player in the 1970s when Springfield’s African American community built its own rival machine. He remembers the heavy lift of having to organize from the ground up what the Irish Catholics, by that point, seemed to have baked into their soda bread.

Neal’s rise was swift. He was elected to the City Council in 1977, at the age of 28, was mayor six years later, and in 1988 won the congressional seat left open by the retirement of his political godfather, Edward Boland, who had been the big dog of the local Democratic machine for decades. Congressman Neal has been the big dog since.

Perhaps the key fact about Neal as both mayor and congressman has been his investment in the ways things are done and the institutions and relationships through which people like him have long done them. He’s pragmatic and transactional, and suspicious of anyone who doesn’t play ball with the established interests.

At the local level that has meant a focus on big construction projects, like the MGM Springfield casino, that don’t change the underlying economics but spread the wealth to various stakeholders. In Congress he is a fundraiser, dealmaker, and gatekeeper. He has raised an immense amount of money from corporate interests, and been a trustworthy liaison to them, as part of the larger strategy of keeping the Democratic Party competitive with the Republicans in fundraising. He helped negotiate the recent update to the North American Free Trade Agreement, appeasing both big labor and big money. And he has been a check on the party’s more activist wing, frequently tempering progressive legislation behind the scenes and helping the leadership keep troublemakers off of key committees.

“No nuts on Ways and Means,” he often says, quoting the late Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was chair of the committee when Neal joined.

He embodies the politics of the possible, baked in the memory of the New Deal and the Great Society but hard cast in a defensive crouch by the conservative ascendance of the last few decades and by the fear, which emanates down from the very top of the Democratic Party, that too progressive a national agenda will cost the party seats in swing districts.

THE STAKES ARE high for the voters of the First District. Elect Morse, and they put wind in the sails of the progressive faction in Congress and America. The cost of losing Neal will be concrete, in projects that won’t happen, hospitals that won’t expand, and influence that will diminish.

On my last trip up to the district, on a cold day in January, I walked around the Lyman Terrace housing project with Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s head of economic development. Marrero, like Morse, is both down-to-earth and a little bit fancy. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he has a master’s degree from Princeton University and has worked for the Puerto Rico Governor’s Office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

When Marrero joined the mayor’s office in 2012, Lyman Terrace was on life support. It was the city’s oldest public housing project, and decades of neglect had left it in awful shape. The Holyoke Housing Authority, with the support of Morse’s predecessor, was finalizing plans to demolish all or most of it.

Morse shut down the “redevelopment” plans and initiated a process of reconceptualization and collaboration that has now, eight years later, produced something for which I don’t entirely have a template. It’s rehabilitated public housing right at the center of a small city, and it looks not just good but rather cool. It’s a government project that doesn’t smell like scarcity. The rehabbed two-story brick buildings have that precise degree of robust imperfection that HGTV hosts would call “character.” If they were in Brooklyn, the apartments would sell or rent for a lot of money. In Holyoke they look like nice homes for low-income and working-class people, and it is hard to imagine what could have been built instead of them that would have been better not just for the residents but for the downtown and the city.

For Marrero, reborn Lyman Terrace is evidence of what you can do when you move forward, boldly, with an eye to healing the kinds of social and economic disparities that are often entrenched further when development is done thoughtlessly. To make it work the city has had to patch together funding and financing from multiple sources. Marrero and Morse and their colleagues have had to hustle. But the core of it, for Marrero, is in the vision.

“You need to have investment,” he says. “You need to have the capital projects, the bricks and mortar, of course. But those things don’t necessarily translate to benefit to people’s lives unless they have a connection to something deeper. To ownership. To empowerment. To community. To equity. To justice.”

When the city broke ground on the renovation in 2017, Marrero was there to take a shovel to the first pile of ceremonial dirt. Mayor Morse too, of course. About a third of the way around the arc of shovel-bearing dignitaries, roughly halfway between the two of them, was Congressman Richie Neal. He’d helped secure some of the tax credits to finance the project. Everyone was smiling.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s book on the art critic Dave Hickey will be published in spring 2021 (University of Texas Press). You can reach him at djopps@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @dan_oppenheimer.