Irish American issues retain key backers on Capitol Hill

Richard Neal


By Ray O’Hanlon

Irish Echo readers are exempt.

Without fail, TV political pundits have been referring to Congressman Richard Neal in recent weeks as a House member that few have heard of.

Well, they were for sure talking about the chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland last night as House of Representatives results from around the nation pointed to a Democratic majority when the new Congress convenes in January.

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Neal, who has represented western Massachusetts for three decades and is a former Echo Irish American of the Year, is poised to take the gavel as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

As such, Neal will wield significant power and influence in all manner of financial and trade issues.

Neal will mark thirty years in the House of Representatives when he takes his seat in the new Congress. He was first elected in 1989 to the then Massachusetts Second District. His new bailiwick, the First District, which covers four counties in western Massachusetts and part of Worcester County in the central part of the state, resulted from redistricting.

Neal’s time for Irish American concerns might be more limited as a result of his enhanced responsibilities, though his interest in Ireland will not.

Neal’s win was but one of a number of House victories for members who would fall into the Irish American interest camp.

Congressman Peter King, the GOP co-chair of the Friends of Ireland, fended off a strong challenge from his Democratic opponent on Long Island. His fellow Republican, Christ Smith, also came through the perils of a Democratic resurgence in New Jersey.

In the Garden State, Senator Bob Menendez also survived a robust challenge. Menendez for sure garnered some votes as a result of his longtime crucial support of Malachy McAllister’s bid to stay in the U.S.

The House election – all 435 seats were before voters – ended the long congressional career of Democrat Joe Crowley, at least in its present form.

Crowley, had he not lost his primary in June and the general election vote Tuesday, would have been expected to stand alongside former and likely future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a party celebration in Washington, D.C. that rolled into the wee hours of Wednesday.

Standing close to Pelosi, however, was Congressman Brendan Boyle, who had easily secured reelection in his Philadelphia district.

Boyle, whose father arrived in America from Donegal, is a member of the House Foreign Relations committee, a panel that will now be chaired by Congressman Eliot Engel, whose father did not come from Donegal, but who should have an idea where it is on the map given his long record of action on issues of Irish American concern.

In the run-up to the election, Engel made a number of appearances at Irish events in his district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

Other House races that returned Irish American winners include Conor Lamb’s victory in the Pittsburgh suburbs - his second in the past year after an initial triumph in a special election - and the win by Kathleen Rice on Long Island.

Conor Lamb’s brother, Coleman, is a member of Rice’s staff.

In Florida, meanwhile, Nancy Soderberg, who led the way for Irish engagement in the Clinton administration, fell short in her House bid.

Not so Rep. Joseph Kennedy III who, to no one’s surprise, won handily in his Massachusetts district and will be expected to maintain his interest in Irish American issues in the new Congress.

And of course there is Beto O’Rourke.

O’Rourke had pledged to serve his full six year term in the U.S. Senate had he defeated incumbent Ted Cruz.

He did not.

O’Rourke, many supporters expect, and many hope, will now be working on other political plans that will become clearer in time.