For the past year, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has mounted an improbable congressional primary campaign against powerful Democratic incumbent Richard Neal, and the contest was poised to serve as a fascinating barometer of whether Democrats in Western Massachusetts have become more progressive.
As liberal newcomers across the country have toppled traditional Democratic long-timers, Morse was gaining steam ahead of the Sept. 1 primary, until last week, when the race was thrown into chaos and finger-pointing over accusations of serious misconduct by Morse — followed by evidence that young supporters of Neal may have ginned up the controversy to take down their opponent. Neal’s campaign has denied any involvement.
According to Morse, the uproar has only served to draw more national attention to the race and underscore the need to oust longtime political insiders. His campaign smashed its prior fundraising record in the wake of the controversy, he said, bringing in $130,000 on Wednesday when the past one-day record was $27,000.
“What has come to light over the past couple of days, this is exactly what is wrong with politics and the old way of doing things, and it becomes about the politics of personal destruction rather than policy and ideas,” Morse said Thursday in a phone interview.
In a letter to Morse, the College Democrats of Massachusetts accused him of inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign and said he used his position of power for “romantic or sexual gain.”
Whether the accusations will throw off the race remains to be seen, but many of Morse’s supporters have stuck by him, calling out the attacks as attempts to undermine an LGBTQ candidate.
“It’s been a very good year for progressive challengers and for this movement, and when you think about the national implications of challenging Congressman Neal and defeating him, that’s why folks all around the country are fired up about the race,” Morse said.
Given the accusations, however, it is also unclear if the race will still serve as a true indicator of political ideology in Western Massachusetts, as the accusations ripple across national headlines.
“It’s the perfect district for the experiment,” said Jerold Duquette, a political science professor at Central Connecticut State University, who specializes in Western Massachusetts politics. “But this is definitely a deflector.”
The district Neal represents, Massachusetts’ First District, is in many ways a microcosm of America. Neal, 71, has represented the region since he was first elected to Congress in 1988.
The district includes Springfield, Neal’s home town and a majority-minority city, as well as suburbs and the rural Berkshires. With that comes an equally wide gamut of challenges, from struggling city schools to a lack of broadband Internet and public transportation in rural areas.
The district has traditionally been home to moderate Democrats who have shown that they value a representative who can reliably deliver federal funding and projects to the district, rather than an outspoken firebrand.
Neal, the longest-serving House member from New England, has long been known for steering federal dollars to projects in his district. In Washington recently, he helped negotiate a new international trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and worked on a bill to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
But lately there have been signs that ideology in the district might be changing. Springfield has seen a recent burst of political newcomers running for local and federal offices. After years of feeling disenfranchised, activists say many locals are slowly starting to realize the power of their votes.
In 2018, progressive attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, with no political experience and a fraction of the money, won 30 percent of the vote to Neal’s 70 percent, an indication that Neal could be vulnerable to a better-funded challenger such as Morse, who has raised $1.3 million this cycle. Neal has raised $3.3 million.
Then, after the string of other progressive primary challengers won races elsewhere in the country this year, it seemed like Neal might have a real race on his hands.
Morse supports policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He had garnered the backing of a number of national progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect progressive stars such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
Neal, meanwhile, is a powerful Washington insider who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, making him one of the most influential Democrats in Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently released a TV ad in support of Neal, saying that he “doesn’t back down” from anyone, including President Trump.
The ad angered progressives because they have accused Neal of slow-walking his effort to obtain Trump’s tax returns. They have also criticized him for taking donations from large pharmaceutical companies.
But at least for this week, all the attention has been focused on the accusations by the College Democrats.
The allegations were first made public Aug. 7 by student journalists at UMass Amherst. The young Democrats accused Morse, 31, of attending their club’s events as a way to meet students then sending them messages on social media.
Morse, who until recently was a lecturer at UMass Amherst, quickly apologized to anyone he made feel uncomfortable, but maintained that he had done nothing wrong, violated no university policies, and only ever engaged in consensual relationships. He warned about the “invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes.”
Reporting this week by The Intercept, however, revealed a string of messages between club leaders that appear to indicate that the accusations were part of an effort by club leaders, one of whom explicitly stated that he hoped to get a job with Neal, to engineer an attack on Morse.
Neal, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has not commented on the allegations but issued a statement saying his campaign is not responsible for the letter.
On Thursday, Neal’s spokesperson, Kate Norton, said the students named in the Intercept stories have no involvement with the Neal campaign and have never been employed by him.
“Our campaign has been entirely focused on policy, record, and experience. Richie has always run his campaigns based on ideas, and has always condemned personal attacks on any candidate. But we want to be clear — homophobia has no place in campaigns or public life,” Norton said.
Meanwhile, UMass leaders have pledged to conduct an investigation of the accusations, which are anonymous.
In the days following the allegations, Morse has lost some national backing —the environmentalist Sunrise Movement suspended its support but also does not support Neal — but most groups have stuck by his side. Earlier this week the Massachusetts Nurses Association reaffirmed its support for Morse.
“It is clear [the letter] was timed with the political calendar and without enough time for an independent investigation to be completed,” said a statement from the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national group that supports Morse.
Many local supporters have said they are sticking with Morse. State Senator Julian Cyr said the race will set a precedent for whether “vague and anonymous allegations can be easily launched against LGBTQ candidates to destroy their campaigns.”
In Western Massachusetts, the CD-1 Progressive Coalition, a group of progressive activist groups across the district, this week issued a statement saying the group continues to support Morse because they have seen “no tangible evidence” to change their position.
Erin Freed, a member of the group, said she has seen a shift in the district in the past few years, with some voters beginning to favor more progressive policies. And people have become more comfortable moving forward without the politicians who have been there for a long time, she said.
“There are still a lot of die-hards for Neal, but definitely some of them recognize that he has been doing the same old, same old,” she said.