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OPINION

Neal v. Morse: Anatomy of a political attack

The story reveals the deep cracks between progressive and establishment Democrats and shows how hard it is to fight those already in power.

Alex Morse and Richard Neal
Alex Morse and Richard Neal

For more than 20 years, Representative Richard Neal has been teaching a course called “The Politician and The Journalist” to UMass Amherst students. According to the course description, it explores the relationships between “reporters, publishers, and politicians” and examines campaign strategies, including “how those not elected use the media.”

It would be fascinating to hear Professor Neal analyze the relationships and strategies that helped get out word that his primary challenger, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is gay, had sex with college students. Guest speakers could include a former student of Neal’s who allegedly spoke to other students about putting out negative information about Morse — Jim Roosevelt, chief counsel to the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who told me that at the request of state party leaders, he gave the College Democrats of Massachusetts legal guidance on how to communicate the information about Morse without exposing themselves to libel — as well as Morse, who calls what happened “the politics of personal destruction” and “a very clear coordination by state party leaders to curry favor with a powerful congressman.”

Roosevelt denies such accusations: “The state committee in no way engineered this. They were asked for advice,” he said. However, when asked about the timing, Roosevelt said, “That’s a good question. I didn’t raise that question. That would be a political question.” Roosevelt contributed to past Neal campaigns, giving $1,000 in 2008 and $500 in 2016.

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The political timing — a few weeks before the Sept. 1 primary — mattered a lot to Morse. Just when he had hopes of catching the progressive wave that has swept some longtime Democratic incumbents out of office, Morse is instead talking about his sex life. The story also reveals the deep cracks between progressive and establishment Democrats and shows how hard it is to fight those already in power.

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The information Morse has confirmed so far adds up to a real political problem. The 31-year-old mayor, who also taught a course at UMass (he was paid $7,282 for the fall 2019 semester — the last one he taught, according to a UMass spokesman), acknowledged that he had consensual sexual relationships with students he met on dating apps, but said they weren’t students of his. Under UMass policy, dating or sexual relationships between faculty and students and postdoctoral researchers are “strongly discouraged,” even when both parties willingly consent. Relationships are banned between university faculty and students or postdoctoral researchers, where the faculty member has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, or employment.

Morse said he believes the charges are intended to stir up homophobia, and he’s probably right. “Gay men and members of the gay community are very familiar with the over-policing of our sex lives,” he said. Asked, however, how he might judge a straight public official who also teaches a college class having consensual sexual relations with students, he said, “I’m not going to have a conversation about an imaginary straight mayor having sex.... I’m not going to apologize for being gay or for having sexual relations with consulting adults.”

No apology for being gay is necessary. But anyone seeking public office must understand that leveraging power for sex, gay or straight, has consequences and any perception of that is considered inappropriate.

At the same time, the perception of guiding this information to the public domain at this point in the primary also raises questions for party leaders.

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Neal — who is paid $14,200 per semester and typically teaches two courses per year — is the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and was first elected representative in 1988. He said he had nothing to do with the release of the information. Meanwhile, The Intercept, a left-leaning online news publication, reports that a onetime student of Neal’s hatched the plan to put it out to the public. The student, said The Intercept, had hopes of using his connection to Neal to get a job. Because of privacy laws, Neal can’t confirm or deny any information about that student, his office said. I was unable to contact the student.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party, which is supposed to remain neutral in contested primaries, played a role, which was also first reported by The Intercept. Roosevelt told me he was contacted sometime around Aug. 1 by Gus Bickford, the state party chair, and Veronica Martinez, the executive director, and told that the College Democrats of Massachusetts — the official college wing of the state party — had come to them with allegations about Morse and needed legal advice about how to proceed. Roosevelt said that Hayley Fleming, the Amherst College student who is president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, told him “We are being pushed by our board members to publicly disinvite Alex Morse from future events.” After consulting with another lawyer, Roosevelt said he advised her to write a private letter to Morse. He said he was “floored” when Morse responded with “a public letter” that essentially brought the charges before voters. Fleming did not reply to my e-mail requesting comment.

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“Jim Roosevelt is lying about what happened,” Morse told me. He said that on Aug. 6, he received a letter via e-mail from the College Democrats, which accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct, and said he was not welcome at future events; he said he replied via e-mail. Then, on Aug. 7, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian published a story that said the College Democrats had written a letter to Morse alleging that he had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain.” The newspaper said it obtained the letter from “a source inside one of the student organizations.” According to Morse, his e-mail reply was also obtained by the newspaper, and that’s how his response became public.

Fallout includes an investigation of the allegations against Morse by UMass and an investigation of the state party into itself. No findings are expected until after the primary. Neal, who will be teaching his course as usual, has plenty of time to add this case study of relationships and campaign strategy into his syllabus — under attack politics.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.