SPRINGFIELD — On the ground, the sprint to Tuesday’s finish in the primary election for the First Congressional District in Massachusetts has plenty of traditional campaign visuals.
There’s US Representative Richard Neal, the incumbent and dean of the New England delegation, snipping a red ribbon in front of a new market and gas station here. There’s Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, his opponent, going from store to small store on a struggling section of Main Street, introducing himself to immigrant owners and asking for their vote, sometimes in Spanish.
“I think we’re in a much stronger position than we were a couple of weeks ago,” Morse, 31, told a reporter as he made the rounds. “People don’t respond well to what happened. They see it for what it is.”
What happened was the equivalent of a political earthquake that rattled what already had been a nationally watched campaign by Morse, a progressive, to unseat Neal after 32 years in Congress.
On Aug. 7, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reported that the College Democrats of Massachusetts had disinvited Morse from its events. In a letter to Morse, the group alleged that the mayor, a former lecturer at the university, had used his position for “romantic or sexual gain” with students.
Morse acknowledged he had consensual relationships with students but denied that he had abused his influence. He told the Daily Collegian newspaper that he had always abided by university guidelines, but that he recognized that “some students felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with me.”
“I am sorry for that,” Morse wrote to the paper. “This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power.”
The plot thickened when The Intercept, an online news source, reported that some College Democrats apparently had discussed how to entrap Morse, and that one of them hoped to work for Neal. In addition, the counsel for the state Democratic Party, James Roosevelt Jr., has confirmed he reviewed the College Democrats’ letter before it was sent to Morse on Aug. 6.
In an interview, Morse described the allegations as a suspicious smear that plays on longstanding antigay tropes and seemed connected to well-placed party operatives who back Neal. Both the university and the state Democratic Party are conducting investigations.
“These things don’t fall from the sky just three weeks before the election,” Morse said.
Despite the initial negative publicity, Morse said, his campaign has been reinvigorated. Hundreds of new volunteers have signed up, the campaign tallied $130,000 in donations in a single day, and progressive groups such as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee have endorsed him.
As Morse walked Main Street this week, the allegations never came up — neither from Morse nor from the constituents he hopes to represent in a far-flung district that stretches from central Massachusetts to the Berkshires.
“I don’t care who sleeps with who,” said Kim Rivera, 55, a Springfield activist who supports Morse. “I don’t think it was as damaging as they thought it would be. I think it put him on the map, and now people want to investigate who he is.”
They issue also didn’t come up in public remarks at the ribbon-cutting Neal attended. Even among ardent Neal supporters, the allegations against Morse did not appear to carry much weight at the campaign stop.
“We’re human, and everybody has the right to love anybody they want in life,” said Jorge Colon, 64, a former Springfield firefighter who owns two funeral homes in the city. “But I think Richie Neal has done a great job for Springfield.”
To Anthony Cignoli, a political consultant based in Western Massachusetts, the issue has injected more energy into a First District election than any other he can recall.
“I think both camps were starting to get a little tired,” Cignoli said. “When these UMass allegations broke, it’s almost as if that super-energized them. It was a quadruple espresso for both candidates overnight.”
Morse said he can feel the new energy.
The son of parents from public housing and the brother of someone who died from an overdose, Morse said he is consumed by grass-roots issues. They include accessible health care through Medicare for All, affordable housing, better Internet access, and mitigating climate change that hurts Western Massachusetts farmers.
Neal has become the epitome of the status quo, Morse said, and the darling of corporations that wish to curry favor with the powerful chairman of the House’s tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
“When you talk to everyday people, they’re worried about putting food on the table,” Morse said. “You would never know we have one of the most powerful members of Congress representing us.”
Neal, 71, smiled when asked about Morse’s characterization of him as the consummate insider with diminishing interest in the bread-and-butter interests of varied constituents spread across 87 cities and towns.
“I think it’s kind of a vacuous argument that he makes,” Neal said. “He never says ‘lazy,’ and he never says ‘ineffectual’ about me. I think the great irony of this campaign has been I’ve had more to do with the big projects in Holyoke than he has.”
The congressman’s staff pointed to seven projects worth $192.8 million and 572 permanent jobs that Holyoke has received through a federal tax-credits program under Neal’s watch. Those projects include a full-service health center and a two-story addition to Holyoke Medical Center that houses an emergency department.
Through the CARES Act, passed after the onset of the pandemic, Holyoke Medical Center received $11.6 million in federal funding, Neal’s staff said. Holyoke also was given $668,335 for equipment for remote services such as a drive-through COVID-19 testing site, telehealth visits, and video conferencing.
Morse said he would have opposed the CARES Act because it bailed out too many corporations at the expense of small businesses and individuals.
At the ribbon-cutting, Neal reiterated in an interview that his campaign had nothing to do with the development or timing of the allegations against Morse.
“The argument that he attempted to make that our campaign was involved with this is nonsense, and he knows it. The students stepped forward, and they should be heard,” Neal said.
“I read about this in the Collegian when it was published. That was my first knowledge of it,” he added. “I’ve rejected homophobia, racism, and misogyny in any form.’‘
Neal also acknowledged he has a personal reason to reject homophobia: He has an openly gay son.
A recent poll indicates the congressman could be vulnerable.
In a phone poll of likely voters Sunday and Monday, Neal led Morse, 49 percent to 40 percent. The poll, produced by the political publication Jewish Insider with the bipartisan polling firm RABA Research, carries a 4.3 percent margin of error.
“Neal has a fight on his hands,” said John Del Cecato, a partner at RABA Research. “He’s under 50 percent in the horse race, which is a warning sign for any incumbent.”
Ralph Whitehead, a retired journalism professor at UMass Amherst, said he does not think the UMass allegations will have a direct effect, but he does expect a big turnout.
“It was so murky in the first place,” Whitehead said of the allegations. “To suggest that Richie Neal is in any conceivable way homophobic or would press homophobic buttons is absurd."
“If this was an attempt to damage Morse,” he added, “it was just such a sloppy attempt.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.