Putting Richard Neal and the old guard on guard

Mayor Alex B. Morse, 30, of Holyoke, is challenging  US Rep. Richard Neal, 70, in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Mayor Alex B. Morse, 30, of Holyoke, is challenging US Rep. Richard Neal, 70, in the 2020 Democratic primary. Frederick Gore/The Republican via AP/The Republican via AP

You know that new photo app that makes you look old? Richard Neal would probably love to use it on any and all campaign photos of Alex Morse, the 30-year-old mayor of Holyoke who just announced a 2020 primary challenge to the 70-year-old incumbent congressman and past mayor of Springfield. Morse says he’s motivated by the “urgency” of the political moment. But he also reflects a growing pressure in Democratic politics — impatient youth.

Nearly 60 years ago, John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts native son, famously said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation. In recent decades, however, this state has resisted that urge. Finally, a more daring generation isn’t waiting for the torch to be passed. It’s grabbing it. The cycle began locally when Seth Moulton beat incumbent US Representative John Tierney in 2015. That shook up the establishment — but not as much as Ayanna Pressley’s shocking 2018 primary victory over Representative Michael Capuano. That definitely put the old guard on guard. Today, Senator Ed Markey, 72, who has served in Congress since 1976, is considered the most vulnerable member of the delegation. He currently faces a primary challenge form Shannon Liss-Riordan, a 49-year-old labor lawyer, and others could jump into the race.


Not everyone who’s old is an enemy of progress,” writes Esquire political writer Charles P. Pierce, a sentiment that pols and pundits of a certain age will happily embrace. But like it or not, youth is pressing its case for generational change in Democratic politics, from “the Squad” of four congresswomen that Pressley represents, to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run, to the challenge Neal faces from Morse.

Such brazenness should make any heir apparent think twice about waiting patiently for an open seat. That means you, Joe Kennedy III. Kennedy, 38, has served in Congress since 2013 and is running for reelection. The unofficial script calls for him to inherit whatever Senate seat opens up — the assumption being that a Kennedy victory in any such contest is a slam dunk. But others aren’t waiting for an open seat. What if the unthinkable happens again, and Markey loses his primary? Meanwhile, Kennedy also faces a primary challenge from the left. While no one really believes he could lose, incumbency has a less permanent feel to it than it used to.


That’s especially true if you’re not a Kennedy. Under the old incumbency rules, Morse’s challenge to Neal, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would look like a frivolous long shot. The wiser course would be to wait for Neal to retire, as state Senator Eric Lesser — a former Obama White House aide — was thought to be doing.

But the old definition of power — illustrated by seniority and a committee chairmanship — no longer holds the same sway over voters. It certainly didn’t when Pressley defeated Capuano, a 20-year veteran and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. And in Neal’s case, the old definition of power has already put him under scrutiny for the extensive fund-raising it demands from corporations and industry lobby groups — what David Daley called “pay-to-play” politics in a recent Globe opinion piece. Neal has also been pushed from the left by demands that he get President Trump’s tax returns.


Morse, who is one of the state’s first openly gay mayors, made history when he was elected mayor at age 22. In announcing his challenge to Neal, Morse said, “We need new leadership that understands that we can no longer settle for small, incremental, and compromising progress.”

There’s a lot to be said for such impatience. Like democracy, for example, which is built on the foundation of choice and change. As for FaceApp, it can change the way you look. But it can’t change your date of birth or the audacity that goes with youth.

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