Allegations roil progressive insurgent’s House bid
Progressive Massachusetts House candidate Alex Morse’s campaign is grappling with allegations of inappropriate behavior with college students during his time as mayor of Holyoke, Mass., and a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, putting his political future in jeopardy.
Morse, 31, has until now seen his star rise among the Democratic Party’s left flank since launching an insurgent bid for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal’s seat in the 1st District. Morse has been the mayor of Holyoke, a city of about 40,000 people, since 2012, the youngest and first openly gay person to hold that position.
But Morse’s campaign was dealt a major blow on Monday when the Sunrise Movement suspended its campaigning on Morse’s behalf following the allegations, sending a clear signal to other progressives. Additionally, the group’s Western Massachusetts Coalition announced on Monday that its members voted to rescind its endorsement of Morse.
On Tuesday, New York progressive House candidate Jamaal Bowman told The Hill he was putting a “pause” on his endorsement of Morse two months after Morse campaigned on his behalf, citing the allegations.
The allegations first appeared last week in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, UMass Amherst’s student newspaper, when the paper wrote about a letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts alleging inappropriate behavior between Morse and students.
“Numerous incidents over the course of several years have shown that it is no longer appropriate to encourage interaction between College Democrats and Alex Morse,” the letter read, according to the publication.
The letter alleges, according to the Daily Collegian, that Morse regularly matched with students on dating apps, added students he met at College Democrats events on Instagram and sent them direct messages, and had “sexual contact” with college students at UMass Amherst and other schools.
Morse issued a two-page statement on Sunday, saying he did not abuse his power and that the relationships were consensual. UMass Amherst, where Morse was a lecturer for several years, most recently in 2019, said it is investigating whether the candidate violated any Title IX laws.
The mayor defended himself during a Hill.TV appearance on Tuesday, saying he will not apologize for having consensual relationships. He said that he has not had sexual contact with students in his classes.
“I want to be very clear: Never in my adult life have I been part of a non-consensual relationship or sexual encounter with anyone,” Morse said.
“[The media] has given more scrutiny to my personal sex life than they have ever given scrutiny to Congressman Neal’s corruption and the way in which he has used his power over a 30-year period,” he added.
Morse said in a separate interview with WAMC that he believed Neal’s campaign was involved in the publication of the allegations.
“I think this is what happens when you go against power,” Morse told the radio station.
Neal’s campaign has denied being involved, saying, “The College Democrats independently came forward, and our campaign commends these courageous students.”
The fallout from the allegations could significantly damage a candidate running to unseat one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.
“He needs the Sunrise Movement. He needs Justice Democrats … to have a shot at this,” said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
The Hill has reached out to Justice Democrats, a liberal advocacy group that endorsed Morse but has yet to comment on the allegations, for comment.
“In this case, power is the position Alex Morse had as [a lecturer] out at UMass. That’s a position of power, especially when you are looking to engage in personal relationships with students,” Marsh said. “The question is, is it right to use that power? There’s a reason UMass and other schools have a policy against that.”
However, there are progressive groups still publicly backing Morse. The LGBTQ Victory Fund has stood by its endorsement of Morse, calling the allegations “a disservice to voters.”
“Alex has been running for Congress for more than a year and this letter was released one week before the first debate and three weeks before the primary,” the group said in a statement.
“Alex is taking responsibility for actions that made students uncomfortable and we support the independent investigation by UMass, despite no complaints having ever been made to the university. But it is critical the media and others avoid reinforcing tired homophobic tropes or sensationalizing this story because of Alex’s sexual orientation.”
Meanwhile, other progressive groups say they are continuing to monitor the situation.
“We are in conversations with Our Revolution Massachusetts (ORMA) about this,” progressive group Our Revolution said in a statement. “Both groups are continuing to monitor and evaluate the situation.”
Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell, whose group endorsed Morse last week before the allegations publicly surfaced, said in a statement that the organization is “assessing the information we’ve read, discussing those reports with Morse, as well as reaching out to those who’ve reported harm in order to understand the extent of any potential abuse of power.”
“We believe that Alex has made some choices in his social interactions that have caused discomfort, at minimum,” Mitchell added. “But not all mistakes have equal weight. We also believe that people who’ve shown bad judgment and even caused harm can repair it by listening to those they’ve hurt, learning from their mistakes, changing their behavior — and working to build the world we believe in.”
Allison Pulliam, elections campaign director at MoveOn, whose group had also endorsed Morse last week, said that the group is “aware of the concerns and are tracking and assessing them.”
“We will let you know if anything changes with respect to our position on the race,” she said.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has endorsed Morse, also expressed his support for the candidate in a tweet on Monday without explicitly mentioning the allegations.
“Let’s go Alex! As excited as ever for your race,” Yang tweeted.
The allegations came as Morse looks to become the latest progressive to successfully challenge a longtime Democratic member of Congress in a primary.
Last week, Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, defeated Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who has been in Congress since 2001 and holds the seat that had been previously held by his father. Earlier this summer, Bowman, a former middle school principal, defeated House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.), who like Neal was first sworn into Congress in 1989.
Morse is hoping to follow suit and knock off Neal, the chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress with jurisdiction over taxes, trade and health issues. He has criticized Neal for being one of the lawmakers who takes the most amount of donations from corporate PACs and has argued that the congressman’s record is insufficiently progressive and too beholden to corporate interests.
Morse has criticized Neal for not supporting “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. He has attacked Neal over his position on surprise medical bills, arguing that Neal is blocking progress on the bipartisan priority by pushing a rival approach to that of lawmakers on other committees. He has also criticized Neal for not being more aggressive in trying to obtain President Trump’s tax returns.
Neal has argued that the other lawmakers’ approach on surprise medical billing would lead to painful cuts to payments to doctors and hospitals. He has said that he has moved cautiously on Trump’s tax returns because he expected the matter to become the subject of a lengthy court case. Neal’s lawsuit aimed at obtaining Trump’s federal tax returns from the IRS is ongoing.