This Massachusetts House Primary Is Progressives’ Biggest Test Yet

Progressive Mayor Alex Morse’s bid to unseat Rep. Richard Neal, a top Democrat, could shift the balance of power inside the party.

One of the last Democratic congressional primaries of this election cycle is also one of its most consequential.

Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse, 31, is taking on Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, on Tuesday in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District.

As head of the panel in charge of taxation and virtually all social program spending, Neal, 71, is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. Progressives have faulted him for everything from dragging his feet on demanding President Donald Trump’s tax returns and his role in stalling bipartisan legislation to end “surprise” medical billing. In the current election cycle, he is the House’s biggest recipient of donations from corporate political action committees ― many of them from health care companies, the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street firms with lucrative policy interests at stake before Neal’s committee.

There are myriad factors at work in the race’s potential outcomes, including local regard for Neal and concern about losing his clout in Washington. The former mayor of Springfield, who has represented central and Western Massachusetts since 1989, is not beset by the same challenges of other ousted incumbents, such as Reps. Eliot Engel and Joe Crowley of New York. Engel, Crowley and others could be credibly accused of losing touch with their constituents, which is, by all accounts, a tougher sell against Neal.

“We’ve not seen this level of air war": Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse's primary against Rep. Richard Neal, right, has drawn millions of dollars in campaign spending.
“We’ve not seen this level of air war": Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse's primary against Rep. Richard Neal, right, has drawn millions of dollars in campaign spending.
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And Morse’s appeal as a champion of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal is complicated by the struggles of the impoverished city he runs, as well as a politically motivated scandal earlier in August that forced him to acknowledge having consensual sex with college students at a university where he lectured. Though there is no evidence that they were his students ― or any specific allegation of misconduct ― and the revelation was prompted by a student seeking favor with Neal, local media outlets were less diligent in their coverage of the mitigating information than in the initial claims against Morse.

The race is “more local. It’s more parochial,” said Tony Cignoli, a Springfield-based political consultant who is not affiliated with either candidate. “Here you’re looking at, ‘What’s going to impact me and my kids?’”

Still, a victory for Morse would signal that even Democrats at the highest echelons of the party ― who represent districts far outside of major cities and spend lavishly defending their seats ― are vulnerable to challenges from the left. It would also clear the way for more progressive legislation to advance in the Ways and Means Committee.

“It’s the first thing that scares [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi shitless,” said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, a firm that has conducted polling for Morse. “If [Neal] loses, every one of these motherfuckers can go down. And there’s nothing they can do to stop it. That is why this primary changes everything.”

A loss for Morse, however, might show the limits of a progressive insurgent wave that has had its greatest successes in and around New York City and other big, liberal metropolitan areas.

“It’d be a big victory lap for” Pelosi and the Democratic Party establishment, Cignoli said. “That allows them to say their other losses were more of a political anomaly than may have been thought.”

Unlike the rest of the country, the most progressive parts of Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District are often the most rural. That includes towns in the Berkshires, such as Sheffield.
Unlike the rest of the country, the most progressive parts of Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District are often the most rural. That includes towns in the Berkshires, such as Sheffield.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Rural Liberals, Urban Moderates And Ascendant Latinos

Unlike many of the sites of progressive victories against more moderate incumbents, there is no obvious racial dynamic at play in Massachusetts’ 1st District. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ousted Crowley, a white man representing a majority-minority constituency in 2018; Jamaal Bowman, who is Black, did the same to Engel this year. By contrast, Morse and Neal are both white, as are the vast majority of the geographically expansive district’s residents.

Instead, the biggest dividing lines in the district are ideological, geographic and socioeconomic. Neal’s base of support is in Springfield, the district’s largest city, and some of its surrounding towns. Experts on local politics told HuffPost that Neal’s support is likely to be particularly strong among lower-middle-class and blue-collar white residents, many of whom are descended from Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants.

Morse is expected to enjoy significant support in Holyoke, an impoverished postindustrial city of about 40,000. Morse, who became the city’s youngest and first openly gay mayor in 2011, was reelected for a fourth term in 2017.

But Morse’s political sweet spot is in the district’s rural hinterlands. Counterintuitively, the district’s most progressive areas are concentrated in the more sparsely populated hills and mountains north and west of Holyoke. The artistic towns near the state’s northern and western borders are packed with college-educated hippies and other free-spirited people who began arriving there from Northeastern cities in the 1960s and ’70s ― part of a migration wave that also transformed the politics of Vermont to the north.

As a case in point, the district’s voters backed former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential primary. But Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) jointly received more than Biden, largely thanks to the voters in the district’s northern hill towns.

An internal poll released by Morse’s campaign in mid-August put him within striking distance of Neal, trailing him by 5 percentage points.

Tom Hendrickson, a college student volunteering for Morse, estimated that if Morse can generate strong turnout in the progressive rural areas, limiting Neal’s margin in Springfield would position him well for victory.

“If Morse can win just 40% of Springfield’s vote, he’ll likely win the election,” Hendrickson said.

“He has opened the doors of City Hall to the Puerto Rican community.”

- Gladys Franco, school administrator in Springfield, Massachusetts

A potentially decisive variable is how the district’s considerable Latino population will break in the race. Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of district residents are Latino, and the vast majority of them are Puerto Rican, who are citizens eligible to vote.

In Holyoke, in particular, which has the largest Puerto Rican population per capita of anywhere outside the island itself, Morse has made Puerto Ricans a pillar of his political coalition. Morse, the son of an Irish American father and a Jewish mother, is fluent in Spanish and has rallied the city’s disproportionately working-class Latino residents in an alliance against the city’s more conservative, anglophone old guard. It’s a coalition that has helped Morse withstand efforts by opposition city council members to his creation of the city’s first needle exchange program. (Harm reduction is personal for Morse, whose brother’s death this year stemmed from opiate addiction.)

Gladys Franco, a school administrator and Springfield resident originally from Puerto Rico, commended Morse for his efforts to combat poverty in Holyoke and for limiting the city’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities by designating Holyoke a “sanctuary city.”

“He has opened the doors of City Hall to the Puerto Rican community,” she said.

But the Puerto Rican community is not homogeneous. Neal has enlisted the help of former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a Puerto Rican from Chicago and immigration rights leader, who credits Neal with ensuring a House vote in November 2010 on the DREAM Act for immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors (the bill died due to a filibuster in the Senate). Gutiérrez appeared in a TV ad for Neal in both English and Spanish, informing voters, among other things, that Neal fought to ensure that Puerto Rico got its share of hurricane aid.

Neal also has strong ties to Puerto Rican elected officials and community leaders in Springfield, which has a larger Puerto Rican population than Holyoke in absolute terms.

State Rep. Carlos González, who is backing Neal, said that the Puerto Rican community is divided along generational lines, with younger voters more likely to support Morse.

Younger voters want “new leadership, fresh faces,” González said.

“Well, that’s not how government works,” he added. “Government works with experience, institutional knowledge and positions that can influence legislation that can impact people today, tomorrow and the future generations.”

Rep. Richard Neal, right, announces an Environmental Protection Agency grant for the city of Chicopee on Aug. 13. Neal is counting on voters to reward him for the perks offered by his seniority in Congress.
Rep. Richard Neal, right, announces an Environmental Protection Agency grant for the city of Chicopee on Aug. 13. Neal is counting on voters to reward him for the perks offered by his seniority in Congress.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Corporate America’s Favorite Democrat” Or Senior Statesman?

Neal, Morse and the outside groups backing them have spent millions of dollars blanketing the TV airwaves in an effort to define one another. As of mid-August, Neal’s campaign had outspent Morse’s by a 4-to-1 margin, $4.2 million to Morse’s $1 million. Super PACs supporting Neal or opposing Morse have spent more than $1.7 million, compared with $1.2 million from groups backing Morse or opposing Neal.

“You can’t turn on any TV station in our neck of the woods and not see an ad from Neal or Morse or a PAC supporting them,” said Cignoli, who said he had received four outreach calls from the two campaigns and a survey in the 24-hour period preceding his interview with HuffPost on Thursday. “We’ve not seen this level of air war in I think forever.”

The list of progressive grievances with Neal is endless ― and Morse and his allies have tried nailing him with virtually all of them in public statements, paid ads, campaign literature and strategically placed news stories.

Bills to expand Social Security and close a tax loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than salaried workers have gone nowhere in Neal’s committee, these progressives note. Neal is so opposed to single-payer health care that he instructed members of his committee to avoid the term “Medicare for All,” they add.

What’s more, Neal declined to demand Trump’s tax returns until April 2019, four months after he assumed the chairmanship. The delay, which Neal chalked up to meticulous preparation, postponed the start of an inevitable court battle, costing Democrats a chance at forcing the tax returns’ disclosure before the November election, critics charge.

Perhaps Neal’s most controversial action was his effective veto of a bipartisan bill aimed at ending the practice of presenting patients with an exorbitant “surprise” bill for care performed by doctors or medical professionals who are not in a hospital’s insurance network. In December, Neal scuttled a bill that lawmakers from both parties believed was headed for imminent passage, but it was opposed by private equity firms that invest in out-of-network physicians’ practices. Just as Congress was preparing to wrap up its business for the year, Neal shocked consumer and patient advocates by tanking the bill at the last minute on the grounds that it would hurt hospitals by capping insurers’ payments to out-of-network doctors. (Neal introduced his own more lenient bipartisan bill, but legislative progress on the issue has slowed to a crawl since Neal made his move.)

Fight Corporate Monopolies, the political arm of the anti-monopoly group American Economic Liberties Project, has spent $325,000 to air a TV ad in Springfield blasting Neal for the decision and connecting it to his receipt of donations from top executives at a private equity firm that profits from surprise billing.

“If you contribute to my campaign, you buy into my agenda. I’m not buying into yours.”

- Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.)

The most enduring message employed against Neal, though, has not been tied to any one vote or policy position. Instead, Neal’s opponents have portrayed him as a Washington insider corrupted by corporate money and noted he hasn’t held a town hall in the district in which constituents would be free to ask questions in three years. Morse and Justice Democrats, Morse’s most important left-wing backer, have dubbed Neal “Corporate America’s favorite Democrat” ― or, alternately, “Wall Street’s favorite Democrat.”

“Do we want a member of Congress who is bought and paid for by corporations ― by Big Pharma, by the fossil fuel industry, by the big health care lobby?” Morse, who is refusing corporate PAC money, said in a televised debate with Neal on Aug. 17. “Or do we want a member of Congress that is unbought and going to Washington to fight for everyday people?”

Neal has responded that the money he has raised helped Democrats take back the House in 2018 and that he uses it to help Black and Latino members of Congress in particular.

“If you contribute to my campaign, you buy into my agenda,” he added in the Aug. 17 debate. “I’m not buying into yours.”

Neal and his allies have painted him as a dealmaker with the experience and power to deliver for a district that is struggling economically. While spending earmarks are no longer permitted, Neal maintains that his district, which is home to the Richard E. Neal Complex community health center, would be lost without his seniority. He touts the federal dollars he’s secured for the district through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a March bill that expanded unemployment benefits, set up a program to help small businesses retain their workers and provided unconditional emergency loans to big business.

“When COVID-19 struck, I trusted Richie to negotiate the best deal for working people,” Pelosi says in a TV ad for Neal.

At the same time, Neal has hammered Morse for opposing the CARES Act, for missing a number of Holyoke public school board meetings and for presiding over a police department that had to settle a lawsuit for $65,000 with the family of a 12-year-old boy whom city police allegedly beat nearly unconscious in 2014.

Like other progressives, Morse maintains that the CARES Act stimulus package has been inadequate for ordinary people. And he insists that he has attended about three-quarters of Holyoke school board meetings since taking office in 2011 and that he was absent only when there was a conflict related to city business.

Still, Neal’s pitch about seniority remains appealing to even many of the district’s most progressive voters. Volunteer Tom Hendrickson’s parents, union school teachers who voted for Sanders in the presidential primary, are both sticking with Neal.

“The main reason is because of his position as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee,” said Hendrickson’s father, David, who is vice president of his teachers union local. “He has the accessibility to help our region in Western Mass the most.”

Alex Morse campaigns in Springfield on Wednesday. Misconduct claims against him that were later shown to be politically motivated may have ended up helping him.
Alex Morse campaigns in Springfield on Wednesday. Misconduct claims against him that were later shown to be politically motivated may have ended up helping him.
Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Dustup That Rocked A Gay, Millennial Mayor

Given all of the policy issues and power struggles embedded in the Neal-Morse race, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the contest got its first real dose of national attention for a bizarre sex scandal over the course of a week in early August.

Morse came under fire on Aug. 7 when The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts, published a leaked letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts informing Morse on Thursday that he was no longer welcome at the group’s meetings because he had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” with college students.

The letter stated that Morse, who had taught a course at UMass Amherst since 2015, matched with college students as young as 18 on the dating apps Tinder and Grindr, and that he had “sexual contact” with students at the UMass Amherst and other colleges near Holyoke.

It also said that Morse “us[ed] College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram” and that he messaged them in a way that made students “feel uncomfortable.”

Morse apologized for making students uncomfortable but denied wrongdoing, insisting that all of his romantic relationships had been with consenting adults and none were with any of his students.

Still, Morse considered withdrawing from the race, particularly as an array of progressive groups supporting him deliberated for days about how to respond to the news. The climate-focused Sunrise Movement and Jamaal Bowman, the congressional candidate in New York, announced that they were pausing their support for Morse pending further investigation.

Then, five days after the Daily Collegian article upended the race, The Intercept reported that at least two students active in the UMass Amherst College Democrats chapter sought to ensnare Morse by flirting with him on Instagram. One of the conspirators explicitly said that he was interested in currying favor with Neal so he could advance professionally.

A second Intercept report revealed that the Massachusetts Democratic Party, which is officially neutral in competitive primaries, referred Democratic power broker and former Neal donor Jim Roosevelt to the student group as an attorney to counsel them on how to handle confronting Morse. Roosevelt reportedly advised them to publicize the letter, against the students’ instincts, according to sources close to the College Democrats; Roosevelt insists that he advised that it be kept private.

Morse’s allies returned to his side with force, promising to up their spending. Neal ended up finding himself on the defensive, repeatedly denying any involvement with the incident and renouncing the homophobia that many saw in the attempt to smear Morse.

Now some political observers think the scandal may have actually helped Morse, raising his profile in the district and rallying die-hard progressive activists and members of the LGBTQ community to his cause. Indeed, Morse had his best fundraising day of the campaign the day that the Intercept story about the plot against him came out, bringing in about $130,000.

“What Neal needed to have happen to win ― and he still could do it ― is just to have nothing happen,” McElwee, of Data for Progress, said, noting that Neal’s cash advantage and name recognition in the district made him the default favorite in an unremarkable political environment. “This has given Morse a real shot at getting across the finish line.”

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