A Perfect Storm Sank Progressive Challenger Alex Morse In Massachusetts

A congressional race that got national attention at the last minute was dominated by local issues that benefited Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) over a local mayor.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse unsuccessfully sought to unseat Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts' Democratic primary on Tuesday. S
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse unsuccessfully sought to unseat Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts' Democratic primary on Tuesday. Some supporters think a political smear hurt him.

HOLYOKE, Mass. ― Rep. Richard Neal’s margin of victory over progressive Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse on Tuesday came as something of a surprise to national observers expecting a tighter race.

The final pre-election public poll in Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District showed Morse trailing by 8 percentage points. In the end, he lost to Neal, a 16-term incumbent and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, by over 17 percentage points; Neal even defeated him in Holyoke, where Morse has been elected mayor four times. 

But the mood at the bed-and-breakfast where Morse’s supporters gathered at an outdoor reception awaiting results Tuesday night was upbeat rather than gloomy.

The tight-knit, multiracial circle of family and friends that has grown up around Morse since he became the youngest and first openly gay mayor of an impoverished, postindustrial city in 2011, are used to fighting long-term battles.

Juan Burgos-Anderson, a progressive ally of Morse’s on the City Council, ran unsuccessfully against the mayor’s conservative opposition leader in 2015 after enduring racist and homophobic epithets while knocking on doors. He came back in 2017 and won ― a formula he believes Morse can replicate against Neal in 2022.

He’s going to get back up, and I’m going to push him to do it again. Juan Burgos-Anderson, Holyoke City Council member

“He’s going to get back up, and I’m going to push him to do it again,” Burgos-Anderson said.

Nationally, the activist left saw an opportunity in Morse’s bid to unseat one of the most powerful, corporate-friendly Democrats in Congress. In the final weeks, it also became a referendum on a tawdry, establishment-backed smear that smacked of homophobia.

In truth, though the politically motivated accusations of sexual impropriety may have hurt Morse, the race was always more about local dynamics than the out-of-state poll watchers understood ― and none of those dynamics favored Morse. Neal enjoys a deep popularity in the district that seems impervious to accusations of corruption. Morse’s mayoralty, heralded by Holyoke’s emerging Puerto Rican majority, has been marked by incessant conflict with a conservative City Council that happens to represent the same Irish American constituency that makes up Neal’s base. And Neal’s endless heap of campaign cash, drawn almost entirely from wealthy individuals and corporations, allowed him and his allies to broadcast the criticisms of Morse’s mayoralty within Holyoke across the geographically vast district.

The discredited allegations against Morse, which coincided with the start of early mail-in voting, likely added to a vague public sense that whatever Neal’s flaws, Morse was not a suitable replacement.

“There was a lot of momentum building for Alex, and then those came out and it raised a lot of doubts,” said Doug Rubin, a veteran Democratic consultant who advised Morse’s campaign beginning in July.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), left, at a political event in September 1989, during his first term in Congress. He remains popu
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), left, at a political event in September 1989, during his first term in Congress. He remains popular in Western Massachusetts.

‘They Love Richie Neal’

For one thing, unlike the incumbent House Democrats who have fallen to progressive challengers, Neal retained near-demigod status in a district he has represented in one form or another since 1978, when he was first elected to the Springfield City Council. As a mayor from 1983 to 1989 and a congressman since 1989, many residents credit Neal for using his power to bring business and jobs back to a city that had been hemorrhaging unionized manufacturing jobs as metalworking and machine-building factories were shuttered.

Neal and business leaders “got together and brought this town up,” said Ed Crowley, a retired teacher who grew up in Springfield and now lives in Holyoke. “By the 1980s, people were really talking about Springfield.”

And with Springfield once again teetering on the brink because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Crowley ― who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the presidential primary ― and other Neal voters were reluctant to let go of Neal’s seniority at the helm of Congress’s tax-and-spending panel.

“When your district has the second-most powerful position in the House under their control, you don’t give that up for a new guy on the street who’s going to end up with an office someplace in the cellar without a window,” said Jim, a retired commercial banker who declined to give his last name.

Neal still lives in Springfield’s historically Irish American Hungry Hill district, where locals have stories of growing up with “Richie.” And as the city’s Latino and Black populations have made up an increasing share of the population, Neal has made sure to maintain warm relationships with their leaders as well.

Diana Kibodya, a social worker and political refugee from apartheid South Africa who immigrated to Springfield in the 1980s, came to cheer Neal on outside his polling place on Tuesday. Neal’s decision to divest Springfield from South Africa as mayor was among the many actions that had endeared him to her.

“He’s an icon to me because he fights for social justice,” she said.

Asked about her opinion on Morse, Kibodya sounded unaware of his candidacy. “I don’t listen to that,” she said.

Neal’s ties to the Puerto Rican community also limited any momentum that Morse might have had because to his fluency in Spanish and efforts to bring Puerto Ricans into the political fold in Holyoke. 

There was not enough action on the streets of Springfield and in the inner city ― from either candidate. Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, Springfield attorney

Adam Gómez, a progressive city councilman who unseated an Anglophone, incumbent state senator on Tuesday, was neutral in the U.S. House race and credited Morse for advancing the Puerto Rican cause in Holyoke. Still, he noted, Neal won the city’s Puerto Rican wards that powered Gómez’s upset win.

Morse “ran a strong campaign when it came to mailers, commercials ― but it’s just evident, they love Richie Neal,” Gómez said.

Asked why Morse’s support for canceling Puerto Rican debt and disbanding the oversight board that has imposed austerity on the island territory didn’t play a greater role in the race, Gómez, who agrees with Morse on the topic, said, “I don’t think nobody brought it up.” 

Even Jesse Lederman, a progressive ally of Gómez’s on the City Council who supported Sanders in the presidential primary, stayed out of the House race. “I wanted the voters to decide, and they did,” he told HuffPost, declining to comment further on the race.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a Black Muslim attorney in Springfield who challenged Neal in 2018 and remained neutral in 2020, praised Morse’s debate performances but argued that he did not have enough of a field presence in Springfield’s communities of color.

“There was not enough action on the streets of Springfield and in the inner city ― from either candidate,” said Amatul-Wadud, noting that, given Neal’s overall advantages, the flaws in his campaign strategy were less consequential.

The campaign that Neal did run, however, was far better funded than Morse’s. The campaign employed eight full-time staffers and 70 paid interns to do field organizing across the district. 

Morse’s coordinated campaign with the left-wing group Justice Democrats, by contrast, assigned seven staffers to field organizing. That team had the help of 40 unpaid fellows.

“We needed to really figure out a better way to mitigate Neal’s advantage in the big cities,” Rubin conceded.

Jonell Santiago works at Green Thumb Industries cultivation center in Holyoke on Jan. 31, 2019. Mayor Alex Morse recruited th
Jonell Santiago works at Green Thumb Industries cultivation center in Holyoke on Jan. 31, 2019. Mayor Alex Morse recruited the cannabis grower to open its business in one of Holyoke's defunct mills. Morse's tenure has been marked by big accomplishments and constant resistance from the city's old guard.

Alex Morse’s Thankless Mayoralty

Holyoke and Springfield have had similar economic and demographic trajectories. Just as paper mills in Holyoke began shutting down in the 1960s and ’70s, Puerto Rican newcomers began arriving in search of affordable housing, jobs and relative economic stability. The 40,000-person city is now majority Latino and has the largest per capita Puerto Rican population of any mainland municipality.

But unlike Springfield, Holyoke’s postindustrial economic recovery has been painfully slow. Morse inherited a city bedeviled by crime, poverty and blight. A predominantly Irish American old guard has tried to thwart his efforts to forge a more inclusive city at every turn. Neal’s victory in Holyoke was driven by especially high margins in areas like Ward 5, which is a hub of Irish American, anti-Morse sentiment. Those voters may have been more likely to turn out thanks to a competitive state representative race in which Holyoke-based conservative Democrat David Bartley was running (Bartley still lost).

“They’re holding on to what used to be,” said Andres Villada, a friend and supporter of Morse’s dating back to high school.

In 2012, Morse’s first year in office, the Holyoke City Council sued Morse to stop the operation of a needle exchange to provide clean syringes for intravenous drug users. Facilitating harm reduction and treatment for habitual drug users is personal for Morse, whose older brother battled addiction for years before dying of an opiate overdose in February.

Morse has made some unforced errors. Although he ran for mayor in 2011 as an opponent of the construction of a casino in Holyoke, Morse gave the idea a second look after his election before dropping the initiative once more amid a backlash from some of his most dedicated supporters. Instead, the region’s gamblers drive along the Connecticut River to Springfield to try their luck at a new MGM Grand casino in the city’s commercial district.

But Morse has presided over even higher-profile triumphs for the city’s economic development. For example, his outspoken support for marijuana legalization helped convince Green Thumb Industries, a major commercial cannabis grower, to set up shop in one of Holyoke’s old industrial spaces once Massachusetts legalized marijuana in 2016.

It was part of the discussion, part of the narrative that had been created for Mayor Morse over the course of the last decade. Tony Cignoli, political consultant

As with any struggling city, though, crime, poverty and out-of-control police misconduct are liable to trip up even a historically progressive mayor. In 2014, city police responded to a call about a suicidal man firing a handgun. In the course of pursuing the shooter, police allegedly beat a 12-year-old Latino unconscious. The boy had been trying to help the man, a neighbor, and ran away from the scene in fear. The city finally settled with the boy’s family for $65,000

The following year, the Massachusetts government took over Holyoke’s school system, citing the “chronic underperformance” of students in the city’s district. 

Morse, who fought the state’s takeover, subsequently celebrated the increase in the city’s high school graduation rates ― from 49% when he took office to 72% in the 2017-18 school year. As a congressional candidate, Morse also highlighted his work improving the police force’s diversity, claiming it now reflects the city’s majority-Latino population.

With virtually limitless funds, though, Neal and his allies effectively created a cloud of negativity around Morse’s mayoralty that followed him into progressive parts of the district where he was hoping to introduce himself to anti-Neal voters as a fresh face. A labor union and health care industry-backed pro-Neal super PAC hammered Morse in TV ads for a “brutal” policing record and alleged absenteeism at school board meetings prior to the state takeover.

“It was Neal’s campaign ― or the outside anti-Morse groups ― that heralded some of these issues in their ads,” said Tony Cignoli, a Springfield-based political consultant who was neutral in the race. “But it was there. It was part of the discussion, part of the narrative that had been created for Mayor Morse over the course of the last decade.”

For Morse’s allies, the attacks on his record show just how difficult it can be for mayors of troubled cities who launch campaigns for higher office.

“It’s incredibly difficult to be the Mayor of any city. More-so than any elected position, Mayors are subject to vitriol and blame for just about everything,” Morse’s mayoral chief of staff, Mike Bloomberg, tweeted Thursday. “The job is even more difficult in cities that have experienced decades of economic decline and public health despair.”

Alex Morse makes a campaign stop at a Springfield bakery on Aug. 26. His campaign says that the timing of a sexual misconduct
Alex Morse makes a campaign stop at a Springfield bakery on Aug. 26. His campaign says that the timing of a sexual misconduct smear hurt him with early voters in particular.

A Scandal That Sowed Doubts

Morse’s campaign will likely be remembered most for a smear attempt by College Democrats leaders that the screenwriters for HBO’s political satire “Veep” couldn’t have dreamed up.

Morse came under fire on Aug. 7 when The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, published a leaked letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts informing Morse 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 claimed that Morse had had sex with male college students he met on dating apps while lecturing at UM Amherst and that he messaged College Democrats activists on social media in a way that made them uncomfortable. However, the letter didn’t say what he did to cause discomfort or provide any other information about the allegedly offensive interactions.

The charges outlined in the article, which lacked a byline, were just specific enough to spark wall-to-wall coverage from respected national media outlets and a crisis within Morse’s campaign but also vague enough to prevent the broader public from assessing the claims on their merits. 

After a restless night spent combing through all of his communications in an effort to identify any of the potentially incriminating interactions, Morse came to the conclusion that, although he had had sex with college students he’d met on dating apps who were not in his lecture sessions, the charges of misconduct were unfounded. 

Still, humiliated by the national attention and the prospect of a bruising final stretch of the campaign, Morse went back and forth over the weekend on whether he wanted to withdraw from the race.

Emotional appeals from Morse’s staff and the staunch support of the LGBTQ Victory Fund ultimately convinced him to stay in the race. The Victory Fund, which tries to elect gay candidates at all levels of government, emphasized to Morse that baseless attacks on gay people’s personal lives remain common in competitive elections.

“They made the point that this is much larger than you, and you need to stand up for every queer kid who is going to be scared to run for office,” someone familiar with internal campaign conversations told HuffPost.

Morse apologized for making any students uncomfortable but stressed that in keeping with university policy, he had not taught any of his romantic partners and that all of his relationships were with consenting adults.

Elections here in the district aren’t won nationally. They’re won here on the ground. Alex Morse

Then, five days after the initial story airing the allegations, evidence emerged exposing the claims as the work of politically motivated saboteurs. The Intercept reported that two leaders of the UMass Amherst College Democrats chapter plotted to entrap Morse with flirty social media messages in the hopes of currying favor with Neal. A second Intercept article revealed that the Massachusetts Democratic Party had referred former health insurance executive and Neal donor Jim Roosevelt to the College Democrats as a volunteer attorney to advise them on how to confront Morse in the letter. 

The revelations proved to be a fundraising bonanza for Morse, who brought in $130,000 the day of the first exculpatory story and would go on to raise $1 million in the final month of his race. (He raised about that much over the previous 13 months of his bid combined.)

A number of his supporters maintain that the one-two punch of the smear and the Intercept revelations was a net benefit for his campaign by portraying Morse as a victim of dirty tricks designed to exploit homophobic stereotypes. “When those allegations were made, people automatically assumed ― even though it wasn’t proven ― that it came out of Neal’s campaign,” said Zaida Govan, a Springfield social worker who voted for Morse. “People said, ‘No, we’re not going to let that happen. We have to protect Alex and make sure that he’s OK.’” 

Neal’s campaign, which denied any involvement in the smear and disavowed an ad that brought it up, told HuffPost that their internal polling never showed Morse within single digits of Neal and that they did not detect any difference in polling after the scandal emerged.

Morse and his campaign, however, see the smear as a pivotal blow to Morse’s candidacy, though they concede that there was no one factor that did him in. They note that voters in the district began receiving their mail-in ballots in the days after the incriminating Daily Collegian story was published, and they tie it to Morse’s weaker performance among early voters in key municipalities. For example, in the city of Pittsfield, Neal ran up the score in early voting while Morse had a narrow edge on Election Day.

The benefits that Morse reaped nationally from the Intercept’s reporting, his allies claim, were felt far less on the ground due to local media outlets that covered the initial claims more diligently than the later evidence. And both because of the media maelstrom and the decision by backers such as the Sunrise Movement to pause their support following the allegations, the campaign, these Morse supporters say, lost a critical week it needed to get out Morse’s core message: that Neal’s reliance on corporate money has prevented him from properly serving the district’s ordinary residents.

“Elections here in the district aren’t won nationally. They’re won here on the ground,” Morse told reporters on Tuesday night. “Those people involved in the attack knew exactly what they were doing and the impact it would have.” But the campaign, which by that time had enough money to air more than one TV ad, deliberately chose not to devote a spot to rebutting the allegations. It’s a decision that Rubin, Morse’s consultant, now has second thoughts about.

Most of the Neal voters who spoke to HuffPost over the course of three days cited their affection for Neal or negative things they had heard about Morse’s mayoral performance.

But the UMass Amherst allegations also appeared to seep into voters’ consciousness.

After Jim, the retired banker in Springfield, explained to HuffPost why, given Neal’s seniority, he would never consider voting for anyone but the incumbent, HuffPost asked for his impression of Morse.

“I haven’t seen anything wrong with this guy. I certainly have nothing wrong with the fact that he’s gay. That’s irrelevant to me,” Jim said. “But at the same time, if he had been soliciting female students, they’d have run him out of Holyoke on a rail.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that David Bartley won his state House race. He lost.



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