Many progressive groups and individuals backing Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse’s primary challenge against Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) have yet to comment on allegations of inappropriate behavior that surfaced against Morse on Friday night.
The Working Families Party, Indivisible, IfNotNow, Our Revolution, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Justice Democrats, which recently began an independent TV ad campaign on his behalf, have all stayed silent about the accusations.
Reached by HuffPost for comment, Indivisible said it was not commenting. Our Revolution informed HuffPost that it would be conferring with its Massachusetts chapter about the matter at some point on Monday. And a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a labor union, said its board of directors would meet this week to decide whether to stand by its endorsement or withdraw it.
The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group known for its effective mobilization of campaign volunteers, announced late Monday afternoon that, although it was not withdrawing its endorsement of Morse, it would be suspending all activity on Morse’s behalf “until further notice.” The pause, the group said, is necessary to “give us time to learn more, further assess the situation, hear more from the campaign and students, and continue conversations amongst our membership in Western [Massachusetts] and across the country.”
Sunrise Western Massachusetts’ chapter, however, is withdrawing its endorsement of Morse.
“We believe the students that came forward about the inappropriate nature of Alex’s actions ― as we believe all survivors,” the regional group said in a statement on Facebook. “There is no justice without survivor justice.”
Meanwhile, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Berkshires chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and Holyoke City Councilman Juan Anderson-Burgos expressed their continued support for Morse.
“The change in representation that Alex represents is still much needed, for our district and the country, and I don’t believe the actions that have been reported are compelling enough to forget that,” Anderson-Burgos told HuffPost in an email.
Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate, also tweeted his support. “Let’s go Alex!” he wrote on Monday afternoon. “As excited as ever for your race.”
College Democrats of Massachusetts informed 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, according to a Friday report in The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts.
The letter states that Morse, who is openly gay, matched with college students as young as 18 years old on the dating apps Tinder and Grindr, and that he had “sexual contact” with students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and other colleges in close proximity to Holyoke.
It also says that Morse “us[ed] College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram,” and messaged them in a way that made students “feel uncomfortable.”
The most specific complaint against Morse to date appears in a Boston Globe article on Saturday. An unnamed college student said had a sexual encounter with Morse and learned about his mayoralty after their romantic liaison, causing the student to feel uncomfortable.
In a statement Sunday night, Morse admitted to having sexual relations with college students, but he maintained that his relationships have all been with consenting adults.
Morse, 31, has been mayor of Holyoke since 2011, when he was 22, and has taught a course in urban government at UMass Amherst since fall 2014, when he was 25.
Morse insists that he never used his position as mayor or a lecturer at UMass Amherst for “romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students.”
In addition, Morse denies violating UMass Amherst policy, which implies that he never dated any of his students. University policy only explicitly forbids faculty members from engaging in a romantic relationship with any student over whom they have “any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity.”
“Our decision to disinvite Mayor Morse from events was made solely to protect our members, and we made this decision and sent our letter as soon as those affected were comfortable sharing their stories anonymously.”
Still, Morse apologized for the discomfort he caused and said he “fully” understands if groups that have endorsed him decide to withdraw their support.
“I am sorry for that,” he said. “This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power.”
UMass Amherst said in a statement Saturday that it is conducting an independent review of Morse’s conduct to determine whether he violated university policy or federal law. The school has “no plans” to rehire Morse, the statement added.
As the progressive organizations most responsible for Morse’s rise as a candidate calibrate their responses to the weekend’s developments behind closed doors, partisans on either side of the issue have been litigating the nuances of his case endlessly.
Morse’s supporters, including many progressives active in the LGBTQ rights community, argue that he is being unfairly vilified for consenting relationships with adults.
Both Morse and the LGBTQ Victory Fund suggested that Morse may be being held to a double standard because he is a gay man.
“It is critical the media and others avoid reinforcing tired homophobic tropes or sensationalizing this story because of Alex’s sexual orientation,” the LGBTQ Victory Fund said in a statement. “The media and voters should review the allegations and determine whether a straight candidate would be held to the same scrutiny and standards.”
The LGBTQ Victory Fund and Anderson-Burgos also called attention to the timing of the revelation just weeks before the primary on Sept. 1.
A poll conducted for the Morse campaign on Aug. 7-8 showed Neal ahead of Morse 45% to 35% with 20% undecided, according to a source familiar with the poll. Less than 50% support a few weeks ahead of Election Day tends to be an ominous sign for an incumbent.
“It’s hard not to question the timing of this: long enough to have voters digest the news but not long enough for the university to complete an investigation,” Anderson-Burgos said.
College Democrats of Massachusetts, which received a $1,000 contribution from Neal’s campaign this election cycle, has pushed back forcefully against the idea that the letter was a “quid pro quo” ― money in exchange for support ― with Neal. It also denied that the letter exhibited some form of homophobic bias.
In a Sunday statement, the group called both suggestions “untrue, disingenuous and harmful.”
College Democrats of Massachusetts considers Morse’s apology inadequate for failing to “fully acknowledge the harm that he had caused” or convey that he understood why what he did was wrong.
“Our decision to disinvite Mayor Morse from events was made solely to protect our members, and we made this decision and sent our letter as soon as those affected were comfortable sharing their stories anonymously,” the group said.
At least one organization involved in the primary fight between Morse and Neal functions solely as an anti-Neal group, which it claims gives it license to stay out of the scandal entirely.
Fight Corporate Monopolies, a dark-money spending group created by the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly group, said on Sunday that it had no plans to slow down an advertising campaign attacking Neal for stalling legislation that would have greatly reduced the practice of “surprise” medical billing.
The ad, which the group has spent $300,000 to air in the Springfield, Massachusetts, broadcast market, accuses Neal of corruption for doing the bidding of the private equity firm Blackstone, which profits from unregulated “surprise” billing and has given more to Neal than any other company this cycle.
“We are an organization that focuses on corporate power and political corruption,” said Fight Corporate Monopolies executive director Sarah Miller, who noted that the group has not endorsed Morse. “We do not endorse candidates.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.