By Matt Tracy
A homophobic smear campaign targeting the out gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, could very well end up derailing his insurgent bid for Congress, but fresh reporting on August 12 helped give him new life in the final weeks of his primary campaign to unseat Democratic Congressmember Richard Neal, the influential chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Mayor Alex Morse, running as a progressive congressional hopeful in Massachusetts’ First District, carefully navigated controversial allegations of sexual misconduct for allegedly engaging in consensual relationships with college students, none of whom were individuals he taught during his stint as an adjunct political science lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The controversy immediately raised questions about the political motivations of the group at the center of the allegations, leading to reporting that exposed an operation to sabotage Morse’s reputation. But, the uproar also fueled the perpetuation of homophobic stereotypes long used to target LGBTQ folks, especially teachers, in ways that falsely brand them as individuals who engage in predatory behavior toward younger people.
The issue first emerged when the College Democrats of Massachusetts penned a letter to Morse distancing themselves from him and accusing him of using “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain.” The letter alleged that he matched with students “as young as 18 years old” on dating apps, including Tindr and Grindr, and accused him of “using College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and DMing them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable.”
The letter and the charges levied against Morse were first reported August 7 by the DailyCollegian.com, the UMass campus newspaper.
But the letter has been shrouded in controversy for a number of reasons: There are financial ties between the group and Morse’s opponent — the College Democrats of Massachusetts gave Neal’s campaign $1,000 in donations — and a student involved in a consensual relationship with Morse said he did not know he was a mayor or former lecturer until after the two were together, raising questions about the credibility of the claim that Morse exploited his position of power. The student only “felt uncomfortable after uncovering this information.”
Furthermore, subsequent reporting from The Intercept revealed that leaders of the UMass Amherst Democrats hatched a plan last October to sink Morse’s campaign, and they even discussed one idea to find his dating profiles and bait him into saying something that would then be used against him in his bid for Congress.
Additionally, the contents of some chats involving Morse and a student were obtained by The Intercept — and those chats were largely uneventful. Morse and the individual merely asked each other how things were going, and the person he chatted with admitted in a separate chat that he was seeking to lead the congressional candidate on.
On top of it all, the wording of the original letter published by the College Democrats of Massachusetts played up the age difference between Morse and the individuals with whom he had relations — as if that would be some sort of sin in situations involving men all above the age of consent — but Morse was merely 22 years old when he became mayor and is only 31 years old today.
Another key point is that UMass policy only bars faculty members from engaging in relationships with students over whom they have a supervisory position. There are no indications that Morse violated that policy, and he insists he did not.
In a written statement Morse stressed that he has never had a non-consensual sexual encounter. He admitted to having “consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that I’ve met using dating apps,” and conceded that “some students felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with me. I am sorry for that.”
Morse noted that he believes students have a right to be heard and for their concerns to be addressed.
But he also warned Neal against capitalizing on stereotypes about gay men and delivered a message directly to the LGBTQ community.
“And to the many members of the queer community that have reached out to me in recent days, it’s clear that many of you feel that these recent events, and the language used in response, aren’t just an attack on me, but on all of us,” Morse wrote. “You’re genuinely outraged, as I am, by the invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes. You have reminded me that we’ve come too far to turn back. I want my freedom, and I want you to have yours, too.”
Those stereotypes were further pushed by Holyoke Councilmember Mike Sullivan, who criticized Morse for engaging in “sexual activities with teenagers,” prompting the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out LGBTQ candidates to office, to release a written statement from its senior political director, Sean Meloy, who said on August 12 that “Councilmember Sullivan’s statement is a blatant attempt to mislead voters and appeal to homophobic stereotypes about gay men as pedophiles — and it must be retracted and condemned.”
The Victory Fund fired out a subsequent press release following The Intercept’s reporting, thanking Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Gus Bickford for commiting to an investigation into the UMass College Democrats. The Victory Fund demanded that an independent investigation into the attacks on Morse be completed before his September 1 primary.
Julian Cyr, an out gay Massachusetts state senator, also addressed the issue in a written statement on August 12.
“As an ‘out’ queer elected official who knows the sex lives of LGBTQ people are too often sensationalized in politics and in media, I find it extremely disappointing that vague and anonymous allegations have been levied against Holyoke Mayor and Congressional candidate Alex Morse without any on-the-record sourcing,” Cyr said. “It’s alarming that these claims have attracted this level of attention with a swiftness I fear they would have not received if Alex were straight.”
Reporting by The Intercept revealed details about the inner workings of the College Democrats as well as Neal’s own stint as a UMass teacher, in the school’s journalism program.
Clare Sheedy, a sophomore member of the College Democrats, said the group’s president, Timothy Ennis, told her he respected Neal, “spoke very highly” of him, and told her “he wanted Neal to be his ‘in’ to politics and work his way up from there,” according to The Intercept.
Ennis was a student of Neal’s in the journalism class the congressmember taught at UMass.
An aide in UMass’ College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, where the journalism program resides, warned the school’s administration that allegations targeting Morse “are politically motivated.”
Another sophomore, Helena Middleton, a Morse supporter who was previously a part of the University of Massachusetts College Democrats, said she was ignored when she tried to share volunteer opportunities for Morse’s campaign with the rest of the group. She said she later found out that a leader in the group was Neal’s student.
“He made it very clear that he supported the election campaign and that he wanted to work for Neal,” Middleton said, according to The Intercept.
Attempts to reach Ennis for comment on August 12 were unsuccessful.
Morse told the Intercept that allegations charging him for using his role as a congressional candidate to develop relationships with students were not true, and he claimed he had only appeared at one College Democrats event since his campaign launched in June of last year.
While the school is probing the case, a conclusion is not likely to be reached before Morse squares off against Neal in the September 1 primary competition.
“It’s unfortunate that these allegations came three weeks before the primary, because there isn’t enough time for UMass to conduct an independent review before the people of this district vote on September 1,” Morse wrote in his statement.
The 31-year-old is remaining in the race and groups that had jumped ship — or looked ready to — have since rethought their retreat. Justice Democrats was wavering on its endorsement of Morse after the allegations emerged, but shifted gears on August 12 and expressed explicit support for him. Indivisible, a group that describes itself as a progressive movement to resist the GOP, promote progressive causes, and elect local lawmakers, went to bat for Morse in response to The Intercept story, posting a tweet on the evening on August 12 announcing a big advertising push.
“Homophobic smear campaigns have no place in our elections and should be condemned by Democrats everywhere,” the group wrote in a tweet. “We’re proud to endorse @AlexBMorse. And we’re increasing our initial investment in this race: our 6-figure buy across TV and digital hits next week.”
Morse and Neal are presenting starkly different platforms. Morse, for example, backs Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, while Neal does not back either of those initiatives and was initially hesitant to embrace impeachment proceedings facing President Donald Trump. Morse has slammed Neal for raking in cash from Wall Street, big pharma, and the fossil fuel industry.
Healthcare lobbyists opposed to Medicare for All are scrambling to keep Neal in office. The American Hospital Association’s political action committee, which has railed against efforts to bar surprise healthcare costs charged to patients and opposes the push to require hospitals to publicize their prices, has pumped more than $200,000 into Neal’s campaign. As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Neal blocked a deal to forbid surprise medical costs last year, refused to allow his committee to debate the possibility of a public option in healthcare, and directed other lawmakers to avoid mentioning the term “Medicare For All,” according to ReadSludge.com, a site that investigates money in politics.
Neal, meanwhile, has defended his record and political leanings during the campaign, arguing that establishment Democrats were essentially the driving force behind the Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms.
“That’s where the majority came from,” Neal said, according to WBUR. “So, this argument that there was this [progressive] revolution — I think it might sound good for soundbites, but when you peel back the evidence, there’s not a lot to substantiate it.”