A Holyoke, Mass., City Council member wants to recall Mayor Alex Morse over reports that the gay mayor had relationships with college students -- and the council member is being called homophobic for saying Morse engaged in "sexual activities with teenagers."
Last week the College Democrats of Massachusetts and two of its chapters released a letter saying that Morse, who is running for Congress from the First District in the western part of the state, had relationships with students and used his "position of power" as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst "for romantic or sexual gain."
Morse responded by saying he had consensual relationships with students he had met through dating apps but engaged in no inappropriate or unethical behavior, although he acknowledged some of the students he contacted were uncomfortable with the interactions. It's not clear if any of the students were in his classes, but Morse said he violated no university policies. He was a lecturer in urban government and politics at UMass-Amherst from 2014 to 2019.
Now Holyoke City Councilor Mike Sullivan wants to authorize the city to recall Morse from office. The city does not provide for recalls, but Sullivan said he would file an order that would allow the process. In a statement released Tuesday, he accused Morse of having "sexual activities with teenagers," wording that critics say plays into homophobic tropes.
"Despite the charges from survivors, our 31-year-old mayor continues to refuse to resign over his acknowledged use of his power and position as mayor and candidate for Congress to engage in sexual activities with teenagers on college campuses," Sullivan's statement says, according to Massachusetts TV stations WGGB and WSHM.
"Because of his abhorrent behavior, our Mayor has now been banned from multiple college campus groups across New England, and is being investigated by the administration at the University of Mass. Morse continues to ignore a growing chorus of calls for his resignation. This order will allow the citizens of Holyoke to decide if Alex Morse should be removed as Mayor after embarrassing us across the Commonwealth. Morse has been absent from City Hall while on the city's payroll for much of the past 12 months, while taking time to run for Congress. Neglecting his job as Mayor of Holyoke while running for Congress has been negligent enough. Now admitting he has been spending his time using his position and power to engage in sexual activities with teenagers at the University of Mass simply disqualifies him to continue as our Mayor, and with his refusal to resign as Mayor, the Council will take up an order to authorize his recall." Three other council members, David Bartley, Howard Greaney Jr., and Linda Vacon, support a recall.
Morse responded to the statement by telling the TV stations, "This is nothing but a sad, ignorant, and homophobic attack by city councilors who have long fought against efforts to make Holyoke a welcoming community for all. Their slanderous language is only outmatched in ignorance by the fact that the city charter does not have provisions for a recall."
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Morse for Congress, also denounced the statement. "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," Victory Fund Senior Political Director Sean Meloy said in a press release. "He repeatedly refers to 'sexual activities with teenagers' knowing full well the word 'teenagers' evokes images of middle and high school students -- not college students -- and that there are no allegations from anyone underage. The architects of these efforts knew this is where the conversation would lead -- with no regard for the homophobia it would unleash.
"It is unsurprising that a councilmember who refers to people who are homeless as 'animals' would also use homophobia as a political weapon to mislead voters. But we hope Councilmembers Bartley, Greaney and Vacon recognize the homophobic dog whistles for what they are and retract their support for his efforts. The tone of Councilmember Sullivan's statement shows an animosity and viciousness that extends well beyond the recent allegations. The councilmembers supporting Sullivan must ask themselves whether he would treat a straight candidate the same way." The "animals" comment refers to a remark Sullivan made in 2017, when he advised Holyoke residents not to give money to panhandlers by saying, "Don't feed the animals."
Morse has said he is being subjected to a level of scrutiny a straight candidate would not receive. He is challenging U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, an LGBTQ+ ally and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in the Democratic primary, which will be held September 1. There is no Republican in the race, so the winner of the Democratic primary is assured of election in November.
There have been accusations that the College Democrats' letter was part of a campaign to help Neal and that at least one official with the organization hoped for assistance from Neal in building a political career. But the College Democrats said Neal and his campaign had nothing to do with the letter's release.
An out Massachusetts state senator issued a statement Wednesday condemning the allegations against Morse. "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," said Julian Cyr, who represents an eastern Massachusetts district. "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. We know few details about how Alex may or may not have acted with men he met and dated. I worry there isn't sufficient time to investigate the accusations because the allegations were released literally as ballots hit mailboxes and only three weeks before primary day. I am a big believer in listening to and thoroughly investigating complaints of abuse of power or sexual harassment, especially for those of us who hold public office, but unfortunately the timing of this letter seems to be dictated by a political calendar, not out of concern for revealing the truth. This race will set a precedent for whether vague and anonymous allegations can be easily launched against LGBTQ candidates to destroy their campaigns, or whether investigations will be required before LGBTQ candidates are condemned in the media. This campaign should be debated and won on the merits of the candidates' ideas and their records of service. Congressman Neal has long been an ally to the LGBTQ community. I urge Congressman Neal to discourage any unsubstantiated accusations that traffic in dangerous stereotypes about LGBTQ people. We all need to understand that the way these allegations have been brought against Alex Morse have a chilling effect on the willingness of LGBTQ people to run for public office in Massachusetts and across the country."