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Why Out Candidate Alex Morse Is Challenging a Powerful Incumbent

Alex Morse

Alex Morse, a candidate in one of the hardest-fought races of 2020, has been in the news a lot recently (more about that later), but much of the coverage hasn’t focused on the issues and other factors that led him into politics. So leading up to his primary Tuesday against U.S. Rep. Richard Neal in the First Congressional District in Massachusetts, he’s talking to The Advocate about those subjects.

“I grew up in the backdrop of shuttered paper mills and a dead downtown,” says Morse, a native of Holyoke, Mass., who at age 22 became the town’s youngest-ever mayor and the first out gay one. Holyoke is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, and Morse grew up there in public housing as the son of an impoverished single mother. He was the first person in his family to go to college, attending Brown University in Rhode Island.

When he graduated, he decided, “What better place to give back to than my hometown?” he says. So he came back and ran for mayor, and now, at 31, he’s running for the U.S. House of Representatives against fellow Democrat Neal. The district is solidly Democratic, so the winner of the primary is pretty much assured of election in November; there’s not even a Republican running, although there is an independent, Frederick Mayock.

Despite the name, Holyoke is not the home of the prestigious Mount Holyoke College; that’s a few miles away in South Hadley. Holyoke was founded in 1850 as a planned industrial city, with investors from Boston building a dam to use the Connecticut River’s power to run textile and paper mills. Paper remained a key industry well into the 20th century, but its decline left many buildings in Holyoke vacant.

Morse says proudly that downtown Holyoke has been revitalized since he became mayor in 2012, with former mill buildings now housing arts-related businesses, community dining, and educational programs. The city has transitioned off fossil fuels to renewable energy. He says crime is down — an article on a business website last year called Holyoke the most dangerous city in Massachusetts, but Morse pointed out to local media that crime had fallen 40 percent in the city since 2001.

The high school graduation rate in Holyoke has grown from 49 percent to 75 percent on his watch, he says, and the city is close to having universal pre-kindergarten. Six hundred units of housing have been built and 80 percent of them have affordable prices; Morse says he endorses growth without the gentrification that pushes poor residents out.

Morse’s platform in his run for Congress includes universal, government-run health insurance under a “Medicare for All” plan, raising the minimum wage, increasing teacher salaries, promoting renewable energy, and protecting abortion rights. On LGBTQ+ rights, he supports the Equality Act, a nationwide ban on conversion therapy, ending the transgender military ban, addressing violence against trans women, and more. In a time when the nation is reckoning with problems in the criminal justice system, especially as it affects Black Americans, he supports an end to cash bail, private prisons, and the death penalty, while taking steps to assure police are held accountable for misconduct.

His agenda has won him the endorsement of progressive groups such as the Justice Democrats, Move On, and Courage to Change, the latter being the political action committee of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And as an out candidate, he is endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund. But Neal also has LGBTQ support — from the Human Rights Campaign and the Equality PAC (the political action arm of the Congressional LGBTQ Caucus).

The two candidates have similar positions on many issues, but Morse says he offers a progressive alternative to Neal, who he contends has ignored the district’s needs and benefited corporate interests (the incumbent has more support from corporate political action committees than any other Democrat). Neal, in Congress since 1989, is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with all matters relating to taxes and revenue. But “he’s not using his power to benefit us,” Morse says.

Neal has received criticism from Morse and others for not endorsing the Green New Deal, a nonbinding set of plans for addressing climate change. He is the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who has not signed on, although he has said he likes the general ideas of the plan, and he does have a pro-environment record.

Morse and others also have objected to Neal killing legislation aimed at reducing surprise medical billing last fall (he has since gotten behind a different measure) and turning back efforts to expand a bill on negotiation of prescription drug prices. Morse blames the influence of Neal’s corporate donors. Neal has denied that his donors control his policies; at a recent debate, he said, “If you contribute to my campaign you buy into my agenda. I’m not buying into yours.”

As an example of what he's done for the district recently, Neal has pointed to the CARES Act, designed to help out those suffering economically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Morse has said he would have voted against the bill because it provided too much relief to large corporations and not enough to ordinary Americans.

On health care, instead of Medicare for All, Neal supports building on the Affordable Care Act, which maintains private insurance. Morse also says Neal has “dragged his feet” in seeking Donald Trump’s tax returns. The Advocate has sought comment from Neal on all these issues and will update this story when it comes in.

On LGBTQ+ rights, well, it’s complicated. Neal has a string of high scores, including some perfect ones, on the HRC Congressional Scorecard. But Morse contends Neal “is not an inherent ally of the LGBTQ community,” having voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the 1990s.

Many Democrats did support those pieces of legislation and have since changed their stances, including presidential nominee Joe Biden. DADT, it should be noted, was designed to improve the situation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual military members, as President Bill Clinton had run into opposition to his plan to repeal the blanket ban on their service, but it didn’t actually make things any better. Neal, like Biden, supported its repeal, which happened under President Barack Obama, and also like Biden, Neal became a marriage equality supporter. The incumbent holds many of the same positions on LGBTQ+ rights as Morse, such as supporting the Equality Act and an end to the trans military ban, and he has a gay son. The HRC endorsed Neal and the rest of the Massachusetts delegation in July, calling them "champions for equality."

Victory Fund, regarding its endorsement of Morse, notes that while it welcomes allies, its mission is to elect out LGBTQ+ people. “The mission of LGBTQ Victory Fund is singular and unique in US politics — to advance equality for all by electing openly LGBTQ people," Senior Political Director Sean Meloy tells The Advocate via email. "We respect and appreciate allies of our community, but they are not in our mission. For 29 years Victory has worked to build a pipeline of elected officials like Alex Morse who have capably served — and we look forward to these candidates continuing to rise and advance equality and inspire a new generation of LGBTQ leaders to believe they can lead at all levels of government."

Into this mix in August came accusations that Morse had used his power as a part-time lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to have romantic and sexual relationships with students. The College Democrats of Massachusetts and its UMass-Amherst and Amherst College chapters disinvited him from events, and the UMass-Amherst student newspaper published an article on the matter, after which widespread coverage ensued.

Morse said he had engaged in relationships with area students he’d met through dating apps but that all the relationships were consensual and none of the students had been in his classes (there are numerous colleges and universities in the region). He did acknowledge that some of the students had been uncomfortable in their interactions with them, and he apologized for that. But, he tells The Advocate, “I will not apologize for being young and gay and having consensual relations with other adults.”

There have been some homophobic reactions to the news, with one Holyoke City Council member saying Morse was engaging in “sexual activities with teenagers,” language that carried implications of pedophilia. There were also accusations that there was an orchestrated campaign against Morse by a College Democrats official seeking to curry favor with Neal. Neal has said he had no involvement in the effort and condemned any homophobia arising from it. Then, just this past weekend, the UMass-Amherst College Democrats chapter apologized to Morse, and a super PAC that supports Neal pulled an ad that was criticized as an antigay dog whistle. The Democratic Party of Massachusetts will investigate the whole matter once the primary is over.

But first there’s the primary to get through. Recent polling shows Morse within five percentage points of Neal, so anything can happen. “I feel the momentum and the energy,” he says. “We’ve been criss-crossing the district all weekend for [get out the vote] and stop after stop, the people are ready for change. They are ready for a representative that shows up, listens, and will go to Washington to fight for everyday people.” 

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