Progressives see shot at ousting another powerful Democratic chairman in Massachusetts primary

For more than a year, the story of Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s challenge to incumbent Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, in the state’s western 1st Congressional District, followed a familiar narrative.

The 31-year-old Morse, backed by Justice Democrats and other leading progressive groups, was taking aim at Neal, 71, over his refusal to embrace “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal and, in his powerful position as the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, more aggressively pursue oversight of the Trump administration. Morse has described Neal as an absentee representative, detached from struggles of his constituents, and a magnet for corporate campaign cash.

By early this month, following a run of insurgent victories over establishment candidates and incumbents, including activist Cori Bush’s unseating of Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri on August 4, Morse’s campaign had become a focal point of the progressive left — a movement that, despite seeing its icon, Sen. Bernie Sanders, fall short in the presidential primary, is poised to enter the next Congress with a larger voting bloc and deeper foothold in the Democratic congressional caucus.

But the Morse campaign’s path took a mighty twist a few weeks ago, when, on August 7, the school newspaper at the University of Massachusetts Amherst published parts of a letter, given to them by a source, written by the Massachusetts College Democrats and delivered to Morse, a day earlier, disinviting him from future events and accusing the gay mayor and former university lecturer of using his positions to leverage sexual or romantic relationships with students, some of whom were made to feel “uncomfortable” by the interactions.

Morse apologized in an email to the College Democrats, stressing that all of his interactions and relationships with students had been consensual, on the same day he received their allegation. The day after the story of the exchange broke, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he’d previously lectured, announced it’d opened a Title IX investigation. That probe, which was handed over to an attorney from a Boston-based law firm, continues.

A campaign that believed it had been gaining ground and momentum ahead of the September 1 primary, appeared — for a few long days — to be on the brink of collapse. Many of Morse’s most prominent supporters, from Justice Democrats to the Sunrise Movement and Indivisible, went silent or announced they would pause their efforts until more information became available.

One notable exception was the Victory Fund, a group that works to elect LGBTQ candidates and has known Morse since around the time he was first elected mayor as a 22-year-old, which almost immediately reaffirmed its nearly year-old endorsement. Because the rumors that ultimately filled the College Democrats’ letter had been floating around for months, the group told CNN it had been able to discuss them with Morse before they became public.

Satisfied by his denial of any misconduct, the Victory Fund, concerned that the allegations would play into homophobic stereotypes, rushed to his defense, while staying in constant contact with indecisive progressive groups.

“For so long, gay men in particular have been branded as pedophiles and sex deviants and all these things that understandably conjure up negative images that no one wants to be associated with,” said Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s communications director. “For us, it was really important that these political attacks against Alex failed, because if they didn’t, it would only set a precedent to use these types of attacks against LGBTQ candidates in the future.”

Untangling the allegations

In the days after the student group’s letter was published, its claims came under greater scrutiny. The Intercept obtained and published messages between students who, before the accusations became public, appeared to be discussing ways to undermine Morse’s candidacy. The site was also first to report that the Massachusetts Democratic Party had been previously alerted to the allegations and referred the organization’s leadership to a prominent Democratic attorney for legal advice.

Gus Bickford, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement that the party was “made aware of concerns” regarding Morse, but declined to get directly involved, instead connecting them with a lawyer “who volunteers as legal counsel to the Party.” That attorney, James Roosevelt Jr., recently told The New York Times he advised the College Democrats to keep their contact with Morse private. Subsequent and repeated efforts by CNN to contact the group and its officials named in the Intercept report were unsuccessful. No students have come forward publicly to allege any wrongdoing against Morse since the initial letter was made public. The party, Bickford added, has since “set up a committee to initiate an independent review of the actions and decisions that led to the release of the letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts.”

Neal’s campaign has denied any connection to the writing or dissemination of the accusations and there is no evidence Neal was aware of, or played any role, in stoking them.

The Morse campaign has since said it was made aware, earlier this year, that accusations similar to those in the letter — which does not mention any names or detail any specific incidents — were being peddled to national news organizations. And in an interview with CNN, Morse, as he’s done in other public forums, said the timing of its publication led him to believe he was the target of “a coordinated smear campaign.”

“There was no evidence, there was no corroboration, there were no folks to go on record,” Morse said. “This was essentially a blog post that was then picked up and amplified by media from local to state to national. It was three weeks before this primary election, (on) a week of incredible momentum after Cori Bush beat Representative Clay, after we had our best fundraising day — the same day we got endorsed by MoveOn and the Working Families Party. It was very clear what that email was when I received it on Thursday morning.”

Morse said his apology email, sent the same day he received the letter, was a simple, “human” response.

“I thought it was important to respond to that email and express regret,” Morse said, “if I have made someone feeling uncomfortable unintentionally.”

If their most recent debate was any indication, both candidates appear eager to move on from litigating the episode. The College Democrats have said they will cooperate with the party’s probe and, in a statement, condemned any homophobic attacks that followed the publication of the allegations.

“I read about it, as everybody else did on a Friday night,” Neal said, when asked about the letter by a debate moderator last Thursday night. “The students then pointed out in a subsequent press release, that what they did was independent of my campaign and my organization. Here’s the point: we had nothing to do with this. The students should be heard. There’s a process in place.”

Morse pressures Neal on campaign cash

With the probes underway, but unlikely to return any definitive conclusions before the primary, Morse has plowed ahead with the renewed support of progressive groups and leaders. Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, among others, have all doubled down on their endorsements and Morse has, over the last week, unveiled new slates of local officials who are now backing his campaign. His fundraising totals are growing, beating old records, new volunteers are signing on, and the race appears to be neck-and-neck coming into the final stretch of campaigning.

On Tuesday afternoon, Morse got another major boost: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, Courage to Change, endorsed his campaign.

“When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took on her own entrenched incumbent in 2018, she changed public service for the better,” Morse said in a statement, “further inspiring me and so many others to fight for our districts and empower those who have long been forgotten.

But Morse allies, enthused by the backlash but still bitten by the incident, say the abrupt pause in outside activity following the letter’s publication cost the campaign and its supporters precious days of messaging before the start of early voting.

“The Morse campaign has done a really good job of turning an incredibly difficult situation into a positive for their campaign,” said Lucy Solomon, political director for Indivisible’s independent expenditure group. “But obviously, a lot of folks on (the independent expenditure) side paused their ads right when the letter came out, to figure out what was really happening here, and so those are missed communications with voters.”

Morse’s case to those voters has, from the beginning of a campaign that began last summer, centered on the question of how Neal has wielded his indisputable power on Capitol Hill. Neal has been criticized, and not only by the party’s progressive wing, for not pursuing President Donald Trump’s tax returns immediately after taking over the Ways and Means Committee at the start of 2019.

His considerable support from corporate PACs — no Democrat has taken more in the 2020 cycle — and, in particular, donations from individuals at Blackstone Group, have led Morse to accuse Neal of blocking or stalling reform efforts aimed at issues like surprise medical billing.

In debates, Neal has denied that his contributors have any effect on his legislative decisions.

“If you contribute to my campaign you buy into my agenda,” Neal said during an exchange last week. “I’m not buying into yours.” He has also pointed to his record of spreading that money around to other Democratic House candidates, arguing that it helped build the party’s majority in Congress.

The left, though, sees Morse’s challenge as an opportunity — as it did in New York, with Jamaal Bowman’s defeat of Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee — to deliver a double blow to the House Democrats’ moderate, establishment infrastructure. House Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, also of New York, narrowly survived her contest, but if Morse can defeat Neal, progressives will have taken down two committee chairs in one summer. The Ways and Means Committee gavel, should Neal be unseated, would be passed to a new chair next year, with Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, considered the favorite.

“Alex Morse is not going to become the Ways and Means chair, Jamaal Bowman didn’t become the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, but we not only picked up a seat, we fundamentally changed the direction of those committees — for decades, potentially,” said Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director.

Doggett, she added, is “not a Justice Democrat, but he is a lot more progressive and actually believes in something like Medicare for All.”

A Morse victory would be a capper on a bittersweet primary season for progressives. Joe Biden’s late surge to the presidential nomination set the movement briefly back on its heels. But subsequent victories for newcomers like Bowman and Bush, and steamrolling performances by members of the “squad” — including Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated her centrist primary challenger by more than 56 percentage points — has guaranteed the movement will be in a position to pressure a potential Biden administration.

The attention and money lavished on the presidential race, first during the primary and now ahead of the general election, opened up a lane for progressives to assert their influence — and direct their energy — toward federal and state legislative races. Morse now has the backing of a coalition of progressive groups, which have rallied around his campaign and helped him compete against one of the best-funded incumbents in the House.

“When it became obvious that Biden was going to be the nominee, we saw a lot of energy and momentum shift to down-ballot progressive campaigns, and our campaign in particular,” Morse said. “With a Biden administration, it’s more important now than ever before that we have more progressive members of Congress to hold his administration accountable, to make progress on health care and climate change and expand the progressive caucus.”

Indivisible, Solomon told CNN, expects to spend $375,000 on Morse by primary day on television, mail and digital ads. Justice Democrats’ independent expenditure arm is on track to eclipse that, a spokesman said, with a projected $500,000 in spending. The group has also raised over $120,000 for the campaign, with an average contribution of $25. Fight Corporate Monopolies, a progressive advocacy group, spent $325,000 on television ads criticizing Neal over his Blackstone ties.

Neal is also receiving considerable outside support. The Democratic Majority for Israel, which has run ads against progressive candidates all year, has spent more than $100,000 attacking Morse. Another group, American Working Families — not to be confused with the Working Families Party, which endorsed Morse — has also now shelled out more than $500,000 opposing the Holyoke mayor.

Neal opens up his war chest

The battle with Morse is Neal’s toughest race in years. In the 2018 primary, he fended off another progressive, Springfield-area lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who finished with 30% of the vote — well off the pace, but enough to put keep Neal and the district on the radar two years later.

In a sign of how seriously Neal is taking the challenge this year, his campaign has plowed nearly $800,000 into broadcast advertising alone through Tuesday — four times what he spent at this point in the 2018 cycle, according to Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The spots include a biographical ad that describes how Neal lost his both parents before graduating from high school and survived with the care of relatives and Social Security benefits. Another features House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, touting the “over $1 billion” she said Neal has delivered for the district.

Candy Glazer, the former chair of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee and a Neal supporter, said the progressive wave that has swept longtime Democrats out of office is unlikely to topple Neal.

Neal, who served as mayor of Springfield in the 1980s, is well-known and liked in the district, said Glazer, a party stalwart in western Massachusetts.

“He’s still the local guy,” she said. “You’ll get a call if someone in your family dies. He’ll be at the wake. It’s still the old grassroots politics.”

“It might be trendy to think that if you have gray hair, that’s a strike against you,” she added. “But in these uncertain times, the need for leadership and experience is even more important.”

Although Neal has served in the US House more than three decades, he represents a sprawling district reshaped after the last US Census. It now encompasses 87 towns, Glazer noted. And it includes all of Berkshire County, which stretches from the Connecticut border north to Vermont.

Morse has worked to make inroads into the Berkshires, a mix of bucolic landscapes, storied arts institutions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and a smattering of former industrial towns.

On an afternoon in early August, just hours before the allegations about his personal life became public, he stumped in Pittsfield, the county’s largest city. He denounced the 2014 closure of an in-patient hospital in North Adams, a former mill town in the northwest corner of the state, and shortages of treatment beds to help communities grappling with opioid addiction.

Pittsfield holds particularly poignant memories for Morse. His older brother, Doug lived — and died — there in February, the final chapter in a long struggle with heroin. When Morse discussed his brother’s death in July ad, accusing the incumbent of “using his power and seniority to fight for the same drug companies that are fueling this (opioid) crisis,” Neal’s campaign responded by accusing him of using the tragedy as a “political football.”

Morse bristled at the suggestion, and during a news conference in Pittsfield, shot back, saying “no one is going to tell me or my father or my brother when we can talk about my brother Doug or invoke my brother Doug’s story.”

“This is personal to us,” Morse said. “And it makes it political to us.”

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