Neal, Morse spar in first debate 

  • On the left, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, listens as his challenger in the 1st Congressional District, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, speaks during a debate on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. SCREENSHOT/NEPM

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2020 11:36:34 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, sparred on the issues Monday during their first debate in the race for the 1st Congressional District U.S. House seat.

The two candidates touched on everything from military spending and police reform to rural broadband and health care. Morse hit Neal with criticism of his relationships to big business as the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the House, while Neal frequently condemned Morse’s poor attendance record at School Committee and other meetings. The debate was hosted by New England Public Media WGBY, which experienced technical difficulties during the online broadcast of the debate. It was also broadcast on television and radio.

The debate came after more than a week of headlines about a group of college Democratic groups disinviting Morse from their events after alleging he used his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students” at the University of Massachusetts where he has taught. Those accusations have been called into question by reporting from The Intercept, indicating that there may have been an effort to smear Morse with possible involvement of state Democratic Party leaders. Multiple investigations are underway into those allegations.

The scandal was just a small part of the debate, though it was the topic of the night’s first question for the candidates. Morse said he never wanted to make anybody feel uncomfortable. But he also called the story a “backroom, coordinated smear” by people who support Neal.

“This is exactly what turns people away from politics,” Morse said.

Neal responded that he had nothing to do with the accusations, and that homophobia, misogyny and racism have no place in his campaign. He also noted that the University of Massachusetts Amherst has hired an independent investigator to look into the matter.

“I don’t even know the names of the students who have stepped forward,” Neal said. “There is a process in place, an investigator has been hired, and the review will shortly be underway. I think these students should be heard.”

Much of the case Neal made for reelection was his role in writing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. He pointed to $400 million included in the bill for hospitals and the extra $600 weekly in unemployment benefits that out-of-work Americans have received until recently.

“Mayor Morse said he would have voted against the CARES Act,” Neal said, noting only five representatives voted against the bill.

Morse responded that he is seeing people go hungry in the district. He said the federal government’s one-time $1,200 payment to people wasn’t enough, noting that when schools closed, cities like Holyoke passed out thousands of meals to families.

“Congressman Neal helped craft legislation that created a $500 billion slush fund for corporations,” Morse said, referring to part of the aid package. “Why go to Washington if you’re not going to use your power for the people of this district?”

Morse has backed a single-payer health care system, Medicare for All, which Neal has opposed. When asked about funding such a large program, Morse said health care needs to be seen as a human right and not something that only those with money can access.

“We as a country and a government have allowed for the private sector to profit hundreds of billions of dollars off of people’s sickness,” Morse said, pointing out that Neal has taken large campaign donations from the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. “And we have a congressman that didn’t even let members of committee talk about Medicare for All.”

Neal steered the conversation toward Morse’s attendance record at the Holyoke School Committee, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and other meetings.

“He talks about all of these things he’s going to do,” Neal said. “He missed 28 of 62 meetings of the Holyoke School Committee as the schools fell into receivership … If you were a real progressive, you would have cared about those children in the Holyoke Public Schools.”

When asked about his status as the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the House, Neal said he has supported “every campaign finance reform piece of legislation that has come down the road.” He also said the millions he has raised went to electing Democrats across the country.

“If you contribute to my campaign, you buy into my agenda. I’m not buying into yours,” Neal said. “I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’ve built a durable, extended Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and supported a cross current of candidates throughout America.”

Morse pointed out that he has not taken any corporate PAC money.

“Do we want a member of Congress that is bought and paid for by corporations, by big pharma, by the fossil fuel industry, by the big health care lobby?” Morse asked. “Or do we want a member of congress that is unbought and going to Washington to fight for everyday people?”

Military spending and America’s massive defense budget were another topic of debate, with moderators asking Morse about his desire to cut military spending given the many local jobs dependent on the defense industry. Morse asked why there always is money for war and bombs, but not for such things as housing for veterans.

“I want to make sure we protect those jobs,” Morse said. “I’m talking about the hundreds of unnecessary bases and investments, the unnecessary wars, the unnecessary interventions that a disastrous American foreign policy has gotten us into over the last several decades.”

Neal said that Morse was asking to cut defense spending everywhere but in the 1st Congressional District. Much secondary economic activity is generated by military spending in the district, he noted.

“This is typical of something the mayor would say: Let’s cut the defense budget someplace else,” Neal said. ‘That’s the easy way, that’s the handoff.”

Moderators asked tough questions of Morse about a $65,000 settlement Holyoke paid in a police brutality case from 2014 that involved the beating of a 12-year-old boy. Morse said he would work to end cash bail and qualified immunity for police officers if elected, pointing also to Neal’s vote in favor of the controversial 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Neal faced his own tough questions over his role as Ways and Means chairman, which allowed him to request Donald Trump’s tax returns. Neal was slow to initiate that process, to the frustration of those seeking more oversight of the president. Neal said he didn’t want to “screw this case up” and followed the advice of lawyers to bring a strong legal case for securing those tax returns.

A big issue that divides the candidates is their stances on the Green New Deal, the landmark proposal to tackle climate change and economic inequality. Morse backs the Green New Deal, whereas Neal is the only member of the state’s congressional delegation not to sign on in support.

On a question about their support for a cleanup plan of the Housatonic River that includes a PCB landfill, Neal supports that plan, whereas Morse opposes it.

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 1, though mail-in voting is already well underway in the Democratic primary.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at


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