Alex Morse, Richard Neal clash on issues in final debate

  • Incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and his challenger for the 1st Congressional District seat, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, debate Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. SCREENSHOT/WWLP-22News

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2020 11:19:07 PM
Modified: 8/20/2020 11:18:55 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Things got spicy Thursday night between the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. House seat in the 1st Congressional District, who debated for the last time before the election.

Longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and his challenger, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, clashed on the issues of racism, the federal government’s coronavirus response, the opioid epidemic, climate change, the economy and more. Moderator Rich Tettemer of WWLP-22News, which hosted the event, called the debate “the most emotional and passionate and informative debate I’ve ever done.”

On the subject of racist inequality in health care, Neal touted his endorsement by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia. He also pointed to a line of criticism he returned to frequently over the debate: that Morse said he would have voted against the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, which Neal helped write.

“The substance of that proposal addressed those very issues of racial and income inequality by making sure everybody had access to those hospitals,” Neal said.

Morse has taken issue with the legislation as a bailout of Wall Street with insufficient assistance for working people. He said Thursday that the bill “did not meet the moment, it did not bail out the American people.” Addressing the question about structural racism in health care, he pointed to Springfield’s status as the asthma capital of the country.

“I don’t know how, congressman, you can be proud of outcomes in this district,” Morse said. “That African American women in this district and in the city of Springfield have a life expectancy 20 years less than their white counterparts just a few blocks up.”

Tettemer asked the two Democrats what they had learned from recent protests against racism and police brutality. 

Morse said he has worked with his police department to hire a more diverse group of officers and to train in implicit bias and de-escalation. He said that if elected, he would fight to repeal cash bail and qualified immunity, and pointed to his act making Holyoke a sanctuary city in 2014.

Neal pointed to legislation the U.S. House passed eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement. He said the House set aside money to reward police departments that take up structural reforms, hire more social workers and focusing on what Neal described as paramount: “de-escalating the confrontation.”

Neal attacked Morse over his sanctuary city comment, accusing Morse of only taking in six refugees last year in Holyoke. Morse noted that Neal’s close ally is Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who attempted to evict an undocumented immigrant seeking refuge in a city church in 2018 and vetoed a sanctuary city ordinance.

Morse, too, returned frequently to a familiar criticism: Neal’s status as the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the entire U.S. Congress. He called Neal “bought and paid for by corporations’ interests.” On the topic of the opioid epidemic, he noted Neal's campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies. And on Neal's failure to support the Green New Deal , he noted the money Neal has received from the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to attacking Morse over his opposition to parts of the CARES Act, Neal also sought to paint Morse as a mayor who skips School Committee, Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and other meetings. 

Neal's message throughout the night focused on the legislation he passed throughout his career. He highlighted his efforts on the Affordable Care Act, coronavirus relief and direct federal assistance to local institutions like Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Medical Center and Union Station. 

“The mayor makes these arguments that it’s not legislative activity — what is it, hold a press conference — that changes our lives? Going to a demonstration that changes our lives?” Neal asked. “You can shape that narrative, but it is still legislation that makes the change.”

Morse’s pitch was that Neal doesn't understand the urgency of the current moment, such as his opposition to bold climate change legislation. He said Neal talks about "what we can't do, what we can't afford,” describing Neal’s approach as “a tax credit here, a tax credit there, a small grant here, a small grant there.”

“Congressman Neal thinks that change happens from the top down,” he said. “I happen to believe that change happens from the bottom up. Organizing, listening to you.”

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 1, though mail-in voting is underway in the state already. The deadline to register to vote is this Saturday, Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. Early voting will take place Aug. 22 through Aug. 28.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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