Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse: ‘I have never violated UMass policy’

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Staff Writer
Published: 8/10/2020 6:48:46 PM

HOLYOKE — Mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse is defending himself against allegations that he engaged in inappropriate behavior with college students.

In a two-page statement released Sunday evening, Morse, 31, responded to a story published Friday in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian — the University of Massachusetts Amherst student newspaper — that accused him of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain.” Morse, who has been a lecturer at UMass Amherst, rejected the allegations that he abused his power, stating that he would continue his campaign to unseat longtime U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield.

“I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual sexual encounter with anyone,” Morse said. “I have never violated UMass policy. Any claim to the contrary is false. As I’ve acknowledged, I have had consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that I’ve met using dating apps.”

The allegations in question were included in an email that three college Democratic groups sent to Morse and his campaign manager. The message accused Morse of “regularly matching with college students” on dating apps, and of using college Democratic events to meet students and message them on social media “in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status.”

“These behaviors represent a trend that has continued for years,” the email charged, adding that at least one student had sexual encounters with Morse “before finding out that he is a Mayor and a Lecturer at UMass Amherst, and they felt uncomfortable after uncovering this information.”

The students’ email did not specifically accuse Morse of having sexual relations with students in his own classes, which is prohibited by a UMass Amherst policy implemented in 2018.

College Democrats of Massachusetts declined to answer the Gazette’s questions, deferring instead to statements the group has released. Morse did not respond to an interview request.

Morse, who is challenging Neal in the 1st Congressional District, said in his statement that he is confident that a full investigation, which UMass Amherst has launched, will clear his name of any accusations of unethical conduct. He also said he recognized that “some students felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with me.”

“I am sorry for that,” Morse wrote. “This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power. Further, for the past few years, there has been an important conversation underway in this country about power dynamics in romantic or sexual relationships. This conversation is long overdue — and while I never used my power in a problematic way, I understand why the issue would be raised.”

Condemnation

The accusations have generated intense media scrutiny just three weeks before voters in the 1st Congressional District head to the polls on Sept. 1 to decide whether to re-elect Neal, who has held his seat for over three decades, or to elect Morse, who is challenging Neal from the left.

Since the Collegian’s news story broke, some have come out in vocal condemnation of Morse’s alleged conduct.

Holyoke City Councilors Linda Vacon and Michael Sullivan have called for Morse to step down, according to reporting by The Republican, and some supporters have voiced concern with the fact that Morse admitted to having sexual relationships with students at a school where he also taught.

In an email to the Gazette, Vacon — a longtime conservative critic of Morse — said that Morse’s actions raise questions about his conduct as mayor of Holyoke.

“If the Mayor, seen as a role model for young progressives, is able to continue as though nothing wrong has occurred, it will teach the students who have come forth a very chilling lesson: do not challenge the power structure,” Vacon said. “In the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement, inaction will stand out sharply for its hypocrisy.”

Others, however, have come out in support of Morse on social media and elsewhere. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, for example, spent the weekend criticizing the allegations and subsequent news coverage as “puritanical” and fixated on policing the private, consensual lives of other adults.

Holyoke City Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos expressed continued support for Morse’s congressional campaign, saying in a statement that the actions Morse has been accused of are not compelling enough to forget the change that Morse represents for people in the district and country.

“I believe it’s appropriate he acknowledged that he may have made some uncomfortable, and taking responsibility for that seems like the right decision,” Anderson-Burgos said. “That said, it’s hard not to question the timing of this: long enough to have voters digest the news but not long enough for the university to complete an investigation.”

In a statement, UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said that the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which is in charge of the investigation, has not established a timeline for that review. He said that as an adjunct instructor, Morse’s responsibilities included teaching and grading students, and that he would have received the university’s consensual relationships policy as part of his hiring packet.

Endorsements in question

In his statement, Morse said that he was releasing any supporter to rescind their endorsement if they wanted to do so.

One group that has unendorsed Morse is the Sunrise Western Mass Coalition, the local chapters of the environmental justice organization Sunrise Movement that was an early supporter of his bid to defeat Neal, one of Congress’ top recipients of corporate money and the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who has not backed the Green New Deal.

In a statement Monday, the national Sunrise Movement organization announced that it would suspend campaigning for Morse amid the allegations that he placed students and young Democrats in uncomfortable situations “because of his power as an elected official, professor, and rising political star.”

“As a youth movement, we take such allegations seriously and recognize that Alex’s positionality creates a challenging unequal power dynamic,” the organization said.

One of Morse’s biggest local endorsers, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said in a statement that the union’s board is meeting next week and will decide at that time whether or not they wish to rescind their endorsement.

Other groups have already announced their continued support for Morse. The LGBTQ Victory Fund, for example, released a statement saying that the accusations were “timed with the political calendar” and do “a disservice to voters who want a progressive member of Congress but now only have time to make a decision based on vague and anonymous accusations.”

“It is critical the media and others avoid reinforcing tired homophobic tropes or sensationalizing this story because of Alex’s sexual orientation,” the statement says, adding that there were no allegations of non-consent or of anyone underage contacted by Morse. “The media and voters should review the allegations and determine whether a straight candidate would be held to the same scrutiny and standards.”

The College Democrats of Massachusetts said in a statement Sunday that those who made the accusations have not spoken out individually about their personal experiences “because they wish to remain anonymous.” The group said any suggestion that their letter had to do with Morse’s sexuality is disingenuous, noting that those “affected by Mayor Morse’s behavior” helped write the letter and are part of the LGBTQ community.

The group also addressed the fact that it received a $1,000 donation from the Neal campaign, saying that other state politicians have given similar donations and that any suggestion that the letter to Morse was a quid pro quo is “untrue, disingenuous and harmful.”

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 1 for the Democratic primary race, though mail-in ballots are already being cast across the state.

Hampshire County cities and towns in the 1st Congressional District are Easthampton, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg  and Worthington. The district also includes all of Berkshire County, al  l of Hampden County except    for one precinct in Palmer, and parts of Franklin and Worcester counties.

This article has been updated to include comment from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and to clarify that local chapters of the Sunrise Movement have unendorsed Morse, while the national group has stopped campaigning for him.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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