Alex Morse optimistic about party wing after defeat

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  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks to the news media in Holyoke after his concession speech Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/4/2020 3:48:35 PM

HOLYOKE — Not long after polls closed Tuesday in the 1st Congressional District, Mayor Alex Morse experienced a personal first: electoral defeat.

You would never know it from Morse’s tone during his concession speech though, which felt as much like a rally as any event he has held since announcing his candidacy in July 2019. In an interview Thursday, Morse had the same defiantly optimistic tone, despite losing in the Democratic primary to longtime incumbent Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who won 59% of the vote en route to a 17th term in office.

“I think in many ways we still won,” Morse said. “I believe we’ve built a lasting movement here in the district that will last for years to come.”

As for whether that movement will include another run against Neal again in 2022, Morse said that it was “certainly not off the table.” He declined to say definitely what his political plans are, however. Asked whether he would run for a fifth mayoral term in November 2021, Morse was vague.

“I think folks should assume I’m running again until I announce otherwise,” he said.

Morse’s bid to unseat Neal mirrored other races across the country with incumbents facing challenges from their left. Neal, who chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee, received endorsements from establishment figures including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whereas Morse was backed by progressive groups including Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement.

The race attracted a staggering $3.4 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Outside groups spent $1.9 million supporting Neal or opposing Morse, with the super PAC American Working Families spending $1 million and the American Hospital Association spending nearly $500,000. Groups backing Morse or opposing Neal, meanwhile, spent $1.5 million, including $710,000 by Justice Democrats and $379,244 by Indivisible Action.

But Morse was heavily outspent by Neal, the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the U.S. House. Neal’s campaign committee began the year with $4.5 million in his war chest, and by Aug. 12 his campaign had already spent that same amount on the election, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Morse, who raised his money from individual donors, had spent $1 million by Aug. 12, FEC filings show. The public won’t know how much each candidate raised and spent in the final weeks of the election until both campaigns file their next quarterly FEC report, which is due Oct. 15.

On the campaign trail, Morse tried to make Neal’s corporate benefactors a central issue. But Neal’s primary opponent from 2018, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, suggested that issue didn’t change voters’ minds when she ran.

“For many voters, his fundraising record simply does not matter,” she said on Twitter. “Voters’ familiarity and fondness for him means a whole lot.”

Because of the money and name recognition that powerful incumbents can wield, candidates like Morse often rely on strategies like door knocking and meeting voters in more intimate settings like living rooms and coffee shops. But Morse noted that the COVID-19 pandemic deprived his campaign of those tactics for a long period.

“That’s how I got elected as mayor,” Morse said. “And it was something we couldn’t do for months.”

The race also took an unexpected turn on Aug. 7. That’s when the University of Massachusetts Amherst student newspaper, The Massachusetts Daily Hampshire Collegian, published an unbylined story that contained anonymous accusations, written by several college Democrat groups, that Morse used his “position of power” as a Democratic politician and lecturer at the university to pursue sexual relationships with college students.

However, those allegations came under scrutiny, and both the university and the state Democratic Party are conducting investigations. In an email to Democratic State Committee members Thursday, the state party named former state senator Cheryl Jacques to lead a review of party leaders’ involvement in the allegations and whether they violated any party rules. The UMass Amherst Democrats have also apologized for any homophobic attacks that Morse may have suffered as a result of a letter they sent to him outlining the allegations, which they said they intended to keep private.

Morse said he feels the episode significantly damaged his campaign. American Working Families, the Neal-allied super PAC, ran a T.V. ad explicitly referencing the vague accusations in the final days before the primary.

“It took Congressman Neal millions of dollars and a manufactured scandal to be reelected,” he said, adding that the negative press came right as mail-in voting was getting underway in the state. Morse said his campaign lost mail-in voting to Neal, but fared much better with in-person voting. “Despite that, we got over 40% of the vote.”

Morse said that he felt many local news media outlets failed to responsibly cover the College Democrats story by devoting extensive coverage to the anonymous accusations but little attention to later reports, such from the online news outlet The Intercept, which raisedquestions about whether the allegations were part of a coordinated smear campaign against Morse by college students and party leaders.

Even if he does decide to run for mayor or Congress again, Morse’s political future is unknown. He lost on Tuesday in his home city, a result that comes after he and most of Holyoke’s other elected officials suffered an election-night loss in November 2019: the landslide defeat of a ballot question they supported to bond for two new middle schools.

In Holyoke on Tuesday, Neal won after racking up big vote totals in Wards 3, 5 and 7 — areas representing some of the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. These wards, together with Ward 6, voted in large numbers against the schools ballot question.

Morse, meanwhile, won Wards 1, 2 and 4 on Tuesday, representing the downtown, Churchill, South Holyoke, Flats, Springdale and Ingleside neighborhoods. Those three wards — where much of the city’s Latino population is concentrated — had the lowest voter turnout in the city on Tuesday. Morse edged Neal by 15 votes in Ward 6.

Despite the results, the Democratic party’s left wasn’t entirely defeated in the 1st Congressional District on Tuesday. In more local races, progressive candidates Adam Gomez and Pat Duffy were elected over more conservative Democrats for one of Springfield’s state Senate seats and Holyoke’s state House seat, respectively.

Morse said it’s clear what direction the political winds are blowing: at the back of the movements that supported his campaign.

“The movement is on our side,” he said. “I think we’re winning the ideas, the movement is growing and I think the agenda is sharpening in the Democratic Party.”

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