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Editorial: Morse vs. Neal to offer a lively campaign for Congress

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. gazette staff/Carol Lollis

Published: 7/25/2019 7:00:24 PM

After weeks of rumors and rumblings in the news, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse made it official Monday when he announced his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the state’s longest serving representative in Congress, in next year’s Democratic primary.

And on Tuesday, another candidate emerged when Republican John Cain, a former Navy officer and small business owner from Southwick, made public his plans to run against Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has been in Congress since 1989.

The double-barreled announcements mean it’s game on in the sprawling 1st Congressional District, which covers 87 cities and towns in Hampden and Berkshire counties and the western Hilltowns of Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Speaking from the Unicorn Inn in downtown Holyoke Monday night, Morse, 30, told a crowd of supporters that he was inspired to run by “a progressive class of Democrats that have taken on the establishment.”

He has set an early tone for what we expect will be a long and fascinating primary race, taking jabs at Neal for representing the “status quo” and, as the young mayor said, for being resigned to “low expectations for what government can do for people.”

Neal’s campaign issued a statement Monday welcoming the competition. “We are fortunate to live in a country where everyone can have his or her voice heard by running for office, and that’s why Congressman Neal will welcome anyone into this race,” the statement read.

Like Neal, we welcome Morse’s bid for Congress. Why? Because it will refire debate about pressing local and national issues that emerged but were cut short when Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud ran unsuccessfully against Neal in last year’s Democratic primary. Prior to Amatul-Wadud’s bid, Neal’s last primary challenge had been in 2012, when he defeated former state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo and writer Bill Shein.

The generational gap between Morse and Neal cannot be ignored. Morse was elected mayor in Holyoke in 2012 at age 22 and is one of the state’s first openly gay mayors. A Holyoke native and the son of working-class parents, he holds a degree from Brown University and announced his candidacy for mayor while still a student there. He was born the year that Neal, 70, a former mayor of Springfield, began serving in the House.

Like Amatul-Wadud, Morse has already made campaign finance an issue, vowing not to accept money from corporations or political action committees, distancing himself from Neal, who is one of the top recipients of corporate PAC money in Congress and has $4 million in his campaign coffers.

Morse knows he will need a lot of money if he stands any chance in this race, and that is likely why he has entered the race at a such an early stage. Neal spent $2.5 million from the beginning of 2017 to the run up of the Democratic primary last year, compared to less than $100,000 spent by Amatul-Wadud’s campaign. Morse said he plans to raise $1 million this year and an additional $2 million in 2020 from individual donors.

He also will need to make major inroads in areas where Neal has a stranglehold on votes and where his last challenger failed to win much support. Expect the battlegrounds in this race to be played out more in Hampden and Berkshire counties, where Neal has historically crushed his competition. Neal beat Amatul-Wadud by margins of 9,065 to 2,816 in Springfield, 4,803 to 1,603 in Pittsfield, 3,358 to 743 in Chicopee, and by 13,645 to 5,643 across Berkshire County.

When he ran for his 15th consecutive reelection victory last year, Neal, who today is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, focused on issues his campaign said constituents care most about: fairer taxes, universal health care, defending Social Security and Medicare, good-paying jobs, combating the opioid epidemic and reuniting families separated at the border. Neal helped write the Affordable Care Act.

In Holyoke, Morse has cited his efforts leading an “economic rebirth” on issues of affordable housing, defense of reproductive rights, community policing initiatives, and a needle exchange program he helped implement in the city. He said that unlike Neal, he supports policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. He said his youth gives him a different way at looking how government can work and that he wants to “change how Washington works.”

Voters in the 1st Congressional District have the next 14 months to decide whether they want change in Washington or not when they go to the polls Sept. 15, 2020. As it plays out across western Massachusetts, we look forward to a spirited and substantive Democratic primary election campaign from Neal, Morse and any other candidates who may emerge.

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