Holyoke mayor to challenge Neal for congressional seat 

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, front, speaks during a protest of president-elect Donald Trump's policies at Kennedy Park in Holyoke on November 19, 2016. FILE PHOTO

  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse talk to children at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2019 8:32:45 AM

HOLYOKE — It’s official: U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, has a 2020 challenger for his seat in the 1st Congressional District.

After months of speculation about his political plans, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse officially jumped into the race on Monday. He will take on Neal, who has been in Congress since 1989, when Democratic primary voters head to the polls on Sept. 15, 2020.

“I think there’s an urgency to this moment that isn’t matched by our current representative in Congress,” Morse said in a phone interview Monday morning.

When Morse, 30, was first sworn in as mayor of his hometown of Holyoke in 2012, he was both the youngest-ever mayor in the city at 22 and its first openly gay mayor. Born to working-class parents who met in one of Holyoke's public housing projects, Morse was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He was a senior at Brown University when he first announced his mayoral candidacy.

Neal, 70, is one of the most influential members of Congress, where he chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee that writes tax law. He has held his seat for 30 years, making him the dean of the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House. Before serving in Congress, he served as a city councilor and later as mayor in Springfield.

Neal’s campaign manager, Peter Panos, said that the congressman was not available for an interview on Monday, though he did issue a statement on behalf of Neal’s campaign.

“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 reads. “Richie has been a champion for working families in western Massachusetts and has fought tirelessly to ensure that the people of our region are not forgotten and receive our fair share.”

On his campaign website, Morse touted his efforts leading an “economic rebirth” in Holyoke, his work on the issue of affordable housing, his defense of reproductive rights, community policing initiatives and a needle exchange program he helped implement in the city.

Speaking to the Gazette, Morse sought to distinguish himself from what he described as the “status quo” represented by Neal, which he said the district can no longer afford to support. He said that unlike Neal, he supports progressive policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. 

There is a significant generational gap between the two candidates, with 40 years separating them in age. Morse said that his youth gives him a different way of looking at how government can work.

“Congressman Neal certainly knows how Washington works, and I want to change how Washington works,” Morse said. He added that the district doesn’t need just any Democrat, but one that will push for bold policies. “After serving 30 years in the position, you become resigned to these low expectations of what government can do for people.”

Morse has announced that he will not accept corporate PAC money, instead relying on grassroots funding from individual donors. He contrasted that approach with Neal, who is one of the top recipients of corporate PAC money in Congress, including significant contributions from the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

“We have people that are struggling to get health insurance in western Massachusetts,” Morse said. “Those that have health insurance are often underinsured … It’s important that we have a member of Congress that puts people before pharmaceutical industry profits.”

As a top fundraiser in the party, Neal’s campaign committee is sitting on almost $4 million in cash on hand. In 2018, Neal defeated progressive challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud in the district’s Democratic primary, heavily outspending Amatul-Wadud and winning around 70 percent of the vote.

Morse’s campaign said that he hopes to raise $1 million in 2019, and an additional $2 million in 2020.

Morse said that he plans to knock on doors across the 1st District. He said that to defeat Neal, his campaign will have to “expand the universe” of primary voters by turning out residents of the district who might otherwise sit out a primary election.

“We’re going to run a different kind of campaign — a campaign that I don’t think this district has seen,” Morse said. That’s one of the main reasons he has announced his campaign around 14 months ahead of election day, he added.

Morse said he has reached out to local elected officials, community leaders and activists to let them know of his plans to run. But he stressed that it is not the support of elected officials that he is focused on.

“This campaign will not be won with endorsements from elected officials or national groups,” Morse said. “The most important endorsement we can get is from the people of the district.”

The sprawling 1st District consists of 87 communities in five counties, including the Hampshire County municipalities of Chesterfield, Cummington, Easthampton, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

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


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