Was Morse conduct story pushed? Some question motives

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse announces the cancellation of the Holyoke St. Patrick's Day Parade and Road Race due to public health concerns related to the coronavirus on Tuesday, March 10. Don Treeger

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2020 6:56:45 PM

HOLYOKE — Two investigations are in the works as new details emerge about the motivation behind allegations of inappropriate behavior that college Democrats leveled against congressional candidate Alex Morse. Those questions come amid reporting that the allegations were a ploy to sink Morse’s campaign.

The race for the 1st Congressional District seat between longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and Morse had already been under the national spotlight as an example of a powerful Democratic establishment figure facing a tough challenge from the left. Morse had received the backing of many progressive groups, including Justice Democrats and MoveOn, while Neal had pulled in endorsements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democratic leaders.

But the race took a turn last Friday when The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where both Morse and Neal have taught, published an unbylined story that contained allegations from three college Democratic groups that Morse used his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students.”

Since then, Morse has said that he’s had consensual relationships with local college students he met using dating apps, though he has denied having any sexual encounters with his own students or anyone he met at a College Democrats event. He has said he’s sorry if he made anyone uncomfortable, but told the Gazette he would not apologize for “being young and openly gay and single and engaging in consensual activity with other men.”

In yet another twist, the left-leaning investigative news outlet The Intercept published a series of stories that question those anonymous and unspecific accusations — and whether state Democratic Party leaders were behind them as an attack to damage Morse and his campaign.

Now, the state Democratic party has said it plans to launch an independent review of the actions and decisions that led to the release of the College Democrats of Massachusetts letter. And UMass Amherst has retained Natashia Tidwell, a partner at the Boston law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, to conduct an independent review of Morse’s alleged conduct and whether it created a “hostile learning environment.”

An Intercept story earlier this week published leaked chats that the outlet said were sent by two UMass Amherst College Democrats leaders, one of whom purportedly said he wanted to get an internship with Neal. The messages appear to show an attempt to stir up a scandal and use it to attack Morse. Then, on Friday, The Intercept published another story that it said showed state Democratic Party leaders coordinated the effort to have the College Democrats of Massachusetts, or CDMA, make its allegations public.

That story — based on five unnamed sources connected to the state party and CDMA, as well as messages The Intercept did not publish between leadership of those two organizations and call records — alleges that state party leaders connected CDMA with attorney Jim Roosevelt, a major player in the state and national Democratic Party. The article says Roosevelt, the former CEO of the health insurance company Tufts Health Plan, played a role in making the College Democrats’ letter public.

In a statement, state Democratic Party communications manager Allison Mitchell told the Gazette that the party “was made aware of concerns of several members of organizations connected to the Party.”

“We referred the individuals expressing these concerns to an attorney who volunteers as legal counsel to the Party, and we had no further involvement,” Mitchell said, without naming the lawyer. “We absolutely do not get involved in contested primaries, and this race is no different.”

Gus Bickford, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, echoed that sentiment is a statement of his own.

“We are committed to initiating an independent review of the actions and decisions that led to the release of the letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts,” Bickford said. “I am confident that this review will show that Party staff acted appropriately.”

Morse has questioned whether the Neal campaign had anything to do with the allegations, and he and others have said the accusations traffic in homophobic stereotypes. Neal and his campaign have strongly denied any involvement.

“I learned about the allegations against Mayor Morse the same way everyone else did, in the Daily Collegian last week,” Neal said in a statement, stressing that he has been focused on the issues. “I also want to be clear I will not tolerate my name being associated with any homophobic attacks or efforts to criticize someone for who they choose to love. That’s inconsistent with my character and my values.”

Morse has said the accusations have made for a difficult week for himself and his family. The media attention seems to have bolstered his campaign, however, as many progressive groups rally to his side. In the past week, his campaign said that it has raised some $257,000 from more than 7,500 donations, beating a previous best of $110,000 in a week. The campaign also said 442 new volunteers have signed up since Aug. 7.

Morse and Neal are scheduled to debate Monday at 7 p.m. on New England Public Media WGBY TV. The debate will be on TV channel 57 and will be broadcast on the radio at 88.5 FM and online at nepm.org.

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