Editorial: Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is best bet to bring change to Washington

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks during an inaugural ceremony for City Council and School Committee members in the Holyoke City Hall auditorium on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.   GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, left, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. GAZETTE FILE PHOTOS

Published: 8/27/2020 2:29:06 PM

Bernie Sanders may never be president, but the Vermont senator’s progressive base has been making their voices heard by electing younger, more diverse, grassroots candidates in congressional primary races across the country, from Missouri to New York.

Meanwhile, closer to home in a race now in the national spotlight, 31-year-old Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is determined to unseat 71-year-old incumbent Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, for control of the 1st Congressional District. After Missouri progressive activist Cori Bush ousted Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. earlier this month, Morse’s campaign email-blasted a memo with the subject line “Why Richard Neal Is Next.”

A lot has happened since then — most notably, a political scandal that the openly gay mayor has called a “backroom, coordinated smear” against him by Neal supporters. (Neal has denied any involvement.) On Aug. 7, the University of Massachusetts Amherst student newspaper Daily Collegian reported that a group of college Democratic groups disinvited Morse from their events after alleging he used his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students” at UMass, where he has taught as a lecturer.

We could debate the ethics of college professors having sexual relationships with students (Morse insists those relationships were consensual and not with students he was teaching), and we will follow the investigations into those allegations underway at UMass and within the state Democratic Party. But with the primary fast approaching this Tuesday, we must put aside questions that are currently unanswerable and focus on the urgent one at hand: Who is the candidate most likely to bring change to Washington?

For this editorial board, the answer has become evident after meeting with Morse (Neal never made himself available, even after multiple requests), watching the tense televised debates between the two candidates and reporting on their respective campaigns and careers.

Echoing common criticisms of Neal, Morse has called out the congressman’s absenteeism from parts of the district, decried his ties to big business as the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the House and denounced his refusal to support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, the landmark proposal to tackle climate change and economic inequality. Neal is the only member of the state’s congressional delegation who hasn’t signed on. The congressman instead supports protecting and improving the Affordable Care Act, which he helped create, and backs the Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now (GREEN) Act, which builds on tax incentives promoting green energy and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Neal, meanwhile, has painted Morse as an all-talk, amateur politician who confuses attending press conferences and demonstrations with taking decisive legislative action. In their first debate, he called out Morse’s poor attendance record at School Committee, Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and other city meetings and criticized the mayor over his opposition to parts of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, which the congressman helped write. Morse retorted that federal stimulus checks of $1,200 aren’t nearly enough to pull people out of poverty, especially when “Congressman Neal helped craft legislation that created a $500 billion slush fund for corporations.”

“Do we want a member of Congress that is bought and paid for by corporations, by big pharma, by the fossil fuel industry, by the big health care lobby?” Morse pressed. “Or do we want a member of Congress that is unbought and going to Washington to fight for everyday people?”

Neal hasn’t had to fight like this since the early 1990s; he easily beat his 2018 primary opponent, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, with a 70% majority of the vote. But 2020 is different. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter, a financial crisis, broken health care and criminal justice systems and corruption at the highest levels of government are threatening our very survival as a nation and giving urgency to the current moment — one that must usher in structural and systemic change.

Morse has become a poster boy for the progressive cause in recent weeks, but he must also face the damage done by his city’s police department early in his tenure as mayor. The city recently settled a $65,000 civil rights lawsuit that accused police of beating a 12-year-old Latino boy unconscious in 2014 after he tried to stop a neighbor from taking his life. Following reports about the case in the Gazette, Haydenville journalist and author David Daley wrote about it in a Boston Globe opinion piece titled, “What did Mayor Alex Morse do when Holyoke police beat a 12-year-old boy?” The answer: not nearly enough. “According to court documents, officers faced no discipline at all,” Daley writes, noting that “police flouted regulations, failed to file mandated use-of-force reports, and spun a narrative debunked by medical records … in his own deposition, the chief said that he never delivered a report to Morse about officers’ use of force because the mayor never asked for one.”

Questioned about the case during his meeting with the Gazette, Morse said, “I want to be honest, I wish it never happened.” But it did happen — and on his watch.

Morse instead emphasized his record of “demilitarizing the police department” and diversifying the force to look more like the communities it’s meant to serve, noting that no officer has fired a shot during his time as mayor.

“We should all strive to be police abolitionists and imagine a world where police departments, as we know it, aren’t needed,” he said. “We’re not there yet, and we should work for that over time, but that requires investments in things that actually lift people up and give people opportunities.”

Morse is far from a perfect candidate, but he shows a willingness to learn from his mistakes — and to admit them — a quality we’d like to see more of in Washington. “Like the people of this district, I’m human,” he told the Gazette soon after the anonymous allegations against him emerged. “This campaign and these attacks are more than just about me … This campaign is bigger than me, this campaign is bigger than Congressman Neal.”

This Tuesday, we urge residents of the 1st Congressional District to vote not just for a man but for a movement. Western Mass is ready to send a message to the capital that we’re done with the status quo — and only one of these candidates can deliver it.

That candidate is Alex Morse.


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