It takes an incredible amount of courage to challenge an incumbent House representative, especially if the person in question is one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. That person happens to be Richard Neal, chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, the chief tax-writing committee in the US.
This is the task that Alex Morse, the young, openly gay mayor of Holyoke, took on. He ran on a populist message, embracing policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. His campaign energised the young people in Massachusetts’s first congressional district, and the mayor seemed to have started building a winning coalition.
Then, at the beginning of August, the UMass Amherst’s student-operated newspaper, The Daily Collegian, published a letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts which disavowed their groups from Morse, alleging that the mayor used his ‘position of power for romantic or sexual gain’. In short, they accused the progressive challenger of having inappropriate sexual encounters with college students.
These are serious accusations which have ended the careers of many politicians. However, upon further investigation, these attacks turned out to be nothing more than cheap homophobic smears, the sole goal of which was to shift the focus of the race from Neal’s corruption and perceived failure to deliver for his constituents to Alex Morse’s sex life.
To begin with, the accusations were so vague that it was impossible to immediately point to the misconduct. The three issues mentioned in the letter were that Morse used dating apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, to match up with students ‘as young as 18 years old’; that he attended College Democrats events after which he added students on Instagram, then adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and messaging them; and that he had sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he used to teach. None of these actions is illegal, morally objectionable, or scandalous.
As far as the first issue is concerned, there is no mention of when that ‘shocking’ event took place. Morse was elected the mayor of Holyoke when he was 21 years old, which made him one of the first openly gay mayors in Massachusetts. He is currently 31 years old and in his fourth term. His using online apps as a single man to find dates, whether they be romantic, sexual, or otherwise, with adults is hardly surprising.
In order for this accusation to work, the reader ought to remember Morse’s sexuality. Thus, the old homophobic trope of the prowling gay man going after young, innocent boys is being invoked by the College Democrats with exceptional veracity and strength. This device is adopted once more in the third cited instance of Morse’s alleged misconduct. UMass Amherst prohibits sexual relationships only between teaching staff and students enrolled in that lecturer’s courses. Otherwise, lecturers and students are free to do whatever they wish.
Morse became an adjunct professor, teaching one course a term, at UMass Amherst in 2014, when he was 25 years old, and taught his last class in 2019. In a statement, he admitted to having had consensual sex with students but never with those he had taught. Therefore, he did nothing wrong, apart from being sexually interested in men in his own age group.
The other accusation, that he added students whom he had met at College Democrats events, is utterly ludicrous. He is a politician seeking a national office, and, as such, he needs to forge as many connections and relationships with local communities as possible. Instagram is a free, useful channel which allows that to happen. The only released messages between Morse and a member of the College Democrats reveal nothing more than an exchange of pleasantries and the malevolent intent on the part of the student, Andrew Abramson, whose goal was to ‘sink [Morse’s] campaign’. Yet, Abramson’s very action poses the actual question, ‘What are the reasons behind his intent?’.
The Intercept investigated this story in a series of articles exposing the College Democrats and two figures amongst their leadership, namely Andrew Abramson and Timothy Ennis. The latter completed a journalism course taught by Richard Neal, and he hoped that he would be able to secure an internship with Neal, which might be the first step towards his political career. Thus, Morse’s defeat was in Ennis’s own personal interest. Ennis appears to have used the infrastructure of the College Democrats to attack Morse’s character in every possible way.
Daniel Boguslaw, Ryan Grim, and Eoin Higgins from The Intercept have written articles about this case showing Ennis’s vested interest in Neal’s triumph, that this smear campaign had been planned for a year prior to the publication of the letter signed by the College Democrats, that this story had been unsuccessfully pitched to major national news outlets like Politico, and that the local media was quick to spread the allegations against Morse, but stopped following the story once the details around it became known. Furthermore, it appears that the Democratic Party of Massachusetts was aware of what the College Democrats were planning. Hence, every piece of evidence points to the attacks on Morse being a well-coordinated smear campaign, with the aim to destroy his chances of winning the primary, because Richard Neal is ‘too big to fail’.
In the end, he did not fail. The primary election was held on the 1st September, resulting in Richard Neal’s comfortable victory over Alex Morse. The oldest homophobic trope available has been used by the Democrats in Massachusetts and it has worked. It appears that gay figures like Pete Buttigieg, who is a married vapid politician who stands for nothing, are acceptable and worthy of media praise, whereas a single gay man doing nothing more than what other single people do, a man who has beliefs and principles, is deviant, problematic, and not suited for Congress.
In the spirit of fairness, it must be noted that it is barely surprising that the corporate Democrats used every possible means to defeat the figure defying the established ways of interpreting and wielding power, even if that meant the stereotyping of a single gay man. However, the reactions from supposedly progressive individuals and organisations, from Jamaal Bowman to the Sunrise Movement, who supported Morse then quickly rescinded their endorsements following the vague allegations of his ‘misconduct’, and then re-endorsed him again, have shown how easily manipulated the left is.
The progressives may have the popular policies, yet their understanding of power, how it functions, and how it can be grasped is still lacking. They have to figure out a way of building coalitions, showing solidarity with, and courage to support, the candidates who represent their policies and principles. Until that takes place, the progressives will be destined to limited success within the Democratic party, without effecting any systemic change.
Nevertheless, Alex Morse, whose sex life was under public scrutiny for almost a month, ought not to despair, as the congressional seat in MA-01 is still winnable. Cori Bush, who had suffered a similar loss to Lacy Clay in 2018, was able to defeat him earlier this year. If he increases his visibility in the district in the following two years and is able to come across as sincere, honest, and open about his personal life and career, he will have a real chance to win against Neal, whose weaknesses have already been exposed. But the left needs to be with him every step of the way, otherwise, as it has been demonstrated, the Democratic party machine will stop at nothing to remain in power.