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Neal-Morse Mass. House Primary Pits D.C. Fixture Against Progressive Upstart

A photo of a smiling white man with grey hair and blue eyes in a white shirt, suit jacket and red tie is next to a photo of another younger smiling white man in a white shirt with reddish hair and a blue tie
Richard Neal (L) and Alex Morse (R)

Voters have been voting early and mailing in ballots ahead of the Massachusetts primary Tuesday. WAMC has this recap of the contentious Democratic race in the 1st House district.

The primary pits incumbent Richard Neal against Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke.

Neal, 71, has been in Congress since 1989. Seeking his 17th term, the former mayor of Springfield chairs the powerful House Ways and Means committee. In 2018, he coasted to a primary victory against lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud with over 70% of the vote.

“I think I’ve been an effective member of the Congress, and an advocate for the people of the 1st congressional district from Western to Central Massachusetts," said Neal. "It’s a career that’s been marked by accomplishment upon accomplishment nationally and internationally. I think the whole composure of the district has been influenced by the work that I’ve done in Washington. It’s certainly been a major player on the stage. But also the fact that every weekend – with the exception of four in all the years I’ve been in Congress – I’ve come back home to hear what people have to say.”

Morse became the youngest leader in Holyoke history almost a decade ago. His campaign has focused on Neal’s prodigious campaign support from corporate donors, a commitment to working people, support of the Green New Deal, and other progressive issues.

“I think our country is at an inflection point, our district is at an inflection point similar to the point we were at in Holyoke nine years ago when I first ran for mayor as a 22-year-old," said Morse. "And I think — I acknowledge Congressman Neal has power, I acknowledge he’s the chair of the House Ways and Means committee. But he’s not using that power to benefit the people and places of our district. He’s using that power to benefit the corporate and special interests that invest vast amounts of money in his campaign.”

A February article by Sludge identified Neal as the recipient of the most corporate campaign money in the House in 2019, receiving almost $1.5 million from PACs that represent corporations and business interests. 

“I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve raised almost $13 million that has supported almost every member of the Black caucus, the Hispanic caucus, the Equality caucus, and built a durable Democratic majority in the House of Representatives," Neal told WAMC. "I think the corresponding question that needs to be asked is Mayor Morse taking money from business interests in the city of Holyoke. He granted them tax breaks and granted them contracts based upon the contributions that they made. So I don’t have any difficulty with scrutiny, but I also think that he needs to explain why he did what he did while I’ve built a majority in the House working hand in glove with Speaker Pelosi to bring the Democrats to that majority – and we’ve passed a lot of progressive legislation based on having that majority.”

Morse has drawn a bead on specific correlations between Neal’s voting record and his corporate relationships.

“Why is it after accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the big pharmaceutical companies, he killed an amendment that would have allowed the government to negotiate lower drug prices?" asked the mayor. "Why is it after taking over $50,000 from Blackstone, he singlehandedly killed a bill that would have limited surprise medical bills that thousands of people here in the district have received?”

Neal has framed his vote on surprise medical billing as a consumer friendly one.

“My position is supported by area hospitals, including the Massachusetts Hospital Association," said the congressman. "My position is supported by Berkshire Medical Center. The largest employer in the city of Holyoke – Holyoke Medical Center – supports my position.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Neal has raised $3.7 million to Morse’s $1.3 million as of mid-August. Neal’s contributions include almost $300,000 from the insurance industry, $260,000 from the securities and investment industry, $240,000 from the real estate industry, and $181,000 from health professionals. While PAC contributions account for over 60% of Neal’s fundraising, Morse – who has sworn off corporate PAC money – has relied almost entirely on individual contributions. Almost 40% of those individual contributions came in increments of under $200. Small Individual Contributions make up less than 0.5% of Neal’s fundraising. 

The race also got an August surprise, when UMass Amherst student newspaper the Massachusetts Daily Collegian rocked the race with a report that the College Democrats of Massachusetts had disavowed Morse after claims of sexual misconduct with students emerged. Morse, who taught at the school from 2014 to 2019, acknowledged that he had had relationships with undergraduates. Admitting “poor judgement,” he both apologized to any students he had made uncomfortable while defending his behavior as consensual and not in violation of school policy. In an exclusive interview with WAMC News, Morse described the article as part of an orchestrated smear campaign and said he would not apologize for being an openly gay man dating other adults.

“I think this is what happens when you go against power," said Morse. "And I think- I would not be surprised if in the coming days more information comes to light that sheds light on this process and what happens behind the scenes of a campaign like this, that allows for unsubstantiated allegations to become a media narrative that is basically a political smear and attack three weeks before a primary election. This would not be happening if I wasn't a candidate for Congress, this would not be happening if I wasn't on the verge of defeating one of the most powerful Democrats in this country.”

UMass Amherst says it is investigating the allegations and that it has no intention of re-hiring Morse. Morse says any investigation will exonerate him, and that he is happy to participate in it.

Reports by The Intercept, which cited leaked chats from inside the College Democrats of Massachusetts, suggest the story about the mayor was a concerted effort to damage his campaign. Another article explored ties between the student group’s decision to release the allegations and the Massachusetts Democratic Party. For his part, Neal has repeatedly denied any connection between his campaign and the allegations.

The two differ on key policy issues. Although he says he favors an incremental approach to full health coverage and is proud of his contributions to the Affordable Care Act, Neal is not a supporter of Medicare For All, while Morse is. Neal has not endorsed the Green New Deal, while Morse has.

Neal is campaigning on his seniority in Congress, his ability to pass legislation and the need for stability in the chaos of 2020.

“We’re in the midst of an international pandemic," Neal said. "It’s the first time in America since 1918, and I’ve taken it earnestly. I wrote most of the CARES Act, which Alex Morse said he would have voted against. That’s about unemployment insurance, that’s about aid to our hospitals, that’s about the stimulus check, and that’s about testing for the pandemic. So I’m pleased that the paycheck protection program has come to the assistance of 10,000 small business in the 1st congressional district alone.”

Morse said he opposed the CARES Act because it bailed out Wall Street instead of helping working people. His campaign is predicated on advancing progressive policies and increasing enfranchisement for the district’s constituents.

“I want to bring the people of the district to Washington with me, and use that power to fight for a healthcare system that believes healthcare is a human right, fight against a crisis of climate change, fight for an economy that works for everyone from Holyoke to the Berkshires to the hill towns, and fight for a just and reformed criminal justice system," said Morse. "Congressman Neal has been pushing the same, tired ideas that have led to a status quo that is leaving thousands of working people behind here in Western Mass.”

The pair have also exchanged blows over the records of the police departments of their respective cities. Neal has drawn attention to a 2014 incident where Holyoke Police beat a 12-year-old, resulting in a $65,000 settlement and a nondisclosure agreement with the family of the boy.

“It was a youth," said Neal. "This case has never been brought to conclusion. Again, the fact that he appoints the chief of police of Holyoke ought to hold him accountable for that responsibility.”

Morse responds that he’s implemented reforms in the Holyoke police department, citing an emphasis on community policing, demilitarizing the force, carrying out reforms recommended by the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, and working to make the force reflect the diversity of the city. He has also pointed to Neal’s own history with police misconduct from his time as mayor of Springfield.

“Just this past September in 2019, Congressman Neal’s police department, in an action, led to a $27 million settlement against the city of Springfield for something that happened in his police department in the 1980s,” said Morse.

A federal jury awarded the settlement to a man who claimed he had been framed by four Springfield police officers for the killing of a woman outside of a city club in 1986, resulting in a 27-year prison sentence.

Neal has painted Morse as an absent figure in Holyoke’s governance, saying he has skipped Pioneer Valley Transit Authority meetings and missed 33 of 137 school committee meetings between 2012 and 2019 – as well as all 23 of the school building committee meetings between 2018 and 2019. 

“Have I missed occasional school committee meetings? Yes, but you know why? I’m the mayor," said Morse. "So am I invited to city council meetings occasionally to present my budget or for other matters before the council at the very time there are members in meetings of the school committee? Absolutely. And so it’s a completely inaccurate description of my time as mayor and as chair of the Holyoke school committee.”

Holyoke’s schools went into state receivership in 2015 due to subpar performance, which has become a political football, with both candidates eager to blame the other.

“The school system in Holyoke should be a priority for the mayor," said Neal. "Members of Congress don't run school departments at the local level. I thought that when he said that, I was stunned that that argument would be made. That’s simple spin. He knows that his lack of interest in the Holyoke public schools has paralyzed the system. And the teachers union has endorsed me.”

Steve Zrike, the appointed Holyoke schools receiver, endorsed Morse, and praised him for increasing the city’s graduation rate, expanding enrollment in its English-Spanish dual language program, and more – calling him “a tireless advocate for the students and families of Holyoke.”

When Morse announced his bid to challenge Neal in July 2019, Berkshire County politicians like State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier – who is a leader of the state’s Progressive Caucus on Beacon Hill – were quick to rally behind Neal.

"I had a conversation with Alex last week, and I’ve known him for many years. It was very nice of him to give a call. But I told him quite clearly I’m squarely with the Congressman," she said. "Congressman Neal has been great to the 1st Massachusetts Congressional district, he’s chair of Ways and Means, and that’s a really big deal, and I think that the mayor of Holyoke should be working on making sure Holyoke gets what it needs right now."

State Senator Adam Hinds also backed Neal upon hearing the news.

"You know, I’m just learning about this myself and so I think we’re doing well," Hinds said. "Congressman Neal, it’s very rare to have someone in his position from your own congressional district and it’s been a pleasure working with him so we look forward to continuing that."

1st Berkshire District State Representative John Barrett also made his support clear.

“I’ve listened to people say that he has not been in the area- He has been in the area," said Barrett. "And I can speak from the prior congressman who was one of the best, Silvio Conte, and Richie Neal ranks right up there with him in what he has brought back to this district.”

Neal has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO Massachusetts, the American Federation of Teachers, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the late Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, and more.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker crossed party lines to endorse Neal’s re-election campaign on Thursday. Without a Republican in the race, the primary is the de facto general election.

Meanwhile, community leaders like Berkshire NAACP chapter president Dennis Powell welcomed Morse’s challenge. Citing Neal’s decision to pass on an invitation to debate Amatul-Wadud in Pittsfield in 2018, he described the congressman as disinterested in the community.

“As a public official, I thought that it’s your obligation to communicate to people that you want to vote for you," said Powell. "And I think people have a right to know what your agenda is, what issues are near and dear to you, and for you to hear what issues are near and dear to the community.”

Powell praised Morse for attending a community event in Pittsfield’s West Side last summer.

“And he just didn’t come and go, he actually stayed at the Gather-In I would say probably a good two and a half hours, really talking with people, getting involved and really just enjoying the festival for what it represented," Powell told WAMC. "So yeah, it was quite different, quite a different contrast.”

Morse has the backing of politicians like former presidential aspirant Andrew Yang and Jamaal Bowman, who beat another House stalwart this summer – New York Rep. Eliot Engel of the 16th district — as well as progressive groups like MoveOn, Justice Democrats, the political action committee of progressive star Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Courage To Change – and more. Locally, eight of Pittsfield’s 11 city councilors have backed Morse’s bid, as has the Berkshire County Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

While in-person voting will be held on September 1st, early voting has been under way since August 22nd. Due to the pandemic, a high number of mail-in ballots also must be counted, meaning that in a tight race, results may not be definitive Tuesday night.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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