Neal And Morse Have Feisty Televised Debate
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal of Springfield and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is challenging the 30-year incumbent in the Democratic primary, held their first debate Monday. They spent the majority of the hour viciously attacking each other’s records.
Right off the bat came a question about the drama that roiled the campaign for the last week and brought national attention to the contest – allegations from a campus organization of the Massachusetts Democratic Party that Morse had behaved inappropriately with college students.
"I would never want to make someone feel uncomfortable and I need to honor that truth and honor that expression from those students," said Morse. He pushed back hard on any suggestion of wrongdoing and asserted that he is the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign.
"I will let the voters of the First District come to their own conclusions. But, this is exactly why I ran for mayor nine years ago to change the political culture of personal destruction....and I think obviously, its no coincidence the timing of these allegations and accusations that go all the way to the height of the Massachusetts Democratic Party."
Neal denied his campaign was in any way involved.
"Students have stepped forward, they've raised these allegations, they've also said simultaneously they had no contact with my campaign," said Neal adding, "This is inconsistant with my career and it is inconsistant with my character to have raised these sorts of issues."
Hours before the debate aired, dozens of Massachusetts Democratic state committee members called for an independent and expedited investigation of what role party leaders might have played in the allegations against Morse. UMass Amherst is also investigating to determine if Morse, as a lecturer there, violated any policies.
For most of the debate, which was produced by New England Public Media, the two candidates held to familiar ground of their respective campaigns while jabbing sharply at each other.
Morse, 31, who is backed by national progressive organizations hoping to defeat another establishment Democratic House member, accused Neal,71, of “living the high life” with corporate lobbyists and corporate donors in Washington while paying scant attention to his constituents in western and central Massachusetts.
"We need to put our money where our mouth is and not be peformative time and time again and talk about your 30-year career. Well, how are folks in those communities doing today? That's what I'll focus on and less about going up the seniority ladder and more about bringing you to Washington with me," said Morse.
Neal, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said he has brought billions of dollars to the district.
"The eigth largest projects in the city of Holyoke have had my influence," said Neal. He pointed to a new emergency room at Holyoke Medical Center and a restored public library.
He attacked Morse’s 9-year record as mayor of Holyoke accusing him of skipping numerous school committee meetings as the city’s public schools were veering toward state receivership.
"When you consider that he's talking about this progressive agenda, what is more progressive than the 5,230 children in the Holyoke Public School system?" said Neal. "He couldn't make it to a school committee meeting, he's talking now about what he would do in Congress."
Claiming he had attended 74 percent of the school committe meetings, Morse called the attack "petty." He said Neal "hasn't showed up in the district and we're spending more time together tonight than I think we have in the last nine years."
Neal said his campaign could document 700 public events in the district he had taken part in during the past eight years.
Both men said they are committed to racial justice.
Neal said, as mayor of Springfield in the 1980's, he started affirmative action and offered set asides in public bidding for minority contractors and sold city stocks in South Africa.
Morse said he supports ending cash bail for defendants, end qualified immunity for police officers and stop federal funding that militarize local police.
Morse questioned Neal’s vote for the 1994 crime bill which included mandatory minimum sentencing laws that some civil rights activists blame for mass incarcerations of Black men.
Neal said the bill included the creation of the Violence Against Women Act and a ban on assault weapons.
Morse pointed out that Neal was the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to not sign onto the Green New Deal and that he supports a plan to clean the Housatonic River of PCBs – a plan Morse is against.
Neal said the PCB cleanup plan was a local decision.
Both candidates are scheduled to participate in a second broadcast debate later this week.
Voting by mail in the September 1st Massachusetts primary is underway. Early in-person voting starts this Saturday.