By H. Harrison Coleman IV ’22
The Massachusetts primary election on September 1 was a banner night for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—the incumbent senator, the progressive Ed Markey, won his primary against a challenger from the Democrat’s centrist wing, Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), who was endorsed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Despite this stellar performance from the left, there was one sore spot on their record that night—the primary in Massachusetts’ 1st district. Alex Morse, the young, progressive mayor of the town of Holyoke, failed to defeat longtime incumbent Representative Richard Neal (D-MA).
Morse’s campaign was plagued with controversy when allegations against him became publicized. In early August, Morse was accused of abusing his position of power as a guest lecturer at the University of Massachusetts to pursue sexual relationships with students. These allegations cost Morse several endorsements, most notably from the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led progressive group, and led Jamaal Bowman, another left-wing Democrat who won his primary against a long-serving incumbent, to retract his endorsement of Morse.
In a statement to The Hill, Bowman said, “As a school principal, I believe it’s important to listen to students and to be sensitive to the unequal power dynamics in these relationships.”
Defying the expectation that he would drop out, Morse called these allegations “smear campaigns.” Morse would later be vindicated in his steadfast refusal to drop out, as the accusations were eventually proven to be a sting operation organized by the Massachusetts College Democrats, the organization that had initially accused Morse of sexual harassment. In leaked chat logs, the conspiracy to discredit Morse was shown to have started a year before the primary, as a way to help the Neal campaign. The students responsible for the smear campaign hoped to gain internships with Congressman Neal’s office. Neal, who heads the powerful tax-focused Ways and Means Committee in Congress, denies all involvement with the students.
Morse was unique in that he was one of the few LGBT+ candidates for national office this election cycle. His homosexuality, combined with the sex-based allegations, caused nervousness in voters who questioned what kind of precedent this could set. Common Dreams, a progressive news outlet, called the accusations “old homophobic tropes,” while condemning Rep. Neal. Because of the nature of the allegations, many fear that tossing baseless accusations will become a way to kneecap the campaigns of LGBT+ candidates for political office all over the country.
Massachusetts’ 1st district is safely in the Democratic column. The Republican Party has not even bothered to field a candidate there, guaranteeing Rep. Richard Neal another term in Congress. However, this is not the end for Morse. Few House challengers gain national attention the way he did. And besides: failed House runs are hardly a political death sentence. Jon Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 US House race in Georgia, is now narrowly the favorite to win a US Senate race there. Morse has remained optimistic, saying that another House run in 2022 was “not off the table”. Whatever the case may be, no one can deny that Morse and his campaign will impact the future of Massachusetts politics.