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Morse makes his case for 1st Congressional seat 

  • Holyoke mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse, on computer screen, right, fields a question during an online interview by the staff of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, including Dusty Christensen, left, this week at the Gazette offices. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holyoke mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse, on computer screen, right, listens to a question from Daily Hampshire Gazette editor Brooke Hauser, right, during an online interview that included Gazette reporter Dusty Christensen, on screen, left, and Gazette opinion editor Chad Cain, this week at the Gazette offices. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks during an inaugural ceremony for City Council and School Committee members in the Holyoke City Hall auditorium in January. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2020 4:04:59 PM
Modified: 8/14/2020 4:04:47 PM

HOLYOKE — After a weekend of media scrutiny of his sex life, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said he has no intention of dropping out of the race against U.S. Rep Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the 1st Congressional District.

“Over the weekend, I had to do a lot of soul-searching as to why I got into this race in the first place, and I had to make a decision as to whether I’m willing to put myself through a very messy political process going against power at this scale,” Morse said. “I know I’m not just going up against Congressman Neal. I’m going up against some very powerful forces in Springfield and some very powerful forces in Washington, D.C.”

In a meeting with the Daily Hampshire Gazette editorial board this week, Morse discussed everything from Neal’s corporate donors and Holyoke’s police force to housing as a human right and his own record as mayor. The conversation came just days after the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Morse has previously taught, published anonymous allegations from three college Democratic groups that Morse engaged in a pattern of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students.”

During the 45-minute conversation, Morse denied having sexual encounters with any of his own students at the university, which is against UMass policy. He previously said he has had consensual relationships with local college students he met using dating apps. Morse also said he has never “hooked up” with any student he met at a College Democrats event.

“I think given the feedback from students, the last thing I want to do is make anyone feel uncomfortable, and I apologize if I do, and I will make sure to be more cognizant of the fact of my title and of my position when interacting with people in general,” Morse said. “What I won’t apologize for is being young and openly gay and single and engaging in consensual activity with other men.”

Morse also suggested that Neal’s campaign had something to do with planting the news story — a claim Neal’s campaign has denied.

On the issues

Much of the meeting with Morse was focused on policy. When asked how voters can be sure his progressive platform would match his actions if elected, Morse pointed to his nine-year record as mayor: “My values on climate change and transitioning this city off of fossil fuels to 92 percent carbon neutral. My decision to make our city a sanctuary city in 2014 to protect undocumented immigrants. ... The fact that I was the only mayor in 2016 … to endorse the recreational use of marijuana. I have been a longtime supporter of a single-payer health care system.”

Morse spoke about the need for change at a structural level in the United States, saying that capitalism as we know it is “fundamentally broken” and that it has concentrated wealth at the top of society. He said that is why he has come out in support of a universal basic income.

“We as a capitalistic economy, the way we define productivity and the way we define work is favoring the wealthy, the well-connected and corporations at the expense of working people,” he said. “I think we should define parenthood and motherhood and fatherhood as work, and right now I think this pandemic has further crystallized that.”

Morse also criticized his opponent, alleging that his past calls to Neal for assistance went unanswered because the mayor is not part of the Springfield Democratic establishment. He said he doesn’t think Neal is a strong advocate for the district, despite his clout as chair of the influential House Ways and Means Committee.

Morse underscored that Neal is the only member of the state’s federal delegation who has not co-sponsored the Green New Deal. The 1st Congressional District, he added, is home to Springfield, the “asthma capital of our entire country,” more farmers than any other Massachusetts district, and cities that welcomed thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing a climate-related emergency, Hurricane Maria. The district also faces critical broadband access issues, educational inequities and the shuttering of essential mental, behavioral and maternal health care services, Morse noted.

“Our member of Congress has the distinction of being the No. 1 recipient of corporate money … in all of the House, of any Democrat and any Republican,” Morse said. “It plays out in the decisions he makes, and the bills he sponsors and the bills he doesn’t.”

Regarding crime and policing, Morse said that on his watch, Holyoke police have focused on violent crime and drug trafficking as opposed to low-level drug offenses. He cited his creation of a needle-exchange program, a drop-in center for those struggling with addiction and a program that has non-uniformed officers accompany a clinician on follow-up visits when an overdose occurs, connecting people needing treatment with resources.

“We should all strive to be police abolitionists and imagine a world where police departments, as we know it, aren’t needed,” Morse 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.”

The Police Department was the subject of criticism and controversy early in Morse’s tenure. Earlier this year, the city settled a civil rights lawsuit for $65,000 that accused police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014.

As part of that lawsuit, the previous chief of police said a police administrator reviewed civilian complaints to determine if they had merit. The police chief also admitted being unaware of how the department tracked use of force and injured prisoner reports at the time, and said he had not disciplined a single officer for excessive force in his seven years leading the department.

When asked about these details, Morse said voters should look at his record of “demilitarizing the Police Department,” and “of making sure we have an officer force that looks like the city that we represent” in terms of diversity.

“I put my record on police reform against Congressman Neal and Mayor Neal any day of the week,” he said, referring to the fact that Neal previously served as Springfield’s mayor.

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 1 for the Democratic primary race between Morse and Neal, though mail-in ballots are already being cast across the state. The candidates are scheduled to debate on New England Public Media WGBY TV at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 17. The debate will be on Channel 57 and will be broadcast on the radio at 88.5 FM and online at nepm.org.

Franklin County towns in the 1st Congressional District are Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne.

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