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Alex Morse and the Fight for a More Progressive House

Alex Morse for Congress/Facebook

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Alex Morse for Congress/Facebook

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), was elected to Congress in 1988, before his current primary challenger Alex Morse was even born.

By now, the shape of the contest between them seems familiar: a younger progressive who backs Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, supported by Justice Democrats vs. an older incumbent supported by Democratic House leadership who argues his experience and connections merit returning him to yet another term in Congress.

But the success of several progressive primary challengers this summer as well as Neal’s powerful chairmanship, have increased the stakes of this race. The ramifications of a Morse victory would be huge both in terms of which longer-serving House Democrats face primary challenges in coming cycles, and for Neal’s committee, which has enormous influence over the direction of legislation in the House, but which Morse and progressives argue Neal has done a terrible job leading.

 

Then in early August, things took a decidedly sordid turn.

On August 7, the school newspaper at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst published part of a letter written by the Massachusetts College Democrats. The letter said that Morse, who is openly gay and a former lecturer there, was disinvited from future events and claimed that Morse had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain.”

Morse quickly apologized “to anyone I have made feel uncomfortable,” but insisted he’s never had inappropriate relationships with his students and that all the relationships he has had have been consensual.

This briefly turned the race on its head: Morse said that he thought about dropping out; a bunch of the progressive groups that had been supporting him went quiet or said that they’d reassess their endorsements. And the university opened an investigation which is reportedly still ongoing.

In the days that followed, The Intercept thoroughly investigated the matter and found, among other things, that some students had openly plotted ways to damage Morse’s campaign, and tried to egg him into saying incriminating things on dating profiles. One student actually admitted he hoped the scheme could help him get an internship in Neal’s office.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party also reportedly acknowledged that it had provided legal advice regarding the letter, which fanned the sense that the party establishment had tried to sabotage a progressive challenger with homophobic smears.

Neal and his campaign have insisted they had nothing to do with the letter. And just yesterday, UMass College Democrats expressed regret over its publication.

No accusers have come forward in the weeks since, Morse’s endorsers have all come home, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee has joined them, and Morse has raised more money and attracted more volunteers since the story broke.

I spoke with Morse on Friday about the race, the accusations and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


 

GR: Starting off, I wanted to know how this final week has been and what these last few days are actually going to look like for you.

AM: So it’s, it’s been an eventful few weeks on the campaign trail. You know, 13 months after launching the campaign, we’re down to the final two days before the big primary, and there’s no Republican in the general. And so whoever wins on Tuesday becomes the next representative here and in Western Massachusetts. And so, I mean the last couple of weeks have been pretty spectacular. I mean, we are stronger today than we were even just a few weeks ago. This week we got endorsed by AOC’s Courage to Change PAC, got endorsed by more local elected officials and organizers here in the district. And just over the last two weeks alone, we’ve raised over $600,000. And so, I mean, there is a lot of enthusiasm and momentum here on the ground. And this morning I had a press conference outside one of our field campaign offices with our Morse-mobile that will be traveling around the district the next four to five days. It’s a big district. It’s 87 cities and towns. It’s almost a third of Massachusetts and so very urban communities, very rural communities, hilltowns, farms, the Berkshires. And so we’re going to be hitting every single corner of the district in the coming days, just meeting people where they’re at, knocking on doors, going to farmer’s markets, going to small businesses and just encouraging people to come out and vote on on Tuesday.

GR: You might’ve alluded to this, but how did the Massachusetts college Democrat story affect you and the race and secondarily to that too, if not for The Intercept and the reporting that happened there, do you think that the full picture would have been known at this moment to voters?

AM: So to answer that second part first, unfortunately probably not. And so I’m thankful to, you know, journalists and investigative reporters that dug a little bit deeper and did their due diligence because frankly we didn’t see much of that by local media here and in the district or other mainstream media outlets. And so I want to thank folks for getting that information because it does a complete disservice to our democracy and to voters when they don’t have a full picture or all of the information. You know, I have to be honest and say, when this initially happened, it was incredibly difficult for me. And, you know, everyone around me, friends, family members, our team, our supporters, because when someone is telling you that you’ve made them uncomfortable, even if you don’t recall, or think that you have, I wanted to be honest and honor that, that experience.

And so I initially said that I regret that and I apologize. I’m happy to have a conversation about it. And then, imagine my feelings when I come to learn in the days that followed that, in fact, no student was made to feel uncomfortable. And the very student that reported to be uncomfortable was in fact intentionally plotting to entrap me on a dating app or on Instagram and failed to do so in an effort to curry favor with Congressman Neal and actually in partnership with the Massachusetts Democratic party, who in fact—it was their attorney that wrote the email to me in the first place to be as salacious as possible while also being as vague as possible to inflict maximum damage. So I will say I really trust the people of the district. I think they saw it for what it is.

It was incredibly suspicious that three weeks before the most competitive primary that this Congressman had ever seen, this is a tactic that they resort to. And to be honest, it’s really fired up our team. It’s inspired people that were otherwise going to be neutral and stay on the fence to come out publicly and join our campaign. And we are now enjoying more volunteers than we’ve ever had, more donations than we’ve ever had before, more endorsements, more organizing. And that’s why I say definitively that we are in a stronger place today than even we were a few weeks ago

GR: And in the most recent debate, Congressman Neal said that he had no knowledge in advance that this was all going on. Does that pass muster for you in terms of what you’ve learned about the situation?

AM: Well, I mean, some of the reporting was very clear that, I mean, leadership of the Massachusetts Democratic party was well aware and it was the chair of that same party that took me to lunch and discouraged me from challenging Neal in the first place. And then there was also reporting and subsequent articles that show that senior advisors and people around Congressman Neal were aware of this. And so if that is the case, which seems to be, then I find it incredibly hard to believe that the Congressman wasn’t aware and the timing obviously is incredibly suspicious. He had no plan to campaign all along. And this was his plan, right? The politics of personal destruction, rather than talking about policy and your record and what voters in the district deserve. And so I think we made the differences quite clear on the debate stage. And I will again, let the voters see through this and come to their own conclusions.

GR: On that policy front, in your most recent ad, you talked about the corporate PAC contributions to Congressman Neal, health insurance lobbyists seemingly influencing his political decision making. In your conversations with voters now towards the end of this primary, what are you saying if they’re still deciding?

AM: You know, of course I’m a progressive Democrat, but in the district, like more than anything, it’s really not about ideology and labels. It’s at the end of the day, it’s about do we want a member of Congress that you can inherently trust to fight for the district, fight for everyday people, fight for working class Americans; not actually use their power for corporations and special interests. And so there was always this initial sort of response, you know, don’t we get something out of having the chair of the Ways and Means Committee: with that power doesn’t that add value to our district? And when you actually look at outcomes in this district, the disparities in outcomes, what everyday people are going through. And then when we actually expose Congressman Neal’s record that yes, he has power, but he failed to use it to hold this president accountable.

And instead has actively used his power to benefit his corporate donors. You know, be it barring the American people from using the free tax filing service with the IRS after taking money from TurboTax and H&R Block. Be it killing a bill that would have limited surprise medical bills after taking $50,000 from Blackstone. Killing an amendment that would have allowed the government to negotiate lower drug prescription prices. And so, yes, this guy has power, but what’s the point of having power if we’re not going to use it for us? Our argument and our message that is resonating is we’re going to gain power because we’re going to work together on these issues. We’re not going to lose power and influence. And I mean, in the district, we have schools closing. We have hospitals closing in the middle of a pandemic, dozens of cities and towns without basic access to broadband internet and people in the Berkshires and in the Hilltowns never seeing our member of Congress. That hasn’t had a town hall in three years. And so yes, he is a national powerful political figure, but you would never know it when you talk to real people here on the ground.

GR: And do you encounter folks right now that are still trying to decide?

AM: Here and there. I will say, you know, we’ve been traveling the district in the van since last Saturday when early voting started and there was just a palpable energy and optimism in the air that people are incredibly excited about this campaign and what we’ve built over the last 12 months. And I want to say it’s less so undecided and more so unaware that there was an election next Tuesday. So if we can get more people out to vote, expand turnout, expand the universe of who typically participates, we’re going to do really well on Tuesday. We’re not just talking to people that always vote, always participate. We’re certainly not taking them for granted, but we’re also spending a lot of time as I have over the last nine years as mayor talking to those communities that feel left behind and forgotten about, knocking on doors and in public housing projects that never see a candidate for mayor, never a candidate for Congress. And so that’s our mission. Those are our values. And we really want to reflect and represent how I want to represent the district throughout this campaign.

GR: Speaking to the point of folks having power and what they choose to do with it: on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Neal, and also said that he would be getting Trump’s tax returns if Joe Biden is elected. And this comes after she endorsed Congressman Kennedy earlier in the week in that Senate primary. I’m curious one, if you think that there’s some hypocrisy in terms of how House leadership has handled primary challenges overall, and what you make of the promise that Neal get to the taxes next year.

AM: I mean it’s incredibly laughable at this point. I mean, Democrats work like heck to take back the House in November, 2018. And we did that and we expected there to be some level of oversight of this administration. And Congressman Neal is at the center of that as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He was literally the one guy in Washington that could get access to the federal returns. And the one guy in Washington that could get access to the New York state returns, and lawmakers in New York worked for years to make Donald Trump’s state returns available. Neal refused to request them and allowed the president ample time to file a lawsuit to prevent the release. So he has dropped the ball in a huge way on this and him and Elliot Engel are the only two democratic chairman of this session that haven’t had a single oversight hearing on any aspect of the Trump administration.

So Richard Neal made a very intentional decision from day one that he would rather work with Trump, negotiate the USMCA NAFTA 2.0 that every climate organization came out against rather, than hold him accountable. For the Speaker to suddenly say, well, if Biden wins, Neal will get the tax returns. I mean, what good are they at that point? The whole point is oversight. So voters and the American people could have a view inside our democracy and make decisions as a consequence of that. And absolutely I would echo Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, on the hypocrisy of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you know, discouraging, creating a black list of consultants and democratic firms from getting involved in House challengers, but then a Speaker herself, you know, endorsing a challenger to a Senate candidate. So I think we should at least expect some consistency. I mean, Richard Neal is the only member of Congress in Massachusetts that refuses to support the Green New Deal. Ed Markey is literally the coauthor in the Senate. And I think we’re seeing very clearly, you know, what side Nancy Pelosi is on.

GR: The other massive storyline of the week is the police shooting of Jacob Blake. We’ve seen an RNC that has focused on defending police and law and order. What do you think needs to be done here? And is the democratic party at this point doing enough?

AM: I think there needs to be more accountability at every level of government and I as a mayor for the last nine years am very much at the center of these conversations and welcome the reckoning and conversation we’re having as a country. You know, as a white man, obviously I don’t fear for my life when I walk out the door in the morning and that should be the case of everybody in this country and it’s certainly not. So this is more than any one officer, any one department. It’s really about what policing itself represents to millions of Americans. We need to have difficult conversations about what the future of policing looks like and people’s experience with it. And I think what’s so problematic is, you know, time and time again, after there is excessive use of force and police brutality, when an officer is charged the morning after we see officers walking out of courtrooms and their fellow officers cheering them on. That’s a culture that just needs to change and does a disservice to policing overall.

I’m not surprised that Donald Trump and the Republican party is using it as a tool of divisiveness. I think what Republicans have been effective at is convincing, you know, white working class folks that they need to be fearful of the other, the person of color, the immigrant. Rather than being angry and upset at corporations and the wealthiest one percent that have actively and intentionally exploited people in this country be it Democrat or Republican.

I think what we’re running on here and what Democrats—not all Democrats—but Democrats that are actually there to fight for people are actually talking about policies that would impact everyone, not just those that are supporting us.

GR: Already in the next Congress, there could be a much larger group of progressives with a lot more power than before, just by nature of the numbers. Over the course of this year, it’s been interesting to see that happening at the same time that Biden became the nominee. Why do you think that storyline is overlapping at the moment?

AM: I think in a lot of ways, our presidential primary system is broken. I think that’s another conversation as to, you know, the sequencing of states and primaries that lead to a certain outcome. But I think what’s interesting from my perspective as a candidate here against Neal is, when it became obvious that Biden was going to be the presumptive nominee, we immediately saw an uptick in interest in our race and down ballot, progressive candidacies against entrenched Democrats. Because we recognized that we think the American people are on our side when it comes to issues. And when we think about a Biden presidency, it’s more important now than ever before to have more progressives in Washington holding a Biden administration accountable. I think the strength of our movement can be seen in that there was this fear that Biden and those around him would shift rightward after clinching the primary.

Instead it seems there’s been more of a leftward shift; the Biden-Sanders unity task forces. So it seems that is a good indicator of the strength of our movement. When I think about even Jamaal Bowman beating Eliot Engel, it’s not just about Jamaal getting elected to Congress, but that will have implications on foreign policy within the Democratic party that we have an incoming chair that for the first time is talking about conditioning aid to Israel, for example. When we think about Richard Neal, this is more than just about me replacing him in Western Mass. It’s about making sure that we have a progressive chair of the Ways and Means Committee that supports a single payer healthcare system, that supports a Green New Deal, that supports a wealth tax, that supports federal financing and legalization of marijuana and Richard Neal supports none of that.

GR: How do you see this sort of interaction working in the next Congress when a progressive bloc conceivably has more power?

AM; I think every seat matters because I think we need to continue to grow the progressive caucus and have more influence over the party. Last year 2019, I think was the first year that we had hearings on Medicare for All. And that didn’t happen because Speaker Pelosi thought it was a great idea. It was because there was pressure from members of the caucus to move these conversations and hearings forward. That’s why it’s so important we continue to amplify and grow the progressive caucus in DC. New members of Congress: AOC, Ayanna Pressley, other new members of Congress, I think have really done a great service by changing the norms of this assumption and experience that new members of Congress go to DC and keep their head down. They wait for direction, they fall in line, they vote with the caucus a hundred percent of the time. I mean, by and large, the voting in the caucus has been consistent, but there have been a few areas in particular where the Squad and new members of Congress have bucked party leadership. I think that is important and that should continue. And I certainly will be a member of Congress that falls in that vein of not necessarily doing what leadership wants me to do, but doing what the people here that elected me and the district want me to do.