Alex Morse says he is staying in the race for Congress. In a statement posted to social media Sunday night, the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, defended himself against allegations he engaged in inappropriate behavior involving college students, while again apologizing for "making some students feel uncomfortable."
Morse's two-page statement was released two days after the Massachusetts Daily Collegian student newspaper reported the College Democrats of Massachusetts had sent Morse a letter, barring him from events and accusing him of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain.”
The group claims Morse had relationships with college students, including during his current Democratic primary campaign against U.S. Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, and "pursued" students the mayor met at College Democrats events.
Morse, 31, taught a political science course at UMass Amherst eight times between fall of 2014 and fall of 2019.
Calling the allegations "serious and deeply concerning," UMass on Saturday said Morse is not a current employee and the school did not plan to hire him back. The university said it is investigating whether Morse violated university policy or federal law.
In his statement on Sunday, as well as one Friday to the Daily Collegian, Morse acknowledged having relationships with college students. While not explicitly saying if he dated students he taught, Morse on Sunday denied he violated UMass policy.
"Any claim to the contrary is false," Morse wrote. "As I've acknowledged, I've had consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that I've met using dating apps."
Morse said he has never used his position of power as mayor or a UMass lecturer for "romantic or sexual gain," but did issue an apology to students who felt uncomfortable by his interactions with them.
"This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power," he wrote. "My position and the power that comes with it follow me in every area of my life, and I understand now, in a deeper way, the importance of being sensitive to that fact. I am human. I'm imperfect. But I know who I am and what I stand for."
Morse has served as mayor of Holyoke since 2012. He is the city's first openly gay mayor, and referenced his sexuality in both statements over the weekend. On Sunday, he wrote that members of the queer community had reached out to him in recent days.
"It's clear that many of you feel that these recent events, and the language used in response, aren't just an attack on me, but on all of us," he wrote. "You're genuinely outraged, as I am, by the invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes."
In a statement earlier in the day, the College Democrats of Massachusetts pushed back against any suggestion its original letter to Morse was related to Morse's sexuality, calling that "untrue, disingenuous, and harmful."
"The Mayor's sexuality in no way excuses his behavior," the students wrote. "Many of the people involved in writing our letter to the Morse campaign are members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves."
The group said the letter was co-written by Democratic groups at Amherst College and UMass. The students also disputed that the allegations were motivated by a $1,000 donation last school year from the Neal campaign.
“No candidate, elected official, or staffer for either Rep. Neal or Mayor Morse had any role in drafting our letter,” the students wrote.
Asked about the allegations during a campaign event on Monday, Neal said, "I have no comment on that."
In his statement Sunday, Morse referenced the timing of the controversy. With just three weeks before the congressional primary, he said that will not allow time for a review by UMass before voters cast their ballots. That is especially true this year, with a larger-than-normal share of ballots expected to be mailed in ahead of time.
"While I fully believe that I will be cleared after the UMass review is complete, I also believe students have the right to be heard and for their concerns to be addressed," he said.
Morse said he understands if people or groups who endorsed his campaign "feel the need to rescind their support," but he's pressing forward. Morse ended his statement by saying he looks forward to seeing Neal "on the debate stage next week."
Morse and Neal are scheduled to debate at New England Public Media on Aug. 17, organized by a consortium of western Massachusetts news organizations.
This story was originally published by New England Public Media.
This article was originally published on August 10, 2020.