Despite allegations that he abused his power in pursuit of sexual relationships with college students, Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is vowing to carry on with his campaign for Congress. Morse is the target of a complaint by the College Democrats of Massachusetts.
From the start, Morse's campaign for Congress has been a long shot. The 31-year-old mayor is taking on one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington: Richard Neal, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who's been representing western Mass. for the past 30 years. But progressives are on the move: just recently Jamaal Bowman, of New York, and Cori Bush, of Missouri, swept away long-serving congressional Democrats. So, Morse is hoping to the be the next to ride that insurgent wave into Washington.
"This past Wednesday we had our best fundraising day since we launched this campaign," Morse told WBUR. "We've now raised over $1 million from 20,000 grassroots contributions — and I still believe we have a pathway to victory."
But with less than three weeks to go until primary day, that path has become more complicated. Morse is being forced to fend off accusations from the College Democrats. In a letter first obtained by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the group said Morse used dating apps to pursue friendships and sexual relationships with students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst while he was a guest lecturer there. The charges are short on specifics, but allege that Morse abused his power for sex, and made students "uncomfortable."
Speaking to WBUR, Morse doesn't deny that he had intimate relationships, but he says they were consensual.
"I am adamant and I will not apologize for being an adult and for having consensual adult relationships with other men. ... I won't allow the over-policing of my personal sex life."Alex Morse
"I am adamant and I will not apologize for being an adult and for having consensual adult relationships with other men," he said. "I will not apologize for using gay dating apps in western Massachusetts and matching with folks on a consensual level. I won't allow the over-policing of my personal sex life."
Asked if he had sexual relationships with the students that he taught while working as a lecturer, Morse responded, "No."
Morse also said that since launching his campaign for Congress in June of 2019 he had attended only one College Democrats event.
"I want to be very clear: This assertion that I used College Democrats' events to meet college students is completely false," Morse said. "In fact, I've never hooked up with anyone I met at a College Democrats event."
With regard to consent, the College Democrats wrote, "Where such a lopsided power dynamic existed, consent becomes lopsided." The group declined WBUR's request to discuss their allegations in detail. The Intercept spoke with two former UMass Democrats who raised questions about the group's allegations against Morse.
A number of Morse's supporters suggest the story was planted and encouraged by the Neal campaign. Morse calls the timing of the story "suspicious" — and says it certainly helps Neal.
"I'm sure he's pleased that I'm talking about my personal sex life, rather than talking about being a champion for working people that have had an absent, unaccountable member of Congress, who hasn't had a town hall here in three years," Morse said.
In a statement, the Neal campaign said it had nothing to do with the story — and commended the students for coming forward on their own. A person close to the Neal campaign added, "We'd love to know where the story came from."
Meanwhile, University of Massachusetts officials have launched an investigation into the allegations — but that will be long and slow — and their findings are likely to come well after the primary.
"Their obligation is not to ensure a fair congressional election," said Erin Buzuvis, who studies gender and discrimination at Western New England School of Law. "Their obligation is to keep their students safe. So, that process is separate from the court of public opinion that a politician, weeks away from a primary, finds himself in."
At least two city councilors in Holyoke are calling for Morse to resign as mayor. But a number of progressive groups are sticking with him, including the Victory Fund, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, which also believes the timing of the story is politically motivated. And the group suggests the story is being sensationalized because of Morse's sexual orientation, a point the mayor agrees with.
"I'm not calling the College Democrats inherently homophobic," Morse told WBUR, "but the response to the allegation and the language that people are using — words like 'predator' and 'abuser' — [are homophobic]. And members of the gay community are all too familiar with these homophobic tropes that we have had leveled on us for generations, and it's unacceptable."
The allegations against Morse — and suggestions that Neal's campaign maybe behind them — will likely come up when the two debate next Monday.
This article was originally published on August 12, 2020.
This segment aired on August 12, 2020.