Congressional candidate Alex Morse appeared on a debate stage Monday for the first time since the University of Massachusetts began investigating a sexual misconduct complaint leveled against him by a student group. Dozens of state Democratic committee members are calling for an independent investigation into what role state party leaders may have played in spreading the misconduct allegations.
Morse is the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke and a former adjunct professor at UMass Amherst. He acknowledges having relationships with college students but says they weren't in his class, and insists he didn't abuse his status. He claims he is being unfairly targeted because he is gay.
"I would never want to make someone feel uncomfortable," Morse said in the debate. But he added that, in his view, "this was a backroom, coordinated political smear against our campaign."
Some members of the LGBTQ community say Morse's relationships prompt important questions about power and consent in the age of #MeToo. Some also worry the public scrutiny could discourage others from entering politics.
"I can tell you it has a chilling effect because I know people who have thought twice about running for public office because they're LGBTQ," said State Sen. Julian Cyr.
Cyr is a single, gay man in his 30s, just like Morse. He said it feels like only a matter of time before his own dating life is weaponized against him.
"From a cynical perspective, I suspect it will be at some point," Cyr said. "Politics is definitely a blood sport. I think that's just something I've sort of accepted."
The risk of having highly personal matters spill into the open is a price that Cyr has been willing to pay on the way to becoming assistant majority whip in the Massachusetts Senate. But he said some potential LGBTQ candidates look at Morse's situation and see an unreasonably high cost of admission to the political arena.
"They are concerned about how their personal lives will be distorted and used against them," he said.
The distortion Cyr and others worry about in the Morse episode centers on age. One of the facts not in dispute is that all of the men Morse was involved with were, well, men — as in adults. But the College Democrats of Massachusetts have emphasized the relative youth of Morse's intimate partners in accusing him of inappropriate conduct.
"We have a long history of painting gay men as pedophiles and predators," said Tanya Neslusan, a former candidate for the state Legislature who heads MassEquality, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
A leader of the College Democrats was reportedly hoping to land an internship with Morse's Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Richard Neal.
Neslusan sees a politically motivated effort to trigger suspicions of gay men.
"College students are adults. They're young adults, but they're adults," she said. "And by feeding into that trope of, 'He's going after teenagers,' it's so easy to raise that homophobia in people."
Neslusan said it's critical to draw a bright line between minors and adults because bigotry thrives on blurring that line.
And before voters judge Morse for having relationships with men who may have been a decade younger, they should consider this, Neslusan added: "Because the LGBT community is so small, the dating pool is a lot smaller, too. I can't really speak to where the heads of young people are at. I can tell you that when I was that age, there were times when I dated people who were older, and I didn't feel like it was a power imbalance or a victimization."
One complication is that feelings about consent can change over time, as can social standards, said Steven Blum, a magazine journalist who has written about age and power dynamics in gay relationships, including his own.
"I also had a relationship with someone who was older when I was fairly young, and I at the time was the pursuer," Blum said. "And, so, I sort of reframed that experience in my mind as something that was extremely consensual, and now I look back and I see it in a different light."
Blum said young gay men can be more vulnerable than their straight counterparts because they may be newly out and still setting their boundaries. He added someone like Morse, the mayor of Holyoke and an adjunct professor, has a responsibility to consider what it means for an undergrad to give consent.
"The fact that Morse has this position of power, that is relevant because that does sort of shade how people respond to advances," Blum said. "And you have to take that power differential into account."
Morse himself has said, "I have to be cognizant of my position of power." But he maintains he never misused his position and says the UMass investigation will bear that out.
It is unlikely, however, that an attorney hired by the university to conduct that review will reach a conclusion before the Sept. 1 primary.
This segment aired on August 18, 2020.