Neal, Morse debate highlights major differences

Holyoke mayor slams ‘backroom coordinated political smear’

US REP. RICHARD NEAL and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse engaged in a spirted debate Monday night that highlighted for voters big differences between the two Democratic candidates for Congress.

Morse attacked the incumbent from the left, accusing him of neglecting to meet regularly with voters in the First Congressional District, accepting huge amounts of money from corporate political action committees, and opposing the Green New Deal. He also highlighted his own support for eliminating qualified immunity for police officers, providing reparations to the descendants of slaves, and getting rid of cash bail.

Neal went after Morse for being a no-show as mayor at school committee, transportation, and school building meetings; for saying he would have voted against the CARES Act; and for naively calling for cuts in defense spending without taking into account the impact on employers in the district who rely on that spending.

The debate’s first question focused on allegations made by the UMass Amherst and Amherst College chapters of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. They claimed in a letter that Morse made some unidentified students uncomfortable and abused his power as mayor and a UMass lecturer by pursuing sexual relationships with the students.

Morse initially said he did nothing wrong but apologized if he made any students uncomfortable. More recently, he suggested the whole incident may have been provoked by students seeking to curry favor with Neal. Monday night he took his allegations a step farther.

“This was a backroom, coordinated political smear against our campaign by folks that support this congressman’s political campaign,” Morse said. “It’s no coincidence the timing of these allegations and accusations that go all the way to the height of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, the chair of that party that took me to lunch over a year ago and discouraged me from running against this congressman right here.”

Gus Bickford, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, did not return a phone call Monday night.

Neal said the allegations made against Morse will and should be investigated. “These students have stepped forward. They should be heard,” he said, although no students have stepped forward yet. “I am more than content to let that review take place.”

Neal said the allegations have no connection to his campaign. “There is no room for homophobia, misogyny, or racism in America or in my campaign.”

Asked if his relationships with students were inappropriate, Morse said: “I am an adult and I will not apologize for being a young person, for being gay, and for being single and having consensual adult relationships with other adults.”

The rest of the hour-long debate sponsored by the Republican/MassLive, the Berkshire Eagle, and New England Public Media focused on more traditional debate topics.

Morse accused Neal of being the No. 1 recipient of corporate campaign contributions in Congress and of being “bought and paid for by corporations.”

Morse raised two specific issues – Neal’s decision to block a measure addressing surprise medical billing after accepting large contributions from executives at a private equity firm that owns a physician staffing company and for helping to pass legislation favored by donors from H&R Block and Intuit (TurboTax) that would prevent the federal government from creating a free electronic tax filing system.

Neal insisted donors have no influence on him. “If you contribute to my campaign, you buy into my agenda,” he said. The congressman also said Morse, as mayor, has granted concessions to businesses that have donated to his campaign. “The mayor has used pay to play in the city of Holyoke,” he said.

Neal went after Morse for missing 28 of 62 school committee meetings in Holyoke, 60 percent of the meetings of the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority, and 23 meetings of the Holyoke school building committee.

“The mayor keeps talking about the things he is going to do – he doesn’t show up for the job he has now,” Neal said.

The congressman also hit Morse for saying he would have voted against the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus law that Neal helped write. Neal noted the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation and nearly every member of Congress voted for the measure. He ticked off a series of institutions in the district that received funding under the law.

“It is the most irresponsible position that a candidate for Congress could have taken,” Neal said of Morse.

Morse said the CARES Act failed to tackle the long-standing problems facing the nation that were highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the $1,200 one-time payment to Americans was not enough and the measure provided too much money to corporations that didn’t need it. If the CARES Act was so good, Morse asked, why was there an immediate recognition after its passage that additional stimulus funding was needed?

Morse was asked what he would say to employees at General Dynamics and Westover Air Reserve Base worried about the steep cuts in defense spending he is seeking. He responded that cuts in defense spending would not result in job cuts in the district. “It shouldn’t be this either/or situation,” he said. “It’s time for a new type of government that invests in education.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Neal called Morse’s position naïve, and defended his ability as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee to deliver federal funding for the district. He ticked off a laundry list of funds and tax benefits he has secured for businesses and projects in the district.

Morse slammed Neal for failing to support the Green New Deal, which he said every other member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation has backed. The debate ended with Neal unable to provide a full explanation for his position except to say: “I don’t think it’s fair.”