Homophobic Lie Helps Western Massachusetts Incumbent Beat Back Challenger

Alex Morse loses
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, the victim of an anti-gay smear, lost his primary bid for a US House seat from Massachusetts on September 1.
Instagram/ @Alex.Morse

Relying in part on anti-gay attacks that suggested his opponent was a sexual predator, US Representative Richard Neal easily defeated Alex Morse, his out gay challenger, in the September 1 Democratic primary that — with no Republican candidate running in November — decided who will hold the western Massachusetts House seat in the next Congress.

“It looks like a resounding victory this evening,” Neal said during a speech just a few hours after the polls closed. “I’m going to keep on delivering… It’s legislation that changes our lives.”

Neal, who did not mention Morse during the speech, led the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke by roughly 20 points. Neal even beat Morse in Holyoke, where the progressive has been the mayor since he was 22. Neal pointedly thanked Holyoke for its support in securing re-election to the seat he first won in 1988.

Morse announced he would oppose Neal last year and won support from progressive groups, such as the Justice Democrats and the climate change-focused Sunrise Movement. The Victory Fund, an LGBTQ political group that works to elect out candidates to office, was the sole national LGBTQ group that supported Morse. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ lobbying group in the US, endorsed Neal.

Alex Morse, Holyoke’s out gay mayor, loses Democratic primary to House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal

In October 2019, members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA), including Timothy Ennis, who was hoping to win a job with Neal, and Andrew Abramson, a president of a CDMA chapter, fabricated allegations that Morse used his status as mayor and a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he taught from 2014 through 2019, to meet male students for sex, according to reporting by The Intercept, an online news outlet. CDMA members unsuccessfully pitched their fabrication to reporters for months. They were assisted by the Massachusetts State Democratic Party.

On August 7, CDMA sent a letter, approved by its executive board, describing those false allegations to Morse, disinviting him from future CDMA meetings, and the letter was leaked to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at UMass Amherst. In a statement to the newspaper, Morse freely said that he had enjoyed consensual sex with other adult men, some of whom were students he met on the social media app Tinder, and he apologized if he had made any CDMA members uncomfortable.

Sex between same-sex partners is legal in Massachusetts and across the country. UMass policy allows faculty to have sex with students who they are not grading, teaching, or supervising. Using social media apps to meet other men for sex is a common and legal activity enjoyed by many gay men.

While a report that a gay man is a sexual predator — effectively what the members of the CDMA were alleging — would typically end a political campaign and perhaps even a career in politics, The Intercept published a series of stories beginning on August 12 that showed that the allegations were fake and that the students had been assisted by Veronica Martinez, the executive director of the State Democratic Party, Gus Bickford, the party chair, and attorney Jim Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom The Intercept described as a “powerful state party figure.”

Neal, who did not mention the anti-gay smear campaign in his victory speech, continued to treat the allegations as if they were credible, saying in an August 17 debate with Morse, “These students have stepped forward, they should be heard.”

In fact, no student ever did step forward to be heard.

Neal has denied any involvement in the anti-gay smear campaign.

House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal on a 2019 junket to Ireland with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.Reuters/ Clodagh Kilcoyne

In the final days of the campaign, the American Working Families PAC ran a TV ad that used Morse’s dating profile and said he “admits to sexual relationships with college students.” The PAC, which spent more than $1 million to support Neal, defended the ad saying it was truthful while also asserting that the wrong version of the ad was inadvertently aired.

The Victory Fund reported on August 17 that voters in the district had received “phone calls from interviewers conducting a push poll, where recipients were asked if they would still support Morse if he had sent sexually explicit emails to college-aged students.” The group said it was unable to learn who “paid for the bogus push poll.”

While Morse’s insurgent campaign taking on a powerful Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee was a longshot, The Intercept’s exposure that this decades-old, anti-gay slander was fabricated gave his campaign a boost in fundraising and volunteers, but the original lies appear to have set him back among voters.

During his concession speech, Morse congratulated Neal on his win. He also noted that the anti-gay smear campaign was a measure of the Democratic Party’s defense of the status quo and incumbents.

“You don’t run against power, you don’t run against incumbents, you don’t run against other Democrats,” Morse said describing the party’s position. “You keep your head down and wait your turn.”

In a statement, the Victory Fund commended Morse for battling the false charges during the campaign.

“The efforts to sensationalize and weaponize Alex’s sexual orientation certainly influenced the outcome of this race, but the backlash it engendered should give pause to those considering similar tactics in the future,” said Annise Parker, the group’s president and CEO and a former three-term mayor of Houston. “We are grateful Alex stayed in the race and took the body blows necessary to expose the double standards too often placed on LGBTQ candidates. His campaign contributed to a larger conversation about how candidates of color, women candidates, and LGBTQ candidates face a level of scrutiny and sensationalism that straight white cisgender men simply do not.”