Incumbent Richard Neal Suggests Discredited Smear Against Alex Morse Could Be True

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neal talks to reporters ahead of House coronavirus economic aid package vote on Capitol Hill in Washington
Massachusetts Congressmember Richard Neal, as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has oversight of hundreds of billions in federal spending annually, but in a debate on August 17 was unable to acknowledge that provably false allegations against his primary opponent were in fact false.
Reuters/ Yuri Gripas

While allegations of sexual misconduct with University of Massachusetts students against Alex Morse, an out gay candidate running to be the Democratic nominee in a Massachusetts congressional district, have been shown to be fabricated, the House member who has held that seat since 1988 suggested in a debate that they might be true.

“A series of students have stepped forward,” said Democrat Richard Neal, who has represented the First Congressional District in Massachusetts for more 30 years, during an August 17 debate that was livestreamed by New England Public Radio. “They’ve raised these allegations. They’ve also said simultaneously, they had no contact with my campaign. This is inconsistent with my career and it’s inconsistent with my character to have raised these sorts of issues. These students have stepped forward, they should be heard.”

On August 7, The Daily Collegian, a student newspaper that is distributed on the UMass campuses, reported that members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA) and the Amherst College chapter of that group had sent Morse a letter telling him he was no longer welcome at their events. The letter said that Morse, 31, had contacted students via social media after meeting them at CDMA events and the students had felt “uncomfortable” with those contacts. The letter also said Morse, who was teaching at UMass from 2014 to 2019, had “sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.”

UMass policy allows faculty to have sex with students who they are not teaching, grading, or supervising. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex is legal in Massachusetts and across the country.

Morse, who was first elected mayor of Holyoke at 22, issued a statement to The Daily Collegian in which he said, “I have had consensual adult relationships, including some with college students… Navigating life as both a young gay man and an elected official can be difficult, but that doesn’t excuse poor judgment.”

With just three weeks until the September 1 Democratic Primary, that could have ended his campaign, but The Intercept, an online news outlet, published a series of stories beginning on August 12 showing that the charges in the letter were fabricated by students in CDMA, including Timothy Ennis and Andrew Abramson. The effort to smear Morse and help Neal started in October 2019. Ennis was a student in a class taught by Neal and he hoped that Neal would hire him to help launch his own political career.

Grace Panetta, a reporter at Business Insider, also an online news outlet, put up a long post on Twitter in which she described receiving an anonymous email in April offering a story about Morse engaging inappropriately with students. It supplied the names of three people who could corroborate the allegations – Ennis, Abramson, and a third person whom Panetta did not name.

In later stories, The Intercept reported that senior members of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, including Veronica Martinez, the state party’s executive director, Gus Bickford, the party chairman, and attorney Jim Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom The Intercept described as a “powerful state party figure,” had assisted the students in crafting the letter. The latest story, which was published on August 17, reported that Martinez had instructed the students to destroy all records related to the smear campaign. That instruction came after press coverage had turned decidedly in support of Morse and the state party had started an investigation into the smear campaign.

Since no students who had sex with Morse or may have felt uncomfortable with a politician using social media to contact politically engaged young people who might someday volunteer on a campaign have stepped forward to complain about Morse, it was unclear who Neal believes “should be heard.”

Even as the allegations against Morse were proven to be fabricated, the reaction among some reporters in the mainstream press has been to conflate Morse saying he has had sex with consenting adults for the false accusations and assume Morse had done something wrong.

Ray Hershel, the moderator of the acrimonious, hour-long debate, was no exception. The first question Hershel asked, and the first question in the debate, was about a “power difference” in Morse’s sexual encounters and if Morse could prove that Neal was involved in the smear campaign.

“This was a backroom coordinated political smear against our campaign by folks that support this congressman’s campaign,” Morse said. “Evidence has come to light over the past week and it is a culture of folks trying to curry favor with one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington… It’s no coincidence, the timing of these allegations and accusations that go all the way to the height of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.”

When Hershel again asked about a “power difference,” 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 sexual consensual relationships with other adults.”

While Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, did not condemn the attacks on Morse, he did say, “There can be no room in America, in this campaign, or anybody else on the basis of homophobia, racism, or misogyny. These students stepped forward independently of me… Clearly, unequivocally, no room for homophobia and my campaign was not part of this action under any circumstances… I don’t even know the names of the students that have stepped forward.”

Neal made no reference to whether he has had any contact with the state party about this scandal.

Neal said of the investigation, “There is a process in place, an investigator has been hired, and a review will shortly be underway. I am more than content to let that review takes its course.”

The debate was organized by a consortium of media organizations, including New England Public Media, The Republican and MassLive, and The Berkshire Eagle.