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  • Grant Hillyer

UMASS Student-Organized Sabotage Amidst Massachusetts Primary

Politics often produce high drama. This is especially true when politicians or groups who take covert action are exposed for what they did. This played out first hand earlier this election cycle in the September primaries. Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District featured two contestants. Incumbent Richard Neal, chair of the Influential Ways and Means Committee, was facing a challenge from the left from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 1. Morse wanted to bring a bigger focus to passing the Green New Deal as well as Medicare for All. Neal ran a campaign focused on COVID-19 and responding in a way that would help fix the local economy. The race was shaping up to be another example of a young progressive attempting to unseat a long-time incumbent. This all took a bizarre turn when Morse, who is gay, was accused in August of sexual misconduct in what appears to now be a political hit-job.

The allegations came from the College Democrats of Massachusetts, but it was uncovered that some of the members of the group hoped to work for Neal in the future and had engineered the scandal to help Neal’s chances. They had been planning to publish an anti-Morse piece since October of last year after Morse attended a University of Massachusetts (UMASS) Amherst College Democrats meeting. In reporting done by The Intercept, chat logs were obtained where Timothy Ennis, the chief strategist for the UMass Amherst College Democrats, admitted in the chats that he was a “Neal Stan” and said he felt conflicted about involving the chapter of the College Democrats in a future attack on Morse. “But I need a job,” Ennis said. “Neal will give me an internship.” At the time, Ennis was president of the chapter. Leaders of the College Democrats group also explicitly discussed how they could find Morse’s dating profiles and then lead him into saying something incriminating that would then damage his campaign.

When this proved unfruitful, the College Democrats went vague with their allegations. The allegations put forward claimed Morse had inappropriate relations with students when he was a guest lecturer at UMass Amherst from 2014 to 2019, and that he used College Democrats events to meet students. The letter of allegations provided no specifics and so far no one has come forward against Morse. It has also been revealed that the letter of allegations was written entirely by College Democrats leadership and that Morse only attended one College Democrat event, in October 2019. Another twist to this story is that the College Democrats privately sent the letter to Morse, allegedly not meaning to let the letter go public.

Morse responded by saying that every relationship he had was consensual and that he never dated one of his own students, though he should be more mindful of who he dates while operating as an instructor and mayor. However, the fact that the story was pushed by a member of the College Democrats who admitted to wanting a job with Neal cast some doubt on where the allegations were coming from and if they were in good faith. Morse, for his part, came out stronger against the allegations when it was revealed they were a part of a hit-job, claiming they were rooted in homophobic tropes. There is no solid evidence that Neal directed the allegations to come out, and he has denied knowledge of any doings.

Morse also placed blame at the feet of the state’s Democratic Party, claiming it was acting in a way to protect a powerful incumbent who can bring massive resources to the state. Reporting does indicate that the state party did tell the College Democrats of Massachusetts to delete incriminating communication records in which they were planning to set Morse up and that Massachusetts Democratic Party’s executive director Veronica Martinez and chair Gus Bickford connected the students with attorneys and coached them on strategy around releasing the letter of allegations. Who reached out to who is unclear, as is what relation any of the state officials had to Neal. Though it would make sense for the state party to coalesce around Neal, a powerful incumbent who helps write tax code and was instrumental in writing the CARES act. The state party is supposed to remain neutral in contested primaries, and orchestrating such a blatant attack against a young party member is an obvious violation of those rules.

While the allegations did throw the primary into new territory, putting Morse on the backfoot, once he was cleared, Morse raised more than $410,000, and 800 volunteers have reached out offering help. And groups like the Sunrise Movement which initially pulled their support for More have since come back on board. The students involved in writing the letter have mostly gone quiet, with no lawsuits pending, and the state Democratic Party has opened an independent investigation to determine if anyone acted improperly. Morse ended up losing the primary by 22 points, even though he had been polling within single digits of Neal earlier in the summer. Neal faces no Republicans in the general election and will assuredly win his seat back.

This primary is reminiscent of many other Democratic primaries, from the 2016 presidential election to Senate races this year. While progressives are often the ones who call foul in some of these races when the party gets involved behind the scenes, and the party is supposed to remain neutral, it is a reminder that parties are inherently biased. They have vested interests in who wins elections, meaning they have interests in who wins their primaries. And they often act on those interests, even when they may claim not to. This race might also serve as an unfortunate example of how LGBTQ+ politicians are treated and how quickly allegations can spread, even ones as vague as those brought against Morse. There are not many examples of young gay men running for office, so any who are running and are still dating actively might be new and even uncomfortable to some voters. That, coupled with the knowledge from opponents that their dating lives can be exploited, might dissuade members of the LGBTQ+ community from running in future elections.

Update from Editor: A petition was created in August to petition the University of Massachusetts Amherst to expel Timothy Ennis and Andrew Abramson from the university due to their involvement with the scandal. No word from the university regarding this petition or the scandal.


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