Morse Matriculates to National Politics…& a Faceoff with Neal…
HOLYOKE—Alex Morse, the Paper City electoral wunderkind who became his hometown’s mayor at 22, formally kicked of his bid for Congress Monday night. Surrounded by supporters from various phases of his eight years in city politics, Morse declared that the national political moment called for a new generation and a more aggressive pursuit of progressive politics.
The incumbent, Richard Neal, himself a former mayor in Springfield, will not be easy to beat. Morse has told his supporters to brace for scrutiny of his mayoralty here and for the muscle of Neal’s prodigious fundraising. But the challenger underscored that he turned out an incumbent in 2011. Replicating that, he says, is his path to Washington and to joining high-profile Democratic stars swept into office last year.
“People are looking for a vocal advocate in Washington that stands beside them and stands up for the values that people have here,” Morse said in an interview.
Although Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives last year, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has also emboldened the left. Much of that has manifested in younger generations jostling their way onto the scene rather than waiting their turn.
But Morse is not an exact parallel to Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They beat established figures—an incumbent in the latter case—in Democratic primaries. The closer analog may be their Squad-mate Ayanna Pressley, a former Boston Councilor, who bested incumbent Congressman Michael Capuano. Like Morse, Pressley had a lengthy record in municipal government before seeking federal office.
Unlike these insurgent representatives, however, Morse, now 30, will be making a more direct, even classic, argument against the Washington.
In his video posted early Monday, Morse also announced he would not accept any corporate political action committee (PAC) money. It was a not-so-subtle dig at Neal, if one with risk, whose campaign funds have come from individuals, union PACs and corporate PACs.
Speaking to supporters, Morse questioned whether Neal’s chairmanship of the powerful Ways & Means Committee redounded to the benefit of distort residents.
Morse warned his supporters they would probably be outspent—Neal had not quite $4 million in the bank as of June 30—but assured they could overcome that on the ground.
“The only special interest I’ll have is the people of the First congressional district,” he said.
Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional district includes virtually all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties, and southwestern Worcester County.
No other candidates have announced, but more could enter.
In a statement, Neal’s campaign welcomed Morse to the race, but did not give an inch on the incumbent’s record. “Richie has been a champion for working families in Western Massachusetts and has fought tirelessly to ensure that the people of our region are not forgotten and receive our fair share,” campaign manager Peter Panos wrote.
Morse will be leaning into his time as mayor here to topple Neal. It’s a record that offers the still-young mayor’s campaign a story to tell. But his nearly eight-year career in politics has its foibles, too.
Speaking to a throng gathered at the Unicorn Bar steps from City Hall, Morse told supporters that he would not only need their help with knocking doors and campaign contributions. He would need them to tell residents of the Massachusetts 1st Congressional district Holyoke’s story.
Morse first won office in 2011, also becoming the city’s first openly LGBTQ mayor. In defeating incumbent Elaine Pluta, however, Morse upended Holyoke politics, too. It prompted a backlash which fueled fervent, if variably potent, challenges every election year. It also manifests as opposition on the Council and as public rebukes. Yet, the powers that were could never beat him at the ballot box.
“To some extent, our work here and our campaigns here serve as a roadmap for how we want to run this campaign,” Morse told WMassP&I, “expanding the universe obviously, reaching out to people that have never felt part by a political campaign before or frankly have been turned off by political campaigns.”
Morse talks about urgency of the moment. While Democrats agree that may be true nationally, it may be a tougher sell in the district. Moreover, the mayor faces some urgency of his own. Having been mayor of Holyoke his entire career, he is ready to try something different. But the electoral options are few and he has passed on other potential offices like State Senate.
Nobody knows how long Neal intends to stay in office—another GOP House could hasten his exit. But an open seat will draw massive attention. If it happens soon enough, among the candidates would likely be State Senator Eric Lesser. He could easily match Morse’s fundraising and organization.
For now, Morse is not arguing Neal is insufficiently progressive—at least not explicitly. Although clearly running to Neal’s left, Morse, responding to a question about appealing to the district’s moderate pockets, rejected labels like progressive or conservative.
But beyond the fundraising dimension, Morse’s campaign and supporters do want a contrast on issues and style.
“Alex has approached this campaign like he has approached every day as mayor of Holyoke,” supporter Nancy Stenberg, a Democratic State Committee member, said. “With equity and social justice in mind for every citizen of the 1st congressional district. Whether it comes to Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, Alex is thinking about all of us.”
There is another angle. Angered by Neal’s slow path to obtaining Trump’s taxes—the Ways & Means Chair has a statutory right to them—national progressive groups have sought out a candidate to challenge Neal. The chairman sued the Treasury Department for compliance earlier this month. Now that Morse has announced, some liberal organizations, like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are likely backing him.
Still, the tip of the spear remains a charge that Neal serves special interests. On this point, however, Morse will have a lot of work to do.
Down I-91 in Chicopee and Springfield particularly, Neal enjoys a lot of trust. While somewhat provincial, this trust also crosses the political strata in those cities. Together, they usually constitute 1/5 of the district’s primary electorate.
Springfield City Councilor Michael Fenton lives on Neal’s street and represents him on the Council. While he considers Morse a friend—they are among the lower Valley’s few LGBTQ pols—Fenton is backing Neal.
“He has also been the strongest booster Springfield has had in my lifetime,” Fenton emailed. Fenton defended Neal’s liberal bona fides, calling him a “pragmatic and effective advocate” for “the social and economic progress our country has made in the last 30 years.”
Though often an unabashed dissenter on consensus (read: establishment) city policy, Fenton’s position illustrates the depth of Neal’s support downriver. Many Springfield reformers, activists, unions, and Berniecrats (both Neal and Morse were Clinton delegates in 2016), all natural allies of the left Morse would want to corral, will back the incumbent.
“Time after time he has shown up for me, my community, and the 1st Congressional District—he’s been there for us and we’ll be there for him,” Fenton said.
Countering this firewall will require more than money. Building a field organization has never been difficult for Morse in Holyoke. Expanding it to the sprawling congressional district presents a challenge. Plus, Neal is not napping on field either. He has already begun to build his field operation, almost a year earlier than he did in the 2018 primary against Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud.
Only time will tell on the field-building. For now, Morse will begin touring the district, reaching out to activists and listening to voters. That will inevitably include time in cities like Pittsfield, Springfield and Westfield. Aside from money, and despite national groups and smaller towns’ gripes about Neal, this earlier, lower key part will be crucial for Morse to succeed.
Reflecting on what brought him to run, Morse said that although he loved his job a mayor, it has limits.
“We can only do so much with the system we have and the resources we have,” he said. Morse pointed to various metrics by which the 413 has fallen behind relative to the state. The answer, he argues, is to change congressional representation in Washington.
“The moment is right, the time is now,” he said.