Alex Morse maintains he has never abused his authority either as mayor or as lecturer at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The Holyoke mayor claims he’s now the victim of a political hit job that began Friday when allegations came to light about relationships he’s had with college students, as well as his communications with students via dating apps and Instagram that the College Democrats of Massachusetts say made people uncomfortable.
Morse, in an interview Wednesday, struck a defiant tone and promised to focus his congressional campaign back onto issues like his call for universal health care and his criticism of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, his opponent in the Sept 1. Democratic primary for the 1st District seat.
It’s a race Morse says he’s still in a position to win, despite college Democratic groups disinviting from him from future events.
“Again, I think the larger question is why I’m being put in a position to talk about my sex life three weeks before the election,” Morse said. “Light is beginning to show.”
Morse said his campaign turned to Boston-based communications firm Northwind Strategies this week to help handle a deluge of press requests.
In a story first reported by the Daily Collegian, the UMass-Amherst student newspaper, the student Democrats stated Morse, 31, matched with students as young as 18 on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. Neal’s campaign has denied involvement in the publication of the allegations.
Some of the students, the Democratic club has said, were made to feel uncomfortable and felt as though they couldn’t refuse communications with Morse due to his position as a lecturer in political science and his role as a mayor, as a congressional candidate and as a standard bearer for the progressive causes in Western Massachusetts.
“I will not apologize for using gay dating apps and for having consensual sex with other adult men,” Morse said. “But I have never in my entire life had a nonconsensual sexual encounter with anyone.”
He also said he did not violate any UMass policy, as none of the men with whom he had relationships were current, former or future students of his classes.
The university is conducting its own review to see if there were violations of the federal Title IX sex discrimination law that also bans harassment behaviors.
Asked whether the recipients of his communications might have felt differently, Morse pointed out that even at 31, he’s spent a long time in public eye. “I became mayor at 22, and I realize that that position, that power and responsibility follows me whether I am at City Hall, whether I’m in the grocery store or in my bedroom.”
Morse didn’t go into further details of his interactions, instead preferring to focus on how the conduct came to light.
“My sex life has gotten more scrutiny over the last few days then the corruption of Richard Neal has gotten in the last 30 years,” Morse said. “Again, I know I’m not going up against Congressman Neal. It’s not just him, it’s the Springfield political machine. It’s Charlie Kingston.”
Kingston, of West Springfield, now in his late 70s, is a well-known political operative and campaign consultant, having advised, in particular, a number of Springfield mayors over the past four to five decades dating back to before Neal served as the city’s chief executive.
Neal, Morse said, “walked into” the congressional seat when U.S. Rep. Edward P. Boland, D-Springfield, retired — and he believes Neal now wants to select his own successor.
Neal, 71, was first elected to the House in 1988 following the retirement of Boland.
Morse also pointed to public statements from a UMass Democratic club member who supports his candidacy as evidence that Neal’s influence is behind the public airing.
Clare Sheedy of Pittsfield, going into her sophomore year at UMass Amherst, said allegations the groups are making about Morse are politically motivated — a claim the College Democrats of Massachusetts denies.
In an interview with The Republican Wednesday, Sheedy claimed one of the members of the club’s executive board — the chapter’s chief strategist, who also spent a year in the role of communications director for the statewide College Democrats of Massachusetts — may have had ulterior motives for supporting the letter outlining the allegations. She said the student has previously expressed unease about Morse, while at the same time expressing admiration about Neal.
The student Sheedy discussed, a political science major at UMass Amherst, could not be reached for comment. She previously offered a similar account to the news site The Intercept.
Sheedy said she got to know the student last year, during the early days of the Democratic presidential primary campaigns, because they were the only two supporters of Pete Buttigieg in a chapter full of Elizabeth Warren supporters.
She said recalled driving to New Hampshire with the student in November for a Buttigieg campaign stop, and that he talked about Morse’s contact with UMass a student via Tinder. “He said he found Morse to be kind of weird,” Sheedy said.
She also recalled the student talking about courses he took with Neal. “He said he wanted to work for Neal,” Sheedy said. “He was interested in Neal being his ‘in’ to politics.”
She told The Intercept and The Republican that at the time she didn’t think much of it, and thought the student was just backing the area’s most prominent politician. “But then it became this huge thing three weeks before the election,” she said.
She said she did not know the letter was in the works until the Collegian’s article appeared Friday.
“They texted to the group that the article was active,” she said. “When I read the article, I was like, ‘Whoa!‘”
She also claimed the board offered an early version of the letter to the website Politico in July, but was rejected. “Since then they tweaked the language” and sent it to the Collegian, she said.
The College Democrats said Wednesday that the letter was not politically motivated.
“The letter we sent to Mayor Morse had nothing to do with any of our members’ professional ambitions or personal politics,” the organization said in response to questions from a reporter at The Huffington Post that were shared to Twitter Wednesday.
The letter “was written at the direct request of students who were personally made uncomfortable by the Mayor’s behavior,” the organization said.
Sheedy said she can understand some students feeling uncomfortable with Morse reaching out to them on social media, and she said she also thinks Morse showed “poor judgment.”
“But at the end of the day, I’m not seeing anything that says it was an abuse of power. It was definitely a lack of judgment,” she said. “At the same time, it seems as if people are out there trying to destroy his career before the election.”
Morse said he has had a very strong week of fundraising despite the revelations, and continues to do campaign standouts. He said he’s gotten new volunteers and fresh support from the LGBTQ community.
“We still see a pathway to victory,” he said.