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A recent article in The Intercept alleges that some members of the UMass Amherst College Democrats orchestrated a plan to entrap gay congressional candidate Alex Morse by engaging with him on social media to get him to say something damning before leaking that information to the press.
Morse was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior in a letter sent by the College Democrats disinviting him from future events, claiming that Morse, a lecturer at the university, had pursued sexual relationships with students and created a “lopsided power dynamic.” Morse refuted the allegations as “completely untrue.”
Questions were raised about the nature of the allegations by Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, Mass., and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed him in the race against incumbent Rep. Richard Neal, after it emerged that the College Democrats had received a $1,000 donation from Neal and had “shopped around” the story against Morse to various media outlets before sending the letter.
According to the Intercept report, the chief strategist advising the UMass Amherst College Democrats, Timothy Ennis — the president of the UMass Amherst chapter from April 2019 to April 2020 — was a student in a journalism class taught by Neal and self-professed “Neal Stan” (extreme fan) who wanted to work for the congressman.
In a group chat, Ennis allegedly told a friend he wanted Neal to be his “in” to politics, and said that he felt conflicted about involving the chapter in a future attack on Morse.
“But I need a job,” Ennis reportedly said. “Neal will give me an internship.”
As part of that plan, leaders discussed how they could find Morse’s dating profiles and lead him into saying something that would damage his campaign, with the plan being hatched in October 2019, shortly after Morse attended and spoke at a College Democrats event.
Morse previously told the host of The Hill‘s Rising that he has only attended one College Democrats event since launching his campaign for Congress, which would be the October meeting mentioned in The Intercept article.
Following that meeting, Morse had sat on a discussion panel with one of the officers, with whom he had previously matched on Tinder but never met in person, and reached out via Instagram to tell the student it was a pleasure meeting him.
That student then sent a group chat message in which he said the exchange was “not overt, but it’s very clear he’s not talking to me for no reason,” then attaching a relatively banal chat between himself and Morse that contains no sexual undertones, adding: “Also don’t mind me leading him on.”
“This will sink his campaign,” Ennis said in response.
An aide in UMass Amherst’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, in which the journalism program sits, sent an email to administrators warning them that the College Democrats’ allegations against Morse were “politically motivated.”
According to The Intercept, there has been no official complaint about Morse or his alleged behavior filed with the University of Massachusetts, as is typical procedure, before the Daily Collegian, the school’s student newspaper, published a full letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts disinviting Morse from their events and alleging he used his position as mayor and as a UMass lecturer to pursue improper sexual relationships with college students.
In that letter, the statewide organization alleged that Morse’s interactions with some students, in which he friended them on social media, made them feel “uncomfortable.”
The College Democrats of Massachusetts has pushed back against charges that the decision to send the letter was a quid pro quo with the Neal campaign, calling such accusations “untrue, disingenuous, and harmful.”
In a statement, Neal disavowed any involvement, either by himself or his campaign, with the allegations lodged by the College Democrats of Massachusetts.
“I learned about the allegations against Mayor Morse the same way everyone else did, in the Daily Collegian last week,” the statement reads. “I also want to be clear I will not tolerate my name being associated with any homophobic attacks or efforts to criticize someone for who they choose to love. That’s inconsistent with my character and my values.
“Any implications that I or anyone from my campaign are involved are flat wrong and an attempt to distract from the issue at hand,” Neal added. “I have been and will remain entirely focused on the respective records of myself and Mayor Morse.”
A spokeswoman for Neal also told The Intercept that Ennis and the other young men allegedly involved in the controversy “have no involvement with the Neal campaign.”
Allison Mitchell, the communications manager for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the organization has a policy of not taking sides in contested primaries, but did refer members of the College Democrats to an attorney who volunteers as legal counsel.
“We referred the individuals expressing these concerns to legal counsel and had no further involvement in the matter,” she said in a statement to The Berkshire Eagle.
Morse told The Eagle he wants an investigation into the role that the attorney to whom the students were referred played in crafting the email that was sent, and then printed verbatim by the Daily Collegian.
If the lawyer was involved in crafting the letter, that could indicate involvement by the party, contrary to its stated policy of remaining neutral in primaries.
The Morse campaign said in an email to supporters that it received more than $130,000 on Wednesday alone from individuals who believe he is being unfairly smeared, bringing the total amount of money raised since July 1 to $475,000.
The campaign also noted that prior to the controversy, internal polls had shown Neal leading Morse by a small margin, 45% to 35%, with 20% of voters undecided.
The controversy has grabbed national headlines and divided Democrats in the Bay State along ideological lines. Many progressives allege that the accusations are a smear campaign, rooted in homophobia, and spread to distract from Morse’s criticisms of Neal’s record.
Still others see the College Democrats of Massachusetts as attempting to virtue-signal by cloaking the accusations in the language of the #MeToo movement and equating the discomfort of students who messaged Morse to the trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault.
On the other hand, Morse’s detractors allege that the 31-year-old mayor should not have pursued relationships with other consenting adults due to his position as a UMass adjunct professor, which they allege created the potential for a “lopsided power dynamic” that made some of the young men he interacted with uncomfortable.
As the controversy has spread from Massachusetts to the Twittersphere, fights continue to abound as to whether Morse’s actions or behavior were improper, leading to threats, slurs, and harassment of those who disagree with them, as well as attacks on members of the UMass Amherst Democrats and the College Democrats of Massachusetts, more generally.
As a result, Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford has announced he will be convening a group to investigate the conduct of College Democrats members who leveled the accusations against Morse, according to Politico. Due to the state party’s policy on remaining neutral during primary elections, that group will be convened after the Sept. 1 primary.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund says Bickford’s promise to investigate after the primary isn’t sufficient, and is calling on the state party to complete an independent investigation before the primary so voters can make an informed decision.
“We commend the party chair for recognizing the importance of investigating this orchestrated political hit job on Alex, but we urge him to conduct an independent investigation immediately so voters can fill out their ballots with all the information available to them,” Sean Meloy, the senior political director for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement.
“We now know the leadership of UMass Amherst College Democrats was conspiring to damage Alex’s campaign since at least October. Yet they chose to release the information ten months later — literally as ballots dropped in voters’ mailboxes — and motivated by hopes of a future political career with Alex’s opponent,” Meloy added. “We said from the beginning that the allegations were timed with the political calendar and that it is a disservice to voters and to everyone involved. Now we know that timing was purposeful.
“While these allegations appear to be a political stunt, it is important to underscore how damaging lies can be to the fact that most sexual harassment allegations are true,” Meloy said. “We must ensure students and all people have safe ways to report cases of sexual harassment and that their cases are taken seriously and fully investigated.”
Morse also got support from State Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro), an openly gay legislator, who took issue with what he saw as a lack of specificity to the allegations themselves, and the suspicious timing of their release, as well as a general undercurrent of homophobia in the way that the accusations were reported.
“As an ‘out’ queer elected official who knows the sex lives of LGBTQ people are too often sensationalized in politics and in media, I find it extremely disappointing that vague and anonymous allegations have been levied against Holyoke Mayor and Congressional candidate Alex Morse without any on-the-record sourcing,” Cyr said in a statement.
“It’s alarming that these claims have attracted this level of attention with a swiftness I fear they would have not received if Alex were straight. We know few details about how Alex may or may not have acted with men he met and dated,” Cyr continued. “I worry there isn’t sufficient time to investigate the accusations because the allegations were released literally as ballots hit mailboxes and only three weeks before primary day.
“I am a big believer in listening to and thoroughly investigating complaints of abuse of power or sexual harassment, especially for those of us who hold public office, but unfortunately the timing of this letter seems to be dictated by a political calendar, not out of concern for revealing the truth,” Cyr added.
“This race will set a precedent for whether vague and anonymous allegations can be easily launched against LGBTQ candidates to destroy their campaigns, or whether investigations will be required before LGBTQ candidates are condemned in the media…. We all need to understand that the way these allegations have been brought against Alex Morse have a chilling effect on the willingness of LGBTQ people to run for public office in Massachusetts and across the county.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comment from Congressman Neal and State Sen. Julian Cyr.
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