Alex Morse calls allegations ‘highly suspicious’ as new details about their origins emerge

"We've knocked on thousands of doors talking directly to people that don't care about my sex life. They care about how they're going to put food on the table."

Congressional candidate Alex Morse campaigns with his supporters in Springfield, Mass.  Morse is running for Congress against incumbent Richard Neal. Photo by Steven G. Smith

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Alex Morse campaigns Thursday with his supporters in Springfield. –Photo by Steven G. Smith / Boston Globe file

Rep. Richard Neal says he had no prior knowledge of the allegations that recently surfaced against his Democratic primary opponent, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

And in a statement Thursday, the Massachusetts congressman’s campaign further distanced itself from a group of college students who said Morse had pursued relationships with college students when the 31-year-old openly gay mayor was a lecturer at UMass Amherst, after new reporting this week suggested the anonymous allegations were politically motivated to help Neal’s campaign.

“As we have previously said, the College Democrats independently came forward,” said Neal campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton. “The students named in ensuing news stories have no involvement with the Neal campaign and have never been employed by Richie or his campaign.”

Norton had previously called the students “courageous,” but had no such praise Thursday in the wake of a story published Wednesday night by The Intercept that raised questions about their political motivations.

According to chats obtained by the outlet, Timothy Ennis, the chief strategist and former president of UMass Amherst College Democrats, was a student and fan of Neal (who also taught a class at the university) and hoped an internship with the 16-term incumbent congressman could lead to a career in politics. Andrew Abramson, the chapter’s current president, said in the chats that he didn’t mind “leading [Morse] on” in private Instagram messages, after meeting the mayor at a UMass event. Ennis, who said Morse dated other college students, chatted back that they could use the messages to “sink” Morse’s campaign.

According to the Intercept, the group had pitched broad, unspecified allegations — that Morse made students feel uncomfortable — to national outlets earlier this summer with no success, until their letter was published in the UMass student newspaper last Friday. A staffer at UMass Amherst alerted the school’s administration of evidence that allegations were “politically motivated,” according to a previous Intercept story Tuesday.

After the letter was published, Morse acknowledged having consensual sexual relationships with college students and apologized to any individuals he made feel uncomfortable. But he told WAMC that he would “not apologize for being openly gay, for being a young person and for going on consensual dates.”

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Following the reporting by The Intercept, Morse’s campaign also put out a press release Thursday titled “EVIDENCE GROWS OF RICHIE NEAL CONNECTION TO ATTACKS ON ALEX MORSE.” However, during a subsequent virtual press conference, he provided no specific evidence that Neal was involved.

“Like many, I believe it’s highly suspicious that this story emerged three weeks before the primary election, as we’re on the verge of defeating one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington,” Morse said.

While some progressive supporters initially distanced themselves from his candidacy after the allegations reported, many have since rallied around Morse after more details about the origins of the letter emerged. Morse’s campaign said it raised $130,000 in donations on Wednesday alone, roughly a third of what they raised over the previous six weeks.

Morse’s campaign also said that before the allegations hit, they were “within striking distance” of Neal, with internal polling showing the 71-year-old congressman up 45 percent to 35 percent among primary voters in the 1st District, which covers a large swath of Western Massachusetts — with 20 percent still undecided.

Morse said he had not spoken to Neal in the week since the publication of the letter Friday. And for his part, Neal said he learned about the letter when it was published in the Daily Collegian “the same way everyone else did.”

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“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,” the Springfield Democrat, who has represented the district since before Morse was born, said in a statement Thursday.

“That’s inconsistent with my character and my values,” he said. “Any implications that I or anyone from my campaign are involved are flat wrong and an attempt to distract from the issue at hand. I have been and will remain entirely focused on the respective records of myself and Mayor Morse.”

The two opponents are on the same terms when it comes to their ostensible desire to focus on the issues.

Morse led his Thursday press conference with 10 minutes of criticism of Neal, who is the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, for delaying legislative action to address surprise medical billing earlier this year.

After a bipartisan group had agreed on a bill late last year in both the House and Senate — and was even endorsed by President Donald Trump — Neal and the GOP ranking member of the Ways and Means committee released an unexpected, one-page counterproposal, which effectively derailed the momentum and drew criticism from both the right and the left.

“Neal knew full well that any delay into 2020, an election year, would significantly reduce the chances that anything will end up getting done,” Morse said Thursday, noting that the congressman received $54,000 from industry groups that opposed the initial bill, including from the private equity firm Blackstone, which owns a physician staffing company that profits from surprise medical billing.

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Still, More decried the fact that the majority of the press conference Thursday focused on his “personal sex life” rather than “the issues that we got in this fight to begin with last July.”

“Our team has made over 600,000 phone calls to voters throughout the district,” he said. “We’ve knocked on thousands of doors talking directly to people that don’t care about my sex life. They care about how they’re going to put food on the table and get health care for their family.”

Morse and Neal are scheduled to debate for the first time Monday night.

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