Amherst-Area Students Devise Scandal to Oust Alex Morse from Democratic Congressional Primary

Alex Morse sits on a porch. Photo courtesy of Alex Morse for Congress.

Now a defeated challenger in the primary race for Massachusetts’ first Congressional district, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse saw a campaign that came under fire — then made a comeback — after the leadership of the College Democrats of Massachusetts (C.D.M.A.), the University of Massachusetts Amherst College Democrats (UMass Dems) and Amherst College Democrats (ACDems) alleged that Morse used his position as a politician and an adjunct professor at UMass to have sexual contact with students. Since the scandal first emerged on Aug. 9, when the Massachusetts Daily Collegian first reported on the incident, it had been revealed that some members of the UMass Dems conspired with the Massachusetts Democratic Party to sink Morse’s campaign. The president of the C.D.M.A, Hayley Fleming ’21, has since resigned from her position, the Intercept reported. She otherwise declined to comment.

Morse lost his primary to Neal on Sept. 1. 

C.D.M.A. is the official college outreach wing of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and is affiliated with the members of the ACDems and UMass Dems. The organization has at least 25 affiliate schools and aims to support progressive candidates. Leadership of the C.D.M.A is comprised mostly of students who sit on the e-boards of the ACDems and UMass Dems. 

UMass Dems and ACDems wrote a letter that alleged three counts of misconduct by Morse and disinvited him from future events. The letter claimed that Morse had frequented Tinder and Grindr, two popular dating apps, to match with students as young as 18 years old and used “College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and DMing them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable.” The letter also claimed Morse had “sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.”

“Even if these scenarios are mutually consensual, the pattern of Morse using his platform and taking advantage of his position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students, is unacceptable,” the letter said.

 Less than a week later, The Intercept published GroupMe messages from the UMass Dems revealing the letter had been the cumulation of a long plan to ruin Morse’s chances of winning the congressional primary against incumbent and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal. Nationally, the race between Morse and Neal had been tight, with Morse hailed as a “rising star in national progressive politics” with a chance to unseat Neal.

Following the publication by the Daily Collegian, a wave of criticism hit Morse, who was dropped by sponsors and suffered homophobic attacks online. One sponsor, the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement supporting climate-change activism, paused their efforts to support Morse on Aug. 10, the day after the Daily Collegian article. 

“The Sunrise Western Mass Coalition voted by majority to officially retract our endorsement of Alex Morse for Congress,” the organization wrote in a post on Facebook. “We stand with those who brought forward their concerns … we know that rape culture runs deep in our society,” the group wrote. “There is no justice without survivor justice.” The movement has since resumed their support for Morse.

In a statement to the Daily Collegian that was published with the allegations, Morse acknowledged that he had previous, romantic and consensual encounters with college students and apologized for making anyone feel uncomfortable.

“As I’ve acknowledged, I have had consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that I’ve met using dating apps,” he wrote on Twitter. 

But a shift came on  August 12, when The Intercept published a story revealing that members of the UMass Dems e-board planned to fabricate a scandal to oust Morse from the congressional race in hopes of forming political connections with Neal, according to GroupMe messages from the club. 

A later article alleged that Executive Director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party Veronica Martinez, chair Gus Bickford and Co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee James Roosevelt, grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had colluded with the students and helped write the letter, according to leaked GroupMe posts obtained by The Intercept. 

The reason behind the scandal remains unclear, and the UMass Dems and C.D.M.A. have since issued statements denying collusion with the Neal campaign, along with apologizing for launching the scandal in the first place. However, Chief Strategist for the UMass Dems Timothy Ennis messaged that he was a “Neal Stan,” he needed a job, and “Neal will give me an internship.” Ennis was a student in Neal’s journalism class at UMass when the plan was first formulated.

Fleming issued a statement dismissing the accusation that C.D.M.A sent the letter with ulterior motives. “We wrote the letter to Alex Morse’s campaign on the advice of legal counsel after several students — more than the two who have been mentioned in various media coverage — came to us with legitimate concerns,” she said. 

“I believed we were acting in good faith to protect the individuals,” she added in the statement. 

The messages show that the UMass Dems leadership hoped to match with Morse on a dating app and lead him to say something detrimental to his campaign. Andrew Abramson, who became president of UMass Dems in April and was affiliated with the C.D.M.A, took the lead.

Abramson received a direct message from Morse after the October event. According to the GroupMe messages, Abramson and Morse had previously matched on Tinder.

After accepting the Instagram message from Morse containing general pleasantries, Andrew wrote “Pretty good I went home last night to surprise my mom for her birthday hbu?”

Morse replied, “Aw that’s nice. How was that? I had an event to go to last night to speak, then had a wine tasting party at a friends house. Now I’m in north Adams about to march in a parade.”

After sending the screenshot of those messages to the leaked UMass Dems leadership’s GroupMe, Abramson wrote, “Don’t mind me leading him on.” 

Ennis wrote, “This will sink his campaign.”

In June 2020, the C.D.M.A floated the allegations to reporter Alex Thompson at Politico. Thompson reached out to Morse, but did not publish the story until after the Daily Collegian published their article. 

After being contacted by Thompson, Morse sent Abramson a message and apologized if his messages had made Abramson feel uncomfortable. 

Abramson did not respond to a request for an interview with The Student and has since deleted his social media presence like many of the others related to the accusations. Abramson has also left his position as president of UMass Dems. 

On August 9, the College Democrats of Massachusetts published a letter regarding the allegations. “The letter was co-written by the UMass Amherst Democrats and the Amherst College Democrats,” it said. Leaked GroupMe messages show, however, that the entirety of the letter was composed by a few individuals. The majority of members in the organizations were shocked to discover they co-authored the letter.

“The purpose of the letter was to explain our reasoning behind the decision to cut ties with Mayor Morse. The letter laid out the specific ways in which Mayor Morse has made students uncomfortable and abused his power for sexual relationships,” the C.D.M.A said.

Likewise, in a statement to The Student, the Amherst College Democrats wrote that “[We] take these recent reports very seriously,” the Amherst College Democrats wrote in a statement to The Student. “We want to reiterate that our decision to sign the letter to Alex Morse’s campaign was done firmly in good faith and in support of members of our community.”

In a message to all C.D.M.A members, Fleming wrote, “While we believe that the concerns expressed by students were genuine, those concerns have been used to paint Morse in a way that plays into inappropriate stereotypes.”

The accusations leveled against Morse have certainly raised questions about the extent of homophobia in politics. “This race will set a precedent for whether vague and anonymous allegations can be easily launched against LGBTQ candidates,” Massachusetts State Senator Julian Cyr, who identifies as LGBTQ, said in a statement released on Twitter. “I find it extremely disappointing that vague and anonymous allegations have been levied against … Morse without any on-the-record sourcing.” 

In response to the claim that the college groups aimed to sink Morse’s campaign for homophobic reasons, the C.D.M.A wrote that “To suggest that our decision to send the letter to Mayor Morse had anything to do with Mayor Morse’s sexuality is untrue, disingenuous and harmful.”

“We find the homophobic attacks that have followed the publication of the letter deplorable and condemn them in the strongest of terms,” ACDems wrote in a statement to The Student.

The Massachusetts party has since opened up an investigation into the involvement of party officials in the primary after 48 Democratic State Committee members signed onto a letter. “It has since come undone with the Intercept’s accusations that high-level party officials were also involved in the matter. “This group will, upon their unilateral authority, select an independent investigator to review the matter, determine whether rules were broken, and publish in due order a report and attendant recommendations, if any,” Bickford wrote, according to the Hampshire Gazette. “The report, in full, will be provided to the entire DSC membership upon its receipt.” 

Many officials however, are questioning how the party will investigate itself, when at least three high-ranking officials were accused of promoting the scandal. “We cannot investigate ourselves, that’s what it comes down to for me,” Massachusetts Democratic State Committee member Nancy Stenberg in an interview with the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “At this point, that’s what’s going on. I find that unacceptable.” 

Morse has served as mayor of Holyoke for eight years after winning his first election at the age of 22. The homegrown democrat is the first openly gay mayor in the history of the city. He attended Holyoke High School then Brown University where he studied urban studies. Between 2014 and 2019 Morse was also a lecturer of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.