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Gay mayor confronts 'homophobic' sex scandal ahead of primary

Congressional hopeful Alex Morse was accused of sexual misconduct, but subsequent reporting suggested a possible conspiracy. Can he bounce back?
Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse before a debate in Springfield, Mass., on Aug. 17. Don Treeger / The Republican via AP

Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and the Democratic primary candidate for the state’s 1st Congressional District, has had a busy few weeks since Aug. 7, when a local college newspaper published an article titled “College Democrats allege inappropriate behavior between Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and college students.”

The allegations — that the young, gay mayor had used his position of power to sexually proposition vulnerable college students — spread quickly through his western Massachusetts district, leading one member of Holyoke’s city council to call for his resignation.

But less than a week later, The Intercept published explosive reports alleging that members of the College Democrats at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Morse once worked, had schemed for months to create a sex scandal to derail Morse’s progressive challenge to incumbent Rep. Richard Neal, with whom the students reportedly wanted to secure an internship.

Two debates later, and a week before the Massachusetts Democratic primary, Morse says he has been vindicated, and that he is raising more money through donations than at any point so far in his campaign.

“A number of folks are seeing it for what it is, in terms of the the language and response to the accusations being rooted in age-old homophobic tropes and the constant overpolicing of the personal lives, the sex lives, of gay men and members of the queer community,” Morse told NBC News.

Relationships with 'teenagers'

The Aug. 7 article in UMass Amherst’s paper, the Daily Collegian, reported that the school’s College Democrats chapter had sent a letter to Morse saying he was disinvited from their future events because the Holyoke mayor used apps such as Grindr, Tinder and Instagram to meet college students “who were as young as 18 years old,” reportedly making them feel uncomfortable.

The next day, reported on allegations that Morse had relationships with “teenagers,” and UMass Amherst posted a statement saying it was “launching an immediate review of the matter” and had no plans to hire Morse back as a lecturer in the political science department, where he worked from 2014 to 2019. The College Democrats of Massachusetts published a letter on Twitter on Aug. 9, saying Morse “abused his power for sexual relationships” and confirmed they sent a similar emailed statement to the candidate himself.

That same day, Holyoke council member Mike Sullivan called for Morse to resign for interactions with “naive and innocent teenage college students,” according to western Massachusetts news station WWLP.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund condemned Sullivan, saying it “believes the use of the word ‘teenagers’ is meant to purposely evoke homophobic stereotypes of gay men as pedophiles.”

“The architects of these efforts knew this is where the conversation would lead – with no regard for the homophobia it would unleash,” the group said, asking those supporting Sullivan’s motion to “ask themselves whether he would treat a straight candidate the same way.”

Sullivan did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment. However, he told Masslive last week that he is seeking a Holyoke City Council vote on an investigation into the allegations against Morse.

In response to a request from NBC News about the Daily Collegian’s role in the first days of the controversy and the source of the letter from the College Democrats to Morse, which the paper was the first to report on, a spokesperson shared this statement on Tuesday: “The letter was provided by a member within a chapter of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, who was granted anonymity. As newspaper policy, we do not comment further on sourcing.”

Two days after the first story broke, Morse posted a statement on Twitter saying accusations that he abused his position were “false.”

“I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual sexual encounter with anyone,” he wrote. “I have never used my position of power as Mayor or UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students. I have never violated UMass policy.”

Morse decided to stay in the race, saying he trusts the voters of Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District to make up their own minds as to whether homophobia influenced the alleged scheme.

“If voters aren't seeing the homophobia, they are certainly seeing the establishment — they are seeing a powerful incumbent at risk of losing a seat and the people around him willing to do whatever it takes for him to hold onto power,” Morse said.

But just as quickly as the scandal had appeared, it seemed to disappear: A new report cast strong doubts on the original College Democrats letter five days after it made news.

On Aug. 12, The Intercept reported on leaked chat logs showing these students conspiring in 2019 to gin up a sex scandal in order to harm Morse’s candidacy — and help his opponent, incumbent Democratic Rep. Richard Neal. The Intercept — which did not name the source of the leaked chat logs and private Instagram messages, some of which were included in the article — reported that these young Democrats hoped that by sabotaging Morse’s campaign they would endear themselves to Rep. Neal, first elected in 1988 and, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful incumbent Democrats in Congress.

Two days later, UMass Amherst — which bans faculty from sexual relationships with students “for whom the faculty member has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity” —announced it had hired an independent attorney to investigate the scandal.

While Morse was not accused of having a relationship with a student he taught, one of the students accused of scheming to harm Morse’s campaign was reportedly in a journalism class taught by Neal, who is currently listed on the university’s website as part-time faculty lecturer.

The College Democrats of Massachusetts did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment, but in a statement to HuffPost, which was shared on Twitter, the College Democrats of Massachusetts denied any wrongdoing and said the letter to Morse “was not politically motivated” and “had nothing to do with any of our members’ professional ambitions or personal politics.” In its Aug. 9 letter shared on Twitter before the Intercept reported on its chat logs, the student group said suggestions that its decision to break ties with Morse had anything to do with his sexual orientation are “untrue, disingenuous, and harmful.”

In a statement, Rep. Neal 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.”

Morse, however, maintains this was “a coordinated political attack with the intention of harming our campaign at a pivotal moment.”

“There were students that Congressman Neal involved that were trying to curry favor with a powerful incumbent to secure a job, and this goes to the height of the Massachusetts Democratic Party,” Morse told NBC News.

The Intercept reports revitalized his campaign by changing the narrative and fueling a surge of campaign donations. On Sunday, Morse appeared to acknowledge this by sharing a picture of himself on Twitter carrying a bag emblazoned with The Intercept’s logo: “New tote.”

The mayor and his message

Since declaring his candidacy last year, Morse has taken an anti-incumbent progressive message to voters in the Bay State’s first district, which covers part of the central Connecticut River Valley and the hilly western Berkshires area.

“On every issue Congressman Neal doesn't understand the urgency of the moment,” Morse said. “From criminal justice, climate change, to the influence of money in politics.”

“He’s using his power to benefit the corporate and special interests that have invested millions in his campaign, and he’s not using his power to help the people, places, and communities in western and central Massachusetts,” Morse added.

His message echoes those that helped propel figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres to primary victories in solid blue districts, and one Morse hopes will win in his Sept. 1 primary.

A poll conducted this month put Morse within five points of Neal, with 13 percent of voters undecided — well within the striking distance that other Democratic challengers from the left had before winning in their primaries.

Morse, who at 31 is among the first of a generation of LGBTQ politicians who came of age using common dating apps such as OkCupid, Tinder and Grindr, said he “will never apologize for being young and gay and single and using gay dating apps and having consensual relations with other adult men.”

“I think my decision to stay in this race and fight and be open and honest about my life and my personal life I think will make it more likely that other young people, other queer people, other single people feel like they, too, can run for office,” he said.

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