Alex Morse: “I Would Be One of the Few Democrats That Stands Up To the Democratic Party”

Alex Morse

The progressive congressional candidate talks to Jacobin about the smear campaign he’s endured, the limitations of a Joe Biden presidency plus Richard Neal chairmanship, his record on policing, his personal relationship to the opioid crisis, and democratic socialism.

Alex Morse is the current mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and a candidate for Congress in Massachusetts's first congressional district.

Interview by
Meagan Day

On Tuesday, September 1, Alex Morse will attempt to unseat sixteen-term incumbent Richard Neal. Neal is an establishment Democrat who’s devoted his career to protecting corporate interests and blocking the expansion of social programs. Morse is a progressive challenger who supports Medicare for All, a Green New Deal with a federal jobs guarantee, and tuition-free public college.

Naturally, wealthy executives, large corporations, and party insiders and hopefuls are circling the wagons to stop Morse. In early August, the Intercept revealed that he’d been intentionally wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct. Though all available evidence exonerates Morse, the opposition is still smearing him over the weekend, with the election days away.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Alex Morse about the attacks he’s endured, the limitations of a Joe Biden presidency plus a Richard Neal chairmanship, his record on policing, his personal relationship to the opioid crisis, and democratic socialism.


MD

You’ve called your opponent Richard Neal the health insurance industry’s favorite Democrat. He was battling against health care reform back when Bill and Hillary Clinton were pursuing it, and they weren’t even proposing Medicare for All. If Richard Neal enters a seventeenth term in Congress, what can we expect from him with regards to health care?

AM

This primary race has some of the most serious national implications this year, given that Congressman Neal is the chair of the Ways and Means Committee and is actively using his power to undermine any progress on health care legislation. The House had hearings on Medicare for All for the first time last year, and he barred members of the Ways and Means Committee from even uttering the phrase Medicare for All. So as long as Congressman Neal is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, any hope for a public option, much less any hope for a single-payer health care system, is dead on arrival.

Not only is Neal advocating for the status quo, which is leaving millions of Americans and thousands of people here in the district behind, but he’s actively using his power to kill legislation that would be beneficial to everyday Americans. Last December, he used his power as chair of the Ways and Means Committee to kill a piece of legislation that would have limited surprise medical bills after taking $54,000 from Blackstone, a private equity group that was lobbying against the bill. You just can’t take on Big Pharma when you’re taking their money. You can’t take on the health care lobby when you’re taking millions of dollars from them.

Neal likes to celebrate that over 90 percent of Massachusetts residents have health insurance, with no regard for the fact that most Massachusetts residents and people here in the district are underinsured and still can’t afford their out-of-pocket expenses. Literally in the middle of a pandemic, we have hospitals closing birthing centers, closing inpatient psychiatric hospitals. You just would never know that we have one of the most powerful members of Congress representing us.

And what is most striking is that even after forty million Americans have lost their jobs and millions of them have lost their employer-based health insurance, Neal still refuses to grasp why health care should be a human right and why we should not be tying health care to employment.

MD

You mentioned Blackstone, which is also heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. That’s also true of other big investment firms, and these kinds of firms furnish nearly as much of Neal’s campaign funding as the insurance industry. If Neal wins, what can we expect from him with regards to the climate?

AM

If we look at the forty-eight-hour-notice donations to Neal’s campaign, it’s just incredible to see the amount of fossil fuel executives, oil and gas companies, and corporate PACs investing in his campaign. You can’t take out the fossil fuel industry and fight climate change when you’re taking money from the very interests that are benefiting from inaction on this very issue.

This is a district that’s about a third of the land area of Massachusetts. We have more farms here than any other district in the state. We have changing weather patterns, precipitation, and climate that is impacting small farmers here in the district. And we also need to prepare for the inland migration of people from coastal areas of this country.

I’ve taken the “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge. Neal hasn’t. I support the Green New Deal. Neal doesn’t. Neal continues to see natural gas as the bridge to renewable energy, and I believe we’re already at the other end of that bridge, and need to halt the expansion of any natural gas pipelines and stop fracking in this country.

Neal is the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that refuses to sign on to the Green New Deal. On top of that, he was the lead negotiator in the House with President Trump on the USMCA [United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement], or NAFTA 2.0, which every national climate organization came out against. So as with health care, Neal refuses to comprehend the urgency of the moment when it comes to the climate crisis.

MD

Neal’s far from the only corporate Democrat out there. In fact, Joe Biden has a long history as a proud Third Way Democrat. That history is outlined in Branko Marcetic’s book Yesterday’s Man as well as several articles he’s written for Jacobin, including one called “Joe Biden Is the Forrest Gump of the Democratic Party’s Rightward Turn.”

So let’s say you win and Biden wins. How would you relate to President Joe Biden? If he moves to block progressive measures that otherwise might stand a chance, what would be the appropriate course of action?

AM

I think this is what worries progressives the most, is having a President Biden and a Chairman Neal working together — that we won’t see any transformative change. When it became obvious that Joe Biden was going to be the presumptive nominee, we immediately saw a shift of momentum and enthusiasm toward our campaign, given the need right now to send more progressives to Congress and hold a future Biden administration accountable.

I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities for President Biden and I and other members of Congress to work together, but there will certainly be areas where we need to make sure that we are fierce in our convictions and our values. Too often Democrats cede the argument to the Right and negotiate down, rather than actually being a party that is willing to grow a backbone and fight for what the American people deserve.

Whether under a Republican president or a Democratic president, I will always fight for what I believe in and fight for the residents that sent me to Washington in the first place. And if that means opposing or speaking out against a policy position or a piece of legislation from a Democratic president, that’s what I plan to do.

MD

If you win, do you intend to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus? How do you see yourself relating to democratic-socialist Congress members and members of the Squad?

AM

Absolutely. I would be excited to join the Progressive Caucus and to join the Squad. We share the same values. It’s really about having a government and a Congress that fights for working people. Even less than about progressive versus moderate or centrist, it’s really about having a party that fights for people, not for corporations.

MD

If you win a seat in Congress, you’ll be entering national leadership in a time of total chaos. Unemployment has been worse than the worst week of the Great Depression for going on twenty-four weeks now.

While Neal has championed efforts to gut welfare, your platform demonstrates a strong commitment to social spending and economic redistribution. How would you like to see those principles applied in this period of economic crisis?

AM

We did not expect a global pandemic when I launched this campaign, but this pandemic has only crystallized why progressive leadership and our victory is so critical to the people of Western Massachusetts and to our country.

Even in the middle of this pandemic, as I said before, Neal still doesn’t think health care should be a human right. He came out against Pramila Jayapal’s Paycheck Guarantee Act, which was actually a quite commonsense, conservative proposal of just maintaining wages for the American people making up to $90,000. He was also publicly opposed to [Ed] Markey, [Kamala] Harris, and [Bernie] Sanders’s bill for a $2,000 a month recurring payment to the American people. I would support that. And I’m also, pandemic or not, a supporter of a universal basic income (UBI).

When you look at the wealth gap and growing income inequality in this country, including the racial wealth gap, it’s clear that how we value production and work is completely off base. The fact that we have working parents that right now have to choose between their job or raising their child in the wealthiest country on earth is completely unacceptable.

I would not be a Democrat like Congressman Neal who has voted for nearly every defense authorization budget, which has created a federal system where over 60 percent of our discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon and war and defense. I would be one of the few Democrats that stands up to the Democratic Party, not just the Republican Party, in fundamentally changing our federal budget to reinvest in people and in domestic priorities like transportation, health care, education, and other social programs.

MD

What do working-class people need that they aren’t getting in normal, non-coronavirus times? What pro-worker policies would you like to see the federal government implement to meet those needs? Where do unions fit in?

AM

I support repealing the Janus decision, requiring workers to be represented on corporate boards, and of course a higher federal minimum wage. We also need to pass federal legislation that strengthens employee rights to unionize, and hold corporations and employers accountable for undermining efforts of employees to unionize.

In the bigger picture, we need free public college. We need a Green New Deal not just to tackle the climate crisis, but to provide a jobs guarantee, creating thousands of good-paying union jobs in the renewable energy economy. And of course, health care should be a human right, but also housing should be a fundamental human right in this country. We have the resources to achieve that. We can provide every human in this country with a quality place to sleep.

We need to ensure every person’s right to drink clean water, breathe clean air, and live in a safe, stable place. And we need to ensure their right to a secure and decent job that provides a livable wage for themselves and their family.

MD

Western Massachusetts is a beautiful and peaceful place — and like many regions across the country, it’s been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. What should be the federal response and general orientation to the opioid crisis and other drug addictions?

AM

Congressman Neal has been completely absent on this fight, and it’s quite frustrating for people here on the ground. Overdoses are going down statewide, but they’re going up here in Western Massachusetts.

As mayor, one of the first things I did in my first year in office was start a needle exchange program in the city. Syringe access programs are one of the most effective harm reduction tools to prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C via IV drug use. And that program has been successful. I was even sued by my own city council after starting that program, which actually led to a change in state law that allowed for us to go from five programs in Massachusetts to now thirty since we opened up ours in 2012.

Needle exchange programs are still illegal federally, and Congressman Neal has done nothing to address that. I also support safe injection facilities. They are illegal federally, and the congressman has been silent on those issues as well.

My support for a single-payer health care system would cover treatment for substance use disorders. We need a health care system that recognizes substance use disorders, and often their dual diagnosis with mental disorders. There are too many people sitting in jail cells in this country because we continue to criminalize addiction when people need quality care.

My brother passed away in February from a heroin overdose. Even as the mayor of a major city of the district, I couldn’t find my brother a detox bed when he needed it the most. We put him on a bus from Springfield to Pittsfield, in Berkshire County an hour away, because it was the only place we could find a detox bed. Pittsfield welcomed him, made him part of the community. He found a job. But the pathway to recovery is never linear. And unfortunately, our family got the call that so many other families around this country have received, telling us that my brother passed away from an overdose.

My brother fell through the cracks of a system that values profit over people. The federal response has been completely inadequate, and we see that reflected in our health care system and our housing and criminal justice systems, as well.

MD

When you were mayor of Holyoke, police beat a twelve-year-old Latino boy unconscious. An opinion piece in the Boston Globe alleges you didn’t do nearly enough as mayor to address this incident. Naturally, in the context of these national protests against police brutality, people want to know what happened. So what happened? And what is your general political outlook on questions of police violence and mass incarceration?

AM

The Boston Globe piece was written by someone who clearly doesn’t support my campaign, and the language is largely lifted from the lawyer that represented the family. The city decided to settle that case out of court for $65,000. But I’ll return to that in a moment.

Overall, as mayor for nine years, I’ve been very intentional about demilitarizing our police department, converting military vehicles and equipment out of the department. Over 50 percent of the officers I’ve hired over the last nine years have been Latino or African-American, reflecting the diversity and the lived experience of the 50 percent of our population that identifies as Latino, mostly Puerto Rican. In my nine years as mayor, not a single officer has had to fire a shot, and that is because we’ve invested in implicit bias training and de-escalation training.

When I took office, we had one of the highest out-of-school suspension rates for students of color of any school district in the country. That’s the school district that I inherited. We invested in restorative justice programming in high schools and middle schools to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, which has made a tremendous difference in the lives of countless people in our community.

The incident that happened in 2014 was incredibly unfortunate. There are facts to the case that I think contextualize it to some extent, but I’ll be very frank and say I wish it never happened. This was an incident that was late at night, dark, on a bridge, where shots were being fired at officers. The officers had to respond to a pretty chaotic situation, and while gunshots were being fired and folks were running away from the scene, officers arrested a number of people. And unfortunately, there was the incident with the twelve-year-old.

Once it gets into the legal system we’re not able to discuss these cases in too much detail, because of federal qualified immunity laws that require cities to be party of these lawsuits. But when we do settle a lawsuit like that, and in this case for $65,000, both the family and the city agree that neither is admitting to wrongdoing and we just want to move forward. The department has certainly learned from that. I have since appointed a new police chief, and we’ve invested heavily in new implicit bias and de-escalation trainings on behalf of the department, and particularly around reforming our use-of-force policies.

On a more global scale, no mayor, no police department is immune from these conversations. I welcome the scrutiny and accountability, and I want to go to Congress to make sure that we build a federal system that reimagines what policing looks like in our country. I’m running for Congress to end cash bail, combat the school-to-prison pipeline, end mass incarceration, and end qualified immunity.

MD

You came onto a lot of people’s radar when you were accused anonymously of vague sexual misconduct, and then in short order when it was revealed that the University of Massachusetts Amherst College Democrats had hatched a plan to smear you as a sexual predator for political advancement, and that the state Democratic Party had conspired to help them cover their tracks. How did you feel throughout that experience?

AM

It was a difficult weekend. The anonymous blog post, which is what I call it for lack of a better term, came out on a Friday night and was quickly amplified by mainstream media at every level. It was very difficult for me personally. I felt sick. It took a toll on me. It also took a toll on my team, my family, my friends, and my supporters.

I immediately responded like any human I think would, or should, when you learn that you may have made someone feel uncomfortable. And that was to say, “Hey, I honestly don’t recall, and I would never intentionally make someone feel uncomfortable, but if I did, I need to honor that, and I regret that, and I would be happy to be in touch as to how to make it right.”

And then in the days that followed, to come to learn that no one was actually uncomfortable, rather that they were intentionally plotting to entrap me on Instagram or a dating app in order to inflict maximum damage on our campaign while also currying favor with Congressman Neal in collaboration with the Massachusetts Democratic Party, was just incredibly disappointing and disheartening.

It’s almost hard for me right now to even reflect fully, because it’s been like go, go, go ever since that weekend. The campaign has entered a new phase since then, a new level of intensity and attention. I think I’ll be able to reflect and look back at this experience in a deeper way a few weeks from now, or maybe a few months from now.

MD

I saw that your opponents are still trying to roll with it, robocalling people and asking them if they’d vote for you if they knew that you sent sexually explicit emails to college students, which as far as I know has no basis in reality. What do you make of their insistence on this angle?

AM

I think it’s incredibly dangerous to our democracy, and that it has a chilling effect for young people, queer people, single people, basically telling us we can’t or shouldn’t run for office. I realized that weekend that this was bigger than just me. It was really about the future of our community and young people and just people in general feeling that they can run for office and have a personal life.

I think it’s quite disgusting and a sad state of affairs that even in what people consider left-leaning liberal Massachusetts, that establishment Democrats and people who benefit from the status quo will almost stop at nothing to retain power. It’s exactly what people hate about politics, and it’s why people don’t participate and don’t run for office.

I’m grateful that information and evidence of the coordination was made public so soon after the initial allegations. But I think it’s certainly a lesson for all folks involved in this process about how to examine these types of issues.

MD

Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Jamaal Bowman have all either embraced or accepted the label to varying degrees. Do you feel that label applies to you? Why or why not?

AM

I consider myself a progressive Democrat, but when I reflect on my values, they’re very much in line with democratic socialism. I’m proud to have the support of the Berkshires chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America here in the district. When I think about our core tenets on climate and mass incarceration and health care and the other issues that are important to democratic socialists, I find that we are very much aligned.