Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse sought to shift the focus of his Democratic primary race against Rep. Richard Neal to the veteran congressman’s reliance on corporate campaign cash and business-friendly legislative record in their first debate after a rollercoaster week marred by scandal.

Morse, a progressive trying to unseat Neal in the primary for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District on Sept. 1, noted in the debate in Pittsfield on Monday night that Neal had received more donations this election cycle from corporate political action committees than any other member of the House ― Democrat or Republican. He tied Neal’s receipt of private equity money to the lawmaker’s effort to stall legislation that would have curbed surprise medical billing, Neal’s benefiting from the largesse of big accounting firms to his vote for a bill to prevent simpler ways to file taxes, and Neal’s contributions from fossil-fuel money to his opposition to the Green New Deal.

Morse, by contrast, has decided to refuse corporate PAC money altogether.

“Do we want a member of Congress who is bought and paid for by corporations ― by Big Pharma, by the fossil fuel industry, by the big health care lobby?” Morse said. “Or do we want a member of Congress that is unbought and going to Washington to fight for everyday people?”

Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, responded by highlighting his support for a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court decision that made it possible for corporations to spend unlimited sums on elections through super PACs.

He credited his massive fundraising hauls, which he shares with more vulnerable Democrats, with helping the party win a “durable majority” in the House in the 2018 election. And Neal insisted that the cash he receives does not influence his policies.

“If you contribute to my campaign, you buy into my agenda,” the congressman said. “I’m not buying into yours.”

At other times, Neal gave as good as he got, hammering Morse for his opposition to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for not attending Holyoke public school board meetings, and for presiding over a police department that had to settle a lawsuit for $65,000 with the family of a 12-year-old boy whom city police allegedly beat nearly unconscious in 2014.

“The mayor keeps talking about the things he’s going to do ― he doesn’t show up for the job that he has,” Neal said.

Morse insists that he has attended some three-quarters of Holyoke school board meetings since taking office in 2011 and that he was only absent when there was a conflict related to city business.

The mayor keeps talking about the things he’s going to do ― he doesn’t show up for the job that he has. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.)

He also attacked Neal’s criminal justice record as mayor of Springfield in the 1980s (Neal has served in the House since 1989). A federal judge ordered that city government and the cops involved in wrongfully arresting a Black man for murder in 1986 to pay the man $27 million after he had served 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

As for the CARES Act passed earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Morse echoed the criticism of many progressives: that its relief measures for ordinary people, including a one-time check of $1,200, were inadequate, while its $500 billion corporate bailout fund was unduly generous to the country’s biggest businesses.

Morse’s performance on Monday night, which put Neal on the defensive, was a stunning turnaround for the 31-year-old mayor. He survived a crisis earlier this month that nearly sank his campaign, struggling to maintain his coalition amid vague charges that he had inappropriately used his positions as mayor and University of Massachusetts, Amherst, lecturer to woo male undergraduates.

The allegations became public on Aug. 7 when the Daily Collegian, UMass Amherst’s student newspaper, published a leaked letter to Morse from the College Democrats of Massachusetts informing him that he was no longer permitted to attend the group’s meetings. The letter said that Morse, who is Holyoke’s first openly gay mayor, had had sexual relationships with UMass Amherst students and messaged men he met at the CDMA ― both of which allegedly made the young men “uncomfortable” given his status as a political leader.

Morse immediately apologized for the discomfort he had caused students. But he also insisted that all of his relationships have been with consenting adults and that he never violated university policy by engaging in a relationship with any student he taught or otherwise oversaw. (To date, no one has produced evidence contravening this claim. In fact, no individual current or former student has come forward to lodge a specific allegation against him, even anonymously.)

Neal (left) stands alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The speaker, who has endorsed the congressman, is featured in one ofYuri Gripas / Reuters Neal (left) stands alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The speaker, who has endorsed the congressman, is featured in one of his ads.

Days later, the narrative shifted entirely as The Intercept unearthed evidence that some of the UMass Amherst students involved in the effort to accuse him of wrongdoing had allegedly sought to frame Morse in an effort to curry favor with Neal. Officials with the Massachusetts Democratic Party had also connected the CDMA with party power broker and former health insurance executive Jim Roosevelt, whose volunteer legal advice to the group included a suggestion, against CDMA leaders’ instincts, that they publicize the letter to Morse, according to The Intercept.

Following those bombshell revelations, prominent figures in the LGBTQ community, including gay elected officials in Massachusetts, grew more confident in their contention that the alleged effort to ensnare Morse and the subsequent rush to judgment about his conduct reflected homophobic bias.

CDMA President Hayley Fleming felt obligated to publicly condemn the “homophobic attacks” that resulted from the leak of the group’s letter to Morse.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the media firestorm over the claims against Morse had quieted. His allies had returned to his side in force, following a more detailed apology that he sent to CDMA leadership on Friday.

Both the debate moderators ― drawn from a range of local media outlets ― and Neal acted like they would just as soon let the issue fade from the foreground. Neal said he was content to let UMass Amherst’s investigation of the students’ charges proceed apace.

“Clearly, unequivocally, no room for homophobia ― and my campaign was not part of this action,” Neal said.

Morse may yet turn a messy scandal into an unexpected political advantage. As progressives began to rally to his side last week, he experienced a fundraising surge, bringing in $130,000 on Wednesday alone ― the final day of the pre-primary federal filing period.

Before the debate aired on Monday, the campaign released an internal poll showing him within 5 percentage points of Neal. The drama of Morse’s relations with college students had not affected most voters’ opinion of him, according to the survey. But among those people swayed by the scandal, it was more likely to have pushed them toward supporting him than away from him.

“I will let the voters of the 1st District come to their own conclusions,” Morse said of the allegations at Monday’s debate. “But this is exactly why I ran for mayor nine years ago ― to change the political culture of personal destruction, of politics that tears people down instead of lifts them up.”

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