Calls mounted for Democratic Congressman Richard Neal to condemn a homophobic smear campaign against his progressive challenger Alex Morse in the wake of The Intercept's damning Wednesday night report revealing internal chats about University of Massachusetts Amherst College Democrats leaders' efforts to sabotage the Holyoke, Massachusetts mayor's U.S. House primary run.
Just a day after reporting that one member of the UMass Amherst College Democrats had told another that "he wanted Neal to be his 'in' to politics and work his way up from there," The Intercept published screenshots and summaries of chats among the group's leadership "discussing an operation they believed could sink the campaign of Alex Morse for Congress as far back as last October, a plan they then helped engineer and which came to fruition on Friday."
The revelations provoked demands for political groups and individuals who have distanced themselves from or openly denounced Morse to apologize as well as for Neal—whose campaign has not been directly tied to the college students' operation—to speak out against the orchestrated attack on his competitor:
Alex Morse is owed an apology from quite a few people & groups https://t.co/YTek7IQN3n
— Secular Talk (@KyleKulinski) August 12, 2020
We now know the homophobic smears against @AlexBMorse were orchestrated by one of @RepRichardNeal's students trying to earn political favor. Congressman Neal should apologize to Alex Morse, and fire any staff who had contact with the homophobic schemer. https://t.co/DWbbfbmRWc
— Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (@CDRosa) August 13, 2020
Richard Neal should make a clear, strong statement, denouncing the tactics described here.
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) August 12, 2020
The student newspaper The Daily Collegian had reported Friday on a letter that the College Democrats of Massachusetts sent Morse accusing the 31-year-old local mayor and adjunct professor at the university of abusing "his position of power for romantic or sexual gain" by connecting with adult students—whom he was not teaching at the time—on dating apps and social media. The report came just weeks before Neal and Morse's September 1 primary.
On Sunday, Common Dreams reported on critics raising alarm over the thinly-sourced accusations and warning against anyone jumping to conclusions or withdrawing their support from Morse over the anonymous claims.
Morse, who is openly gay, responded with a statement saying that he has never used positions in the community for romantic or sexual gain, never had a non-consensual sexual encounter, and never violated UMass policy. Some journalists and political commentators have decried the letter and subsequent condemnation of Morse as an example of "creepy Victorian moralizing" and the use "old homophobic tropes" casting gay men as sexual predators.
Nobody should rule out 1.
If they try for 2, it should be condemned.
In a good world, it would be 3.
Story here https://t.co/KIn4BuMnV6
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) August 12, 2020
The Morse thing looked like a hit job & thanks to Ryan Grim's reporting we can say with certainty that it was. https://t.co/0q8qFNK4x6
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) August 12, 2020
As Ryan Grim and Daniel Boguslaw reported for The Intercept Wednesday:
Timothy Ennis, the chief strategist for the UMass Amherst College Democrats, admitted in the chats that he was a "Neal Stan" and said he felt conflicted about involving the chapter of the College Democrats in a future attack on Morse. "But I need a job," concluded Ennis. "Neal will give me an internship." At the time, Ennis was president of the chapter, a post he held from April 2019 to April 2020, when he was term-limited out.
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Leaders of the College Democrats group went beyond merely plans to leak. They also explicitly discussed how they could find Morse's dating profiles and then lead him into saying something incriminating that would then damage his campaign.
That effort appears to have failed to generate the material they hoped for, but the group's leaders did believe they held damning evidence they contemplated leaking: Instagram messages between Morse and Andrew Abramson, who in April became president of the organization. Ultimately, the College Democrats did not release any chats or any other specific claims against Morse, opting instead to level broader charges that he behaved inappropriately.
Last October, Morse and Abramson appeared on a panel together at a local College Democrats event—which Neal also attended, "and was introduced by Ennis, who was at the time enrolled in a journalism class Neal taught at UMass Amherst," according to Grim and Boguslaw. Morse reached out to Abramson on Instagram after the event, and they had a conversation that Abramson shared with other members of the college group, including Ennis, who said that "this will sink his campaign."
"After Ennis concluded the chats with Abramson would sink Morse's campaign, the conversation between Morse and Abramson continued for another several weeks," The Intercept reported. "The two had previously matched on Tinder, Ennis said in the chats, but had never met up," the outlet noted, explaining that to match on the app "means both parties must swipe in the same direction in order to begin a conversation."
Prior to Grim and Boguslaw's latest reporting, both the College Democrats of Massachusetts and Neal spokesperson Kate Norton denied any coordination between the UMass chapter and the congressman's campaign, though Norton said that "our campaign commends these courageous students." Norton reiterated that message to The Intercept and said of Abramson and Ennis that "the young men you are asking about have no involvement with the Neal campaign."
Politico revealed Thursday morning that, in response to The Intercept's reporting, Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Gus Bickford "intends to convene a group to examine the conduct of college Democrats who leveled the allegations against Morse," though that investigation will come after the September 1 primary due to the state party's policy of staying out of such elections.
Some backers of Morse—whose platform includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and challenging corporate power—have doubled down on their support for his bid to oust Neal, who has been criticized for his ties to the for-profit health insurance industry:
— Ezra Levin (@ezralevin) August 13, 2020
More news on the Alex Morse-Richie Neal race:
Fight Corporate Monopolies, which never backed off the race, is going up with a new ad to run through the Dem convention, hitting Neal on Big Pharma corruption pic.twitter.com/aiT8Udnf6F
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) August 13, 2020
The smear campaign against Morse has sparked conversations about homophobia among the U.S. political left:
Fam, we gotta have a conversation about the anti-gay stereotypes these kids drew upon to frame Morse as an exploitative pervert ... and why they gained a purchase *on the left* https://t.co/3WecXd6fZk
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) August 12, 2020
I've been noticing a series of attempts to smear well-known gay men for the crime of having sex with other adult men who were younger or less famous than them. This is homophobic, censorious bullshit
— Molly Crabapple (@mollycrabapple) August 12, 2020
The UMass Amherst College Democrats leadership's actions have also spurred online discussions about the #MeToo movement:
this is one of the first solid, open-and-shut cases of what a lot of people have worried about: that because discomfort is taken seriously in the #MeToo era and 'grooming' has been vastly expanded to refer to flirting between adults, someone would try to exploit that climate
— Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) August 13, 2020
the people most damaged by this entire mess are real survivors of real sexual misconduct https://t.co/6fh1yocwCc
— David Mack (@davidmackau) August 12, 2020
In light of The Intercept's reporting, television journalist and political pundit Krystal Ball declared: "Everyone who bought into this bullshit smear campaign needs to recant, apologize, and more importantly, LEARN SOMETHING for god's sake."