Alex Morse would probably prefer to be talking about, well, anything else.
As the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, mounts his left-wing challenge to unseat Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, he’d surely rather be spending the last few weeks of his campaign talking about the progressive change he wants to bring to the district (Morse supports Medicare for All, defunding ICE, and the Green New Deal) or his powerful opponent’s three decades of relative conservatism in Congress.
Instead, he’s answering questions from BuzzFeed News about his Tinder profile, what content he uploads to his Instagram “close friends” stories feature, and the fact that, yes, as a young single gay man, he does indeed have sex, sometimes with men he meets online.
“It’s important to be unapologetically myself — being gay and a young person and someone who has sex,” he said in a Thursday phone interview, “and I won’t apologize for being gay and using gay dating apps and going on dates with other adult men.
“I won’t apologize for being human.”
The Democratic battle to represent the state’s 1st District suddenly exploded into national headlines this past week after allegations were made against Morse by the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA) and its affiliates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Amherst College. On Aug. 7, the students shared a letter they had sent Morse with the school’s newspaper, the Daily Collegian, informing him he had been disinvited from their events.
The allegations — which were vague, anonymous, and unspecified — accused Morse, who worked as a UMass Amherst adjunct professor in 2019 in addition to his mayoral work, of matching with students on dating and hookup apps, such as Tinder and Grindr; having sex with college students; and making others feel “uncomfortable” by adding them on Instagram, messaging them, and adding them to his “close friends” on the app.
“Even if these scenarios are mutually consensual,” the students wrote, “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 news, which landed just three weeks before voters were set to head to the polls on Sept. 1, quickly caused shockwaves. Morse swiftly denied any nonconsensual sex and insisted that any students he had slept with were adults and not in any of his classes. He vowed to cooperate with any investigations but said he would remain in the race. Still, the damage was done.
The university vowed to investigate, the powerful Justice Democrats group that had backed him said they were “disappointed” and evaluating their ties, and fellow progressive Jamaal Bowman said he would “pause” his endorsement of Morse as he learned more.
Online, Morse was labeled “a blight on the Left and higher education,” someone who had worked to “groom” students and who was not thinking of his “survivors.” He was urged to drop out of the race and resign as mayor. He was dubbed “an abuser” and “a sex predator.”
But no person has yet come forward with any specific or detailed claim against Morse. Instead, the college students behind the vague, anonymous accusations against the candidate have found themselves in the spotlight.
Fellow members of the UMass Amherst College Democrats told the Intercept and the Republican earlier this week that their chief strategist, Timothy Ennis, had taken a class taught at the university by Neal, Morse’s opponent, and was a fan of the lawmaker and was seeking to break into politics through him.
Then, on Wednesday night, the Intercept published a bombshell report alleging the club’s leadership, including Ennis, had been trying since October to find compromising material on Morse in order to “sink his campaign.” They reportedly planned to track down his dating profiles and lead him to say something incriminating. “I need a job,” wrote Ennis in messages seen by the Intercept. “Neal will give me an internship.”
A screenshot of an Instagram message published by the Intercept showed Morse exchanging polite pleasantries about their respective weekends with Andrew Abramson, a student who would later become the college club’s president. “Not overt but it’s very clear he’s not talking to me for no reason,” wrote Abramson as he shared the Instagram exchange with associates. “Also don’t mind me totally leading him on.”
It appeared the students had been trying for months to get the national media to run a story about Morse. After the Intercept story was published, Business Insider reporter Grace Panetta said on Twitter that she had received a vague anonymous tip via email about Morse in April but had decided not to pursue the story. “I just looked back at the email itself,” Panetta wrote, “and yep, two of the names on the list of people who I was told had dirt on Morse were the names of the two people The Intercept identified as spearheading this plan.”
Ennis and Abramson did not respond to requests for this story. They’ve both also since deleted their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The UMass Amherst College Dems also did not respond to a request for comment; nor did CDMA, the state chapter.
CDMA President Hayley Fleming did write an email to members on Thursday night in which she tried to explain how the letter came to be, but also apologized to Morse for the “homophobic responses” he had received that she said played on “inappropriate stereotypes” about gay men. “I apologize for the role that we played in that harm,” she said.
Fleming said “several students” had “legitimate concerns” that Morse had a “pattern of behavior that put college students in uncomfortable situations,” but she said their specific stories were not being shared due to concerns for their safety.
“While I cannot speak to anyone’s motivations other than my own,” she added, “I believed that we were acting in good faith to protect the individuals who felt they were subject to inappropriate behavior.”
The Massachusetts Democratic Party is now investigating the origins of the claims against Morse, Fleming confirmed.
But there are allegations that the state party itself may have been involved. Fleming claimed that the letter to Morse had been written on the advice of legal counsel, which she declined to specify. Morse has suggested an attorney from the state party seeking to quash his outsider bid may have advised the students. A state party spokesperson confirmed to the Berkshire Eagle they had referred the CDMA to legal counsel but insisted they had no further involvement. But the Intercept reported on Friday that text messages showed Veronica Martinez, executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, had taken “an active role in directing the group on the strategy behind the letter before and after its release, including coaching on how to interact with the press.” (State party officials, including Martinez, did not respond to requests for comment for this story).
Morse told BuzzFeed News he was not surprised to hear of the students’ actions, as reported by the Intercept — but he was disappointed.
“It seems what has transpired has been in relation to wanting to gain favor and access to a very powerful member of Congress,” he said, referring to Neal.
He wouldn’t directly say he believed Neal was involved with the plan himself, but also wouldn’t rule it out.
“I think it’s certainly suspicious this has happened three weeks before the primary,” he said. “I think power stops at nothing to hold on to power and given the new revelations that are coming to light, I will let others come to their own conclusions.”
Neal, who has represented the district since 1988, has said any suggestions that he or his campaign workers were involved with the students’ letter were “flat wrong.” His spokesperson, Kate Norton, declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday’s Intercept story but she previously called the students “courageous.”
“This campaign has not commented on the substance of this issue and we will await the findings of all independent reviews,” she told BuzzFeed News.
The turnaround in Morse’s political fortunes also appeared to be swift. He told BuzzFeed News that his campaign raised a record $130,000 in one day on Wednesday, the day of the Intercept report, from some 3,300 donors. Even the Justice Democrats group was suddenly re-promoting his campaign.
Morse has found powerful backers in the media, including Glenn Greenwald, an Intercept cofounder who did not write Wednesday’s story, and Lis Smith, the former top adviser for the presidential campaign of another small-town gay mayor, Pete Buttigieg. “This is a pretty terrifying weaponization of stereotypes of gay men,” she tweeted. “There has yet to be a single allegation against [Morse], but still groups that endorsed him were calling on him to drop out. Shameful all around.”
Morse said the allegations made in the Intercept story about the college students’ efforts against him were emblematic of why some people choose not to go into government. “This is exactly what people don’t like about politics and the politics of personal destruction,” he said. “I think it’s why a lot of people, and a lot of young people, shy away from running for office.”
His insistence on continuing in the race and now speaking openly and without shame about his sex life was intended to confront “these unspoken rules about what it is and what it takes to be in office.” Apologizing for his sex life, he said, would only reinforce the cultural status quo about what kind of person can run for office. “I’m well aware of the impact that [apologizing] would have on other young people and queer people and people running for office in the future,” he said.
While Morse said that the vast majority of his close friends on Instagram were “members of the queer community,” he said the content he shares to his green circle on the app is mostly pictures of “blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies that I bake” and “beautiful sunsets and plants in my backyard.”
The young Democrat, who was first elected mayor of his town at just 22, spent his twenties balancing his personal and professional political identities. He was even careful not to list his job information on his Tinder profile. “That’s why it’s been so disappointing,” he said of this week’s scandal. “Despite 10 years of walking a fine line and being very careful, I was still made to feel — the intention, I think, was to make me feel, and the response made me feel, an awesome sense of shame, which is just completely inappropriate.”
He said he’d received support from people in his district as well as members of the LGBTQ community nationally who object to the “overpolicing” of their sex lives. “The use of words like ‘predator’ and ‘abuser’ are meant to further negative stereotypes about gay men,” he said.
If he wins the primary next month, Morse stands a good chance of being the first male member of Congress to have openly discussed his gay sex life and use of hookup apps — perhaps yet another sign of generational change in Washington.
Morse didn’t choose to be put in that position, but it’s a conversation he says he’s ready to have.
“Long after this election, I think this country needs to reckon with our puritanical fantasy about people’s sex lives and these heteronormative expectations put on all of us, including all of us in the queer community,” he said. “It’s a fantasy that elected officials don’t have sex lives. It’s a dangerous narrative and it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“We are very sex-negative in this country,” he said, “and I think that narrative has been destructive for many folks, particularly gay men.”