Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is fighting for his political future, amid allegations that he had sex with students attending the university where he taught.
Now questions are being raised about what is behind the allegations. Are they true, are they politically motivated, or is there some anti-gay animus at work?
Morse, who is openly gay, is a Democratic candidate for Congress challenging US Rep. Richard Neal.
The UMass Amherst and Amherst College chapters of the College Democrats of Massachusetts recently published a letter accusing Morse of making students uncomfortable and abusing his power in order to have sexual relationships with them.
The group said Morse, a former lecturer at UMass Amherst, came to College Democrats events, met students, then pursued them on social media. The group said because Morse was a mayor, lecturer, and well-connected gatekeeper to Massachusetts progressive politics, refusing his advances would be “fraught” for students.
The Daily Collegian, which first reported on the allegations, said UMass is investigating Morse’s conduct. Morse is no longer employed there.
Morse admitted having consensual sexual relationships with students he met on dating apps. In his own statement, he said he never violated UMass policy – implying he did not have sex with students he taught – and never took advantage of his positions for sexual gain.
One major question is whether the allegations are politically motivated. The Intercept published a story Wednesday alleging that in October 2019, the UMass Amherst College Democrats began planning to sink Morse’s campaign by leaking messages between Morse and students and potentially by getting him to say something incriminating on a dating site. The group’s chief strategist was interested in working for Neal. Politico reported that Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford is now planning to investigate the conduct of the College Democrats.
Morse had said he suspects Neal’s campaign of involvement, a charge that Neal denies.
The incident also raises questions about whether Morse’s sexual orientation has anything to do with how he was treated – and whether the reaction would have been different if he were sleeping with female students.
The College Democrats wrote that to suggest their letter had anything to do with Morse’s sexuality “is untrue, disingenuous, and harmful.” The group added: “The mayor’s sexuality in no way excuses his behavior.”
Morse, in his response, wrote that some members of the queer community are “genuinely outraged, as I am, by the invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes.” Morse said he believes he is being held to a different standard, “one deeply connected to a history of surveilling the sex lives of people like me.”
Holyoke City Councilor Mike Sullivan and three other councilors filed an order to create a process that would let them recall Morse as mayor. “Admitting he has been spending his time using his position and power to engage in sexual activities with teenagers at the University of Mass simply disqualifies him to continue as our Mayor,” Sullivan said, according to Western Mass News.
Morse called the order “a sad, ignorant, and homophobic attack by city councilors who have long fought against efforts to make Holyoke a welcoming community for all.”
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national group committed to electing LGBTQ officials, accused Sullivan of evoking homophobic stereotypes of gay men as pedophiles by using the word “teenager,” when there is no allegation Morse slept with underage men. The group called Sullivan’s language “homophobic dog whistles.”
But Holyoke City Councilor Linda Vacon, a Republican who signed onto the order, told MassLive her reaction would be the same if Morse were a 31-year-old man accused of sleeping with 18-year-old female students. “This is not about gay stereotypes, but is about age-old domination by those in power towards others who have little or none,” Vacon said.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat who is gay, wrote that the allegations appear to be leveled with an eye toward the political calendar. He also raised the issue of Morse’s sexuality. “It’s alarming that these claims have attracted this level of attention with a swiftness I fear they would have not received if Alex were straight,” Cyr wrote. He added, “This race will set a precedent for whether vague and anonymous allegations can be easily launched against LGBTQ candidates to destroy their campaigns, or whether investigations will be required before LGBTQ candidates are condemned in the media.”
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Opinion: Sen. Julian Cyr questions the political timing of a letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetss regarding relationships Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse had with students. Morse is running against US Rep. Richard Neal in the Democratic primary.
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