Congressman Richard Neal has been in office for more than 30 years — longer than new primary challenger Alex Morse has been alive.
In fact, Morse, who has been the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts since 2012, was just 26 days old when Rep. Neal was sworn into Congress on January 3, 1989. Now, into his third term as mayor of his city, he’s challenging Neal in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District. And he’s touting his ability to run a grassroots campaign as what will give him the edge in a primary against one of the most powerful and most well-funded members of Congress.
“He knocked on probably 90% to 95% of the doors in Holyoke,” Morse’s father said in his campaign launch video. “One guy that he spoke to, he was 70-something years old, he said, ‘I’ve lived in Holyoke all my life, and no one has knocked on my door saying they were running for mayor.’ ”
It’s official: I’m running for Congress in #MA01. We deserve a leader who’ll put our community first—*not* the DC status quo.
— Alex Morse for Congress (@AlexBMorse) July 22, 2019
“Many of the reasons I ran for office eight years ago are the same reasons I’m running for Congress now,” Morse told Grit Post. “There’s this sense of hopelessness to some extent, that they don’t have a member of Congress that shows up, and is responsive, and is leading on issues that matter.”
At the time he was elected mayor, Alex Morse was the youngest mayor of any city in the United States, and the first openly gay mayor of Holyoke. And if he prevails in the Democratic primary and later in the 2020 general election, he would be among just eight other LGBT members of the House of Representatives.
Beyond that, Morse would also be one of more than 70 members of the House’s Medicare for All caucus, calling himself a “strong supporter” of Medicare for All. As Holyoke’s mayor, Morse launched a coalition called “Massachusetts Mayors for Medicare for All,” in support of the state legislature’s efforts to implement a single-payer healthcare system within the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
“Healthcare is a human right, and we should have a system that puts people and their health before pharmaceutical companies and profits,” Morse said.
According to Holyoke city council member Jossie Valentin, the city spent more than $10.3 million for employee and retiree health insurance in the last fiscal year alone (roughly 8% of the city budget), and the city expects health insurance premiums to increase by at least 10% each year for the next three years.
“I’ve had to work with insurance companies every year and make sure that employees have health insurance, and every year we see premiums go up 10% to 20%. Not because people are getting sicker, but because these companies need to make more profits,” he said.
Rep. Neal, on the other hand, is outwardly opposed to Medicare for All. Prior to the House’s first-ever hearing on the proposal, he specifically instructed members of the House Ways and Means Committee — which he chairs — to not utter the words “Medicare for All” during the proceedings. According to Sludge, Neal encouraged Ways and Means Democrats to instead use the term “universal health care” and emphasize tweaks to the Affordable Care Act over a total overhaul of America’s healthcare system.
Neal’s reluctance to embrace Medicare for All may be influenced at least in part by the millions of dollars in campaign donations he’s received from the industries most likely to be affected by Medicare for All. As Grit Post reported earlier this year, Rep. Neal has taken more than $3.2 million from donors in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries since 1989, when his Congressional career began.
According to OpenSecrets’ list of contributions by industry sector, insurance ranks #1 of all industries that have donated to Neal, and pharma ranks #4. When including donations from the finance industry, Neal has received more than $4.2 million in corporate PAC money from well-heeled donors representing Wall Street, pharma, and insurance over the course of his career.
Alex Morse, on the other hand, is pledging to not accept corporate PAC money in his campaign for Congress. He told Grit Post that a campaign funded by small-dollar contributions is the only kind of campaign he knows how to run.
“Over the last eight years, we’ve only relied on donations from actual individuals investing in our grassroots campaign. It’s about having a people-powered campaign that doesn’t rely on special interests and corporate PACS,” Morse said. “I think it’s important people know that, when I am in DC, I’ll only answer to actual people.”
Morse also stressed the need for a more accessible and transparent Congressman in Western Massachusetts, saying Rep. Neal’s leadership has been largely nonexistent within the district on local issues like the opioid crisis, education, and transportation. Neal’s lack of town halls prompted activist group Indivisible Williamsburg to publish a missing person ad with Neal’s face in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2017.
“It’s been five years since you’ve spoken to and listened to any of us from Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Westhampton and Williamsburg,” the ad read. “All we’re saying is this: Come to Williamsburg to meet the voters in a town hall and let’s have a conversation about issues that are important to rural voters.”
While Neal did hold a town hall In Pittsfield, Massachusetts that year, even his own website acknowledged that the Congressman faced “somewhat of a tough crowd.” Morse said that, if elected to Congress, he would make himself regularly available to constituents for town halls and listening sessions.
“I sincerely believe that people have just lost faith in government — the federal government in particular — as a force for good in their lives,” Morse told Grit Post. “The status quo believes that the conventional wisdom is that we can’t afford to invest in and prioritize places like Western Mass… When you have a member of Congress who’s more concerned about preserving the status quo and protecting other members of Congress rather than people who live in the district, it’s very difficult for us to move the needle.”
Despite the criticisms Morse brought up, Neal hasn’t had much difficulty in dispatching primary challengers in the past. In 2018, Neal easily beat Democratic challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud by a margin of 70-29, and garnered more than twice the number of votes his challenger received. In response to Morse’s statements, Rep. Neal’s campaign told Grit Post that Neal will “will welcome anyone into this race.”
“We are fortunate to live in a country where everyone can have his or her voice heard by running for office,” the Neal campaign stated. “Richie has been a champion for working families in Western Massachusetts and has fought tirelessly to ensure that the people of our region are not forgotten and receive our fair share.”
Neal and Morse will face off in the Massachusetts’ state-level Democratic primary in September of 2020.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.