HOLYOKE, Massachusetts — Rep. Richard Neal, the Massachusetts Democrat in charge of a powerful House committee, has been in Congress for, quite literally, Alex Morse’s entire life.
Just two months ago, Morse, the 30-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, announced his plans to challenge Neal from the left in 2020, running on a platform similar to the one that rocketed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to success, focused on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
The race encapsulates a national tension, placing Morse squarely among a rising tide of young, lefty Democrats who are beginning to fill the halls of power, pushing progressive policies, and casting off traditional ideas. Neal, on the other hand, is a 70-year-old establishment Democrat straight out of central casting, preaching moderation on everything from health care to impeaching President Donald Trump. Neal has not joined the majority of his caucus in calling for an impeachment inquiry, and he has taken criticism for slow-walking the investigation into Trump’s tax returns.
“This is our democracy. It’s not business as usual,” Morse said. “And we have a member of Congress that, you know, is operating as if this is business as usual, as if we have any ordinary president in office. We don’t know where he stands on the issues. He’s certainly not a vocal advocate.”
The primary is still a year away, but the Neal–Morse showdown is already one of the most interesting races of the cycle. Morse has already secured the endorsement of Justice Democrats, one of the groups that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez, and the race represents an enormous test for the group as it tries to prove its staying power in 2020.
It’s not the first time Morse has taken on a fellow Democrat or challenged someone far his senior. He was elected mayor at age 22, the youngest person ever elected to that office in Holyoke. And yes, before you ask, he is familiar with Parks and Recreation’s “Ice Town.”
He’s heard the jokes before, and he doesn’t seem very amused now when he’s asked about the comparison to a fictional 18-year-old mayor who bankrupted his city trying to build a winter sports complex.
“I get a lot of jokes about Parks and Rec,” Morse said as he settled into a big gray couch. But he can’t really handle the sitcom, he said, because the show is a little too real.
Morse was an objectively more successful mayor than Ben Wyatt, at any rate. In the eight years since he was elected, crime in Holyoke has fallen and graduation rates have increased. Morse was the first sitting mayor in Massachusetts to endorse legalizing weed, and cannabis companies have begun to invest in his city in the years since. He has also declared Holyoke a sanctuary city and established the first needle exchange program in the commonwealth in decades.
Now it’s time for something new. And after all of that, why not try to take down the mighty Neal?
The incumbent representative was first elected in 1988 and previously served as the mayor of Holyoke’s neighboring city Springfield. As the chair of the influential Ways and Means Committee, Neal is perhaps the most powerful incumbent that Justice Democrats has set its sights on so far in the 2020 cycle.
Morse noted that though he was endorsed by Justice Democrats, the group did not recruit him to run. “This race will be won in Western Mass, like, grounded in issues that affect everyday people, but I’m mindful of the fact that progressives and people around the country will be watching this race,” Morse said.
The issues that he’s pushing — like Medicare for All, defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement, decriminalizing sex work, and decriminalizing supervised injection sites at the federal level — are important to national progressives. But Morse said he wants to tell a story about why they’re important issues to the people of Massachusetts’s 1st District.
“To the extent that national groups can help amplify our message and help us get that message out here in the district, that will be helpful,” he said. “Since I launched six and a half weeks ago, we’ve seen a lot of national interest in the race, I think, because of who Richard Neal is and the position that he’s in. And [winning the race] would certainly reverberate nationally.”
If there were ever a time when a challenger could take down Neal, it’s probably now.
In early July, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that would allow some federal lawmakers to access Trump’s New York state tax returns. Neal, the only Democrat in Congress who would be able to do so, has not taken advantage of the law, arguing that it would make his investigation look too partisan and telling Bloomberg News that he does not "have jurisdiction over New York taxes."
(A spokesperson for the Ways and Means Committee declined to comment on obtaining Trump’s taxes because the committee is currently engaged in litigation over the issue.)
“Anyone paying attention knows that he stood in the way of requesting Trump’s tax returns,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee cofounder Adam Green said last month, according to a Boston Herald report. “A primary would be very healthy in his district because local voters deserve better.”
Many local Democratic voters told BuzzFeed News they agreed.
“What leadership has Neal demonstrated thus far? And really in his 30 years?” Dolores Root, a 69-year-old progressive activist living in Shelburne Falls told BuzzFeed News. “So the argument is that he’s chair of one of the most powerful committees, which is true, [but] he sticks to what the leadership of the House wants. He’s not a bold person.”
Root also said she feels Neal hasn’t been accessible enough during his time in office. As part of her work with a coalition of progressive groups in the area, she’s pushed for months to get Neal to do a town hall. Eventually, Root said he agreed to two meetings with some members of the group, where they talked about issues — including obtaining Trump’s taxes — and pushed him to endorse progressive policies like Medicare for All.
In the meetings, Root said, Neal was very defensive.
“Constituents feel that Neal pays very little attention to speaking with his constituents,” Root said. “He refuses to do town halls. He doesn’t think he should have to listen to people. He thinks people should have to listen to him.”
Erin Freed, another activist who has met with Neal, said she doesn’t feel that he has the same urgency around issues like broadband access and the east-west rail, which would connect the district to the Boston area.
“He says these things are complicated,” Freed said. “Well, of course they’re complicated!”
Despite the national spotlight and grassroots frustration, though, Neal still has active supporters. Democratic state Rep. Aaron Vega, who previously served on the Holyoke City Council while Morse was mayor, knows Neal from his time in politics. Vega said he has a lot of goodwill in the district, particularly with the business communities.
“Incumbency definitely has its advantages,” Vega told BuzzFeed News. “Financially, knowing the players … The business community understands that having a relationship with the elected officials matters … [and] obviously Congressman Neal has deep roots in Holyoke, in Springfield, and throughout the district. He’s been the congressman for 30 years.”
Neal, several people in the district noted in conversations with BuzzFeed News, is also beloved in the large local Irish community for his work on the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Peter Panos, a spokesperson for Neal’s campaign, noted in a statement shared with BuzzFeed News that the congressman has taken part in 600 events in central and western Massachusetts over the last six years, including a telephone town hall last month.
“Congressman Neal is proud that voters across this district know him simply as Richie because they've developed a personal relationship over so many years,” Panos said in the statement. “That means when he sees them at their doorsteps, in the grocery store and at the Y, they talk about what matters most to working families: the cost of healthcare, opioid use disorder, and holding the Trump Administration accountable. Richie is committed to solving these problems in our district and country.”
As he campaigns against Neal, Morse said he’s hearing a familiar refrain. When he first ran for mayor, Morse challenged Holyoke’s incumbent Democrat, Elaine Pluta. At the time, people repeatedly told him, “Wait your turn, don’t run against other Democrats, don’t challenge incumbents.”
But that message doesn’t bother Morse. He won once. He believes he can do it again.
Morse has been interested in running for office for most of his life. His parents met while living at public housing complexes in Holyoke, humble beginnings that Morse and people close to him told BuzzFeed News influenced his politics from a young age.
At 14, Morse first began to talk about running for mayor with a friend of his, Amaad Rivera. Rivera, a community organizer who served as the first openly gay city council member of Springfield, Massachusetts, met Morse when he joined a youth engagement task force Rivera was heading up. Morse was ambitious, thoughtful, and articulate, Rivera said.
“The most interesting part of the job I had with him is, like, saying, ‘You can also be 14. Stay a kid as long as you can.’ And he didn’t want that,” Rivera said.
At 16, Morse came out as gay and soon after founded his high school’s first gay–straight alliance. After graduation, he went on to study at Brown University. He spent much of his senior year campaigning.
Today, Morse doesn’t seem to mind having missed out on, as one campaign staffer put it, his “crazy gay twenties.”
“Nearly all of my twenties were spent campaigning for mayor and being mayor,” he says now. “A lot of this happened so quickly. And campaigning was much different than taking office. And taking office as a 22-year-old … was a challenge.”
Eight years later, Morse thinks he’s a much better mayor than he was when he started, though he said he doesn’t think that has anything to do with his age. “Whether you’re 22 or 65, when you start as mayor, you’ve never been there before. There’s no guidebook,” he said.
While in office, Morse has also had to deal with his mother’s unexpected death about a year and a half ago and tried to help his older brother who has a heroin addiction.
“All of these things have happened in the last eight years while I’ve been [mayor],” he said. “It’s like, [I’m] turning 30 this year and reflecting on my time as mayor, and now I’m working on this journey. Like, I feel like I’m entering a new phase of adulthood.”
Entering a new decade is a natural moment for reflection and transition. But usually that transition isn’t from nearly a decade leading a city to a campaign that aims to take down one of the most powerful Democrats in the country.
“I don’t get easily intimidated by conventional norms,” Morse said. He upended everyone’s plans when he ran for mayor — beating the incumbent Democrat in office — and it only makes sense to do it again.
Occasionally, there are flashes of something like a “normal” 30-year-old in Morse. He’s a fan of the Bachelor franchise and of Big Brother, which he said is his favorite guilty pleasure show. And he recently downloaded Co–Star, an astrology app that’s taken over social media. (He’s an Aquarius.) The day he sat down with BuzzFeed News, the app said he had power at work and sent him a notification that read: “It is easier than usual to get to the bottom of things. Have realistic expectations.”
Asked what he thinks of that, he smiled.
“My realistic expectations are that I am going to be successful in this campaign,” he said.
While solidly Democratic, the 1st District is also more conservative than other parts of Massachusetts. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district by 20 points. Further east, in the 7th District, for example, where Rep. Ayanna Pressley toppled incumbent former representative Michael Capuano last year, Clinton won by a whopping 72 points.
Despite the differences between Neal’s district and Pressley’s — the 1st District is whiter, older, and more rural — Morse’s team (which now includes some members of the team that got Pressley elected in Boston) thinks their path to victory looks a lot like Pressley’s did last cycle.
If they can expand the electorate, his team said, they believe they can win.
The team sees a huge opportunity for Morse in Springfield, the largest city in the district, where voter turnout is low, hovering around 10% for municipal elections and about 53% in the 2016 general election. Notably, however, about 90% of the Springfield population is registered to vote.
“What we see currently is very low voter turnout and voter engagement in this district,” Morse said. “There are tens of thousands of people that are registered to vote here that are sitting out their congressional primary. They might be voting in a presidential, they might be voting in a gubernatorial, but for some reason they’re not inspired or included or engaged enough to vote the congressional primary. And we want to change that.”
Morse said he’s going to start by educating people about what their member of Congress can do for them and the changes that policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal will make in people’s everyday lives.
Ian Kea, the policy and communications manager at MassVote, a nonprofit that aims to improve voter turnout in the state, said he doesn’t think there’s any secret weapon the Morse campaign can employ in the race.
“There’s no trick here, really. In this race it’s more a straight edge: Can you run the ground game efficiently? Or do you have a lot of money?” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to do.”
Last week, Morse held a fundraiser for his campaign with about 75 people gathered in the yard of a local bed and breakfast. As Morse greeted guests, the campaign playlist played in the background (among the highlights were “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”).
When Jay — of the eponymous Jay’s Bed & Breakfast — introduced Morse, he declared, “Make big donations, that’s the most important thing.” Morse took the mic and corrected his friend: “He said big donations are the most important thing tonight, and that’s not the most important thing.”
For the next 15 minutes, the crowd listened to Morse as he stood on the stairs and talked about what he thinks the most important thing actually was — serving and representing your constituents well. He did it as mayor (one of his favorite achievements, he said, was getting a broken water feature fixed in an oft-forgotten neighborhood), and he wants to do it again as the congressman from the first district.
“The fundamental question for this election over the next year is — yes, Congressman Neal has seniority and he has power — but how is that power benefiting each and every one of you in this room? How is it benefiting places like Holyoke?” Morse said. “How is it benefiting people that are actually struggling here in the district — people that are struggling to put food on the table, to find a job, to get health insurance?”
As the sun set behind him, Morse continued to hit Neal. The representative, Morse said, says he cares about the opioid crisis, but he “continues to take vast amounts of money from the very companies that push the crisis on our communities.” If he’s elected, Morse promised that voters will never wonder if he is “making a decision for only the special interests.”
The Neal campaign countered that the congressman has “been at the forefront of combatting the opioid epidemic,” noting that he authored two bills on the issue that became law during the last congressional session. “He has authored legislation to finally allow coverage for treatment to the growing number of Medicare beneficiaries dealing with opioid use disorders. Richie also authored the STOP Act which was written to stem the flow of synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil from being shipped to drug dealers in the US,” the campaign said in a statement.
Neal has also locally promoted community health centers and hosted a roundtable to discuss the epidemic in the area, the campaign added.
While a Morse victory would certainly have national reverberations, Morse is running, as Rivera put it, to represent one district that’s trying to figure out whether it’s ready to embrace the future.
“I think this district is looking for its identity. We have this young gay mayor from Holyoke, which is kind of up and coming, and this seasoned congressman, who’s done it the way it’s always been done,” Rivera said. “[Neal] has a lot of relationships, generally, and I think this moment is looking for who are we going to be and who is going to represent that energy, that future, that dynamic. I think it’s going to be a battle. I think this is the first real battle [here] in my lifetime.”
And Morse is ready for that battle.
“You're going to have conversations with people that tell you there's no way he can be Congressman Neal,” Morse said as he concluded his remarks at the fundraiser. “[They’ll say,] ‘He's running against the machine, the establishment in the city of Springfield.’ But we were told that before, back in 2011. And I think it's time for a new generation of leadership.” ●