Most of the time, this newsletter focuses on flipping Republican seats blue and retaking legislatures from the GOP. But if you really want to enact progressive change, it’s not always enough to just have a Democrat in office — in seats that are comfortably blue, we’ve got to have Democrats who actually listen to voters.
The dynamic playing out in Massachusetts provides a perfect example: Congressman Richard Neal, who represents the state’s 1st district, has time and time again blocked popular progressive priorities as the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He’s received more lobbyist money and enjoyed more lavish parties than anyone in Congress and has more than returned the favor, blocking everything from the Paycheck Guarantee Act during this pandemic to Medicare expansion. He also deliberately slow-walked the request for Donald Trump’s tax returns and did not support impeachment until it became an inevitability — all while representing a district that Hillary Clinton won by 20 points and he has “represented” for 30 years.
This year, he finally faces a real primary challenge from a dynamic progressive who could not be any more different than the 70-year-old Congressman, who hasn’t held a town hall in years. And if you’re skeptical, all you have to do is compare their records.
When Alex Morse unseated a long-serving local politician to become mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, he vowed to revive the struggling former mill town where he’d grown up. He faced long odds and internal resistance, but he was determined to restore a community that had spent decades reeling from the same factors that hollowed out small cities across the United States between the 1970s and early 2000s. When he took office at City Hall, he was immediately faced with a decision that would set the tone for how he planned to govern.
Morse’s predecessor as mayor had requested that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development clear the way for the demolition of Lyman Terrace, one of the city’s largest public housing properties. The complex was located right in the center of downtown Holyoke, so the plan was to knock Lyman down and bring in some shiny new apartments, displacing the 167 mostly Latino residents who had no real options for relocation. When Morse took the reins at City Hall, he called HUD and told them to hold off on the required review.
“This was a community of people who lived there for generations, with ties to the local economy, and friends and family,” Morse tells Progressives Everywhere. “We called off that demolition and got a lot of pushback from city councilors from the business community that just wanted to raze the property and give it to the developer with the highest bid.”
It was an impressive display of principle and political will — especially for a 22-year-old who was just a year out of college when it happened.
For many new college grads, senior year is a time for partying and getting a head start on a decade of soul-searching and minimal responsibility (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Morse, on the other hand, used his senior year at Brown to run for mayor back home, forgoing the typical route of most Ivy League grads.
“I grew up in the backdrop of poverty, struggling school systems, high crime, a dead downtown, white flight out of the city,” he says. “And all of those dynamics happened at the very time we have the same people in office, but year after year, decade after decade, there was no civic engagement, very inactive democracy, no one holding our officials accountable. I ran because I didn’t give up on our city like most people had.”
Eight years after the demolition showdown, Lyman Terrace is in the second phase of a $60 million renovation, with a design informed by public meetings between architects, engineers, and residents. Its turnaround story is symbolic of how Morse has governed as mayor since 2012, infusing a rusting city with youthful energy and ground-level leadership.
Instead of inviting gentrification and sprucing up downtown by knocking over a few buildings and then supporting a couple of gleaming apartment buildings and brunch spots without actually helping the long-time residents, Morse took on the challenge of making Holyoke better for the people who already lived there. He focused on strengthening the community by including residents in his decision-making, concentrating on the unglamorous but essential public services, improving education outcomes, and bringing in investment that didn’t displace locals. When he took over, the city had a 49% graduation rate — now it’s up to 75%.
It’s an impressive and inspiring success story on its own, but Morse had bigger plans for the city and realized there was only so much he could do from City Hall. Healthcare, trade laws, environmental regulations, and most economic policy decisions are all made at the federal level, and he felt as if Holyoke and surrounding towns had been abandoned by its representative. Neal has immense power in Congress, but there is a sense that he hasn’t used that power to benefit his constituents.
As Morse notes, Western Massachusetts has long suffered from a lack of regional transportation to the more populous and economically well-off Boston region, something for which a partner in Congress would generally fight to fund. The opioid crisis is still ravaging the region, a deeply personal issue for Morse, who lost his brother to a long battle with drugs earlier this year; there has been precious little help in that regard, either. Morse declared his candidacy last summer and later earned endorsements from Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, and current events underscore why he’s running.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has both thrown Morse’s life into a new level of controlled chaos and made him even more determined to unseat Neal. So much of his day is devoted to managing what he can to ensure that Holyoke’s residents are safe, secure, and set with resources — producing PPE, securing internet connections, delivering devices when needed, and providing access to healthcare. Again, he’s received little help from the federal government, forcing him to operate in something of a resource-less vacuum.
“Even in the middle of this pandemic here in Holyoke, in this district, when you look at outcomes, you would never know we have one of the most powerful members of Congress representing us,” he says. “In the middle of this pandemic, our community hospital here in Holyoke isn’t qualifying for substantial benefit or aid from the CARES Act. And then we have a psychiatric hospital here where over 200 employees were told that they’re getting laid off. They’re closing hundreds of inpatient beds, and the only child inpatient psychiatric hospital and all of Western Mass is closing at a time when people are going to need mental health care and psychiatric care the most.”
Morse goes back to healthcare time and again — one of the headline distinctions between Neal and himself is that he supports Medicare for All, a policy that Neal is so against that he blocked people from even saying its name during a historic hearing explicitly about its potential implementation.
“This is the fundamental difference between the congressman and myself. Now 33 million Americans have their jobs, the majority of whom have now lost their health insurance. If this isn’t a window of opportunity to have a healthcare system that fundamentally believes healthcare is a human right, then there is no other time to do this,” Morse says. “And the fact is that Congressman Neal, as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, is instead pushing subsidies for the private healthcare industry, pushing to subsidize and give folks COBRA insurance, which is expensive and inaccessible, and just another gift to the private healthcare industry.”
We could run through the policy differences all day — in most countries, Neal and Morse wouldn’t even be members of the same party. But fundamentally, it’s a matter of who a representative spends time actually representing. Morse has literally devoted his entire adult life to helping people in his hometown, and now he wants to assist the entire region and the United States as a whole.
“The question really is what kind of member of Congress, with what life experience and values do you want representing you to craft a just recovery?” Morse says. “We need to emerge from this pandemic with a much stronger and more equitable government than we had before.”
Democrats have largely ceded the spotlight to Donald Trump and his soulless GOP stooges, and what they have done is almost worse. The latest Democratic recovery bill, which Neal helped write, is an absolute bonanza for Wall Street and big corporations, with almost zero relief for working people or the middle class. It’s something you’d expect from Republicans, and that is not what we voted for in 2018. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s going to take brave Democrats willing to challenge the system to change things — and an army of grassroots contributors behind them.
The primary in Massachusetts isn’t until September, which gives Morse more time to make his case for change, especially if he can raise more money — not an easy thing to do during a pandemic, especially when you’ve sworn off corporate and PAC donations. Alex’s campaign is a golden opportunity to push back against that entrenched lethargy and devotion to special interests. Let’s seize the moment and put another bright young progressive in office.