Vague allegations against the Massachusetts congressional candidate offer a case study in how progressives navigate issues of sex and power in politics when judgment is often swift and unforgiving.
- Aug. 23, 2020 (NYTimes.com)
Political careers usually don’t survive allegations like these. And for about a week, it seemed as if Alex Morse’s might not either.
On Aug. 7, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst reported that the state chapter of the College Democrats had disinvited Mr. Morse, a congressional candidate and former guest lecturer at the university, from its future events, claiming “numerous incidents” of unwanted and inappropriate advances toward students.
Mr. Morse is a 31-year-old, gay, small-city mayor and a rising star in national progressive politics. It wasn’t just his job on the line, but also the hopes of an entire movement: His primary challenge against one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress is being closely watched as an indicator of the strength of the Democratic Party’s insurgent left wing.
He quickly apologized to anyone he made uncomfortable with his behavior, while also acknowledging some consensual sexual relationships with college students over the years. He said none were with anyone he taught or supervised.
Nevertheless, within hours after the story broke, Mr. Morse went from role model to pariah. Progressive groups said they would stop campaigning for him. The university called the news “deeply concerning” and opened an investigation.
Mr. Morse said he even considered dropping out, despite his suspicions about the motives of his accusers and the vagueness of the charges. “This was no accident that it was happening three weeks before the primary,” he said in an interview.
But then the story flipped, with a cascade of head-spinning revelations. Messages between some of the students that were published by The Intercept showed they had discussed how they might damage Mr. Morse’s campaign, with one suggesting it might help his career prospects with Mr. Morse’s opponent, Representative Richard E. Neal, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
There was more. The Massachusetts Democratic Party acknowledged that it had provided legal advice to the College Democrats about the letter, leading Mr. Morse to accuse Mr. Neal and his allies in the state’s Democratic leadership of having a hand in a homophobic plot to smear him. Mr. Neal has denied any involvement.
Today, Mr. Morse is still in the race and says the allegations have only helped his campaign. Since the initial story appeared, he has raised more than $410,000, and 800 volunteers have reached out offering to help.
Though the university is still investigating, the activists who distanced themselves from him at first are now back on board. The students involved in writing the letter have mostly gone underground, and the state Democratic Party has opened an independent investigation to determine if anyone acted improperly.
Behind the drama and plot twists — imagine scenes from “Veep” spliced into an episode of “House of Cards” — is a case study of how first impressions can be misleading when someone is accused of having improper sexual relationships, and what happens when those charges are leveled against a popular progressive politician in the social media-turbocharged culture of swift retribution.
News of the complaints against Mr. Morse first surfaced in an article in The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts. The paper reported that the state chapter of the College Democrats had sent a letter to Mr. Morse claiming that he had “routinely” made “sexual or romantic advances” toward students.
But there were no specific episodes of misconduct cited, no named victims or sources and no indication of how many students had complained, beyond the assertion that the group had heard “countless” reports of Mr. Morse adding students as his friends on Instagram and sending them messages “in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status.”
The reaction was swift. As the news rocketed across social media, several groups suspended their support for Mr. Morse, including the Sunrise Movement, an environmental organization made up mostly of young people.
“We are a youth movement and most of our members are students,” said Evan Weber, the group’s political director. “We felt a really deep accountability to listen to and take allegations from young people and students seriously. And we really wanted this guy in office.”
The group reinstated its support once The Intercept’s reporting came to light, and Mr. Weber said he now believes the allegations were a cynical attempt to manipulate the powerful emotions surrounding sexual misconduct and assault.
“They exploited young people, our generation’s very good inclination to listen to people who are speaking out about harm,” he said.
But other groups questioned the veracity of the accusations from the beginning, leading to a schism inside the coalition of progressive activists and politicians backing his candidacy.
Rumors about Mr. Morse’s dating life had circulated anonymously for months, and his campaign said it received several queries from reporters looking into them. His supporters were warned about them. The Victory Fund, a group that has endorsed Mr. Morse and works to elect lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender candidates, heard through an intermediary in June about a vague and unsourced complaint that the candidate had a checkered dating past.
But the timing of that warning was suspicious, coming just after the organization voted to formally endorse Mr. Morse but before word had been put out publicly, said Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s communications director.
The group looked into the allegations, spoke with Mr. Morse and was satisfied there appeared to be nothing there. And shortly after The Daily Collegian published its article, the Victory Fund was one of the few to publicly declare it still supported him.
“It’s really important for us that attacks on a candidate’s sex life and sexuality backfire,” Mr. Imse said. “We do not want this to go down as a successful tactic to use with L.G.B.T.Q. candidates.”
Mr. Morse’s defenders said that whatever the motives of the students were — in a follow-up statement the president of the College Democrats insisted that the group’s intent was always “to hold the mayor accountable for his actions, and to protect our members” — they clearly understood how little benefit of the doubt the accused often get in these situations, and how damaging the charges would be.
“This is the concern around a trigger-happy cancel culture, as it gives undue credence to the initial allegation without due diligence,” said Julian Cyr, a state senator in Massachusetts who argued shortly after the accusations surfaced that withdrawing support from Mr. Morse would set a bad precedent for progressive candidates, especially gay ones.
“There is a very sad, well-documented history of the dating lives of L.G.B.T.Q. people being used against them,” said Mr. Cyr, who is gay. “And there are potential L.G.B.T.Q. candidates who look at what Alex Morse has gone through and decided there is a price, a risk that they don’t want to put themselves through.”
The students involved in writing the letter and discussing how they could harm Mr. Morse’s career — including a suggestion to find him on dating apps and bait him into saying something incriminating, according to the messages reviewed by The Intercept — have mostly gone quiet since the episode started receiving widespread attention online. Several of them did not respond to requests asking for elaboration on the claims in the letter or declined to comment.
For left-leaning groups that work with the Democratic Party like the Victory Fund, supporting Mr. Morse was no small matter because they were going up against one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. Mr. Neal, in his 16th term, runs the committee that oversees the tax code, Social Security and other government functions dealing with funding.
Mr. Neal’s clout, combined with the legal advice the state party provided the College Democrats, has led Mr. Morse and his supporters to conclude that bigger players and egos were at work. The state party, which has a policy of not involving itself in primaries, has commissioned an independent investigation into whether any rules were broken.
But the lawyer who reviewed the letter, James Roosevelt Jr., said the party’s involvement had been overstated. As the party’s counsel, he offered the same help he would to any affiliated organization, which in this case involved advising the students to change “two or three words” that he said were “too inflammatory or accusatory” in the draft.
He said he also advised the group not to make the letter public, as it told him it planned to do.
“In a case of libel and slander, truth is a defense,” Mr. Roosevelt said he advised them, adding: “I don’t know what the truth is and you don’t either. So make it a private letter.” The students sent the letter to Mr. Morse privately, but soon The Daily Collegian had a copy and published its article.
Experts who study questions of sex and power in politics said that Mr. Morse would most likely not be the last L.G.B.T.Q. politician thrown on the defensive about his sex life, and that we have most likely only seen the beginning of those attacks as more people who are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity run for office.
Even though the presidential candidacy of Pete Buttigieg broke barriers, his sexual history was never much of an issue because he came out relatively late in adulthood and has been with his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, for much of that time.
But for younger, single men like Mr. Morse, their dating history is often subject to a troubling level of scrutiny, said Joseph Fischel, who teaches a class at Yale University called “Theory and Politics of Sexual Consent” and has written extensively on the subject of sex and power dynamics.
“Americans are OK with gay politicians as long as they’re sexless,” Mr. Fischel said. That thinking, combined with the quick judgment people often make about political sex scandals, he added, could be especially dangerous for L.G.B.T.Q. candidates.
“There are other things we can fabricate or make up that would sink someone’s career. But suggestions of sexual impropriety take on a life of their own and so often lead to quick and sloppy thought,” Mr. Fischel added.
Mr. Morse said the situation left him deeply conflicted — as someone who was wrongly accused but who believes victims should not feel intimidated to speak out, and as a gay man worried about enduring homophobia in American society.
“The expectation shouldn’t be that we have to be in monogamous, heteronormative relationships before we enter public life,” he said.
As he watched the condemnation of him from complete strangers spread across social media, Mr. Morse said he was devastated.
“I have often been an observer of this but never at the center of it,” he said. “But what I don’t want this to lead to is a diminishment of people’s very real experiences and trauma.”
“It’s a difficult line to walk,” he added.