PITTSFIELD — Alex Morse's campaign for Congress appeared to be holding onto its endorsements in the Berkshires, as the Holyoke mayor continues to deal with fallout from allegations that he took advantage of his political position in personal relationships with area college students.
But, some supporters have rescinded their backing, including the Sunrise Western Massachusetts Coalition.
And Pittsfield Ward 1 City Councilor Helen Moon said Wednesday she is rethinking her support for Morse.
"There are a lot of layers to process," she said. "I just don't have an answer right now, and I'm not comfortable making a statement."
Others, though, said they remain behind Morse's drive to unseat U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. The two will face off in a Sept. 1 primary.
Drew Herzig, of Pittsfield, a leader of the group Indivisible Pittsfield, which backs Morse, said he first took time to look into the allegations, reported Friday in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
The Collegian reported that the group College Democrats of Massachusetts had told Morse he no longer was welcome at its events. The group accused Morse of having intimate relations with college students. In a letter quoted by the Collegian, the group said Morse used "his position of power for romantic or sexual gain."
Morse has taught part time at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In a statement and in several interviews, Morse has said that while he did date college-age men, he believes all those relationships were consensual. Morse says he never dated one of his own students when he served as an adjunct professor.
"I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual sexual encounter with anyone," Morse said in the statement. "I have never used my position of power as mayor and UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students. I have never violated UMass policy. Any claim to the contrary is false."
'Dog whistle' politics
Herzig said that after reading through a flood of news stories about the action taken by the College Democrats, he came to see the allegations as "dog whistle" politics that treat gay men unfairly. Herzig said he searched for specific examples of wrongdoing or unethical conduct by Morse and could not find them.
"I realized that there is nothing there. This is so typical of how they tear us down — suggesting that we're all predators," said Herzig, who is gay and serves as chair of Pittsfield's Human Rights Commission. Herzig said he was speaking for himself, not Indivisible Pittsfield.
"The cloud of implication became blinding, and people can't see through it," Herzig said.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has reaffirmed its support for Morse, as did the CD-1 Progressive Coalition, whose members in the Berkshires include Greylock Together and Indivisible Pittsfield.
David Greenberg, of the CD-1 Progressive Coalition, said he polled the group's membership and no one was inclined to back away from the Morse campaign.
Like Herzig, Greenberg said he struggled to find a specific allegation against Morse that might lead him to reconsider his support.
"There is no hard, concrete evidence," Greenberg said. "The whole thing just seems really blown out of proportion. I think Alex will be vindicated in the end. He'll recover from this. I think he has a good shot at winning the election. I think he's definitely still in the game here."
UMass is reviewing the allegations to see whether any conduct by Morse violated federal sex discrimination laws.
In a story posted late Tuesday, the Intercept reported that Timothy Ennis, a leader of the College Democrats group, had expressed to at least two members of the group that he hoped to some day work for Neal.
The Neal campaign says it played no role in the action taken by the College Democrats. The Intercept reported that Ennis had taken a class with Neal, who is a longtime lecturer in the journalism department.
In a follow-up story Wednesday, the Intercept reported that it reviewed chat messages sent by members of the College Democrats, including Ennis, as early as last October. In one, Ennis wrote that he supported Neal's reelection effort and felt conflicted about taking steps to damage Morse's campaign.
"But I need a job," Ennis is quoted as saying in a chat, according to the Intercept, and went on to say: "Neal will give me an internship."
According to the texts of the chats reviewed by the Intercept, leaders of the College Democrats discussed ways they could try to engage with Morse through dating apps and, according to the publication, "lead him into saying something incriminating that would then damage his campaign."
After attending an Oct. 5 event sponsored by the group, Morse traded chat messages with a group member who had joined him on a panel.
According to another message, Ennis said evidence of Morse interacting with students "will sink his campaign."
"It sort of kind of looks like a dirty trick," Greenberg said. "This guy Ennis seems to be pretty fond of Richie Neal."
Along with Moon, these other members of the Pittsfield City Council are listed as endorsers by the Morse campaign: At-large councilor Yuki Cohen, Ward 5 Councilor Patrick T. Kavey and Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi.
Cohen said she pored over the allegations and, like others interviewed, did not find evidence of conduct that would cause her to withdraw her support. "My feeling of him having character and integrity still stands."
If Morse had dated one of his students, she says, she would view that differently. "I don't think he violated any ethical standards."
Cohen said the timing of the allegations, roughly three weeks before the primary, concerns her, particularly after reading comments in the Intercept story from two former members of the College Democrats about Ennis' stated interest in working for Neal.
"It was possibly motivated by a smear campaign, but we have no proof of that," she said.
Kavey said Wednesday that he remains solidly in the Morse camp — and sees the message from the College Democrats as a "stereotypical" attack on a gay leader. He believes the controversy will, in the end, elevate the mayor's election prospects. "People get what's happening," Kavey said.
After speaking, Kavey read from a statement he had prepared, saying he had needed to get his thoughts on paper because of all the questions he has been getting.
Kavey views the action by the college group as a blatantly political maneuver. The College Democrats organization, for its part, says it acted solely in the interests of students, a position Kavey questions.
"Through my interactions and experiences with Alex Morse, I have come to know him as an honest and decent man. Alex has always been a man of his word. Through my past interactions and experiences with Alex, I have come to admire him for his transparent nature," Kavey said.
As an elected official himself, and member of the LGBTQ community, Kavey said he feels called to oppose "dangerous rhetoric."
"The seemingly purposeful vagueness of the highly publicized letter brought forth by the College Democrats, and the homophobic stereotypes riddled throughout, immediately caused me to question its broader intent," he said in the statement. "I am outraged by the use of age-old, anti-gay stereotypes, throughout the letter."
Guiel Lampiasi could not be reached for comment.
Coalition says no
Herzig, the chair of the Human Rights Commission, questions why no student who believed he was harassed or mistreated by Morse reported that to the school he attends.
"They didn't go through any of the standard channels to say `We have concerns,'" Herzig said. "I'm sticking with Alex on this one — and made another donation."
He said he plans to poll members of Indivisible Pittsfield after the dust settles.
"I'm still going to wait awhile. The rush to judgment has been part of the problem, and I don't want to contribute to that," Herzig said.
The Sunrise Western Massachusetts Coalition, which no longer is backing Morse, said it acted in the interests of "survivors." The coalition says its members include students in high school and college, as well as "young workers in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties."
"To members of our movement, to those in solidarity with our movement, and to anyone who has been harmed by Alex, his actions, or the aftermath, we are holding you in the light," the coalition said in a statement Monday.
"As a movement that stands for justice and a livable future, we know that rape culture runs deep in our society," the statement said. "We believe the students that came forward about the inappropriate nature of Alex's actions — as we believe all survivors. There is no justice without survivor justice."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.