Holyoke mayor challenges Rep. Neal for 1st District House seat

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HOLYOKE — When he ran for mayor of Holyoke at age 21, Alex Morse says he heard the word "too" a lot.

"Too young. Too gay. Too progressive."

"And what did we do?" he asked a crowd gathered at a downtown Holyoke bar Monday.

Answer: The city native who was the first in his family to attend college broke the political mold in an old industrial city, becoming, in 2011, the youngest mayor in Holyoke history.

On Monday, after winning election as mayor four times, Morse, 30, announced he wants to pull off the improbable and oust one of the most powerful congressmen in Washington.

Morse will challenge Richard Neal of Springfield, a 30-year incumbent and the 1st Congressional District's current representative, in a 2020 Democratic Party primary.

"Our challenge today is to continue to defy the odds," Morse told a frenzied crowd of supporters at the Unicorn Inn on High Street in downtown Holyoke.

In a campaign video posted Monday, Morse sketched the story of a kid from a working-class family who went door-to-door to become his city's chief executive, defying political convention. He now believes he can do the same in the 1st District.

In that video and in remarks Monday, Morse said he is proud of what he sees as Holyoke's rebound under his leadership. He said similar gains are possible in the 87 communities of the 1st District.

"I can only imagine the progress we'll make if we have a champion on the federal level," he said of the district, a region he called representative of social and economic challenges across the U.S.

Peter Panos, a spokesman for Neal, issued a statement Monday welcoming the challenger.

"We are fortunate to live in a country where everyone can have his or her voice heard by running for office, and that's why Congressman Neal will welcome anyone into this race," Panos said.

Panos said Neal, 70, has been a "champion" of working families in the district and "has fought tirelessly to ensure that the people of our region are not forgotten and receive our fair share." Neal has been in office for three decades — his new challenger's age.

Morse linked his campaign to successful challenges to House incumbents in 2018. "I've been inspired by a progressive class of Democrats that has taken on the establishment," he said.

Holding a microphone and surrounded by people holding blue "MORSE" signs, the mayor took on an issue that is likely to loom large in the 2020 primary: Why should district voters unseat Neal, since that would result in the region losing a powerful House chairmanship. Neal leads the House Ways & Means Committee.

"Power," Morse said, will be a frequent topic in the campaign. "For me, it's about power for who?" he said.

And he said of Neal: "He knows how Washington works. But we want to change how Washington works."

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When Morse declared that he will not take a "dime" from corporations or special interests, the room at the Unicorn erupted. Neal is ranked as one of the top recipients of political action committee donations in Congress. His war chest sits at nearly $4 million, according to campaign finance records.

"I need you to believe this is possible," the mayor told the crowd. "Let's get this done."

In an interview with The Eagle, Morse said he plans regular "come and meet Alex" events in Berkshire County, which he said he has visited several times recently, including the county's Pride event. One is planned at Otto's, a downtown restaurant.

Morse said he intends to spend time listening to concerns of residents of Berkshire County, as the campaign takes shape. He joked that Dottie's Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, which he has visited several times recently, seems to be the place to take meetings.

The mayor's older brother, Doug Morse, just moved to Pittsfield, but not as part of a campaign advance team. He works in construction and painting. He noted that Berkshire County struggles, like many communities, with an opioid epidemic and said his brother helped the nonprofit Tapestry launch a needle exchange program in Holyoke; he called opioid abuse one of the issues that unites the district.

"I think Pittsfield will be huge," Doug Morse said of the campaign.

For Jacob Edelman, 23, the Morse announcement took place between his home town of Monterey in Berkshire County and his job in executive recruitment in eastern Massachusetts.

He stood listening to Morse's announcement and felt a connection.

"I feel like Congressman Neal, for the most part, doesn't represent my views," said Edelman, who served as president of the Democratic organization at his college, Brandeis University.

"I'm here because I want a different congressman and I think Alex Morse is terrific," Edelman said.

Frances Welson, a lifelong Holyoke resident, said she's supported Morse since he ran for office, when he teased her about asking a "rude" question: "Why should I vote for you?"

His answer won her over. "We needed change. We needed something progressive in Holyoke," she said.

Welson voted for Neal's unsuccessful challenger, Tahira Amatul-Wadud, in the 2018 primary and feels that the congressman is "too entrenched."

"I think he's got a lot of power, but doesn't use it for his whole constituency," she said.

Debra Lee Dominguez says she has been a Morse backer since he knocked on her door while campaigning for mayor. Dominguez said she appreciates Neal, but feels Morse is a new kind of politician.

"He, to me, offered something new and I thought I ought to give this boy a chance," she said. "He thinks things through. He's always on point."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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