Neal challenger makes rounds in Berkshires, says DC 'status quo' hurts Western Mass

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SHEFFIELD — A light snow falling on melting ice outside, Alex Morse is standing in the hoop house at a farm off Oxbow Road here Tuesday afternoon, listening to farmers and other residents talk about how government either interferes too much with growth or fails to support this rural region.

"It's getting harder and harder to be a farmer," said Pete Chapin, the owner of Equinox and Mill River farms who explained that his chicken slaughter business is hamstrung by a merely technical regulation that slashes revenue.

Others spoke to the state's strict regulations for growing cannabis outdoors and how this gives big industry a leg up over local farmers.

Morse heard them. The 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, who is bouncing around the Berkshires on a number of stops this month to pitch his platform, said these are just some of the reasons he wants to challenge U.S. Rep. Richard Neal for his 1st Congressional District seat. He said he applauds the "powerful" Springfield Democrat for his service, but that a "status quo" inertia has developed during Neal's three decades in office.

Morse said that Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is using his power "for corporations and special interests that invest vast amounts of money in his campaign" rather than on radical efforts to help Western Massachusetts.

"Our roads and bridges are crumbling," said Morse, a Democrat, listing all the ways in which the region is falling behind. "You would never know we have one of the most powerful members of Congress representing us."

And it is with this narrative that Morse, a four-term mayor, has found a robust superstructure for his platform, one that he admits that only a deep grassroots campaign can keep aloft amid Neal's experience, and ability to collect what Morse said are the corporate campaign donations that he is eschewing.

In an email to The Eagle, Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for the Neal campaign, fought back against Morse's portrayal, citing his role in securing New Market Tax Credits and federal money for multiple public projects in Holyoke, including the Green High Performance Computing Center.

"To see how Richie Neal uses his power on behalf of his constituents, Mayor Morse just needs to look in his own backyard because he is either willfully ignorant or purposefully deceiving voters as to Richie securing millions of dollars in federal funding to spur development and improvement in Holyoke and throughout the district," Norton wrote.

Morse was elected mayor in 2012, at age 22. He was still a college senior when he began that campaign. The Holyoke native comes from a family that struggled with poverty, and Morse said he is the first in his family to go to college — Brown University.

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His website says he has "spearheaded the city's economic rebirth," in part through green energy projects, and lists the accomplishments — like a needle exchange program — of a progressive and creative agenda that one would expect from "the youngest and first openly gay mayor in the history of the city."

He says the area needs a new way of being represented in Washington, and that the nation's spending priorities also need to shift.

"It's not 1989 anymore," he told about 20 people Tuesday, most of them farmers.

Frustration with cannabis regulations cropped up, and Morse answered, saying that the "huge misunderstanding" about the cannabis industry has made regulations unfair in terms of cost and bureaucracy. In Holyoke, he said, he has worked to simplify this as much as he has license to.

If he is elected to Congress, he said, he'd like to legalize it federally and review all the regulations.

Rene Wood, chairwoman of the Sheffield Select Board, pointed to the local struggle for economic development and how an "unfair burden" to fund everything is falling on property owners.

"We need you to help us help ourselves," she told Morse, in the event that he is elected.

Morse, who needs 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot in September, will hold events this month in Great Barrington, Pittsfield and North Adams.

He later told The Eagle that the only way to beat Neal is with a deep grassroots campaign.

"It's showing up in rooms like this and places like this and barns like this ... and not taking a single person for granted," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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