(JTA) — Alex Morse’s first job out of college was as mayor of his Massachusetts hometown, Holyoke. Morse spent only one day a week on campus at Brown University his last semester as he mounted a campaign against an incumbent three times his age.
When he was elected later that year, the then-22-year-old first-generation college graduate became both the youngest and the first openly gay person to lead the city of 40,000 near Springfield.
Today at 31, the Jewish politician hopes to again unseat a much older and more established opponent. A year ago to this day, he announced his challenge to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who has been representing the state’s 1st Congressional District since 1989 and chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee. The two will face off Sept. 1 in the Democratic primary.
Morse is running on a progressive platform that includes Medicare for All, defunding the Immigration and Customs and Enforcement agency, legalizing marijuana and canceling student debt. Fighting inequality is a central tenet of his campaign — he says it’s become even more necessary during the coronavirus pandemic. In Holyoke, which is 50% Hispanic, nearly 30% of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. census. Many have been struggling economically since the pandemic hit, and the city saw a severe coronavirus outbreak at a state-run veterans’ home that left 76 dead.
“The pandemic and how it’s manifesting and impacting our communities in many ways just crystallizes why I’m running for Congress in the first place and who our federal government should be looking out for and working for,” Morse told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think it’s illuminated already existing disparities and inequities in our communities that need to be addressed.”
Last year, Morse in an interview with Mother Jones aligned himself with the group of four young Democratic congresswomen of color nicknamed “the Squad” — Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
“Those four members of Congress in particular represent very courageous and progressive voices in our party, so it would be an honor to get to Congress and work alongside them,” Morse said.
But while Morse, who visited Israel on a Birthright trip in college, said he, too, would be open to considering withholding some aid to Israel in some circumstances — “as long as they continue to move forward with the occupation and annexation,” he said — he rejects the idea that criticizing the country’s policies amounts to anti-Semitism.
“Too often we conflate criticism of Israel, criticism of their leader with being anti-Semitic or being anti-Jewish, and I think they’re two very different conversations. I think one can be critical of Israel and their actions without being anti-Semitic,” said Morse, who was endorsed by IfNotNow, a Jewish group opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. “And as a young openly gay progressive Jew, I think I have a unique voice to lend in this conversation.”
Morse speaks with voters as part of his congressional campaign. (Rob Deza)
Hailing from a city that once was the home to most of America’s paper mills, Morse became the first in his family to earn a college degree after participating in Upward Bound, a federal program to help students from low-income families. His parents, who met as teens, had grown up in public housing, and his mother dropped out of high school after she became pregnant with Morse’s oldest brother.
In high school, Morse had his first taste of local politics, serving as the student representative on his district’s school board. He also came out as gay — then advocated for change in his high school, where he says homophobia was rampant.
“There were so few students that were openly gay when I first got there,” Morse said. “There was homophobic language and behaviors in the school, and the hallways and gym classes and sports after school. Not many educators and teachers were equipped with how to address homophobic and transphobic language.”
He went on to found the school’s gay-straight alliance, organize a school assembly on LGBTQ issues and start a nonprofit to host an alternative prom for queer students and allies. He also worked with local politicians to organize a sexual education curriculum and racial and social justice training for teachers.
“[I was] learning at a young age the power of building coalitions, and of working with other young people to amplify our voice together and the impact it makes to have people working together,” he said. “My coming-out process and finding my voice directly tied to my interest in politics and government and advocacy. Without those high school experiences, I wouldn’t be as passionate or involved in the work I’m doing today.”
At Brown, Morse majored in urban studies. He also traveled home frequently to care for his mother, Kim, who suffered from severe mental health issues, and his oldest brother, Doug, who struggled with a heroin addiction. Both were in and out of treatment centers and died during Morse’s term as mayor, with his brother passing away earlier this year — an extended experience that Morse said informs his vision for reforming health care in America.
“Even I, as mayor, having trouble finding my brother treatment and a bed when he needs it, I can only imagine the struggle that other families are going through. And then watching my mom struggle with mental illness and again having issues around insurance and what’s covered and what’s not,” he said. “Everybody deserves the best possible care, and that includes mental health care. It shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthiest in this country.”
It was also at Brown where Morse first spent time around many Jewish people, even as he said his mother and grandmother were “incredibly proud of being Jewish.” (His father is Christian.)
“I knew from a young age that Judaism was something that was part of me and part of my family,” he said.
As an adult, Morse said he has been an “on and off member” of Congregation Sons of Zion, a Conservative synagogue, but he had no Jewish friends growing up and did not attend synagogue frequently or celebrate his bar mitzvah.
His freshman year, he traveled to Israel on a Birthright trip.
“It was a very powerful experience,” he recalled. “Going to the Holocaust museum there reiterated my value and belief that Israel has a right to exist and the people of Israel have a right to exist in peace.”
But Morse also found himself critical of the way that Israeli policy was discussed on the trip, which is free to Jews aged 18-32 and receives funding in part from the Israeli government. He saw parallels between how Palestinians were discussed and racist language he had heard being used to describe communities of color in the United States.
“Being on a Birthright trip, guided and organized by folks that may have a rigid perception of the history and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and having to receive those messages and conversations in a way where you’re able to as an individual to come to your own conclusions rather than being led to absorb or believe everything you’re being told — that was important for me,” he said.
Morse added that he had observed “some parallels between the languages communities of color were being talked about here and also there.”
The congressional hopeful is among a wave of young progressives challenging more centrist Democrat incumbents. Morse has earned the endorsement of the Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee that endorsed the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar in 2018 and more recently Jamaal Bowman, who beat Rep. Eliot Engel in New York in the Democratic primary and almost certainly will win in November’s general election.
“There is a constituency of Jews and non-Jews alike that support a Jewish candidate like this because he is part of that progressive generation and it’s growing,” said Joel Rubin, a Democratic strategist who led Jewish outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid. “It’s part of the diverse Jewish community, and it needs to be taken seriously as part of the future leadership of how the Jewish community engages politically.”
Still, Morse faces an “uphill battle,” said Rich Parr, research director at the MassINC, a nonpartisan polling group in Massachusetts. There has been no polling on the primary, but Parr said Morse may run into issues in gaining support in the district’s “power base” in Springfield, where the incumbent Neal previously served as mayor.
“They are more traditional Democrat, which is what Richie Neal is, so it’s neither the most nor least progressive district in the state in terms of the voters … so that’s the challenge Morse is facing,” he said.
Morse is prepared for any outcome. Still Holyoke’s mayor after nearly a decade, he also enjoys playing tennis, doing yoga and watching TV — his favorite shows are “Schitt’s Creek” and “Queer Eye.” And he can be found at least once a week whipping up one of his signature creations in the kitchen for his friends — carrot cake with homemade cream cheese frosting, lemon and blueberry cake, chocolate chip cookies or peanut butter blossoms.
“If this Congress thing doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll just bake more,” he joked.
His age and role as a mayor of a smaller city has earned him comparisons to Pete Buttigieg, the gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran for president earlier this year. Morse said he doesn’t mind the comparisons to Buttigieg, whom he met after both were elected in 2011.
At the time, Buttigieg was not yet out and Morse had no idea he was gay.
“As an openly gay mayor and millennial, watching an openly gay young person and his husband run a very out and proud campaign was certainly exciting and inspiring to watch,” Morse said. “I think we may have different views on certain policies and how to get there, but I think overall we want the same things for our country and our communities.”