This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Alex Morse is the current Mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and a progressive candidate running to be the Democratic nominee in Massachusetts’ 1st congressional district.
At the age of 22, Alex Morse was elected the youngest mayor of Holyoke and is currently serving his fourth term as mayor.
Morse is seeking to oust long serving Democratic incumbent, Representative Richard Neal – the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and one of the most powerful Democrats in DC. The primary election is set to take place on September 1st.
Endorsing a Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All, legalization of marijuana and decriminalizing sex work, Morse’s campaign has received backing from progressive organizations such as Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement.
What follows is an abridged version of an interview we conducted with Morse in his hometown of Holyoke back in February. The discussion centers around the challenges and imperatives of primarying entrenched incumbents to enact a substantive progressive policy agenda.
Freddie Stuart: I thought a good place to start would be with your politicization. You became mayor here in Holyoke, Masachussetes at the age of 22. Could you tell us what drove you down this road, how have your personal experiences shaped your current politics?
Alex Morse: It was a combination of things. I think, first and foremost it was my upbringing here in the city of Holyoke. I grew up here, and people had this quiet resignation for the way things were. We were once one of the most successful, thriving, manufacturing cities in the entire country. We were the paper city. At one point we had the most millionaires per capita in the entire United States. And then when I grew up factories were closing, there was high crime, there were struggling public schools. We had a city that worked well for some people and not well for everyone else.
Growing up in that backdrop, and seeing that we had the same people in elected office year after year, decade after decade, with no active democracy or civic engagement, it bothered me – particularly as someone who was starting to take an interest in government and politics.
So I went off to college – I was the first in my family to go. I went to Brown University, and encountered a lot of wealth and privilege there. People had different backgrounds and experiences, and what was unique about me was that I was incredibly tied to my hometown and to my family. So it was easy for me to decide that I wanted to come back home. What better place to help make a difference, and to make sure that other kids like me had the same opportunities that I had, because that certainly wasn’t the case.
Aaron White: So right now you're running against Richard Neal, who was elected in 1989, and is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. What kind of impediments are you facing running against a candidate like that?
Alex Morse: Yeah, you're right. Richard Neal has been in Washington longer than I've been alive. And I think after 30 years in Congress, you become incredibly complacent. When you're part of building a system and a status quo that leaves people in communities behind, it's difficult for you to have any self reflection as to the faults of the current system. I thank him for his 30 years of service, but it's not 1989 anymore, we have a whole series of new challenges, and he is completely unable to grasp the magnitude of the solutions we need for the challenges that we have.
While we've made a lot of progress on the local level here in Holyoke, on housing and education and public safety, economic development and entrepreneurship, and combating the climate crisis, in particular, I've also come to the realization that we can only do so much on the local level. Things like climate change don’t stop at the borders of my community, and so without a strong federal partner in Congress, we're not going to get much done.
So yes, he has power. But he's certainly not using that power for the people here in the first congressional district. He's using that power for the special and corporate interests that invest vast amounts of money in his campaign. We're not just going up against Congressman Neal, we're going up against the party establishment and the DC establishment. When I ran for Mayor back in 2011, we brought our message directly to people – to parks and public spaces, to their doorsteps, their kitchens and living rooms, to block parties and at parades and festivals. That's what we're going to do throughout the next several months, and that’s how we’ll win on September 1st.
Freddie Stuart: So you say it's not 1989 anymore. And obviously, you're trying to remove a candidate that embodies an established philosophy in DC, one that many Democrats have come to take for granted. Why do you think it is so important to primary these established incumbents, and how powerful do you think the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been in inspiring people to believe that this can actually be achieved?
Alex Morse: Yeah, I think we get caught up in these unspoken rules that you don't run against other Democrats or you don't run against incumbents. And, yes we have to respect people's service, but respect often means not questioning the decisions that they make, or the status quo. That status quo has been failing thousands of people here in Holyoke, and now it's failing tens of thousands of people here throughout Western Massachusetts.
The campaign we're building reaches out to people that have always participated, but we’re also being very intentional about reaching out to those people that have just given up on the political process altogether.
Certainly people like AOC and other new members of Congress, have demonstrated that you don't have to be in Congress for 20 or 30 years to show immense power in changing our party, changing our country. It's those members of Congress like AOC that show in the way they're voting, building coalitions and inspiring millions of Americans, and that is personally inspiring to me, and to so many others around the country.
Ending mass incarceration, combating the climate crisis, guaranteeing healthcare as a human right, getting money out of politics – none of those policies will be possible so long as Congressman Neal is in the position he is in now
Aaron White: So one of the groups that's behind your own campaign is Justice Democrats. Could you describe the process of getting their endorsement, and the resources that they're providing to help you with your campaign?
Alex Morse: I'm very thankful for the support of Justice Democrats, and the work they've done over the last couple of years to support new members of Congress and new candidates in priority districts.
Here in this district, given the power of Congressman Neal as the chairperson of the Ways and Means Committee, everything that is near and dear to us as progressives – ending mass incarceration, combating the climate crisis, healthcare being a human right, getting money out of politics – none of those policies will be possible so long as Neal is in the position he is in now.
I think that's why we have people from all over the country taking a look at this race and chipping in what they can to help. I think I'm a bit different than some of the other Justice Democrats. I'm an incumbent elected official that has been in office for over eight years now.
The process with them was about having a conversation. A conversation about the values that I have, and the issues I want to stand up for in Washington. They took a deep look at my record over the last eight years on a whole host of issues, and found that we have tackled issues of racial and social justice, of getting money out of politics, of being there for just everyday people on the local level. I think they identified and agree that the work I've done here in Holyoke serves as a really powerful roadmap for what we want to do across the country. Seeing government as a body that should look out for, and reach out to, the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Aaron White: I'd like to ask some about some of the structural impediments that you're facing, challenging an incumbent. For example, the DCCC blacklist, but also wider financial inequalities as well.
Alex Morse: Yeah, about a year ago we were taking a look and considering launching this campaign, and there were certain consultants and organizations and companies that we spoke to along the way that had an interest in potentially being part of this campaign. They were very clear about the fact that they do work with the DCCC, or other Democratic incumbent members of Congress. And despite their personal excitement about the race, they couldn't get involved given the policy.
I think obviously, it's incredibly undemocratic of the Democratic Party to have this policy. Like I said before, we're not just up against congressman Neal, we're up against a much larger infrastructure of people in Washington and within the Democratic Party. And on top of that, the fact that we're funded 100% by everyday people, we're not taking any corporate PAC money. We recently announced our fundraising numbers a couple of weeks ago. We've raised more money in six months from people here in the district than our congressman has raised in over three years, and have raised 25 times the amount of donations from people here than he has. So we're never going to raise the millions of dollars that congressman Neal has, we don't want to, and most importantly we don’t need to.
Freddie Stuart: So looking ahead, if you get into Congress one of the main things you're going to come up against is an established party leadership. Have you discussed with other Justice Democrats, or with your team here how you will go about trying to get the things done that you want to get done against a leadership that might be less willing to help you?
Alex Morse: Yeah. This is why every seat matters, and why people say well, why are you running against another Democrat? Not all democrats are the same. And it's not just about having a Democrat there. It's having better Democrats that actually want to be there to represent real people.
I think where people get disillusioned and disappointed is when Democrats are in power and control the White House and Congress and don't actually deliver transformational policies that make people's lives better. That's the problem. What we saw in 2018, electing the most diverse Congress in our country's history is that we grew the Progressive Caucus. So in 2019, that means that for the first time we had hearings on Medicare-for-All and a number of House committees.
That didn't happen because the Speaker of the House woke up one morning and said, I think it's a great idea to talk about Medicare-for-All. It happened because we had elected dozens of progressives all across the country that put pressure on the party leadership. So that's on everything from healthcare to economic opportunities, to fighting the climate crisis. There are a lot of great allies, not just new members of Congress, but members like Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna that I really admire, and that I look forward to working with. So I'm under no illusion that this is a fight that will be borne by me alone. But it is about building coalitions and building relationships with natural allies that have been doing this work for years already in Washington.
Aaron White: So say you are elected to Congress, what do you think your top legislative priority will be?
Alex Morse: Well, healthcare is the number one thing to address. It's an opportunity for me as a member of Congress to be very specific to the challenges here in Western Massachusetts. In the rural parts of our district hospitals are closing, people are unable to get inpatient care, or to find a primary care provider. People are feeling that on a daily basis. It's not just about having health insurance, the vast majority of people who have health insurance are still underinsured and can't afford out of pocket expenses.
That's important. I also think making sure all people have access to economic opportunity and innovation here is key. The ability to start their own business and be entrepreneurs. That's from people here in Holyoke in Springfield, to small farmers, for example, in the hill towns or in the rural parts of our district. And then issues like transportation and infrastructure. We have unreliable transportation here, and things like broadband internet. We have dozens of cities and towns here in the district where people just can't get online. That migrates people to the urban areas of our district and shrinks our population here in Western Mass, which then has big implications for funding our priorities.
Aaron White: So I’d like to turn now to talk about the Green New Deal. It's now one of the top priorities of this new insurgent wing of the Democratic Party, and many progressive candidates have publicly endorsed the resolution laid out by AOC and Senator Ed Markey. Could you tell us your position on that, and how such a transformation would benefit your constituency here in Holyoke?
Alex Morse: Yeah. Well, first, I should say a couple of things about the contrast between the incumbent and myself. Congressman Neal is the only one of the nine congressional Democrats in Massachusetts that refuses to sign on to the Green New Deal.
More important than that, earlier this year Congressman Neal was the chief negotiator and architect of the USMCA, NAFTA 2.0, trade agreement that every environmental organization around the country has come out against, because of its failure to grasp the climate crisis. In 2020, for a Democratic leadership to negotiate a trade agreement that doesn't even mention climate change, or the word climate, I think is incredibly unacceptable. Time and time again he fails to grasp the climate crisis and the actions necessary to combat it. And these arguments that natural gas should be a bridge to renewable is an argument that he and others have been making for 30 or 40 years and have never actually gotten to the fact that the bridge is over, the climate crisis is here, and now we need bold action.
Here in Western Mass, we've already seen the impact of climate related disasters impacting migration to inland areas. We have a large Puerto Rican population in Holyoke and Springfield, and we saw upwards of 3,000 Puerto Ricans migrate to Holyoke after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Those disasters will continue to happen without drastic changes. We see what's happening in California; we see what's happening in Australia. As a world we need to do everything we can to combat that.
When you say things like Green New Deal or Medicare-for-All people sometimes don’t understand what that means and our campaign wants to be as specific as possible, to paint a picture of what life would be like here in Western Mass if we actually deliver these policies.
Freddie Stuart: Another of the things that you have focused on in your political career so far has been the legalization of marijuana. We’ve seen the campaign of Bernie Sanders bring that to the forefront of people’s consciousness, are you hopeful of achieving federal action on that issue when you enter Congress?
Alex Morse: Yeah, that progress is exciting for me. This has been one of the issues that I've become most passionate about as Mayor. I was the first and the only Mayor back in 2016 to support the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. I mean, first and foremost, the war on drugs has disproportionately affected black and brown folks in this country. And unfortunately, legalization in Massachusetts hasn't necessarily benefited those communities most harmed by prohibition. We still have a lot of barriers to access in terms of allowing people to build wealth in that industry. Unfortunately, what is happening not just here in Massachusetts, but around the country in States that legalize it are that corporations that have financial resources are coming in to make money off of the industry. And at the same time, people are still sitting in jail for the very things that these corporations are now making money off. We certainly need legalization nationally, and there simply aren’t enough members of Congress that have made sensible drug policy reform a priority. And that is something I really want to focus on in Washington. We can't legalize marijuana without simultaneously expunging the records of people that have been locked up arrested and negatively harmed by those laws in the first place.
Freddie Stuart: Final question before we wrap up, another thing that I've noticed you talk about a lot is decriminalizing sex work. That hasn't been something that's been on the agenda of many leading Democrats, even progressive ones. Is that something you will be pushing to introduce into the public discourse if you enter into Congress?
Alex Morse: Yes, I think it needs to finally become part of the public discourse. I know members of Congress, congresswoman Pressley and other members have talked about specific legislation that would move the needle on this issue. I think it's at least necessary that we as a country understand how policies like this have impacted people's lives here, and in other countries around the world. Too often we criminalize people's behaviors without regard to their economic situation. So this policy fits into a larger set of policies that actually meet people where they are, and seeks to allow them to get the help that they need to become economically independent.