In 2011, Alex Morse looked like a progressive star. At age 22, he’d become the first openly gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, was the youngest person ever to hold the office, and soon after became the first Bay State mayor to endorse a recreational marijuana ballot initiative.
Bright, quick, and with a sense of humor, he appeared headed places.
His announcement last year that he was running for congress against Richard Neal, the House Ways and Means committee chair and a master collector of corporate cash, made him a focal point of the movement to remake the Democratic Party in a less donor-fattened image.
Last week, Morse’s career took a dark turn. The College Democrats of Massachusetts sent him a letter telling him he was no longer welcome at any of their events. The group later released a letter accusing him of a variety of things, most particularly “having sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.” The College Dems claimed he met college students on apps like Tinder and Grindr; Morse taught a political science course at UMass-Amherst.
Morse acknowledged having “consensual adult relationships, including some with college students” but insisted he had “never used his power as Mayor or UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain,” adding that he “never violated UMass policy,” and “any claim to the contrary is false.”
UMass policy bans consensual sexual contact between faculty and “any students or postdoctoral researchers they teach, advise or supervise.” Although the College Democrats said Morse “abused his power for sexual relationships,” no one seems to be accusing him of sleeping with one of his own students. The issue here appears to lay entirely in the group’s conception of “power,” which reads like a parody of post-millenial paranoia.
The College Democrats explained that a major part of Morse’s offense was that he sought the contact information of students at their events:
Mayor Morse came to College Democrats of Massachusetts events and got to know our membership, and then sought out students that he met at our events privately on social media, in a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy.
If you’re wondering if it’s possible that the College Democrats just defined communicating on social media as a kind of sexual act, you’re not wrong. It got worse. In their letter to Morse, the group explained that when Morse wrote to those adult students – who, of course, gave Morse their contact info voluntarily – they lacked the free will to ignore his communications:
We have heard countless stories of Morse adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and Direct Messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status…
American college students, it seems, are so intimidated by someone with a political job title that they lack the agency to ignore an Instagram shout-out. The College Democrats elaborated (emphasis mine):
Mayor Morse is a widely-admired and well-connected gatekeeper to progressive politics in Massachusetts and nationally, which makes the task of refusing his advances fraught for college students who wish to enter progressive politics themselves… the Mayor’s various positions of power create a significant and undeniable power imbalance between himself and the college students he sought out… where such a lopsided power dynamic exists, consent becomes complicated.
This is not a sexual harassment issue in the classic sense of someone who actually has power over someone else, for instance in the workplace or in a classroom. The concept here is that students who might “wish to enter progressive politics” will feel uncomfortable refusing, or even just not answering, so mighty a personage as the Mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, for fear of what that might do to their job prospects someday, in a field they have not even chosen yet.
Read the rest of the report here.