Progressives see shot at ousting another powerful Democratic chairman in Massachusetts primary

The 31-year-old Morse, backed by Justice Democrats and other leading progressive groups, was taking aim at Neal, 71, over his refusal to embrace “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal and, in his powerful position as the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, more aggressively pursue oversight of the Trump administration. Morse has described Neal as an absentee representative, detached from struggles of his constituents, and a magnet for corporate campaign cash.

A campaign that believed it had been gaining ground and momentum ahead of the September 1 primary, appeared — for a few long days — to be on the brink of collapse. Many of Morse’s most prominent supporters, from Justice Democrats to the Sunrise Movement and Indivisible, went silent or announced they would pause their efforts until more information became available.

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One notable exception was the Victory Fund, a group that works to elect LGBTQ candidates and has known Morse since around the time he was first elected mayor as a 22-year-old, which almost immediately reaffirmed its July endorsement. Because the rumors that ultimately filled the College Democrats’ letter had been floating around for months, the group told CNN it had been able to discuss them with Morse before they became public.

Satisfied by his denial of any misconduct, the Victory Fund, concerned that the allegations would play into homophobic stereotypes, rushed to his defense, while staying in constant contact with indecisive progressive groups.

“For so long, gay men in particular have been branded as pedophiles and sex deviants and all these things that understandably conjure up negative images that no one wants to be associated with,” said Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s communications director. “For us, it was really important that these political attacks against Alex failed, because if they didn’t, it would only set a precedent to use these types of attacks against LGBTQ candidates in the future.”

Untangling the allegations

In the days after the student group’s letter was published, its claims came under greater scrutiny. The Intercept obtained and published messages between students who, before the accusations became public, appeared to be discussing ways to undermine Morse’s candidacy. The site was also first to report that the Massachusetts Democratic Party had been previously alerted to the allegations and referred the organization’s leadership to a prominent Democratic attorney for legal advice.
Gus Bickford, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement that the party was “made aware of concerns” regarding Morse, but declined to get directly involved, instead connecting them with a lawyer “who volunteers as legal counsel to the Party.” That attorney, James Roosevelt Jr., recently told The New York Times he advised the College Democrats to keep their contact with Morse private. Subsequent and repeated efforts by CNN to contact the group and its officials named in the Intercept report were unsuccessful. No students have come forward publicly to allege any wrongdoing against Morse since the initial letter was made public. The party, Bickford added, has since “set up a committee to initiate an independent review of the actions and decisions that led to the release of the letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts.”

Neal’s campaign has denied any connection to the writing or dissemination of the accusations and there is no evidence Neal was aware of, or played any role, in stoking them.

The Morse campaign has since said it was made aware, earlier this year, that accusations similar to those in the letter — which does not mention any names or detail any specific incidents — were being peddled to national news organizations. And in an interview with CNN, Morse, as he’s done in other public forums, said the timing of its publication led him to believe he was the target of “a coordinated smear campaign.”

“There was no evidence, there was no corroboration, there were no folks to go on record,” Morse said. “This was essentially a blog post that was then picked up and amplified by media from local to state to national. It was three weeks before this primary election, (on) a week of incredible momentum after Cori Bush beat Representative Clay, after we had our best fundraising day — the same day we got endorsed by MoveOn and the Working Families Party. It was very clear what that email was when I received it on Thursday morning.”

Morse said his apology email, sent the same day he received the letter, was a simple, “human” response.

“I thought it was important to respond to that email and express regret,” Morse said, “if I have made someone feeling uncomfortable unintentionally.”

If their most recent debate was any indication, both candidates appear eager to move on from litigating the episode. The College Democrats have said they will cooperate with the party’s probe and, in a statement, condemned any homophobic attacks that followed the publication of the allegations.

“I read about it, as everybody else did on a Friday night,” Neal said, when asked about the letter by a debate moderator last Thursday night. “The students then pointed out in a subsequent press release, that what they did was independent of my campaign and my organization. Here’s the point: we had nothing to do with this. The students should be heard. There’s a process in place.”

Morse pressures Neal on campaign cash

With the probes underway, but unlikely to return any definitive conclusions before the primary, Morse has plowed ahead with the renewed support of progressive groups and leaders. Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, among others, have all doubled down on their endorsements and Morse has, over the last week, unveiled new slates of local officials who are now backing his campaign. His fundraising totals are growing, beating old records, new volunteers are signing on, and the race appears to be neck-and-neck coming into the final stretch of campaigning.

On Tuesday afternoon, Morse got another major boost: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, Courage to Change, endorsed his campaign.

“When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took on her own entrenched incumbent in 2018, she changed public service for the better,” Morse said in a statement, “further inspiring me and so many others to fight for our districts and empower those who have long been forgotten.

But Morse allies, enthused by the backlash but still bitten by the incident, say the abrupt pause in outside activity following the letter’s publication cost the campaign and its supporters precious days of messaging before the start of early voting.

“The Morse campaign has done a really good job of turning an incredibly difficult situation into a positive for their campaign,” said Lucy Solomon, political director for Indivisible’s independent expenditure group. “But obviously, a lot of folks on (the independent expenditure) side paused their ads right when the letter came out, to figure out what was really happening here, and so those are missed communications with voters.”

Morse’s case to those voters has, from the beginning of a campaign that began last summer, centered on the question of how Neal has wielded his indisputable power on Capitol Hill. Neal has been criticized, and not only by the party’s progressive wing, for not pursuing President Donald Trump’s tax returns immediately after taking over the Ways and Means Committee at the start of 2019.

His considerable support from corporate PACs — no Democrat has taken more in the 2020 cycle — and, in particular, donations from individuals at Blackstone Group, have led Morse to accuse Neal of blocking or stalling reform efforts aimed at issues like surprise medical billing.

In debates, Neal has denied that his contributors have any effect on his legislative decisions.

“If you contribute to my campaign you buy into my agenda,” Neal said during an exchange last week. “I’m not buying into yours.” He has also pointed to his record of spreading that money around to other Democratic House candidates, arguing that it helped build the party’s majority in Congress.

The left, though, sees Morse’s challenge as an opportunity — as it did in New York, with Jamaal Bowman’s defeat of Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee — to deliver a double blow to the House Democrats’ moderate, establishment infrastructure. House Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, also of New York, narrowly survived her contest, but if Morse can defeat Neal, progressives will have taken down two committee chairs in one summer. The Ways and Means Committee gavel, should Neal be unseated, would be passed to a new chair next year, with Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, considered the favorite.
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“Alex Morse is not going to become the Ways and Means chair, Jamaal Bowman didn’t become the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, but we not only picked up a seat, we fundamentally changed the direction of those committees — for decades, potentially,” said Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director.

Doggett, she added, is “not a Justice Democrat, but he is a lot more progressive and actually believes in something like Medicare for All.”

A Morse victory would be a capper on a bittersweet primary season for progressives. Joe Biden’s late surge to the presidential nomination set the movement briefly back on its heels. But subsequent victories for newcomers like Bowman and Bush, and steamrolling performances by members of the “squad” — including Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated her centrist primary challenger by more than 56 percentage points — has guaranteed the movement will be in a position to pressure a potential Biden administration.

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The attention and money lavished on the presidential race, first during the primary and now ahead of the general election, opened up a lane for progressives to assert their influence — and direct their energy — toward federal and state legislative races. Morse now has the backing of a coalition of progressive groups, which have rallied around his campaign and helped him compete against one of the best-funded incumbents in the House.

“When it became obvious that Biden was going to be the nominee, we saw a lot of energy and momentum shift to down-ballot progressive campaigns, and our campaign in particular,” Morse said. “With a Biden administration, it’s more important now than ever before that we have more progressive members of Congress to hold his administration accountable, to make progress on health care and climate change and expand the progressive caucus.”

Indivisible, Solomon told CNN, expects to spend $375,000 on Morse by primary day on television, mail and digital ads. Justice Democrats’ independent expenditure arm is on track to eclipse that, a spokesman said, with a projected $500,000 in spending. The group has also raised over $120,000 for the campaign, with an average contribution of $25. Fight Corporate Monopolies, a progressive advocacy group, spent $325,000 on television ads criticizing Neal over his Blackstone ties.
Neal is also receiving considerable outside support. The Democratic Majority for Israel, which has run ads against progressive candidates all year, has spent more than $100,000 attacking Morse. Another group, American Working Families — not to be confused with the Working Families Party, which endorsed Morse — has also now shelled out more than $500,000 opposing the Holyoke mayor.

Neal opens up his war chest

The battle with Morse is Neal’s toughest race in years. In the 2018 primary, he fended off another progressive, Springfield-area lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who finished with 30% of the vote — well off the pace, but enough to put keep Neal and the district on the radar two years later.

In a sign of how seriously Neal is taking the challenge this year, his campaign has plowed nearly $800,000 into broadcast advertising alone through Tuesday — four times what he spent at this point in the 2018 cycle, according to Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The spots include a biographical ad that describes how Neal lost his both parents before graduating from high school and survived with the care of relatives and Social Security benefits. Another features House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, touting the “over $1 billion” she said Neal has delivered for the district.

Candy Glazer, the former chair of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee and a Neal supporter, said the progressive wave that has swept longtime Democrats out of office is unlikely to topple Neal.

Neal, who served as mayor of Springfield in the 1980s, is well-known and liked in the district, said Glazer, a party stalwart in western Massachusetts.

“He’s still the local guy,” she said. “You’ll get a call if someone in your family dies. He’ll be at the wake. It’s still the old grassroots politics.”

“It might be trendy to think that if you have gray hair, that’s a strike against you,” she added. “But in these uncertain times, the need for leadership and experience is even more important.”

Although Neal has served in the US House more than three decades, he represents a sprawling district reshaped after the last US Census. It now encompasses 87 towns, Glazer noted. And it includes all of Berkshire County, which stretches from the Connecticut border north to Vermont.

Morse has worked to make inroads into the Berkshires, a mix of bucolic landscapes, storied arts institutions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and a smattering of former industrial towns.

On an afternoon in early August, just hours before the allegations about his personal life became public, he stumped in Pittsfield, the county’s largest city. He denounced the 2014 closure of an in-patient hospital in North Adams, a former mill town in the northwest corner of the state, and shortages of treatment beds to help communities grappling with opioid addiction.

Pittsfield holds particularly poignant memories for Morse. His older brother, Doug lived — and died — there in February, the final chapter in a long struggle with heroin. When Morse discussed his brother’s death in July ad, accusing the incumbent of “using his power and seniority to fight for the same drug companies that are fueling this (opioid) crisis,” Neal’s campaign responded by accusing him of using the tragedy as a “political football.”

Morse bristled at the suggestion, and during a news conference in Pittsfield, shot back, saying “no one is going to tell me or my father or my brother when we can talk about my brother Doug or invoke my brother Doug’s story.”

“This is personal to us,” Morse said. “And it makes it political to us.”

CORRECTION: The story has been updated to correct the timing of the Victory Fund’s endorsement of Alex Morse. The fund endorsed Morse in July.

The 'Squad' plays defense as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar face primary challengers

Over the next 10 days, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, will be tested by challengers who have sought to turn their star power against them, arguing, in both contests, that the freshmen lawmakers have chased the national spotlight at the expense of their districts.

“There is a massive effort by Republicans and by the corporate wing of the Democratic Party to destroy the ‘squad’ and make it seem like they’re vulnerable and out of touch,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, the group on the frontlines of the party’s progressive insurgency. “But AOC was already able to show that much of that is manufactured. In terms of Rashida and Ilhan, I just think that the ‘squad’ represents the direction that the Democratic Party is heading.”

The pressure points in Tlaib and Omar’s contests are different. Omar represents Minnesota’s 5th District, where George Floyd was killed by a police officer on Memorial Day. The district is a hotbed of activism and the state party’s wheelhouse for driving turnout in statewide races. In Michigan, Tlaib’s 13th District, which has seen its boundaries shift over the years and likely will again ahead of the 2022 midterms, has for most of the past six decades been represented by Black lawmakers with deep ties in Detroit politics.

Tlaib goes head-to-head with a familiar rival

Of the two, Tlaib, whose primary is this coming Tuesday, entered congressional politics in a more precarious position. She won the nomination two years ago in a six-way race with a little more than 31% of the vote. This time, Tlaib is in a head-to-head clash with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who finished second in the 2018 primary and now has the support of the other four candidates from that race.

“When you think about the 13th Congressional District, historically, you go back to George Crockett, you can go back to Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, you can go back to Barbara-Rose Collins, you can go back to John Conyers,” said Marvin Beatty of the Jones campaign, ticking off Black lawmakers who have represented the district in the past. “This has been a historically African American seat and it’s unfortunate that two years ago a crowded field allowed that to change.”

Tlaib’s communications director, Denzel McCampbell, who is Black and lives in the 13th District, said the contest would not be decided on those terms — and noted that, unlike in 2018, Tlaib now has a record of performance to run on.

“They want someone who will stand by their word and stick up for the issues that matter most to them, and that’s what Rep. Tlaib is doing,” he said. “Her legislation comes from the district. She doesn’t act without input from her constituents. That’s what residents demand.”

Beatty also accused Tlaib of effectively leaving the district to “fend for itself” while she engages in broader fights over the future of national and international politics.

“Where we find ourselves is that Ms. Tlaib has done an excellent job in marketing herself,” Beatty said, “and done very poorly in raising the level of opportunity for people in the 13th District.”

But Jones, who only entered the race in late March and then announced she had tested positive for Covid-19 in early April, has struggled to raise money, while Tlaib, now enjoying some of the inherent advantages of incumbency, has a joint fundraising committee, announced at the beginning of July, called the “Squad Victory Fund,” available as a backstop, along with the support of national small dollar magnets like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Tlaib has raised more than $3 million so far and spent about a third of it, while Jones’ total for the cycle, according to the most recent public information, is less than $200,000. She launched her first television ad this past week after being on the radio most of July.

“All of those things cost money. We didn’t have it. But we are working in the street every day and we think that’s going to make the difference,” Beatty said, before shifting the conversation to Tlaib’s reluctance, so far, to formally endorse presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Tlaib told Newsweek last Monday that her constituents “don’t need to be bogged down” in conversations about Biden and will take their inspiration, come November, in turning out to defeat President Donald Trump.

Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Tlaib this week, calling her a “tireless advocate for the residents of Michigan’s 13th District” and touting her work to secure “critical funding to stop water shutoffs and replace lead pipes.” She also has the support of leading labor groups, including the AFL-CIO of Michigan, the UAW, the Service Employees International Union’s Michigan Council, and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

McCampbell rejected suggestions that the congresswoman — who kicked off her term by promising to “impeach this mother****r” at an event hours after being sworn-in — is too divisive or preoccupied with national politics.

“I think it’s divorced from reality,” McCampbell said. “When you look at the actual receipts, when you look at Rep. Tlaib’s work, it’s rare for a freshman to have a bill signed into law, especially (by) a president of the opposing party. And she did that. And that’s the same President that she ran on impeaching.”

Omar faces a well-funded challenge in Minnesota

Since arriving in Congress, Omar has both placed herself, and been foisted by Trump, into the center of the national political scrum.

In the summer of 2019, Trump, seizing on tensions among House Democrats, tweeted that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” — a clear reference to the “squad” — should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

A few days later, at a rally in North Carolina, Trump attacked Omar by name, then quietly stood by as the crowd chanted, “Send her back!” When Omar, a Somali-American immigrant — returned home — to Minnesota — from Washington a day later, she was greeted in the airport by throngs of adoring supporters.

Omar is one of the most popular figures on the progressive left and a top target for many moderate national Democrats ahead of her own primary, a week after Tlaib’s, on August 11. Her challenger, lawyer and first-time candidate Antone Melton-Meaux, has raised nearly $4 million, with almost $500,000 of it bundled by a pair of pro-Israel political action committees — in part a legacy of the backlash to Omar’s past criticisms of the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on lawmakers, which many described as employing “anti-Semitic tropes.”

She apologized and, though the issue is never too far from the surface, has sought to limit the damage and win over skeptics. Last May, she co-authored an op-ed with Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who is Jewish, urging the Muslim and Jewish communities to “come together to confront the twin evils of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence.” Ahead of the primary, more than 150 Jewish constituents wrote an open letter backing her and she received testimonials, in a pair of columns, from Jewish leaders.

Melton-Meaux has been cautious about broaching the issue, saying in an interview that Omar’s past comments had created “a lack of trust” in the Jewish community that she had not adequately sought to repair. But his campaign — “Focused on the 5th” is its slogan — has spent more time questioning Omar’s national profile, and whether it has distracted her from the job.

In an interview, Melton-Meaux criticized Omar for missing votes in the House and for her opposition to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the Trump administration-brokered trade deal that, with support from the AFL-CIO, replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“We don’t need another celebrity. We don’t need dividers. We need people that are going to work and unite us to challenge and take hold of these problems that we face as a community,” Melton-Meaux said on Thursday, after suggesting Omar had engaged “unnecessarily” in “Twitter fights” with Trump. (On Friday, Trump attacked Omar again during a stop in Florida, saying she “doesn’t love our country” and laughing when someone in the audience could be heard yelling, “Deport her!”)

In a statement, Omar hit back at Melton-Meaux’s suggestion that engaging publicly with Trump could be counterproductive.

“We are facing a president who explicitly targets me and other women of color regularly. When the President says me and other women of color should be ‘sent back’ to where we came from — that is language many immigrants and marginalized people have heard for decades to silence us and make us feel like we don’t have a voice,” Omar said. “Standing up to Donald Trump is not division. It is standing up for every community that has been targeted by a xenophobic and hate filled bully that happens to live in the White House.”

Melton-Meaux has largely avoided clashing with Omar on policy. He said he would support “Medicare for All” “if it came across my desk,” and spoke glowingly about the Green New Deal, though his mention of carbon tax as a tool for bringing large corporations “into the conversation as a solution and revenue source” might rankle some climate activists.

Despite being outraised by her challenger, Omar, who lost her father this year to Covid-19, has across-the-board support from the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, including popular figures like her predecessor in the 5th District, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Like Tlaib, Omar also has the endorsement of Pelosi, who — despite being critical of the left at times — has consistently backed her incumbent members.

Omar’s victory in 2018 has also helped her case.

She won with record midterm turnout in Minneapolis and, after 2016, when Trump came close to removing Minnesota from Democrats’ breached blue wall, Omar’s allies argue that the party — led by Biden — needs the energy she brings to the electorate to ensure the 5th District, a Democratic hub and the epicenter of the protest movement that followed the killing of Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, votes in large numbers.

Omar’s influence — and her standing in the community — was made clear during the early days of the protests, her communications director Jeremy Slevin said, allowing her to bridge the divides her opponent and other critics argue she has worsened.

“We brought all of (the state political establishment) together, the senators, the governors, the mayors, lieutenant governor, to a listening session with the actual activist and protesters,” Slevin said of an event scheduled during a tense moment early on in the demonstrations. “And they just listened, and didn’t talk. I think it helped on both sides. It quelled some of the tensions between the political class, even Democrats, and the protesters. And I think that’s something that only Ilhan could have done.”

EU migrant crisis: UK primary destination for unaccompanied child asylum-seekers

The European Asylum Support Office says more unaccompanied minors seeking asylum arrived in Britain last year than any other EU country. The report claims a fifth of all young people seeking asylum in the bloc did so in Britain. The figures are driven partially by a increase in migrants crossing the English Channel.

Unaccompanied children seeking asylum rose by 19 percent last year, according to the report.

The UK took in 22 percent of the 3,650 minors seeking asylum in the EU.

Young Eritreans accounted for the biggest proportion amounting to 584.

And the report says 92 percent of the 485 unaccompanied Vietnamese children heading for Europe applied to the UK.

Kent County Council warned it was facing a “critical situation” because of the number of children seeking asylum in the UK had doubled in a year.

More than 500 unaccompanied minors had been put under the care of the council while seeking asylum.

Almost of half of them arrived over the past six months.

Child migrants up to the age of 15 are often places with a foster family.

Those aged 16 and 17 are normally housed in temporary recession centres, some are then placed into foster care while others are given their own accommodation.

Kent council leader Roger Gough said the number of migrants crossing the Channel had put pressure on its facilities.

For the first time in almost two years, unaccompanied children arriving in Kent were passed onto other local authorities.

Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “We should never think twice about offering safety to children who are alone and fleeing war and persecution.

“It’s profoundly wrong that many of these scared and vulnerable young people have to take terrible risks to reach the UK.

“The government must open up more safe and legal routes for unaccompanied young people and expand other routes to safety for refugees such as the UK’s hugely successful resettlement programmes.”

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Around 12 percent of the applications were from migrants claiming to be from Albania.

Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said: “The facts in this report show, we must manage migration better. It is clear that some countries could contribute a lot more.

“Migration has always been here, will always be here. Our task is to manage migration in an orderly way and to protect fundamental rights.”

The Easo have predicted another increase in asylum cases because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They said: “EU countries should be prepared for increases in asylum application in the medium term, including due to the repercussions of COVID-19 on low-income countries.”