There’s a Wave of Democratic Insurgents Hoping to Join the Squad

Can the squad become a herd?

Adam Vieyra / Mother Jones

“All of this is brand new,” says Alex Morse, the 30-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He’s waving a tattooed arm in the direction of several dozen brick factories and warehouses, towering vestiges of this former mill town’s once-thriving paper industry. They appear largely vacant and in various states of disrepair, yet as we enter what was once the Judd Paper Company, his point becomes clear. The building now houses a trendy bistro, an art gallery, an events venue, and an airy co-working space that Morse is using to prepare for a primary challenge to one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s close allies, a powerful Democrat named Richard Neal.

More than half of the city’s old warehouse space has been transformed during Morse’s eight years as mayor. (Among the most notable uses: hydroponic greenhouses for marijuana, which was recently legalized in Massa­chusetts.) It’s this sort of project that motivated Morse to enter politics in 2011, before he’d even graduated from college. “I grew up in the backdrop of a lot of people who had just given up on Holyoke,” Morse says. “People had resigned themselves to the fact that our best days were behind us. At that very time, there were the same people in office for decades not really providing or outlining the vision for the future.” He spent his final semester at Brown University crashing on classmates’ floors and couches in between trips back to his hometown to run against its 67-year-old mayor, who had been in politics for two decades.

Morse’s first victory bears some similarities to his current congressional bid. The 70-year-old Neal’s congressional tenure began 26 days before Morse was born. The 1st District, which covers a large swath of western Massachusetts, is full of struggling former industrial towns like Holyoke. Once again, Morse is making the case that his progressive energy trumps decades of experience. “People talk a lot about how the power the congressman has is seniority, but it’s not the members of Congress that have been there 20 or 30 years who are setting the agenda,” he says. “It’s those members who have been there as short as seven months.”

Morse, a white, gay millennial, has drawn inspiration for his insurgent campaign from the progressive women of color who have reshaped Democratic politics in the Trump era. “I’d be thrilled to be welcomed into the squad,” he tells me, referring to the quartet of House first-years that includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-­Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, a fellow Bay Stater, two of whose former campaign aides are now working for Morse.

Alex Morse for Congress

In the year since AOC and Pressley knocked off Reps. Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano—a pair of 10-term Congress members from deep-blue districts—they’ve made good on their promises to shake things up. Floating in their wake is a fleet of progressive organizers and activists who are convinced that disruption could amount to legislative change if only there were more lawmakers who could be reliably counted on to take aggressive positions—in other words, if the squad became a herd. The idea, says Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats, which helped elect Ocasio-Cortez, is to create a “mission-driven caucus” that can “move the window of political possibility.” An expanded squad, the theory goes, could pass bold initiatives under a new Democratic president. And if President Donald Trump is reelected, a reenergized left flank could check his worst impulses.

Activists like Shahid are targeting incumbents who, they say, are not as liberal as their heavily Democratic districts. Chief among them is Neal, who, as chair of the ultra-powerful Ways and Means Committee, has put the brakes on a raft of progressive legislation. Candidates have already stepped up to run against New York Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who has a record of opposing reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. A major argument for backing these primary fights is their potential to help diversify Congress; both Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley replaced older white congressmen representing large numbers of people of color. But not all of the members facing runs from their left are “stale, male, and pale.” Justice Democrats has endorsed challenges against two reliably liberal members of the Congressional Black Caucus—Lacy Clay of Missouri and Joyce Beatty of Ohio—by younger black progressives.

Neal in particular has been a thorn in progressives’ sides. “Richard Neal opposes everything that’s catching fire in the Democratic Party,” Shahid says. “Neal’s basically a huge turd,” snaps Sean McElwee, the leftist provocateur and influential co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress. Neal’s committee oversees taxation, Social Security, Medicare, and welfare—nearly every economic issue Democrats hope to tackle. Yet when it comes to the policy ideas that excite the progressive base, he isn’t on board. He’s the only member of the Massachusetts delegation who hasn’t co-sponsored the Green New Deal. He asked his colleagues not to mention Medicare for All by name during a hearing called for the express purpose of discussing the single-payer proposal.

During his 2018 campaign, Neal raised more than $2.5 million from business-related PACs—including $575,000 from insurance and pharmaceutical companies. In October, insurance giant AIG—which received $182 billion dollars in bailout money after its risky financial trades helped trigger the great recession in 2008—held its 100th anniversary party in the Ways and Means hearing room on Capitol Hill. Neal spoke at the event, which Morse decried as “a slap in the face to those affected by the financial crisis.”

And then there’s the matter of the president’s tax returns, which Trump—unlike every other president since Gerald Ford—has kept secret. A 1924 law grants the Ways and Means chair the power to demand the president’s returns, but Neal held off on doing so until April, a delay his critics say squandered precious time as the admin­istration tries to run out the clock with court challenges. When New York passed a law that would allow Neal to request Trump’s state returns, he politely declined, saying that doing so might complicate his inquiry. Many of his House colleagues have applauded this strategy, though it’s still unclear whether it will succeed.

Neal also took flak from progressives over his reluctance to back an impeachment inquiry. He didn’t sign on until late September—after House Democratic leaders signaled their support. “It wasn’t until Speaker Pelosi gave him adequate cover that he came out for this,” Morse says.

Morse supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and impeachment. In squad-like fashion, he’s centering his campaign on reforms intended to take money out of politics and has, as all card-carrying progressives must, promised not to accept donations from corporate PACs. He’s relying on small donors to raise much of the $2 million he estimates his primary campaign will cost. That effort received a boost after Justice Democrats endorsed him in August, though he’s still barely 10 percent of the way to his goal. “The congressman knows how Washington works, but I want to change how Washington works,” he says. 

Neal and his supporters argue that knowing “how Washington works” isn’t such a bad thing. His campaign shared a long list of funding he’s delivered to Holyoke in recent years, including $73 million to upgrade a passenger rail line to Boston and New York, and money for a culinary arts school in one of those old warehouses. A park, a municipal building, and a medical complex in the district—the latter a recipient of federal money—have been named in Neal’s honor.

Knowing how Washington works has also helped Neal amass a $4 million war chest for the fight ahead. Morse says he’s undaunted. “I have a sense of what it’s like to be told that this may not be possible or this isn’t your time,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here today if I listened to folks who told me to wait my turn.”

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