Democratic congressional candidate Alex Morse, who was endorsed by Justice Democrats on Wednesday, used a city debit card to purchase a $10,000 Christmas tree in 2018 as the mayor of Holyoke.
Morse, who announced his candidacy in late July against Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.), faced scrutiny last year after his office purchased a $10,000 artificial Christmas tree using the city's debit card. After a council ordinance committee meeting featured questions and criticism about the purchase, Morse stepped in and instructed the city officials to blame him, according to Masslive.com.
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Bellamy Schmidt, who was in his second tenure as the acting city auditor in Holyoke last year, said the debit card was only supposed to be used for purchases up to $2,500.
Linda Vacon, the committee chairwoman of the council ordinance committee, said she was "stunned" by the $10,000 purchase and added she was surprised the department heads approved the purchase considering the city's financial crisis.
"I think it is stunning, I think it is dismaying, I think it just smacks of arrogance," she said.
The city faced a $1.1 million deficit and was experiencing months of delay in setting the tax rate, which forced the city to borrow money and incur interest costs.
"While I believe reasonable people can disagree as to whether or not it was a good idea to purchase an artificial Christmas Tree, it is important to note that no city employee did anything improper in the process of purchasing said tree," Morse said in a statement.
"I take full responsibility for the decision to purchase the tree. In the past, my office and mayors before me would put out a press release asking residents to let us know if they had a sizeable tree on their property that would be a good fit for the city's annual Christmas Tree," he continued. "We would deploy city staff, including the DPW and in many cases HG&E (if movement around electrical lines was necessary), as well as HPD for police transport in the interest of public safety. We would evaluate each submission and visit a number of properties before making a final decision."
Morse said the process in finding a Christmas tree became challenging as fewer volunteers came forward to volunteer their Christmas trees, saying his office was "spending considerable staff time searching for a tree, to the point where city staff were knocking on residents doors asking if they would consider parting with a tree on their property."
"After speaking with other city staff and some department heads, we agreed this was a good decision for the city in the long term," Morse added.
Holyoke is the second poorest city in Massachusetts and has the second-highest poverty rate in the state, according to a 2018 RoadSnacks study. The study, released just before the beginning of the year, also found Holyoke had a 10.2 percent unemployment rate compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.9 percent at the time.
The Boston Globe published a list of all the Massachusetts annual median household incomes back in December 2018 and Holyoke was the third-lowest median household income at $37,954 per household. Over 75 cities and towns have a median annual household income over $100,000 in Massachusetts.
On Wednesday, Morse received an endorsement from Justice Democrats, the progressive grassroots organization that was instrumental in electing Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y), Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.,) into office.
"We are proud to endorse @AlexBMorse in his primary to take on @RepRichardNeal. Neal has been a bulwark against progressive priorities in the Democratic Party like Medicare for All and holding Trump accountable," Justice Democrats tweeted. "We need Democrats who fight for voters, not big corporate donors."
We are proud to endorse @AlexBMorse in his primary to take on @RepRichardNeal. Neal has been a bulwark against progressive priorities in the Democratic Party like Medicare for All and holding Trump accountable.
We need Democrats who fight for voters, not big corporate donors. pic.twitter.com/LcwnUTwNrR
— Justice Democrats (@justicedems) August 7, 2019
Rep. Neal, who Morse is challenging, has not faced a well-funded nor serious primary challenger since 1994.