Managed half of America’s foreign aid budget. Rewrote the U.S.-India defense strategy. Adviser to a four-star admiral.
These are some of the highlights of Jessica Morse’s career that the 35-year-old Democrat likes to emphasize on the campaign trail. They are also some of the talking points that are drawing fire from critics, many of whom support a Democratic opponent in the race for California’s 4th Congressional District, which is centered in Roseville. They accuse her of “taking credit for things that she did not do.”
The truth is somewhere in between. A deep dive by The Sacramento Bee into Morse’s background and America’s foreign relations bureaucracy found that Morse, the front-runner among three Democrats bidding to unseat Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, built a serious and successful career within the military, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
But some of her claims about her experience are misleading or stretch the truth. They leave the impression that she was a senior official making sweeping U.S. foreign policy decisions. She wasn’t.
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A self-described national security strategist, Morse’s work in Washington, D.C., Iraq, Delhi and Camp Smith Marine Corps Base in Hawaii earned her recognition and awards. Testimonials on her campaign website from former managers at the State Department, military and USAID laud her smarts and initiative. “She has a fire to do the right thing and not be afraid to take on huge challenges,” retired Navy Captain David Cutter told The Bee.
They also underscore, however, that Morse, herself, was a relatively junior member of larger teams within a massive bureaucracy. Government documents and interviews with former senior officials who served in these departments corroborate that.
Supporters from a rival Democratic campaign have seized on the mismatch between Morse’s sometimes lofty descriptions and her actual experience.
On Feb. 14, LaMills Garrett, a supporter and donor of Democrat Regina Bateson’s congressional campaign, detailed a number of complaints with Morse’s characterizations of her experience in an online post. Similar critiques have also been sent to Bee reporters and editors, and have been detailed on social media since the fall.
Morse told The Bee that she had done her best to explain her work experience to voters. “I’m really proud of the work I’ve done,” she said. Morse added that she was focused on running a positive campaign. “Our democracy is only as good as those who engage, those who run, those who vote.”
She also responded on Friday in an email to supporters, detailing her work experience and asking them to help her “put a stop to false and negative campaigning.”
Bateson campaign manager Tripp Frank responded that the former MIT professor has been “been hyper focused on running a positive issues based campaign. That said, it’s been hard to avoid the distractions. We’ve been fielding questions for many months from voters about Jessica misstating not just about her record, but about a myriad of other things as well.”
The increasingly nasty tone has local liberal activists worried that Democrats will blow the best chance they’ve had in a decade to oust McClintock, a staunch fiscal conservative who’s been in Congress since 2009. He’s won re-election by 60 percent or more in recent years. Winning the Republican-leaning district was always going to be an uphill climb for the party. But some are now warning that unless the Democrats comes together, it will be mission impossible.
People “are so stirred up because our country feels so broken in so many ways and there is so much we need to fix,” explained Rochelle Wilcox, an attorney and former Democratic candidate in the race. Wilcox dropped out in the fall and is now working to try and bridge the divides forming between supporters of the other campaigns. “My concerns about the emotion is the problems that may flow out of that in November,” she said.
Morse would not be the first person – or first politician – guilty of puffing up her résumé. Young candidates, in particular, face a challenge in convincing voters, many their parents’ age, that they have the gravitas to serve as their political representative. The question is where the line falls between playing up one’s experience and overplaying it.
Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff fell into a similar trap last year in a hotly contested special election. Republicans hammered Ossoff, then 30, mercilessly for claiming he had five years of experience as a national security staffer in Congress. Two of those years, they pointed out, he was a college student working part-time.
Morse has much more experience than Ossoff, including serving abroad in hostile environments like Baghdad. The issue has to do with how much responsibility she claims to have had over the policies that she worked on in her various posts.
One of the most glaring examples is Morse’s account of her two-year stint as a Presidential Management Fellow – a prestigious program designed to be an entry point to government for those just out of graduate school. During her fellowship, she served two rotations at the U.S. Pacific Command, the United States military’s unified command over forces in the Asia and Pacific. At a candidate forum in Mariposa in December, Morse described her work this way: “I served as the adviser to the four star admiral at U.S. Pacific Command, that’s our military headquarters for Asia. I was in charge of the U.S.-India defense relationship.”
It’s a claim she has made, in various forms, multiple times while campaigning.
In fact, Morse served as one member of a small team, the India Strategic Focus Group, headed by an army colonel. In 2012, the military’s press service documented how Col. Michael Albaneze took over as director of the group, making him the lead adviser to Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear on India.
Morse subsequently served a roughly six-month rotation on the Commanders Action Group, a team of advisers on the admiral’s personal staff led by Cutter. Her portfolio was U.S.-India defense relations. As Cutter described it, “there are probably thousands of people ... across the government that are involved in this relationship. She was certainly the one on my team.”
Morse went further at the forum, however, stating that she “rewrote the entire U.S.-India defense strategy around using renewable energy technology transfer.”
Cutter, however, provided a more nuanced description. His team was responsible for fleshing out President Barack Obama’s 2012 National Security Strategy for the Pacific Command’s region of responsibility. The White House National Security Council and Department of Defense had drafted the original, broad strategy, which included an emphasis on expanding defense ties with Asia, including India. “She wasn’t working at the [Defense Secretary’s] office writing it,” explained Cutter. “She wrote what we worked on at the regional combatant commanders level,” which was “essentially the third echelon down.”
In her email to supporters, Morse framed her role differently, as well, saying she “drafted a U.S.-India defense strategy using renewable energy technology transfer as the foundation for defense cooperation.”
Cutter does credit Morse for “coming up with an innovative way to open some doors” with the Indian military using renewable energy, which launched an inter-agency collaboration.
Critics have also disputed assertions Morse has made on the campaign trail and in her candidate biography that she managed billions in U.S. foreign aid while working at the State Department and USAID. The debate turns on how one defines “manage.”
A spokesman for USAID said that USAID’s Office of Budget and Management, where Morse worked as a “program analyst” from 2012 to 2015, does “manage the budget for large chunks of the bureaucracy.” But as the agency and former officials described it to The Bee, the office’s primary responsibility is coordinating between various offices within the executive branch and Congress to compile the agency’s annual budget. The office does not have authority over how those budgets are spent (Congress determines much of that).
Indeed, in her email to supporters, Morse dropped the term “manage” when describing her time at the State Department, instead explaining that “it was my responsibility to coordinate non-military assistance to Iraq.”
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify David Cutter's quote on the number of people involved in the U.S.-India relationship was in reference to the government-to-government relationship, as a whole.