News and Features: Features
Alex Morse, the 22-year-old openly gay new mayor of Holyoke, sold an ambitious vision for his hometown that may be just what the city needed to hear
January 11, 2012
the biggest doubts Alex Morse, the newly-elected mayor of Holyoke, had to overcome were whether voters would think someone who was barely out of college could possibly be ready to lead this economically distressed city of 39,000 people. Having his mother gush to a reporter about her remarkable son therefore may not be the type of encounter the 22-year-old redhead relishes as he prepares to take the reins of city government. But that is exactly what Kim Morse is doing.
“I would come home and he would be sitting on the front porch reading when he was three,” she says on a late November afternoon, standing in the Morse for Mayor campaign headquarters on one of Holyoke’s main drags. “Right, Al?”
Alex Morse is in an adjoining room, catching up on the flood of email that keeps tumbling in following his stunning upset victory over the city’s 67-year-old incumbent mayor. The door between the two rooms is open, so he is within earshot but out of view.
“When he was in second grade, they wanted to push him to third,” says Kim Morse. (She said no.) “Every contest he entered, he won,” she says, and then mentions one that she thinks had to do with George Bush and the Iraq War. “What was that essay thing you won for?”
“I don’t remember,” comes the voice from the next room.
“He started licking envelopes when he was in ninth grade for every cause. Didn’t you, Al?”
“Yeah,” comes the voice again after a brief pause, its tone suggesting this is one of those parent-driven exchanges that is to be endured, not enjoyed.
In high school, Morse was elected by classmates to be the student representative to the city’s school committee. As a senior, he interned at the local workforce development center, where he eventually became a job counselor, working summers throughout college with employers to identify youth employment opportunities and counseling teens on how to put together a resume. He is fluent in Spanish, which was not a small advantage when running for office in a city that is nearly 50 percent Hispanic. And at age 16, he not only came out as openly gay at 1,200-student Holyoke High School, he founded the city’s first gay rights advocacy organization.
From Holyoke High it was on to Brown University and now, just six months after graduating, to the mayor’s office.
“I’m so proud of him. It’s still surreal,” Kim Morse says, before confessing that just talking about it might start the tears flowing again, as they did on election night.
Her misty-eyed testimony may be a reminder of Morse’s tender age. But it also offers a glimpse at the maturity and determination that persuaded a majority of Holyoke voters that his tenacious approach might be just what this struggling mill town needs.
“He is wise beyond his years,” says Michael Sullivan, a popular former Holyoke mayor who has known Morse since he was in high school and offered a crucial endorsement of his candidacy in the homestretch of last fall’s campaign. “He really understands what it’s going to take.”
If doubts about his age were the biggest barrier Morse faced, the challenge that Holyoke faces, in his mind, is resignation. It’s not so much a satisfaction with the status quo, but a lack of faith that things could be dramatically different.
One of the first planned industrial cities in the country, Holyoke was once a thriving city of 60,000, home to the highest number of millionaires per capita in the nation. The paper mills that enriched the captains of industry, in turn, supported a sturdy working class that filled the row houses and brick tenements that sit hard by the Connecticut River. But it has been decades since that was the picture of Holyoke. It’s been replaced, as in so many other places like it, by hollowed-out mills, empty storefronts, and grinding poverty.
“I said throughout the campaign that I think people have quietly given up on Holyoke,” says Morse. “That they’ve given up on any hopes of revitalizing downtown. That they’ve given up on any hopes of increasing our graduation rates. People had lost hope that Holyoke had any chance of becoming a different community because the story of Holyoke was always high crime, high poverty, low graduation rates. I want to tell a different story about Holyoke.” Morse, at 22, is now the protagonist in what he and many others hope will turn into a different Holyoke story.
Morse’s immersion in community activism and politics started early, and with a zeal that is unusual for someone of his age. He not only joined the Holyoke Youth Commission at age 12, he regarded its meetings and learning to decipher the ways of local government as a fun adventure. “You get introduced to the excitement of municipal buildings and city hall, and to the idea that if you come together with the right people you can actually do something,” he says.
Figuring out how to build alliances and then actually get something done seems to be at the core of what might be called the Morse code for political change.
Several years ago, Judy Meredith, a veteran Boston activist and human services lobbyist, got a small grant to start a statewide organization of teens from lower-income communities. The idea was to school them in the ways of political empowerment. The group would learn how to identify a policy goal, and then work the political system to try to achieve it. Morse, then 15, was part of the program. He immediately stood out, she says, because of his seriousness about the group’s work.
She says he grilled her about whether Teens Leading the Way was aiming to be a real player. “He really cross-examined us,” she says. “He said, ‘I don’t want to just spend time on one more teen leadership thing. I want to know we’re going to draft legislation that is really going to make a difference in our lives.’” The group focused on a bill to increase mental health services for teens. The legislation didn’t make it, but they succeeded outside the lawmaking channels in getting the administration to make changes in state agencies to enhance teen mental-health services. “He was a natural leader who was also a good listener,” says Meredith.
When he was 16, Morse came out as openly gay. Along with founding Holyoke High School’s gay-straight student alliance and the city’s first gay advocacy group, Holyoke for All, Morse developed the idea of holding an alternative high school prom for gay students not comfortable with the standard offering. The Western Massachusetts Pride Prom has grown into a region-wide event, now drawing about 600 teens each year from as far away as Pittsfield.
Sullivan, the former mayor, says Morse handled “admitting to his sexuality and being openly gay” in high school with remarkable poise. And despite his leadership on gay issues, he wasn’t defined by them. “It wasn’t a crucible that he wore around his neck. He had other issues on his agenda, and he was willing to take those issues on,” Sullivan says.
Though Morse left Holyoke to attend Brown University, he didn’t have to trade his passion for municipal affairs for more distant pursuits of the ivory tower. He double-majored in urban studies and Africana studies, and had an internship during college in the office of then-Providence Mayor David Cicilline, now a Rhode Island congressman.
“Urban studies was sort of the great combination for me—urban economics, urban education, urban politics, all in one department,” says Morse. By most standard measures, Morse, who attended Brown with a generous financial aid award and several outside scholarships, was less fortunate than his many well-heeled classmates. But Morse felt he was the one with the upper hand in his urban studies classes. “I was always lucky compared to my classmates in that in the classroom, I was able to bring real-life experience of growing up in Holyoke,” he says.
Dogged on the trail
Morse is the first person in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. His parents both grew up in Holyoke housing projects. His father has worked for 27 years at the same Springfield meat packing company, rising eventually into a manager’s position. His mother operated a family day care center in their home for many years before going back to school to get certified as a licensed practical nurse.
For many, an Ivy League college degree would be a one-way ticket out of a place like Holyoke. But Morse has long harbored ambitions of running for office in his hometown, and those who knew him in high school and college were hardly surprised at his eagerness to jump quickly into the political fray.
But few expected him to announce last January, with a semester still to go in college, that he was running for mayor. Seats on the school committee or city council are the well-worn entry points into municipal politics for most candidates, never mind one who was barely old enough to legally buy a beer.
Morse knew his initial challenge was simply to be regarded as a serious candidate in the race. The summer before launching his campaign, he signed up for an intensive three-day workshop in New York City for progressive candidates and activists run by an organization called Wellstone Action, named after liberal US Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a 2002 plane crash. Morse also started quietly fundraising in late 2010 with the aim of having his year-end finance report demonstrate his viability when it became public in early 2011.
Morse had raised about $10,000 by the start of 2011, an impressive early showing. Nevertheless, he says, there were plenty of doubters. “When I announced, I had every intention of winning,” he says. “But not a lot of folks took me seriously in the beginning.”
Greeting Holyoke resident David Woods two weeks after the election.
There is an eagerness to almost everything he does, and that includes speaking. Answers to questions don’t come in modulated tones but in a rapid-fire flurry of facts that frame his points. His campaign team tried to coach him, to little avail, to slow down his delivery, especially for the series of mayoral debates that were held. That staccato speaking style, however, matches a level of energy that was a huge asset in a campaign fueled by weeks of 12 to 14 hour days.
“He is doggedly determined,” says Dori Dean, a long-time western Massachusetts political operative who served as his campaign manger. “You could not put a roadblock in front of this guy if he wants to get there.”
Morse was one of three challengers to the incumbent mayor, Elaine Pluta. She was completing her first two-year term in office but was a veteran of Holyoke politics who previously served 14 years on the city council.
Morse emphasized ways the city must leverage a new multimillion dollar state-sponsored computing center in downtown Holyoke to lure tech-based firms to its low-cost mill space. He talked about bringing transparency to city government, and tackling enormous social problems like the city’s high teen pregnancy rates and low high school graduation rates. But he leavened talk of the city’s enormous challenges with unabashed cheerleading, saying he wanted to restore a sense of civic pride in a city where there has been little to cheer about in recent decades. His campaign produced 1,000 buttons that read i love holyoke; Morse continues to wear the button each day.
In the September preliminary election, which narrowed the field to the two top vote-getters, Morse sent shockwaves across the local landscape when he beat Pluta by a single vote; the two other challengers finished far back and were eliminated.
Morse’s preliminary election showing seemed to free up those who might have been privately rooting for him, and he only gained strength as the campaign for the November final election turned to a head-to-head match-up between him and Pluta.
He combined relentless door-knocking and other staples of grass-roots campaigning with the deft use of Facebook and social media that one might expect from a candidate too young to remember a time before email.
A volunteer wrote a campaign jingle in Spanish, and on the Sunday before the election a sound truck wound through the city’s heavily Hispanic precincts blaring the tune, while Morse, standing with microphone in hand, pleaded in Spanish for support on Election Day.
“Once you connect with people in their language, that makes a huge difference,” says Carlos Gonzalez, president of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce, who lives in Holyoke. Though turnout is consistently lower in the city’s Latino neighborhoods than in predominantly white areas, Gonzalez says of Morse, “without a doubt he got a larger turnout in those areas” than usual.
Two weeks before the election, Sullivan, who served for 10 years as mayor before retiring two years ago, endorsed Morse. A week later, he won the backing of the Springfield Republican, which said a new future for Holyoke “requires fresh ideas.”
On Election Day, Morse beat Pluta by more than 500 votes, 5,127 to 4,567.
A few days later, a crew arrived from CBS Evening News, which featured a segment on his election. Word even made its way to the White House, which invited Morse to a December holiday party hosted by the president. (In the minute or two he had at the reception with the president, Morse says he’s returned the favor of the invitation by encouraging Obama to come visit Holyoke.)
The election made Morse the youngest mayor in Holyoke history and the second youngest ever elected in the state (a 21-year-old was once elected mayor of Gardner). He’ll earn a salary of $85,000 and oversee a city budget of $120 million. It was a remarkable vote of confidence in a candidate who has not only never held elected office, but never had a permanent, full-time job.
Youthful energy brimming with fresh ideas is often not enough to win out over more experienced leadership. But that equation didn’t seem to hold in Holyoke, where the status quo was hardly a course worth clinging to. It will be up to Morse to prove that the decision by voters to take a chance on a bright, but untested, 22-year-old was an act of inspired optimism and not civic desperation.
As for his sexual orientation, Morse says there was an anti-gay “whisper campaign” among some Pluta supporters as well as pastors from some evangelical churches in the Hispanic community, but it never became a full-blown issue.
“The people who wouldn’t vote for me because I was gay wouldn’t be voting for me anyway,” he says. It was certainly not a focus of his campaign. Morse says his attitude when the issue came up was, “I’m openly gay, let’s talk about education, let’s talk about jobs, let’s talk about public safety. That’s what voters care about.”
If there was an issue that the race turned on it was the proposal by a group of developers to site a casino in the Highlands neighborhood of Holyoke. Morse adamantly opposed a casino, while Pluta voiced strong support for it, saying the city could ill afford to turn away the job opportunities it would bring, especially for the large proportion of Holyoke’s population without a college degree.
Opposition to a casino is strong among residents of the middle-class Highlands neighborhood, and they broke decisively for Morse. But it became a bigger issue than abutters not wanting a sprawling gambling complex in their backyard. Morse framed the casino question as a referendum on the kind of future residents wanted for the city.
He emphasized the importance of reviving downtown Holyoke, a place where there are fresh stirrings of life with artists and other newcomers moving into the downtown warren of mills. He talked about luring new tech-based businesses by trumpeting the skill pipeline of 100,000 college students in the corridor between neighboring Northampton and Amherst and Hartford, Connecticut. And he talked about a long-term vision for the city that includes dramatic achievement gains in its school system, one of the lowest-performing in the state, so that residents can compete for jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. A casino, he said, is exactly what Holyoke doesn’t need.
“I’ll do whatever I can to keep it out of here,” Morse says of the casino proposal. “I think it’s bad economic policy. I think it’s an act of desperation for the state and for the city of Holyoke. It doesn’t alleviate poverty, it adds to poverty. It’s going to jeopardize any efforts to revitalize and bring people to downtown Holyoke. It earns money on the backs of the poor and the senior citizens. People have less money in their pockets, and they’re spending it at the casinos rather than on businesses in the city.”
“We’re on the verge,” he says. “We can choose to have a casino economy or aim for something better.”
The new Green High Performance Computing Center that is rising along Holyoke’s downtown canals became the touchstone in his campaign for the “something better” that Morse says Holyoke could become.
At the Mt. Joe to Go coffee shop downtown.
The $168 million project is a collaboration of Cisco Systems, EMC Corp., and five Massachusetts universities —MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts. The state, which has pledged $40 million toward the project, designated Holyoke as the site with hope of spurring further development there. The city was also an attractive location because its municipally-owned utility company, which harnesses power from a dam on the Connecticut River, has among the lowest electric rates in the Northeast, almost a third below the state average.
The center, due to open in December, will provide enormous computing power to researchers at the partner universities. But nearly all the brainpower will be exercised remotely through high-speed data lines. There will only be a dozen or so permanent jobs at the massive 90,000-square-foot complex, which has led some to say it will be a gleaming addition to the city that yields little in the way of tangible benefit to Holyoke.
“The building is going to look nice. It’s going to be beautiful. But in reality, I don’t see it helping the city,” says Diosdado Lopez, who gave up his seat on the city council last year after 10 terms.
Morse, who repeatedly said during the campaign that he wants to serve as the city’s “chief marketing officer,” maintains that the computing center will cast Holyoke in new light and help serve as a catalyst to lure new firms and technology-based businesses to the city.
Morse did not focus his campaign on criticism of city government or argue that Holyoke was on the wrong track. Indeed, he pointed to the good things that were starting to happen, whether it was the computing center, a pedestrian “canal walk” being developed, or restoration efforts at the 1,600-seat Victory Theatre, as positive developments that the city should build off to aim even higher.
In that way, Morse didn’t reshape the thinking in Holyoke as much as he seized on change that was already in the air and gave voice to it in a way that resonated with voters.
“Good politicians are like surfers: The wave has to be there for you to ride, but you really have to give Alex credit for a faultless job of riding that wave,” says Robert Griffin, an administrator at Holyoke Community College and veteran observer of Holyoke politics.
“People can sense change, and I think Alex put a face to that feeling,” says Rebecca Masters, the coordinator of the Holyoke Youth Task Force. “People had a sense a fresh new change is coming to Holyoke, and then all of a sudden you had a person say, ‘Yes, you’re right, and I’m going to champion it.’ It’s hard to say no to that.”
While Morse has challenged the city to think positively about its future, there is no glossing over the fact that Holyoke is up against some of the most daunting social problems of any community in Massachusetts. The city has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Massachusetts, five times the state average. Barely half of its young people graduate from high school, one of the lowest rates in the state. And nearly one-third of Holyoke residents live in poverty.
Holyoke has the unenviable distinction of being known as a city that is rich in poor people, with offices for various social service agencies dotting the downtown landscape. “It’s kind of the industry of poverty,” says Dave Gadaire, executive director CareerPoint, the local workforce development office.
“Everyone knows us as the poorest community in the Commonwealth,” says Joseph McGiverin, the city council president. “But we didn’t create poverty, we serve it. We have the social service agencies. We have the affordable housing.”
Poor families move to Holyoke from New York and other places “because they know they would get good services here,” says Gadaire. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not going to be the industry that takes the community where it needs to go.”
Morse couldn’t agree more. “We can’t afford to stay poor,” he says. “We need to rebuild the middle class.”
One way to do that is to lure more middle-class residents to Holyoke. The first wave of that is already happening, with an artist community taking root in some of the city’s mill buildings, drawn by affordable prices and hopes that Holyoke’s dormant downtown can experience the sort of comeback other urban centers have witnessed in recent decades. Morse himself plans to be part of that effort by moving into a renovated loft apartment in the city’s Open Square mill complex.
But he also knows the only way for Holyoke to grow its own middle class is by lifting current residents out of poverty. “We treat people’s immediate needs but we don’t solve their problems,” he says.
The best pathway out of poverty is a good education. Morse vows to turn the Holyoke schools into the highest performing urban district in the state. He will have his work cut out for him. In 2003, Holyoke’s school system became the first entire district in the state to be declared underperforming, and the state education department last year threatened a state takeover of Holyoke’s schools if they don’t show clear improvement within a year.
Morse wants to see a much more rigorous teacher evaluation system put in place, and he takes issue with the time-honored system in which seniority rules. “The teacher who’s been there the longest isn’t necessarily the best teacher,” he says.
Asked his views on charter schools—Holyoke has one and a second one has been proposed—Morse says diplomatically, “my top priority is making sure the [district] public schools are improving.” But he adds, “Some of my education plans come from charter school models,” including his belief in a longer school day and school year.
He’s a big fan of the widely acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, which he visited two years ago. He’d like to expand the model used by Holyoke’s Peck Full Service Community School, a K-8 school that has incorporated “wrap-around” support services to students and families in a way similar to the Harlem initiative.
“I think expectations are a huge thing,” says Morse. “I think we have really low expectations for students, and that’s a challenge. Sometimes we expect our students to fail. We need to raise the bar for every student, whether they’re poor, whether they’re Latino.”
Expectations are now a big issue for Morse as well. In his case, however, some people think he has set them unrealistically high. “I hope a third of what he’s projecting happens,” says McGiverin, the city council president.
The mayor’s power, even over city issues, is somewhat limited. Although the Holyoke mayor serves as chairman of the school committee, Morse does not have administrative control of the school system. And the city charter further divides executive power, with voters electing the city treasurer and city clerk, and the city council appointing members of the water board. Voters turned down a proposed charter change on last November’s ballot that would have changed mayoral terms from two to four years and expanded powers of the mayor’s office.
“He has great ideas. It’s just, how is he going to implement them?” asks Lopez, the recently-retired city councilor, who backed Pluta in the mayor’s race. “The problem is you have a city without money, we have so many vacant buildings. Alex is a bright guy. It’s that the problems are so big.”
Morse wants Holyokers to believe in the ambitious goals he says the city should reach for. In perhaps the surest sign of being “wise beyond his years,” he also seems mindful of Mario Cuomo’s maxim that one campaigns in poetry but must govern in prose.
“Things are going to take time,” he says. “What I want to be able to do is make progress and then celebrate it. Holyoke’s 50 percent high school graduation rate isn’t going to rocket to 90 percent overnight. But in two years maybe we can get it up to 60 percent. We’re going to do some things, and we’re going to celebrate victories to create momentum so that people feel a sense of hope that things are moving in the right direction.”