Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke
Historic firsts, and no second thoughts
Young, gay mayor breaks the mold in Holyoke, Massachusetts
By Jason Marsden
Executive Director, The Matthew Shepard Foundation
Among the things history records and remembers most vividly are people who were the first to do what they did: the first president, the first to climb a mountain, the first to show the world a new way of doing something.
Elected last fall at the age of 22 to serve as mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Alex Morse has secured a number of historic firsts: an openly gay man serving as the CEO of this city along the Connecticut River in the western end of the Bay State.
He is the youngest person the city’s voters have ever chosen for the job as well, and the first to speak Spanish — both personal attributes that helped him construct a message and an image of change, new leadership and inclusion in the once-thriving mill town that’s been looking for the next chapter in its own history.
“It’s my dream job in many ways, so I love every minute of it,” Morse told MatthewsPlace.com one recent Friday afternoon from his office in the restored Gothic-style City Hall.
The town of Holyoke is, give or take, a $190 million company, and home to a multi-ethnic population of 40,000. And it stands at a crossroads, socially and economically, between its industrial past and the possibility of a technology-and-arts-driven future. So, historic firsts aside, Mayor Morse has a full plate —- which is exactly how he likes it.
“The city has stayed the same for many years,” Morse explained. “It used to be a booming, bustling community — paper factories, and plenty of jobs and a middle-class community. And over the years it’s declined — become a poorer community. But we haven’t lost that community spirit, our architecture, our beautiful downtown. We have everything it takes to make our city a better place again.”
Finishing up his urban studies undergraduate program at Brown University last year, Morse drew on a lifelong interest in politics and activism and filed in a four-way race, along with the then-incumbent mayor, to seek the mayor’s office. In his pre-teen years, he’d been appointed by a past mayor to the city’s Youth Commission, so he wasn’t a stranger to municipal issues.
“Growing up, I would see the same names on the City Council, making the same decisions, no one really providing any fresh or energetic leadership that the city really needed,” he recalled. “So it really didn’t matter to me how young I was … I wanted to be the person in the driver’s seat, guiding the agenda, making sure we were working on the priorities that I think are important for the community, and bringing new people to the table.”
Still, he certainly didn’t fit the mold of the typical Holyoke political figure. He prevailed in the four-candidate primary — by one vote — underscoring his message that every voice counts. “It was incredibly gratifying, because we were working our butts off. It gave us the momentum to believe that we could do this. We made up a few hundred T-shirts that said, ‘I was the one vote,’” he remembers with a chuckle. He later defeated the incumbent mayor in the general election by about 600 votes.
On taking office in January, “one of the challenges was, a lot of folks who were pessimistic about my age and whatnot, sort of waiting for me to mess up or make a bad decision,” he recalled. “I think that’s a lot of the pressure that comes with being a young candidate, or a gay candidate, or any marginalized elected official.”
But in the months since taking the oath, Morse has won many skeptics over with a whirlwind of appearances, new appointments to city offices, and more transparent communication on the city’s inner workings.
The key, he says, is getting the job done. “Anybody who’s new to the position of mayor, whether you’ve been on the council for 20 years or whether you’re my age — it doesn’t matter. You’re new to the job no matter what … and you have to have a certain mindset for it. You actually have to make management decisions, decisions that affect the budget. You can’t just use sound bites to describe a certain situation. You actually have to make decisions that impact people’s lives.”
Morse has always sought opportunities to make an impact on those around him. At 16, he founded Holyoke High School’s gay-straight alliance group, coming out to 1,200 fellow students during an assembly that showcased the stories of allies, parents and other youth. In the recent campaign, he walked door-to-door meeting with voters, including the large local Latino community that had traditionally been outside the city’s ruling class. He has appointed the first city solicitor of Puerto Rican heritage and shaken up the community’s numerous citizen boards with new appointees. And a large new focus is on early literacy efforts in the public schools.
Holyoke is “a community where 48 percent of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic,” the mayor points out. “We’re trying to do a lot of different things on different levels. Because I understand that for us to be a successful community, everybody has to be successful.”
Being a politician from a different demographic background has sparked interest in Mayor Morse and, by extension, about Holyoke, said he says, but “now we need to take advantage of that.” Economic development and community marketing, as well as livable neighborhoods and the amenities that attract artistic and technological workforces, are initiatives high on his agenda for the rest of his two-year term.
“You can’t just think about ‘what tax incentive can I provide this company,’” he notes. “You have to think about, ‘how can we convince the company that their 200 employees can feel safe downtown, that they can rent a home, buy a home, that they can have fun, and they don’t have to travel an hour to do that?’” The fundamental challenge of a community pursuing economic and social development, he observed, is planning: as Morse puts it, “we have to make sure we know where we want to be.”
Meanwhile, of the ceremonial aspects of being mayor remain important as well, not least of which includes his role in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade — the second-largest in the United States, after New York City. Unlike in the Big Apple, where controversy has swirled for years about gay groups’ efforts to participate in the parade, Holyoke has united around diverse participation in the event.
“It’s a lot about civic pride,” Morse said of the march that draws 400,000 people annually. “It’s an event that brings people together, and not just of Irish heritage — of Puerto Rican heritage, and young, and old.”
“There’s probably some folks that don’t like that I’m gay. But I claim it,” he explains. “If I’m proud of the fact that I’m gay, then no one can use it against me. My age is the same thing. You know what I mean?”