Less than five years after graduating from high school, Alex Morse ’11 again set foot in Holyoke High School Jan. 3 to start a very different chapter in his life. His campaign’s “I Love Holyoke” button pinned to his suit, the recently elected mayor faced a crowd of supporters to give his inaugural address.
He spoke of his vision for the bright economic future of the Massachusetts city and his plans to rebrand the Paper City as the Digital City. He spoke to the importance of public education in a city where nearly half of high school students do not graduate in four years. He thanked his supporters and reached out to those who had not voted for him.
But something he barely even hinted at – even though he had received national attention for it – was his age. Elected at the age of 22, Morse was the city’s youngest mayor and the nation’s youngest openly gay one.
Though some questioned his age during his campaign, which he launched during his senior year at Brown, Morse said his age “hasn’t been a huge deal” since he took office.
But as with a new mayor of any age, Morse said there has been a lot to learn in his first months, and he hit the ground running. He’s been running for a while – today marks Morse’s 100th day in office.
No two days have been the same so far, Morse said. After an early start with his staff in his City Hall office, he might go from reading to students to working on a city budget, or from meeting with businesses to giving tours of the Holyoke High Performance Computing Center, a project currently under construction that Morse hopes will help aid in transitioning Holyoke to a strong digital-based economy.
Despite keeping such a busy schedule, Morse said his new job has been “wonderful.”
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “I’m in a position where I can work with everybody in the city.”
The most meaningful part of the job has been connecting with constituents, Morse said. “You have to be everybody’s mayor.”
Morse is the city’s first mayor to speak Spanish, something that has been particularly impactful in a city that is nearly 50 percent Spanish-speaking. Even after the campaign, Morse’s bilingualism has been useful, he said.
“It’s helped send a message to residents and constituents that they’re welcome to city hall. It’s not as if they put up a sign ‘The mayor is bilingual’ – people know that,” Morse said, adding that he has often served as a translator in staff meetings when it was necessary to speak in Spanish.
Morse has also pushed for making public documents and the city website bilingual.
And though it is impossible to please everyone, Morse said he tries to weigh his decisions against what is best for the city’s future. “I was elected to use my judgment,” he said.
“It’s a political city,” he added. “People have been around for many, many years. Some people are still trying to figure me out, but I’m pretty independent. I always have a stance, and I stand up for it.” Morse has vocally opposed the creation of a casino in Holyoke since his campaign, for instance, believing that Holyoke should rely on new technologies to bring in money rather than investing in a casino, which he says would take money from Holyoke citizens.
Holyoke residents often encounter Morse outside the office, and Morse said he makes it a point to be a very “hands-on” mayor.
As a way to reinforce his message about the future of Holyoke’s downtown, Morse bought himself an apartment there and held an open house for the press last Friday. In order to better understand Holyoke firefighters and police officers, Morse has spent a few hours riding along with each department.
“It’s one thing to do a job from behind a desk. It’s another thing to get out there,” said Holyoke Chief of Police James Neiswanger, adding that police officers were very appreciative of Morse’s efforts.
Morse said each ride-along was a great learning experience, adding that he plans to shadow additional departments in the near future.
“I got to know them at a more in-depth level,” Morse said of his experience shadowing Holyoke firefighters. “Eating dinner and talking and whatnot, going out on a few calls – I just think it’s important to build that sense of camaraderie between my office and people who have been working in the department.”
Having a sense of the people working in each department is helpful when it comes to making decisions that affect those departments, Morse said.
Holyoke is a city with fairly high levels of poverty and drug dealing, Neiswanger said, and Morse, whose campaign focused heavily on public safety, has been helping the police department launch a community policing initiative, among other steps to improve public safety.
Morse was able to emphasize this goal even when his older brother was arrested on drug charges last month.
“For me, this is just another reminder as to why it’s so important to support individuals and families affected by substance abuse, as well as making sure treatment is available to those who need it,” Morse said in a statement after his brother’s arrest. “My brother’s experience has made me a better and stronger person, as it has made me more aware of the struggles of people right here in Holyoke and has better prepared me to address them. I ask Holyoke for their support and privacy for my family during this difficult time.”
Another tenet of Morse’s campaign was promoting education. Morse has been “actively involved” in reshaping Holyoke, particularly focusing on redressing low literacy rates in elementary schools, said David Dupont, Holyoke superintendent of schools. “And I mean actively involved. He’s helping us lead the charge with regard to his end.”
A return to his roots
Morse has been heavily involved in Holyoke from an early age, serving on the Holyoke School Committee, the Holyoke Youth Task Force and the Holyoke Youth Commission, among many others. And at a young age, he knew he wanted to be the mayor of Holyoke – even in the sixth grade, “he was so serious about it,” Morse’s classmate Alexandra Zapata told Out Magazine.
While at Brown, Morse regularly visited Holyoke to stay involved, and in his final semester, he took all his classes on Tuesdays to campaign in Holyoke during the rest of the week.
“The thing about Holyoke is that you just are constantly attracted back to it,” Morse told students in List 120 when he visited campus in February.
As an undergraduate concentrating in urban studies, Morse also stayed in touch with Dupont, who was Morse’s high school’s principal prior to becoming superintendent in 2009.
hat I see is really a continuation of the interest and energy that he seemed to always have, not only with regards to his schoolwork and participation in school but also interest with regards to social change and social issues,” Dupont said. “He’s eager to learn, he certainly isn’t afraid to ask questions, and he’s very responsive, so I just hope he keeps going along that route.”
Morse also was a mentee to former mayor and now congressman David Cicilline ’83, D-RI and said the two of them do occasionally keep in touch. “I know that David’s there if I need to call him,” Morse said, but he added that he mainly relies on his team of local advisers.
Morse got on the mayoral ballot after winning the primary in September by just one vote, beating 67-year-old incumbent Elaine Pluta. Following his victory, Morse’s campaign printed shirts that read, “I was the one vote.”
Though both Morse and Pluta were effective mayors, there was a “generational” difference between the two, both in the primary and the general election, Neiswanger said. Morse’s “ability to reach a younger crowd” – often through social media tools like Facebook and YouTube – was key.
Now, Morse is “probably one of the most recognizable faces” in the city, Neiswanger said. “He’s the face of the city, and he’s the future of the city.”
Facing the future
Morse has said he hopes to be mayor for eight to 10 years, but he told The Herald that he may be interested in staying longer than that, depending on what progress has been made at that point.
“Change takes a long time. A lot of the issues that we’re working on are going to take years to see the results on,” Morse said, pointing specifically to education and efforts to grow Holyoke’s downtown.
And while he knows he will not win over everyone, Morse said people have responded quite positively to him and his “multiple identities that are not traditional” for a mayor – young, openly gay, Spanish-speaking and the first in his family to graduate college, for starters.
“We may not have the same identity as other people. People like knowing that they have a mayor that has that experience,” Morse said.
Neiswanger agreed, saying that Morse serves as a great role model for Holyoke youth.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Look what I’ve done so far, and I’m a young man,'” Neiswanger said. “It’s very inspirational.”