Metro, News

Alex Morse ’11 challenges 30-year incumbent in Congress

30-year-old mayor from Holyoke challenges longtime incumbent Richard Neal

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke, MA at the age of 22 — the youngest mayor in the city’s history.

At age 22, Alex Morse ’11 was elected the youngest mayor of Holyoke, MA, just months after graduating from the University.

Now, Morse has his sights set on a new office: the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I want to be in Washington to work in collaboration with the residents of the first congressional district of Massachusetts to bring about change, move the needle and improve lives here,” Morse said. “There’s an urgency to this moment in time in our country and certainly here in western Massachusetts, and I don’t think that urgency is met by our current representative in Congress.”

The competition

The current representative for Massachusetts’s 1st is long-time incumbent Richard Neal (D-MA), who has been in office since 1989.

For Morse, the incumbent Neal lacks the progressive vision Morse believes he can bring to his district. For example, Morse supports policy initiatives such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. “When you look at disparities in outcomes in western Massachusetts, … where you are born dictates your destiny. Whether in education, in health, in transportation, the opioid epidemic — things have either stayed the same or gotten worse.”

Neal “has power, has seniority… (but) he is not using that power for the people and places of western Massachusetts,” Morse said. “I think it’s time we had a progressive Congressman in western Mass. speaking up for a whole set of values that people care about.”

This past January, Neal was selected to chair the House Committee on Ways and Means, the chief tax-writing committee for the House of Representatives. In Congress, Neal helped write the Affordable Care Act and has pushed for legislation to save pensions for organized labor workers, wrote Peter Panos, Neal’s campaign spokesman, in an email to The Herald. As chair of Ways and Means, Neal has overseen the committee’s approval of legislation to create a tax cut for middle class and low-income families, Panos added. He has also held the first committee hearing on climate change in over a dozen years.

But Morse is concerned that Neal is neither accessible nor transparent. Morse has criticized what he sees as Neal’s lack of constituent outreach and limited town hall appearances. Additionally, Morse takes issue with Neal’s willingness to accept corporate political action committee money.

In 2018, more than three-quarters of Neal’s campaign fundraising — over $2.5 million — came from corporate PACs. “I never want anyone… to ever wonder why I take a vote or (make) a certain decision. I think that when you look at the way our current Congressman votes… he is using his power for corporate interests… and not the people that live here.” Morse says the majority of his fundraising will come through grassroots campaign efforts, and he has promised not to accept any fundraising donations from corporate PACs.

Morse’s time as a student and a mayor

During his middle and high school years, Morse was heavily involved in Holyoke’s community of 40,000 people, founding his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance and serving on Holyoke’s School Committee, the Holyoke Youth Task Force and the Holyoke Youth Commission, The Herald previously reported. At the University, Morse was an Urban Studies concentrator, where he took classes focused on Providence public schools and public policy. While Brown “wasn’t Holyoke,” the classes and connections Morse made at Brown allowed him to take back a “set of experiences and applications that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered,” he said.

“There’s no better place to make an impact than the place that made you who you were, and that’s why I felt so strongly about going back to Holyoke and running for mayor,” Morse said.

Once dubbed the “Paper City” for its large industrial and paper-making presence, Holyoke has struggled with high unemployment and a failing school system for many decades, Morse said. “I grew up in the backdrop of a struggling city that people had given up on. … It’s a small city with big city challenges.”

Over the last eight years, Morse has overseen a rise in the city’s graduation rate from 48 percent to 72 percent and a fall in the unemployment rate from 13 percent to 5 percent, he said.

“Mayor Morse has been a real champion for education in the city,” said Holyoke Superintendent Dr. Stephen Zrike Jr. “He knew the system worked for him, … but he recognized that the system didn’t work for many, many children,” Zrike said. Over the past eight years, Morse has been “a champion of the arts,” supported the development of ethnic studies curricula and helped create a restorative justice program in the local public school system, Zrike said.

In addition, he has pushed to build two new middle schools in Holyoke, “a facelift for a school system that has woefully outdated facilities and has not had a new school since 1989,” Zrike added.

“(Morse) is incredibly accessible to the young people,” Zrike said. “He is not that far removed from being in high school himself, and that brings a unique appeal to have a mayor that’s as young and connected to the students that are in the school.”

Marcos Marrero, director for planning and economic development in Holyoke, applauded Morse’s promotion of affordable housing projects and efforts to increase local hiring through new industries in Massachusetts, like the cannabis market. Morse wanted to “build the type of public infrastructure that adds to people’s quality of life and supports a local economy, including walkable and bikeable streetscapes (and) cheap, green energy,” Marrero wrote in an email to The Herald.

But “more important than any data point or statistic,” Morse said, “the thing I’m most proud of is the way in which we have opened up the doors of city hall, … making investments in people that never saw local government as a force for good in their lives.”

Currently, more than half of the residents in Holyoke are Hispanic or Latino, and Morse has worked to diversify the makeup of local city officials to better represent the population of Holyoke.

“I admire his judgment and values, his democratic approach to governance (and) empathy and love for the people he represents. Taking those qualities to Washington, D.C. can only be a great thing for Holyoke, the district and the country,” Marrero wrote.