As Mayor, 24-year-old Alex B. Morse calls himself the Chief Marketing Officer for the city of Holyoke. Kicking off the eleventh annual Diversity Conference last Thursday evening, he explained, “We needed people with a fresh perspective for the city and someone who was going to mix things up, and that is essentially why I ran for the position.”
The youngest, and first openly gay, mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Morse announced he was running for office as a senior at Brown University. Rather than move to DC, Boston, or New York, Morse said he wanted to, “come home to the city that had given [him] so many opportunities.”
“My family was pretty poor,” said Morse a Holyoke native. Both of his parents grew up in Holyoke and met at Whiting Farms, one of the city’s low-income housing projects. Morse’s mother married his father, at 17, when she became pregnant with the first of Morse’s two older brothers.
A proud product of the Holyoke public school system, Morse recalls high school as being a, “really great time,” but in his sophomore year his confidence started to wane. “There was something about me that I didn’t feel was correct,” he said. In February of that year, when Morse was 16, he came out to his best friend Alexandra. “Once I did that I wanted to stop telling my friends because I didn’t want my parents to find out from a friend or a parent of a friend,” he said.
So Morse kept this part of his identity hidden from his family. Once he had told his parents, however, he used the confidence and support he had gained from them to tell the whole school. “I didn’t want anybody else in the school, or in my class, to feel that way,” he said talking about his fear of coming out.
Throughout the rest of his high school career Morse countered the homophobic environment of Holyoke High School. “You would overhear your classmates saying derogatory terms and phrases and rarely would a teacher, staff member, or coach intervene,” he said. “What message that sent to me and my classmates was that it was okay to talk like that.”
Morse founded and led Holyoke’s first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), which provided a safe place for students to meet after school. Expecting only three or four kids to show up, Morse recalled that thirty-five students attended that first GSA meeting. “It was a really great example of kids of all backgrounds–some gay, some bisexual, lesbians, and other students–just showed up to support their friends,” he said.
Founding Holyoke High School’s GSA was just the beginning. From there, Morse was asked by the principal to lead the first-ever GSA faculty training, and he sat on the Holyoke School Committee as a non-voting member. He also served as a member of the Holyoke Youth Commission that met with the mayor about youth issues, and participated in the Upward Bound scholarship program for low-income students, all before being accepted to Brown University early decision.
“That introduction to civics at such a young age really captivated me and I wanted to continue being involved in the community,” said Morse.
Running for Mayor While A Senior in College
On January 25, 2011 Morse announced from the steps of Holyoke City Hall that he was running for mayor.
“People didn’t take me seriously as a young person right away,” said Morse. “It took a really strategic, concerted effort and plan to make sure we gained viability and credibility in the city of Holyoke.”
Running against the incumbent mayor and two other candidates, all three of whom were over the age of 60, Morse stressed his youth and vitality during the campaign by personally canvassing the city over seven months. On September 20, 2011, the city held a preliminary election to determine the final two candidates. Morse beat the incumbent mayor by one vote, to place first. In the days after the preliminary election, Morse remembers people coming up to him claiming to be the one vote that helped him win. So many people introduced themselves, in fact, that the campaign office printed t-shirts stating “I was the one vote (front,) Morse for Mayor (back).”
“Winning by one vote…really affirmed our message of civic participation and involvement in the city of Holyoke, said Morse. “Everybody in the city really felt like his or her vote mattered.”
Mayor at 22
“Never would the news report about anything positive,” he said about his hometown. “Ten, fifteen years ago Holyoke was always plagued with negative news around violence, homicides, stabbing in the downtown.”
Fast forward to 2013 and Holyoke is in the midst of a renaissance with Mayor Morse at the helm. Now in his second year as mayor, Morse has some big projects in the works. Due to the city’s low energy costs, Holyoke was chosen to be the future home of a $170 million High Performance Computing Center to be built with grant money from UMass, Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Northeastern.
The city has also spent a considerable amount of time and money making the community safer. Last year was the first time in twenty-five years that the city went homicide free.
Shifting his focus to economic development, the Mayor is implementing plans that center around art, innovation, and technology in the downtown. A new senior center and renovated public library will open in the coming months, canal walks and a skateboard park are under construction, and the state just approved a grant for a rail stop once Amtrak returns to Western Massachusetts.
Morse is making strides in improving the quality of life in his hometown, but his hardest task is to bring together two very separate, very diverse communities. Although Holyoke is home to the country’s second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, forty percent of the city’s population is Latino, mostly from Puerto Rico.
The first Mayor of Holyoke to speak Spanish fluently, Morse made an arrangement with Holyoke Community College where any city employee could take Spanish lessons for free.
“Smart investments like that that are going to keep our community healthy over the long term,” he said.