Morse to Bow out as Holyoke Mayor, Drawing Plaudits for His Service…
A history-making era in the Paper City is about to end.
On Tuesday Morning, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse announced he would not seek another term. His statement indicated he intended to serve out the remainder of his term, capping his mayoralty at 10 years. Such a lengthy tenure is not without precedent in Holyoke, but Morse will assuredly leave a lasting mark beyond the raw amount of years he served.
“I firmly believe that our democracy works best when we create space for more voices and perspectives to influence the public sphere,” Morse said in a press release and email to supporters. “So, with a municipal election year almost upon us, I feel it’s important to let you know that I will not be seeking re-election.”
This morning I announced that I will not run for a 5th term as Holyoke’s mayor next year. Thank you for the honor of a lifetime. My entire statement is below. pic.twitter.com/pbsg8btZED
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) December 1, 2020
A lifelong Holyoke resident, save college, Morse became his city’s youngest and first openly-LGBTQ mayor. He won his first race in 2011, months after graduating from college. Morse was able to assemble a durable coalition, partly by channeling a reform movement that presaged his rise, that reelected him three more times. Still, Morse’s tenure generated fierce reactions across the city and his electoral strength did not always redound to down-ballot allies.
Morse’s exit did not come as a surprise to city politicos and observers. Both supporters and Morse himself, expected him to serve no more than 10 years, cutting the shock. Since at least January, rumors about his departure from City Hall had been swirling, regardless of his ultimately unsuccessful primary challenge to Congressman Richard Neal.
Patricia Duffy, the city’s new state rep-elect, noted that Morse never planned to stay longer a decade.
“When my friend Alex Morse first announced he was running for Mayor, he said he wanted to be Mayor for the next ten years, and he has lived up to that promise and many others,” she emailed.
Duffy added that Morse had brought a “dynamic, inclusive vision” for the city and left it better off.
“That has served Holyoke well and put the city on good footing for the next Mayor. I look forward to finding out what his next steps will be and what conversations and debate the next campaign will bring,” she wrote.”
Potential mayoral prospects also signaled their thanks for Morse’s service.
Then 22, Morse first won office by defeating Elaine Pluta, the first woman to serve as mayor. Originally just a Brown graduate with hopeful message about his struggling hometown, he became an instant political icon in the Valley and, as a young LGBTQ official, across the nation.
The relatively short period of time Morse has held office coincided with LGBTQ rights advancing by leaps and bounds. The Victory Fund, a group that advocates for the election of LGBTQ individuals nationwide, was a consistent supporter of his. Its senior communications director, Elliot Imse, underscored this context.
“Those leaps forward can in many ways be attributed to local LGBTQ leaders like Alex, who change the hearts and minds of their constituents and are outspoken on equality issues,” Imse wrote in an email. “There is no doubt that Alex’s presence in the mayor’s office gave hope and comfort to young LGBTQ people in Holyoke and beyond and we hope more LGBTQ people in the city step up and run for office.”
Wisps of homophobia had flared throughout his mayoralty. However, his age anchored more criticism to say nothing of upending Holyoke’s political order. The opposition, which spanned the indignant if polite to outright deranged, worked the levers of Holyoke’s arcane city charter to frustrate his agenda.
Morse’s loudest critics from Council foes to election rivals have offered overwrought claims that about city government all but imploding. Such accusations often overshadowed more thoughtful critiques about his early casino missteps, personnel, favoritism, schools and public safety.
In short, many good-faith complaints evinced disillusionment even among erstwhile allies. Needless conflict haunted many a civic debate in the Morse era.
Harsher voices were not eager to speak out Tuesday, however, and did not respond to requests for comment.
Kevin Jourdain, a former city councilor and council president, often clashed with Morse, but also found occasional agreement. In an email, he acknowledged their differences, but noted that their one-on-one exchanges were also respectful.
“While it is well known we had many different perspectives on the current state of city affairs, as well as, where directionally we need to be headed as a community, I can say unequivocally that our personal interactions were always cordial and warm. We always listened to each other,” he wrote.
Echoing the positive wishes Morse offered upon Jourdain’s retirement in 2017, the latter added that he believed Morse had a lot more to offer.
“We share a common love of Holyoke and we were always united in that. As someone who was elected at a very young age myself, I admire his passion,” Jourdain emailed. “I respect anyone who is willing to step up and serve the people of Holyoke in all capacities especially in the office of Mayor with all of its complexities.”
Likewise, Morse expressed no interest in relitigating fights in his statement.
“We are not enemies. We are friends and neighbors,” he said, invoking a bit of Abraham Lincoln. He continued, “We can stand on each other’s doorsteps and have the conversations we need to have.”
Meanwhile, longtime allies offered praise. Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos said Morse has been a good friend—he officiated Anderson-Burgos’ wedding—but also looked forward.
“I think he’s done a lot of good for the city and done well in taking on many challenges this city has faced,” the councilor said in a message. “As a friend, I’m excited to see what he does next, but it will be strange to see someone else in that role.”
We have been friends for over a decade. It has been amazing to witness your journey. From that young high school kid who asked for help in putting together a free pride prom for youth in Holyoke to being elected as the Mayor of the city I have called home for 15 years. pic.twitter.com/edQv6MGHIM
— Jossie Valentin (@JossieValentin) December 2, 2020
Morse can point to successes. In his statement, he highlighted the city’s needle exchange program. The City Council challenged it in court. Yet, the move paved the way for the legislature to take such decisions out of politicians hands and let boards of health make the call.
There have been large investments throughout the city both downtown and beyond. Morse aggressively pursued the marijuana industry in the Paper City and campaigned on behalf of legalization in 2016. Morse also issued public solicitations for appointments to boards and commissions. That outreach and engagement with the city’s Latino population fueled municipal election turnout to levels unseen in years. All but one of his mayoral campaign attracted at least 40% turnout in the general.
However, these did not translate well into the congressional race. His campaign against Neal turned into a bitter contest. It increasingly became a forced battle between the left and center-left of the Democratic party. Vague accusations of inappropriate—but neither illegal or nonconsensual—behavior College Democrats lodged against Morse subsumed the final weeks and ultimately prompted a crisis for the Massachusetts Democratic party itself.
While Neal beat Morse by 18 points, it likely broadened his connections in Washington. He may have options there if he does not seek office immediately, although another congressional run is on the table. In media interviews Tuesday, Morse has said he has no immediate plans post-mayoralty but intends to stay local.
Despite the turbulence of this year, friends say Morse should be able to define his future on his own terms.
Nicole LaChapelle, the mayor of Easthampton, has worked with Morse in both government and politics. She chaired the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s Government Relations Committee and served as delegate to the 2016 Democratic convention alongside Morse. She said nothing is necessarily off the list for Morse. However, she also understood why he decided to exit the mayor’s office.
“He has grown up as mayor. He wants to go pursue other passions,” she said.
“Being a mayor, I get it. It just never stops,” LaChapelle added. “Being a mayor of a gateway city is just another level. I wish him well and I wish him some relaxation.”