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Alex Morse Steps Down As Mayor Of Holyoke Where His Election Made History A Decade Ago

Alex Morse in baseball cap
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     A chapter in western Massachusetts political history closes Friday when Alex Morse resigns as mayor of Holyoke.

     After more than nine years as mayor, and following his loss in a bitter 2020 Congressional race, Morse is moving to Provincetown.  He’ll become the town manager of the Cape Cod resort town – a longtime haven for artists and a vacation destination for the LGBTQ community.

    Newly graduated from Brown University, Morse upset incumbent Elaine Pluta in the 2011 election to become mayor of the city where he was born and raised. 

   "It feels great and I am sure it will settle in in the morning," Morse said in an interview after declaring victory.  "We accomplished something really huge tonight. This victory is not about Alex Morse. It is not about Elaine Pluta. It is about the future of the city of Holyoke."

    At the age of 22, he was the youngest Holyoke mayor and its first openly gay mayor.   His election drew national news coverage.

   "It has been a whirlwind to some extent," Morse said in an interview with WAMC just before his first inauguration. "Obviously, the the invitation to the White House to meet the president and Michele Obama was a wonderful opportunity for me and the city of Holyoke to be represented in Washington."

    There were early missteps.  Morse had campaigned on a pledge not to open Holyoke to a casino development.  But, then he agreed to listen to a casino pitch, only to change his position again within days and close the doors to casino gambling.

     Morse fought with the City Council and prevailed in an effort to bring a clean needle exchange program to Holyoke.  His administration helped bring about extensive renovations to one of the oldest public housing developments in the country and the closing down of the last coal power plant in the region.

      A canal walk was constructed and a downtown passenger rail station opened.  A new arts district flourished -- at least until the pandemic.

     Under Morse’s watch, the Holyoke public schools, which had been in decline for years, were put into state receivership.  The city’s voters rejected a plan backed by Morse to build two brand new schools.

     In 2016, Morse was the only mayor in the state to endorse the referendum that voters would later approve to legalize recreational marijuana.    It was a social justice issue, but also an economic opportunity.  As Morse saw it, the city’s many vacant brick mill buildings with an inexpensive electricity supply from the municipal power company were ideal locations for marijuana cultivation and product manufacturing.

   "If we can renovate and repurpose old mill buildings to now become job-producing factories on a product that has a great return on investment today, I think we need to take full advantage of that," Morse said in 2017.

          Boston Business Journal reported recently that more commercial cannabis licenses have been issued in Holyoke than any other place in the state.

     Faced with a self-imposed 10 year term limit in the mayor’s office, Morse in 2020 launched a Democratic primary challenge against 30-year incumbent Congressman Richard Neal.  In the closing weeks of the bitter campaign, Morse accused Democratic party officials of promoting a smear that he had made inappropriate advances to young men at college political events.

     " I will let the voters of the  First District come to their own conclusions," Morse said during a broadcast debate.  "But this is exactly why I ran for mayor nine years ago: to change the political culture of personal destruction of politics that tears people down instead of lifts them up. And I think obviously it is no coincidence the timing of these allegations and accusations that go all the way to the height of the Massachusetts Democratic Party."

     Three months after losing the primary, Morse announced he would not run for another term as mayor.

    " It certainly has been the honor of my lifetime to be mayor of my hometown and I am so incredibly proud of the progress we made," said Morse.

     Morse was elected mayor and then re-elected three times with the support of progressives, young professionals newly arrived in Holyoke, and the city’s large Latino community.    But his base never broadened, and he remained a polarizing figure throughout his time in office, said Matt Szafranski, Editor-in-Chief of Western Mass Politics and Insight.

    "And unfortunately it did styme progress on some things," said Szafranski.  "It led to its share of kind of pointless political clashes most notably with the City Council."

    Morse brought a group of young and diverse people with him to city government, and there were high expectations, said Szafranski.

   "People did have an expectation that things were going to change dramatically," said Szafranski.  " I don't know if (Morse) believed that because he understands cities and urban politics well enough to know that change is glacial. But, I think some people were hoping that maybe ten years later they'd be looking at a city that looked more like Northampton than a city that still has some of its struggles."

   Holyoke City Council President Todd McGee will become acting mayor.

     

   

 

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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