Alex Morse: Iron Man
(originally published in Out magazine, March 2012) photo: Tim Klein
Alex Morse has a slick of red hair, crisp blue eyes, and a complexion the color of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. The hair is inherited from his father, Tracey, who retains a splash of it in his full beard. No one knows how he came by his eyes, shared neither by his Jewish mother nor Scots-Irish father, or either of his two brothers. “My mom always jokes around, ‘I don’t know where you came from,’ ” says Morse, who sits upright in his chair in the spacious wood-paneled mayor’s office he inherited January 3, following an election that pitted the 22-year-old against the 67-year-old incumbent, Elaine Pluta, a veteran of city politics. It was a race that galvanized voters around youth and experience, roused the press, and shifted the balance of power from the old guard to the new in Holyoke, a blighted mill town of 40,000 people — among the poorest in Massachusetts.
“We were never supposed to win,” says Morse. “I mean — 22, openly gay, in an old Irish Catholic community.” He has not wasted time, firing five staff and quietly persuading the city council to vote off the president who had held the position for 26 years. That was on his first day. “Unfortunately, a lot of folks in Holyoke City Hall assume they are going to be here for their entire lives, and my mindset is that if you want to be here, you have to live, eat, and breathe it — the job has to be your life.”
“The joke was that they were going to bring diapers and talcum powder, rattles, and all these baby accoutrements to City Hall to accommodate our arrival. Then, when we showed up with the axe and started chopping folks’ heads off, the tenor changed. No one is talking any shit now.”
Dori Dean, Morse’s Scotch-drinking, Patriots-loving chief of staff, recalls that, before his inauguration, there was plenty of ribbing in City Hall about Morse’s age — a running theme during the campaign. “The joke was that they were going to bring diapers and talcum powder, rattles, and all these baby accoutrements to City Hall to accommodate our arrival,” she says. “Then, when we showed up with the axe and started chopping folks’ heads off, the tenor changed. No one is talking any shit now.” To date, four lawsuits for wrongful termination have been filed by former city employees.
To get a sense of the magnitude of Morse’s win, you need only talk to Michael Kusek, 20 years Morse’s senior. He remembers seeing the groundbreaking “Gay America” Newsweek cover in 1983, when he was 15, and thinking, That’s me. “Having grown up in Holyoke, I fled,” he says, before repeating himself, this time with emphasis — “Fled!”
Kusek came out while attending college in Ithaca, N.Y., and formed the local branch of ACT UP before moving to New York City to work for GLAAD, a “paid professional homosexual,” as he likes to say. When friends and colleagues asked about Holyoke, he would reply that it was a city stuck in the ’50s. Then, six years ago, he heard from a friend that a 16-year-old named Alex Morse had founded a Gay-Straight Alliance at Holyoke High School, and was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kusek says. “I thought, Moon made of cheese, more likely.” But stories of Morse’s activism continued to filter out — the school assembly at which other students came out in front of their peers and parents, the teacher-training sessions on LGBT issues, and a gay prom that brought in 500 teens from all over New England. In 2010, Kusek finally met the wunderkind who had made such a name for himself, then 21 years old and running for mayor. “I walked up to him, and I said, ‘I’m going to throw you a fundraiser,’ ” Kusek says, “because you meet him and you know immediately that he can do it.”
“He said, ‘I’m going to run for mayor of Holyoke,’ and I said, ‘Sign me up, because I know you are going to do it.’ ”
Speak to almost anyone who has known or met Alex Morse, it seems, and you will get a version of this story. Lorie Banks, his algebra teacher in middle school, recalls running into Morse three years ago at the gym and asking what he was planning to do. “He said, ‘I’m going to run for mayor of Holyoke,’ ” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Sign me up, because I know you are going to do it.’ ” Alexandra Zapata met Morse in sixth grade, when they were selected for a summer program at Deerfield Academy, a Massachusetts prep school. She says, “I never believed it wasn’t going to happen. He was so serious about it from the age of 11.” Dorothy Albrecht, who taught Morse math in high school, says, “He had this in mind at 15. Myself, I think he wants to be president — and for all the right reasons.” Each year Albrecht gives a lecture in which she tells her students that even the smartest kids she has taught had to do their homework. “And then they always ask who was one of the smartest kids, and I say, ‘Alex Morse, and he always did his homework.’ ”
Kids who always do their homework, who run for student councils, who are top of the class at everything, are not supposed to be popular. But Morse is that rare breed — the popular nerd. For successful politicians, popularity is a certain kind of skill. It’s how they win elections. Morse campaigned for a week in fifth grade to win the Martin Luther King Jr. Award (in part by offering to redistribute the contents of his lunchbox). “I just wanted to win,” he says, simply. “I always push myself to do the best.”
On the Saturday after New Year’s Day, the sprawling gothic edifice of City Hall is empty, and our footsteps echo as Morse leads us through a maze of underutilized rooms designed to serve what was once one of the wealthiest cities in America. (For 60 years, until the middle of the last century, Holyoke was the world’s biggest supplier of paper, giving rise to its regional moniker, Paper City.) Now, much of the building is in disrepair, but the grandeur remains. Morse was 12 the first time he visited City Hall, as a member of the Holyoke Youth Commission, and recalls meeting his role model, then-mayor Michael Sullivan. “I was so in awe and excited to talk to him,” Morse says. “Now, kids come up to me and yell, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the mayor,’ so excited to take pictures and meet me. That’s when it sinks in: I’m the mayor. I’m the person I used to be excited to see.”
“Alex was really a 40-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old body — very articulate, self-confident, bright. He’s the freshman with a tie on, and you’re going, Does that kid have a tie on?”
Sullivan, a five-term mayor of Holyoke, who jokes that he’s in a 12-Step Program for recovering politicians, recalls his first encounter with Morse. “Alex was really a 40-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old body — very articulate, self-confident, bright,” he says. “He’s the freshman with a tie on, and you’re going, Does that kid have a tie on? Even at that early age, you could see that this kid is off-the-hook different from most of his peers — well-liked, incredibly respected, but distinctly different. It was honestly a little bit spooky.” Sullivan tells a story of Morse’s contribution as the student representative on the school board. “The other kids would come with complaints about not enough pepperoni on the pizza, but Alex would come with ideas about curriculum alignment and things that were much more advanced. No one was even close to the ability that he possessed to recognize the challenges in the school and look for solutions in a very mature way.”
“I was at the YMCA working out, and a big holy-roller came over and laid into me, calling Alex immoral. I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t I recall you supporting a mayor in Holyoke in the late ’70s who had a mistress and had stolen money from the city?”
Sullivan was among Morse’s earliest campaign supporters, and his endorsement helped the young candidate win over some early naysayers, but not all of them. “As a Catholic, I did hear from some people that they were very upset with me for supporting someone who was openly gay,” he says. “I was at the YMCA working out, and a big holy-roller came over and laid into me, calling Alex immoral. I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t I recall you supporting a mayor in Holyoke in the late ’70s who had a mistress and had stolen money from the city? And you’re calling Alex immoral?’ ”
When I ask Morse how he won over his opponents, he replies bluntly, “I didn’t. You can’t win everybody and you have to be OK with that. You need 50%, plus one, to win an election, and you are not going to win elections if you don’t win your base. I won because I was progressive and I stayed true to those values.”
The story of Morse’s win last November starts with his deep-rooted affinity to his hometown. He loves Holyoke with a fanatical passion. While most students view college as an opportunity to escape home, Morse’s time in Rhode Island, at Brown University, where he majored in urban studies, was an act of endurance. He came home nearly every weekend. “A lot of people view college as their opportunity to find themselves,” he says. “I already did that before I got to college.”
We drive slowly down High Street, the city’s main artery. “That’s the San Juan Bakery, which is really cool,” Morse says, pointing to a drab intersection. “And over there is CareerPoint, where I worked for four years, on and off. I helped young people get jobs and make resumes.” Like so many American towns, the heart of this one is deserted on a Saturday afternoon. “That’s the children’s museum,” he says, pointing to a low, boxy building. “We’re also the birthplace of volleyball, so the Volleyball Hall of Fame is there.” Giving the volleyball’s birthplace a loftier home is among the many items on his to-do list.
“I always leave the house dressed up. If I go out in shorts and a tee, I look like I’m 22, and voters will say they can’t see me in the mayor’s office.”
Morse’s enthusiasm for Holyoke manifested itself in the campaign as an appeal to old-fashioned civic pride that often played like a Frank Capra movie. He knocked on every voter’s door in the city, not only in Highland, where the wealthier (and white) population generally lives, but also in the Flats, where the Latino neighborhoods cluster. Many voters were never going to be won over, but he insisted on meeting them regardless. He spoke English and Spanish. He brought cookies and ice cream to seniors, and distributed “I Love Holyoke” pins to supporters. Throughout it all, he made sure to wear a tie. “I always leave the house dressed up,” he says. “If I go out in shorts and a tee, I look like I’m 22, and voters will say they can’t see me in the mayor’s office.”
Every time I asked his friends to account for Morse’s ardent love for Holyoke, the question would flummox them, as if it was absurd to even ask. “Oh, but Holyoke is a very special place,” they might say. Or: “You have to understand, Holyoke is a wonderful community.” Despite the statistics on teenage pregnancy (the highest in the state) and poverty (the second highest) and violent crime (well above the national average), I heard this repeatedly. Michael Sullivan describes Holyoke’s brand of patriotism as particular to New England’s old mill towns, in which people had put down deep-root systems. “You don’t see it in the suburbs or exurbs of communities,” he says. “But where there’s this working-class bedrock — this urban grit — people really cling to it.”
Morse tapped into this fierce local pride, and his extreme youth simply made his hometown passion all the more winning. Older people, especially, liked the charming young man who lapped up their stories of the Paper City in its better days, before the mills began to decline in the 1960s. At some level, all politicians play to their constituents’ nostalgia for the past. But Morse seems genuinely earnest when he describes his vision for regenerating downtown Holyoke, with its network of canals and crumbling redbrick warehouses. In 2010, the first mill built in Holyoke, some 162 years earlier, was converted into loft apartments, artist studios, and offices, collectively known as Open Square — the first phase of a process that Morse hopes will revitalize an area associated with crime and drugs. To underscore his confidence, he is among the first tenants, renting a spacious $1000-a-month loft that, in New York City, would go for at least eight times that amount. (On his mayor’s salary of $85,000, he should also be able to pay back his student loans).
“I’m excited about the kitchen,” he says as we tour the unfinished space. “I like to bake more than I like to cook.” He waves an arm in one direction — “There’s going to be an island here” — and then waves in another — “I think we’re going to paint this wall chocolate.” For now, there is no one to share his new apartment with. He split with his last boyfriend two years ago and has been single since. “I’m career-focused and goal-oriented,” he says. “What I need is somebody who has their own life — we meet in the middle.” Later, he admits that dating poses perception issues: “If I’m dating somebody, I can’t be bringing them around to events and dinners unless it’s very serious; if in a few months I’m dating someone else, I’ll give the impression that I’m promiscuous.”
Morse’s first post-inauguration encounter with the old-boys’ network he deposed is at a meet-and-greet for a local congressman, Richard Neal, at the Elks Lodge, a bland, squat building on the outskirts of town. As Morse and the congressman stand with their hands clasped before them, we are subjected to an exhausting roll call of the great and the good who are present — former mayors, city councilors, former city councilors, officials with the redevelopment authority, a former Speaker of the House, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, school superintendents, the President of the Firefighters Association, the Treasurer of the Firefighters Association, the Vice Chairman of the Fire Department, and other firefighters too numerous to mention.
“I know people who say they feel inspired by him the way they were by a young JFK or Martin Luther King Jr., but we should temper that a little because it could hurt Alex’s growth.”
Finally, Morse is introduced to a smattering of applause. There are some allies in the room, but many more who aren’t, and the mayor recycles a Kennedy-esque line from his inaugural address: “We don’t have to see eye-to-eye to walk hand-in-hand.” He also throws in some self-deprecating wit about his upcoming 23rd birthday — “I’ll soon be over the hill” — that earns a polite chuckle. (Morse is good at pulling this particular rug from under the feet of his detractors — at his Inauguration Ball a week later, he welcomed guests to his bar mitzvah.) Sullivan told me that some of those present later complained to him that Alex delivered a “me, me” speech, but Sullivan dismissed them as old-guard critics who saw Morse as a threat. “It’s just whiny crap from politicians, doesn’t mean anything,” he said. At a recent conference of municipal leaders in Boston, Sullivan encountered similar resentments, mainly focused around Morse’s outsize profile, and believes one of Morse’s challenges is to avoid being cast as an arrogant upstart. “I know people who say they feel inspired by him the way they were by a young JFK or Martin Luther King Jr.,” he says. “But we should temper that a little because it could hurt Alex’s growth. His image may come to seem arrogant, and he’s not like that.”
By attacking Morse’s age, however, his opponents may have done him a service. For decades, old-school Irish-American Democrats dominated the political culture in Holyoke. “If they were white and they were Irish and their name was on the ballot, you were required to flip the switch,” says Sullivan. But demographic shifts in the last few decades have altered the political calculus. With 43% of the city’s population under 30, Dori Dean thinks an apt comparison is Egypt or Tunisia, where the old guard was overthrown by a newly mobilized youth. “You look at international politics, you look at national politics, you break it all the way down to local — it’s all about the economy,” she says. “Everyone needs a goddamn job. You see who’s benefiting, who’s not. Everyone’s grown tired of it.”
Michael Kusek believes the focus on Morse’s age may have deflected attention from his sexuality. “We’ve played the parlor game of, ‘Well, if he was 32 and gay, would he have won?’ ” he says. “A lot of people never got around to the gay thing because they were so focused on the age thing.” At the same time, Morse’s absence of discomfort or delicacy around his sexuality feels radically liberating. By refusing to play it down, he challenges people to deal with it. He likes to tell a story of visiting a senior center and spending three hours there, kneeling down at each table, shaking hands, introducing himself. “There was one woman, about 80 years old, with a walker,” he recalls. “She came up and grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I just want to thank you for what you did at the age of 16, coming out. You saved a lot of other kids’ lives.’”
Nevertheless, Holyoke is a religious city, with at least 82 churches — Catholic and Pentecostal mainly — so the fact that Morse’s sexuality did not sink his campaign is testimony to his strength on other issues — particularly his steadfast opposition to a casino that his predecessor had embraced and which polarized opinion. “There are many powerful politicians that have exploited Holyoke in the past, and will probably exploit Holyoke in the future, that are on the other side of the fence and eager to get casino gambling for their own benefit,” says Sullivan. “He’s taken a very courageous stance on that.”
Some I spoke to suggested that the same powerful interests invested in building a casino in Holyoke may have inspired a rash of scare tactics that began shortly after Morse won a four-horse primary by one vote over Pluta, setting the two up for an election fight that had been speculative until then. Morse and his team frequently found themselves followed late at night by a car with tinted windows; homophobic graffiti materialized on sidewalks; hundreds of their campaign posters were slashed.
For Sullivan, an early test of Morse’s authority will be the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the second largest in the U.S. with 400,000 visitors. When Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was invited to the parade some years ago to receive the JFK Award, the bishop refused to give him communion or allow him to accept the award on the altar after being told that Ridge supported a woman’s right to choose. Morse will be the first gay (and Jewish) mayor to march in the parade.
On a Saturday afternoon in a branch of Friendly’s, the 48th mayor of Holyoke glances at his menu and says, “If you choose a certain meal, you get, like, a free little Sundae.” He points to the glossy pictures of turkey clubs, chicken strips, and tuna melts. “Like these, right here, for example — $9.99 — you get one of these five entrees, a drink, and then a two-scoop, one-topping Sundae.” The mayor orders the Kickin’ Buffalo Chicken Strips with fries and a Peanut Butter Cup Frenzy. One of Morse’s many goals for Holyoke is to improve the dining options and sunder the so-called Tofu Curtain that separates wealthy, restaurant meccas, like nearby Northampton and Amherst, from Holyoke. But Morse has a soft spot for this restaurant — as a teen, he came here with his mom for dinner twice a week, on days when his dad worked second shifts from 3–11 p.m. Sometimes they returned home to watch Will & Grace — Morse upstairs in secret, his mother in the living room below.
“There was this gay couple there, from Framingham — like 17, 18 — and I’d never before met out gay people my age that were together and open and happy. That was a big turning point for me.”
“I was in middle school when I realized I felt a certain way about other guys,” he says, “but not really knowing what that was about.” He remembers the first time he met a gay couple, predictably while on a sponsored youth retreat to brainstorm public policy. “There was this gay couple there, from Framingham — like 17, 18 — and I’d never before met out gay people my age that were together and open and happy. That was a big turning point for me. I was, like, ‘Oh, I want to be able to feel that way, too.’ ” Two months later, he came out to his parents. “I told my mom first, and I was very nervous and she was nervous. She laughs about it now, because she thought it was going to be something awful about me. My mother told my dad, and he came up to me while I was doing my homework the next day — he was just concerned about my safety and whether anyone was picking on me at school.”
His father remembers the occasion slightly differently. “I think it was a real moment in my life when I could have gone either way,” he says. “It was a little tough for me, but I finally came to the realization that I loved him and that it was not my place to tell him how to live his life.”
No one knows where Morse’s overweening desire to succeed comes from. “We had to push his two older brothers, but Alex didn’t need any pushing,” says his father. “He knew from a young age what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go.” Morse is the first in his family to go to college and the first to run for public office. Asked to recall the first time he had to speak in public, he trawls his memory for a second and says, “When I was 12 and on the youth commission, I had to speak at a press conference and I just got nervous, but that was when I used pre-written speeches. Now I rarely do that any more. When you speak off the cuff, it’s more sincere and effective.”
We are standing outside the blue clapboard home where Alex grew up, and Kim Morse is tut-tutting over the disheveled state of the neighborhood. “Do you remember how clean it used to be and how nice the house was?” she asks her son. “So trashy compared to when we lived here, huh?” Alex points to a building across the road. “That was a dance studio,” he says. “I did acrobatics there, jazz, and tap one year, too.” We talk about his favorite movies as a kid — Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, in which two dogs and a cat cross America to find their way home. “My mom had a day care center growing up, so we watched Spice World all the time,” he says.
“He likes Milk now — that’s one of his favorites,” says Kim.
As we talk, cars keep slowing at the intersection to honk their support. A middle-aged guy walks by and shouts, “You did it Mr. Mayor, you did it!” A man and a woman, with four children in tow, introduce themselves. Photographs are taken, hands are shaken. The children nominate things they want the mayor do for them — more basketball courts, free candy. Morse listens to them and smiles. As they start to walk away, he calls out, “Do you all have straight As?” Kids are always being asked things like that, of course, but Morse, a straight-A student himself and barely five years out of the local high school, appreciates better than most why it matters and what it can mean. The same quality that made him an A student has made him a mayor: determination. “I love everything about my life right now,” he says. “This is my dream job — it really is.”