Brown graduate to govern Mass. city at 22

HOLYOKE, MASS. -- Holyoke Mayor-elect Alex Morse had the political bug at a young age. At 11, he joined his city's youth commission. At 15, he was freshman class president at Holyoke High School.

Now, at 22, he has won the opportunity to lead the city of 40-thousand people.

"I think of my age as an incredible asset, in that I haven't been around for twenty, thirty years. I'm not beholden to special interests. I haven't been around long enough to owe anybody a political favor," Morse said in an interview this week.

"One of the most satisfying things to do in life is to do what others tell you you cannot do, and I think that's what we did throughout this campaign. Never once did I listen to the folks who said, 'You're too young, you haven't paid your dues.'"

Morse beat the 67-year-old incumbent, Elaine Pluta, in Tuesday's non-partisan election by capturing 53 percent of the vote, a victory secured by making people forget he was 22 and had no prior political experience.

"That's why it was important that I knock on people's doors, so that when they talked to me they said, 'He really knows the issues,'" Morse said. "I focused on education, economic development, public safety, and creating a sense of pride again in the city of Holyoke."

It also helped Morse to speak fluent Spanish in a city that is 48-percent Latino.

Holyoke is one of Massachusetts' poorest cities. A third of its residents live below the federal poverty line, and the unemployment rate is 11 percent, or two percent above the national average. The city's once-thriving paper mills largely stand idle, and the downtown needs a facelift.

"People used to come downtown, go see a show, go out to eat, stay here at the hotel," Morse said, pointing to the boarded up Holyoke House. The shuttered Victory Theater is next door.

Mores said, "We're close to renovating the Victory Theater, restoring it, so that within a couple of years, people can return to downtown Holyoke and enjoy a show with their friends and family."

But his top priority, managing a $120 million annual budget, will be creating an environment for new jobs. He sees investing in a high-tech office park, a project in conjunction with some of the region's leading universities, as a magnet for new jobs. He rejects the idea of a casino coming to Holyoke.

"A casino will not solve our problems. They do not alleviate poverty, they add to poverty," Morse said. "What casinos do is they earn money on the backs of the poorest and the senior citizens, and it takes money out of the local economy and puts in the hands of a few people who don't live in the city of Holyoke, and at the end of the day, it hurts local business."

As the city's next chief marketing officer, instead Morse talks about its "green energy."

"We have some of the cheapest utility rates in the entire state and all across New England. Eighty percent of our energy is renewable. We have a city-owned dam," he said.

Morse grew up in Holyoke -- the son of a meat packer and a nurse, the youngest of three boys.

Even before graduating from Brown University this spring, he was running for mayor.

"People often say young people are the leaders of tomorrow. In fact, they are the leaders of today."

His two-year term begins in January, and Morse said he hopes to serve eight or ten years.

"We're ready. I mean, my life will change. It has changed. It's changed for the better. Hopefully, this means city will change for the better."

  • Russ Mitchell

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