On Thursday night, the newly-elected mayor of Holyoke, Mass., Alex Morse, gave a talk titled “On Being Young and Out in Politics.”
Morse is 23 years old, openly gay and was enrolled at Brown during his campaign. Morse recited the story of why he decided to run for mayor and his road to victory.
The mayor greeted every guest at the door by shaking their hand and introducing himself by his first name.
“I went to Brown, unfortunately,” Morse said in his opening remarks. He also started off by crediting Billy Glidden ’14, his speechwriter, as an instrumental component to his campaign.
Morse spoke about his hometown, the city of Holyoke. He called it “the first planned industrial city in the U.S.” Morse made his love for Holyoke clear, praising it for inventing volleyball and for being the first paper producer in the U.S., an act which earned it the name “The Paper City.” “It’s a historic, beautiful city,” Morse said. He also referenced the city’s strong Irish heritage.
Morse went on to describe the political environment in Holyoke. Prior to his campaign, Holyoke suffered from an endemic of “old-guard politics,” Morse said, making it extremely difficult to get into the city’s politics without the right connections. Morse was repeatedly told that he did not have a shot at winning the mayoral election. Being openly gay, young and not having an Irish last name were some of the most significant factors holding him back.
Additionally, Holyoke has recently become a divided city. Despite its Irish-American heritage, the town is now 40 percent Latino. There is also a tension in balancing tradition with moderity, with the political establishment resisting change. Holyoke is also afflicted by a poverty rate of between 20 and 40 percent, as well as the highest teen pregnancy rate in Massachusetts, according to Morse. These are not new issues, but the political establishment in Holyoke has been talking about them – and doing nothing more than talking about them – for several decades.
Morse took these issues to heart, making “education and economic development” his primary focus. He made a concerted and atypical effort to build his base by hiring a campaign manager for his campaign against the incumbent after his junior year at Brown. “I wanted to tell a new story about Holyoke. I used my age as an asset,” Morse said, referring to his proficiency with technology as his primary generational advantage.
Morse then showed his audience one of his campaign advertisements. It featured a diverse group of people all saying, “I am Holyoke,” speaking to the diversity of Morse’s hometown. He used this as a segue into his vision for the future, which includes managing the ideals of the established government and incorporating his positive vision for Holyoke.
“I spent the entire summer door-knocking,” Morse said, “and went to every single senior center multiple times, with ice cream.” He “scared the old guard [political establishment]” by winning the preliminaries by one vote. Following that victory, hundreds of Morse’s campaign signs were destroyed by non-supporters every night. The media eventually covered the story, quoting his opponent, incumbent Mayor Elaine Pluta, as saying, “This is politics.”
Next, Morse showed a video of one of his debates, which he joked was “really about who [had] the most [campaign] signs.” His opponent was “making the campaign about her,” Morse said, while his was about Holyoke.
Morse ended up winning the election with 53 percent of the vote. “It’s been a whirlwind,” Morse said. He thanked his donors and volunteers and talked some about his plans to extend the key community aspects of his campaign.
In the Q-and-A portion of the lecture, he spoke about his problems with Holyoke’s city council and explained that his sexuality had not really even mattered in the campaign because he had been honest about it from the outset. In treating his sexuality as nothing sensational or different, Morse led the people of Holyoke to treat it the same way. “It’s about how you make people feel,” he said.