HOLYOKE — It was one of the first instructions Mayor Alex Morse gave to his new secretary: Before arriving at events, he must always know which door to enter.
The directive is part practicality. When he is dashing to four, five, six events in one evening, he cannot waste time hunting for the right entrance.
But it is also because the youngest mayor in state history cannot afford to look clueless.
Twenty-two years old and openly gay, Morse was an unlikely victor in November’s mayoral race in Holyoke, a city of about 40,000 in the shadow of Springfield, struggling with high rates of drug use, crime, and teen pregnancy. He beat out the 67-year-old incumbent, Elaine Pluta, with 53 percent of the vote.
Now, the mayor is 23, and in the six months he has been in office, he has attempted to overhaul the city’s image. He established the city’s first arts and culture director; pushed through tax incentives for new businesses; took a stand against overtures by the Hard Rock International casino company; spent $40,000 on a new city website; and hired new City Hall personnel that better mirrored Holyoke’s largely Hispanic population.
But in his quest to turn the city around, Morse has ruffled feathers, especially on the City Council.
“Sometimes when I watch Mayor Morse take some political actions . . . it’s like watching my children dive off a cliff into the ocean,” said Michael J. Sullivan, Pluta’s predecessor, who endorsed Morse in the election. “He will step into a room where’s he’s very well aware that he’s not liked, and he refuses to be bullied.”
In many ways, Morse fits the stereotype of an Ivy Leaguer fresh out of college: ambitious, confident, keen on working 14-hour days. Like any recent college graduate, he is also struggling to navigate the little issues a first job presents — what to wear while working on weekends, how to toe the line between personal and professional on his Facebook page.
But for Morse, the biggest challenge is striking the right balance between embracing who he is — a fresh-faced youngster full of ideas — and the image he wants to present as an experienced tough guy who does not easily back down.
The contrast is evident in his office decor. On his ceiling-high shelves, alongside autobiographies of Malcolm X and Bill Clinton, there is a stern-looking sign with the words “But we’ve always done it this way,” with a fat, red bar slashed through it.
Just a few feet away, there is a framed “Alex Morse for mayor” poster with a thick, black scrawl: “To our mayor, Love: Mom + Dad.”
Constantly checking his iPhone’s Facebook app, Morse dashes off quick updates throughout his day: “Zumba at the Farmers Market!” and “Hot off the press! Just submitted my first budget to the Holyoke City Council.”
For Morse, social-media savvy has been an effective tool.
In February, as Morse suggested appointments for city solicitor, he was blocked by the 15-member City Council. “No matter who I appointed,” Morse said, “some councilors wouldn’t vote for them just because it’s me.”
So he asked for help on Facebook, where he has more than 5,200 friends. The next night, residents packed the City Council chambers. The appointment received 10 votes of approval.
After the election, some feared that the boy mayor filled with optimism would not match the power of a City Council filled with political veterans. But those who worried that Morse would be pushed around have little to be concerned about.
“To make it very clear,” Morse said in March, discussing a possible City Council vote on a casino referendum, “whether it’s the casino issue or any issue, there are certain city councilors that if I say black, they’re going to say white. I mean, that’s just the way it is and I accept it and I still sleep well at night.”
In April, Morse pushed for a referendum to increase mayoral terms from two to four years, in time for the November 2013 election. It would be a politically risky move for even the most tenured mayor. For Morse, it “went over like a lead balloon,” said City Council President Kevin Jourdain. The effort failed.
“I wasn’t really a big fan of the way that was attempted,” Jourdain, 40, said in an interview. “I think you want to show voters you deserve reelection for a two-year term before you move to make it a four-year term.”
The City Council, filled with entrenched political families, has historically held significant power. Jourdain, a member for 18 years, became council president in January. He considers himself a no-nonsense “fiscal watchdog,” and his style is a stark contrast to Morse’s rapid-fire staccato.
Tempers flared during a debate in May on whether to approve Morse’s proposal to establish a director for the city’s arts and culture infrastructure. Creating the position was one of Morse’s campaign promises, part of his master plan to transform the city into a thriving cultural hub of Western Massachusetts. He was surprised to find that the council, especially Jourdain, had concerns about whether the $40,000 per year salary was worth it. Ultimately, Morse and the council compromised, and the position was created. In early July, Jourdain said that Morse has always been “respectful and measured” in dealings with the council.
“For a young guy with no experience, he’s accomplished a lot,” he said. “But at the same time, he still has a lot to learn.”
Sullivan, who served five terms as mayor, warned Morse that people could misinterpret his energy as arrogance. He recalls a chat he had with Morse after some constituents complained that he came off as dismissive in meetings, answering phone calls or sending texts as others talked. “That could be an Achilles’ heel,” Sullivan said. “People want their public officials to be humble.”
Morse knows his age was central to his campaign victory. Without it, there would have been no segment on the CBS Evening News, no invitation to the White House holiday dinner, no magazine cover stories.
“People — business owners — read about my election, and then they call the city and say, ‘I’m interested in your young mayor,’ ” Morse said.
Kate Putnam, the president and chief executive officer for Package Machinery Company, Inc., a West Springfield business relocating to Holyoke in the fall, said she was encouraged by Morse’s enthusiasm when he approached her at a City Council meeting. “He seemed very hands-on,” said Putnam. “I thought, this is a good sign if the mayor is here. It’s clear that he’s supporting local businesses.”
Morse is trying to get the message out that Holyoke is young, hip, and vibrant, and he is living what he is selling. Even his new studio apartment in haggard downtown is an advertisement for Holyoke, the kind of industrial-modern place any 20-something would dream of: A 2,000-square-foot converted factory space with brick walls, exposed rafters, stainless steel kitchen, crescent-shaped windows, and floors he painted black with glitter. It looks like the inside of a Starbucks.
The message is clear: You, too, could have a swanky apartment if you lived here.
“It’s huge, you know?” said Morse, leaning against the kitchen’s black quartz countertops. “It’s $1,100, which if this were Boston or New York or something, it would be, like, much more.”
Morse, who is single, continues to keep the pace of his campaign — popping in for 15-
minute meet-and-greets at a half-dozen events almost every evening of the week. His secretary, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, his best friend from high school, is always at his side.
In the mayor’s city-issued Ford Taurus, complete with sirens and a loudspeaker for emergencies, Morse drives them from a homeownership expo to a baseball game where he is throwing the first pitch, while Murphy-Romboletti flicks through channels on the radio. “I can’t promise I won’t dance if ‘Call Me Maybe’ comes on,” she warns him.
He forbids her, but she settles on a Katy Perry song. He can’t help but whistle along.