ALEX MORSE still seems wide-eyed when he walks into Holyoke City Hall — a stunning Gothic building, a classic seat of power, the site of his first job out of college. He bounds up marble stairs, points to stained-glass windows, shows off the door to his soon-to-be office. He is 22 years old and, in just over a week, he will be mayor.
This fact — boy mayor! — has put this city of 40,000 on the map over the last few weeks, surpassing some of Holyoke’s previous claims to fame: the birthplace of volleyball, the site of the nation’s first paper mills, a symbol of post-industrial decline. For decades, Holyoke has been known for abandoned and torn-down buildings, spates of arson, and underperforming schools. It’s a community divided physically and symbolically, between Irish families in “the Highlands’’ and Latinos in “the Flats.’’
Morse says his role is “to tell a new story about Holyoke.’’ And his victory is a story of how symbols can shift, and how an election can do the shifting — even now, when voters across the country seem so distrustful of government, the electoral process, or both. In Morse, Holyoke has elected a lifelong native who’s just out of college, openly gay, Spanish-speaking, and undeniably optimistic about his city.
It’s that last part that’s most striking. Morse envisions a thriving downtown, with old mills and theaters converted to mixed-use buildings. And when see you the city through his eyes, it does seem possible. Holyoke has attractive canals, some already lined with brick walkways. It has cheap housing, and artists have started converting old mills to funky spaces. Due to abundant hydroelectric power, Holyoke has low utility rates, which prompted the state to build a $168 million computing center at the site of a shuttered fabric manufacturer.
Many of those changes were in the works before Morse ran. What he managed to do, during a hard-fought race against a 67-year-old incumbent, was to wrap them in a sense of civic pride. His campaign handed out “I Love Holyoke’’ lapel buttons. It held a rolling rally though Latino neighborhoods, where Morse shouted in Spanish from the back of a truck. Shortly before Election Day, the campaign put out a video called “I am Holyoke,’’ featuring Morse’s voice-over, admonishing those who would put the city down.
And as local political consultant Matt Barron says, Morse’s opponents “probably were just slow to recognize some of these changes taking place under their feet . . . and just underestimated him.’’
It’s easy to be dismissive of a 22-year-old, but Morse ran a disciplined campaign. He raised money early and hired a veteran campaign manager, 38-year-old Holyoke native Dori Dean. He committed to knocking on every door and made voters feel invested. When he won a preliminary election by a single vote, his campaign printed shirts that said, “I was the one vote.’’ (A recount showed that he had actually won by three, but as Dean says, a one-vote win is “a fairy tale in politics land.’’)
Fairy tales, as Barack Obama could tell you, only happen during campaigns. Morse now faces a two-year term and a lot of harsh reality. Budgets are tight. Some people in City Hall are annoyed that he didn’t wait his turn.
But he has people in his corner, starting with Dean, who is staying as chief of staff. And the celebrity that comes from being 22 may be serving Holyoke well. Morse was invited to the White House Christmas party. He met with the head of the US Conference of Mayors and the White House liaison to cities. “I think that people are fascinated by this race,’’ Dean said, “and I think that all the way up to Washington, they want to see him succeed.’’
In another life, a political junkie like Morse would have gone to Washington straight off, worked on the Hill, or signed on as an aide to a big-city mayor. If he had lost in November, maybe that’s what would have happened. But maybe he would have stayed. In Holyoke, Morse says, “you feel like you’re actually making a difference. Holyoke needs me more than other communities.’’ And it’s true: Cities need politicians who love them back.Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.