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joanna weiss

In Holyoke, a Shakespearean saga unfolds

Holyoke mayor-elect Alex Morse waved to office workers in downtown Holyoke in November 2011

Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe

Holyoke mayor-elect Alex Morse waved to office workers in downtown Holyoke in November 2011.

When Alex Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke last year at age 22, it was big news: features on network telecasts, an invitation to the White House Christmas party. But it was bigger news last week when word leaked that he was considering a casino in town.

His Monday morning press conference was swarmed by news crews, politicians past and present, and hecklers who shouted, “You betrayed us,” and, “You lied” — rapt attention of the sort Morse had never drawn before.

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“I’ve never before interrupted TV for a live press conference,” he told me by phone last week. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ ”

“Interesting” is one way to put it; actually, Morse’s apparent 180-degree reversal is something near-Shakespearean. What’s playing out in Holyoke is a tale about the learning curve of politics, the toxic nature of a casino debate, the way one decision can, possibly, alter a life.

“This is political suicide,” declares Gordon Alexander, 50, a first-term city councilman who ran on a platform similar to Morse’s, including staunch opposition to a casino. “And I don’t understand why you would commit political suicide when your political career has 60 years in front of it.”

This is one thing Holyoke agrees on: Alex Morse, now 23, has electric prospects. He swept into office in 2011, straight out of Brown University, beating the incumbent in part because he vowed to fight a proposed Hard Rock casino in downtown Holyoke. But he also won because he represented civic pride, the prospect that Holyoke — led by an idealistic native son — could transform from a downtrodden mill town to a post-industrial gem.

Year one brought some successes and some bumps. Morse touts an early literacy program and an effort to boost the creative economy. He says he’s proud of using political levers to establish a needle-exchange program to help curb disease among the city’s many IV drug users.

That program caused its own political drama: Morse and his lawyers decided they could establish it through a quiet Board of Health vote, without taking the issue to the City Council. Now, the council is suing. Alexander, who supports the concept of needle exchange, said it’s an example of how Morse has sometimes botched the governing process, and reneged on his campaign promise of transparency.

Transparency, it turns out, is one reason Morse said he has to consider this casino. When he was running for office, he said, the state’s casino law hadn’t yet passed. Once it did, he said “as mayor, I need to take the blinders off.”

Gambling is coming to Western Massachusetts, Morse said. Borders are permeable; a casino in Springfield, with its attendant social ills, would be only 15 minutes away. A casino inside Holyoke would at least bring tax revenue, he said. And with its own proposal on the table, Holyoke can exert more influence on the state’s decision makers.

So when a local printing and nightlife mogul, who had purchased a land at the foot of Mt. Tom, appeared with a plan for a gaming resort, “I could have easily said ‘no’ and shut the door,” Morse told me. “But then no one in the community would ever know that I had seen a plan with an investment that size.”

Morse insists that he hasn’t endorsed the plan yet, and will reject it if it doesn’t meet the city’s needs. He points out that a casino would still require a citywide vote.

Casino opponents — previously known as Morse’s base — repeat arguments they say Morse made himself during his campaign: that casinos create low-wage jobs and kill downtowns, that tax revenues would be offset by other costs, that the very process of considering a casino sows division. Lyn Horan, of the group Citizens for a Better Holyoke, fears that the energy consumed by a casino debate could put the rest of Morse’s vision on hold.

“There’s a small percentage of me,” Horan told me, “who cared about him, who believed in him, that hopes against all hope that I’m wrong about him. That there's something that I don’t know that is forcing him to be closed-mouth, forcing him to make this action.”

That’s what’s most Shakespearean about this saga: It’s about ideals, expectations, the hope people place on a politician who looks like a dream. (I won’t bother to point out the parallels on the state and national stage.) Is Morse, who faces reelection next fall, being a true leader, making tough choices regardless of the consequences? Or was the previous mayor — who showed up, smiling, at Monday’s press conference — right about him all along?

“Alex, who was cast by his opponents as the young kid who needs to grow up before he starts running the city, looks all the more like the young kid who needs to grow up before he starts running the city,” Alexander said.

Certainly, he’s growing up now, learning to manage adversity. He answered every question at the press conference (Alexander praises him for that, too). Morse says he slept well that night — in part, because he was tired. Being mayor isn’t easy, even on the easy days.

“In this job, you have to learn to go home and remind yourself that you’re a person and a human like everybody else,” Morse told me. “I live here. I’m a Holyoker. I have friends here, I have family here, and I happen to be the mayor.”

For another year, at least. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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