Alex Morse checked his phone.
In just three weeks, Democratic voters in Massachusetts’ First Congressional District would go to the polls, choosing between Morse, the gay, progressive mayor of Holyoke, and Representative Richard E. Neal, the powerful 16-term incumbent.
“Oh, here we go,” Morse recalls murmuring as he read the e-mail from the UMass Democrats.
The student group said Morse was no longer welcome at its campus events, accusing him of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students.” The incendiary claim proved to be unfounded, but not before it was widely reported by the media, damaging the Morse campaign and unnerving the candidate.
“It was awful,” Morse says. “I felt like I’d never be able to do anything I wanted to do.”
He didn’t win that 2020 primary — he was routed, actually, losing to Neal by 18 percentage points — but, for now at least, Morse is doing exactly what he wants to do. Last April, he was chosen from among 120 applicants to be the Provincetown town manager.
Given his age (32) and obvious ambition (mayor was his first job out of college), many, including his new Select Board bosses in Provincetown, have wondered if Morse is merely biding his time before running for Congress again. But sitting in his office at Town Hall, as his goldendoodle, Oliver, noisily snarfs a Pup-Peroni treat, Morse sounds like he might be done with politics.
“I feel, in some ways, like I escaped,” he says. “I’m enjoying this job. We actually get things done.”
Getting things done is a big part of Morse’s backstory. At Holyoke High School, where he was one of the first openly gay students, he started a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance; planned the first school-wide assembly on LGBTQ issues; and organized the inaugural Youth Pride Prom, an alternative prom for LGBTQ students in Western Massachusetts.
Morse was also the student representative on the Holyoke School Committee, whose older, more traditionalist members didn’t always appreciate his outspokenness.
“Normally, [student representatives] would be quiet, or they’d politely tell us about the bake sale,” says former Holyoke mayor Michael Sullivan. “But Alex came in with policy recommendations, and some people were put off by it.”
Morse went to Brown University — the first in his family to go to college — majoring in urban studies. But he returned to Holyoke most weekends, and every holiday, to see his parents and two older brothers. And in the summer, when other Ivy Leaguers had fancy internships or lolled around the Amalfi Coast, Morse worked at the MassHire Holyoke Career Center, connecting kids and employers.
He was hired there by Gladys Lebrón-Martinez, who served with him on the School Committee.
“I was intrigued by Alex’s leadership,” says Lebrón-Martinez, who was later elected to the City Council.
Morse speaks fluent Spanish, which is an asset in a city — population 38,000 — that is 53 percent Hispanic. Campaigning for mayor in 2011, he was comfortable going door to door in precincts often overlooked by non-Spanish-speaking candidates.
“As a matter of fact, in the neighborhood, they nicknamed him ‘el colorado,’ which means ‘the redheaded kid,’ ” says Lebrón-Martinez, who is Puerto Rican. “Alex was known in the Latin community.”
The Holyoke mayor appoints the members of most boards, and Morse moved immediately after his election to transform the Fire Commission, Planning Board, Community Preservation Committee, and Historical Commission. When he took office in 2012, barely 8 percent of panel members were people of color. When he left a decade later, it was more than 40 percent.
“Holyoke, for many years, suffered from issues around equity and inclusion,” says the city’s new mayor, Joshua Garcia, the first Puerto Rican to hold the job. “Alex opened doors for a lot of people — he appointed me to the Fire Commission — and it brought a whole new level of engagement that just wasn’t there.”
Morse was reelected three times, but his progressive agenda alienated some in Holyoke. With intravenous drug use on the rise, for example, he bypassed the City Council and created a controversial needle-exchange program. And in 2016, he was the first mayor in Massachusetts to support legalizing recreational marijuana use, and recommended zoning changes to attract not only cannabis sellers, but also large-scale growers.
“Alex could have been wildly more effective, but he was not a compromiser,” says conservative City Councilor Kevin Jourdain, who faults Morse for a “my-way-or-the-highway” management style. “My main critique of Alex is that he was very agenda driven.”
Morse says the decision to challenge Neal, who was first elected to Congress in 1988 — the year before Morse was born — was prompted in part by the success of Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic insurgents who beat longtime incumbent congressmen.
But he also believes that Neal, chairman of the important House Ways and Means Committee, had become a “creature of Washington,” out of touch with issues affecting the sprawling district, which stretches from Sturbridge to Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee, through the hill towns of Hampshire County to Berkshire County, including North Adams and Pittsfield.
“I’m not saying Richie Neal doesn’t have power, but what is he doing?” Morse says. “We have an absent congressman. I mean, I was a mayor and I never saw him.”
Neal, who will turn 73 next month, did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.
The odds were long for Morse even before the UMass Democrats sent the e-mail accusing him of “numerous incidents” of inappropriate sexual contact with students. It was a serious charge, but also vague and anonymous: no names and no details. Morse, who had been an adjunct professor at UMass Amherst until late 2019, acknowledged he’d had consensual relationships with college students, but said none were his students.
The e-mail was leaked to the UMass newspaper, The Daily Collegian, which published a story the next day. When the national media took notice, some Morse supporters, including the liberal political action committees Justice Democrats, and Sunrise Movement, abandoned him. (Though Justice Democrats eventually got back on board as the allegations unraveled.)
“These were progressive organizations who took an unsourced smear campaign and used it as an excuse to dump their support,” says Democratic state Senator Julian Cyr, who is gay. “What happened to Alex Morse is every single, out-candidate’s worst nightmare.”
Morse stayed in the race, and a few days later, The Intercept published text messages between members of the UMass Democrats that suggested the allegations were an attempt to damage Morse and curry favor with Neal. A second Intercept story revealed that Gus Bickford, chairman of the state Democratic Party, advised the student group to talk to a reporter about the Morse allegations.
Bickford denies that he conspired to derail the Morse campaign.
“I had a really high opinion and, frankly, a really good relationship with Alex. I participated in one phone call,” Bickford says, referring to his conversation with the leaders of the UMass Democrats. “I was kind of the last person they were trying to reach out to for advice, and I couldn’t pass the buck to anybody else.”
Neither Morse nor his supporters buy it.
“I always knew that . . . holding on to power was a vicious kind of business,” says Sara Seinberg, a life coach and Morse campaign volunteer who lives in the tiny Franklin County town of Leyden. “But to see it up close and personal was astonishing.”
The 11th-hour innuendo wasn’t helpful, but most political observers agree Morse was destined to lose, and may have fared better if he’d waited a few years. He disagrees.
“If you think you’re the best person for the job, run,” he says. “There’s no other calculus than that. Otherwise, you’re just a political opportunist.”
Morse probably would have been reelected if he ran again for mayor. But he wanted a change. His mother, Kim, who struggled with mental illness throughout her life, died unexpectedly in 2018 at the age of 56, and his brother, Doug, died of a drug overdose in 2020.
“That changes what you value,” Morse says. “At this stage, I value my family and the things that bring me joy.”
The position in Provincetown was appealing because it’s apolitical. Yet Morse suspected the Select Board might question his long-term commitment to the job. He was right.
“Alex is ambitious, so, yes, that was a concern,” says board member Louise Venden. “But I think he’s convinced us this is where he wants to be. We needed leadership, someone with the willingness to work hard, and Alex has brought that.”
With Provincetown’s lack of affordable housing threatening to make the gay enclave inaccessible to all but the ultra-rich, Venden says Morse is urgently acting on housing proposals that had languished for years on the desk of his predecessors.
Others applaud Morse’s handling of a much-publicized COVID outbreak in Provincetown last summer.
“Alex quickly identified the problem, established relationships with people he’d never worked with . . . synthesized the information, and came to a decision on the right way to go,” says Steve Katsurinis, chairman of the local Board of Health Commission. “He’s a person of action.”
He’s also a baker, it turns out. With no more night meetings to attend, or fund-raising calls to make, Morse has resumed baking, which he says helps him relax. And he’s a fan of the Food Network, notably “Holiday Baking Championship” and “Christmas Cookie Challenge.”
“I watch all of those and I record them all,” he says.
An indication that Morse may not, in fact, be eyeing another run for Congress was his decision to close his federal campaign account. The remaining money went to several nonprofits, including Camp Lightbulb ($10,000), Soup Kitchen in Provincetown ($10,000), Helping our Women ($10,000), and the South Hadley Dog Park ($5,000).
Seinberg, who had never worked for a political candidate before meeting Morse a few years ago, says she was distraught at the way the race with Neal ended. But she’s over it.
“I went to visit Alex and Oliver in Provincetown,” Seinberg says. “We went on a walk on the beach at sunset and now I feel fine.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to note that Justice Democrats resumed its financial support for Alex Morse in the final days of his primary campaign.