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At 22, his first job out of college will be Holyoke mayor

Mayor-elect Alex Morse, only 22, posed for a picture with Giovan Cruz, 10, yesterday in downtown Holyoke.
Mayor-elect Alex Morse, only 22, posed for a picture with Giovan Cruz, 10, yesterday in downtown Holyoke. MATTHEW CAVANAUGH FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

HOLYOKE - The first thing Alex Morse wants you to know is that he is Holyoke born and raised. He attended Holyoke public schools for 12 years. His family - his mother and father, two older brothers, cousins, aunt, nephews, and niece - all live in this old industrial city just north of Springfield. Even for much of his time at Brown University, he came home almost every weekend to stay involved with community organizations he joined in high school.

His local roots, Morse said, give him plenty of local experience, even if, at age 22, being mayor of his hometown is his first job out of college.

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Morse, who graduated from Brown in May, was elected to Holyoke’s chief executive office Tuesday night, making him the youngest person ever to hold the position. He beat the incumbent, 67-year-old Elaine Pluta, by 608 votes.

When it comes to credentials, he said, he has been racking them up in Holyoke for half his life, since the age of 11, when he joined the city’s Youth Commission.

Morse pledged to provide “a shot in the arm’’ to this city, stained by its enduring struggle with poverty, drugs, and unemployment.

“This wasn’t a question of age,’’ Morse said yesterday. “People are unhappy with the way things have been going here for the past 30 or 40 years. Once people met me and heard my ideas, they forgot I was 22.’’

While munching on a granola bar and driving his dingy black Buick to an interview at a television news station, he outlined his immediate plans: meetings with the police chief and the outgoing mayor, creation of a transition team, close-up analysis of the city budget, development of a plan for his first 100 days in office.

Through all this, Morse, a plainspoken redhead, barely paused to take a breath.

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“I talk fast,’’ Morse said. “I’ve been trying to work on that.’’

In school, Morse snapped up every leadership position that came his way. His freshman year in high school, he was elected class president. As a junior and senior, he served as student representative on the city’s School Committee. He ran for so many positions, recalled his friend Tessa Romboletti, also 22, he joked that he would eventually work his way up to mayor.

Morse is also gay. He founded the school’s chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, then established the city’s first LGBT organization, planning a statewide prom for gay and lesbian teenagers.

“There were times that people had negative things to say to him in the hallway,’’ Bomboletti said. “He was definitely a target for that kind of thing, but he never sunk to their level. He never let them stop him from doing what he needed to do.’’

At Brown, he concentrated in urban studies and studied in the Dominican Republic for five months, becoming fluent in Spanish. By his senior year in college, he was spending almost all his time in Holyoke, organizing his class schedule so he needed to stay in Providence only one or two days a week.

Brown, he said, strengthened his passion for his hometown.

“It was a big difference,’’ Morse said. “There were lots of people coming there from backgrounds of privilege and wealth, and that’s, you know, not me. So I think it was hard to feel connected to that community, and it made me feel more a part of Holyoke.’’

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In October 2010, he told his family of his plans to run for mayor.

They agreed to help his campaign, though they were wary. No one in the family had ever run for a public office.

“Even people close to me were like, ‘Oh, that’s sweet that he’s running,’ ’’ Morse recalled. “A lot of people told me, ‘It’s great that a young person wanted to get involved.’ ’’

Morse said his success came from old-fashioned retail politics. Many of the people he encountered said a politician had never knocked on their door.

Spanish-speaking residents were impressed by his ability to converse easily.

All of a sudden, he became a serious contender. He raised about $50,000 in contributions. He garnered endorsements from the Springfield newspaper, former Holyoke mayor Michael J. Sullivan, and three city councilors. He won the September primary, beating Pluta by one vote.

“I didn’t run to make a statement or send a message,’’ Morse said. “It was always to win.’’

Governor Deval Patrick called him Tuesday night to congratulate him, as did Senator Scott Brown.

They weren’t alone. Yesterday, one woman at a gas station rolled down her car window as Morse walked by in a suit and tie. “What we need,’’ she shouted, “a fresh face!’’

A man in a leather jacket approached and shook the new mayor’s hand. “Congratulations,’’ the man said. “Hard work always pays off.’’

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Morse said he hopes to stay in office for four or five terms, which last two years. He is not sure he will stay in politics, he said, but he envisions himself working in public service for the rest of his life.

Right now, he has more immediate plans. Outside City Hall in downtown Holyoke, a man hunted in his wallet for coins for the parking meter.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,’’ Morse said. “They don’t give tickets here. That’ll change in January.’’


Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.