It suffices to say that the last few weeks have not been a high point of Alex Morse’s budding political career.
To recap: late last month, the Holyoke mayor-who won office in 2011 in large part on the strength of his anti-casino position-dropped a bombshell, announcing that he was now open to considering allowing one in the city and was, indeed, already looking at a plan submitted by Eric Suher to develop one on Mount Tom. While he still personally opposed a casino, Morse said, one was coming to the region, and Holyoke would be better off having a direct say in it than being subject to decisions made by a neighboring host community.
The chips hit the fan immediately. Voters who’d backed Morse because of his casino opposition howled with outrage (literally; the mayor had to struggle to be heard over hecklers as a press conference announcing his new position). Paper City Development, whose pitch to build a casino at the Wyckoff Country Club had been rebuffed by Morse shortly after he took office, scrambled to get its proposal back in play. The mayors of next-door Northampton and Easthampton bristled that Holyoke’s mayor hadn’t clued them into his change of heart; Morse then invited a group of Valley mayors to a meeting to discuss the idea, only to receive a rather chilly response from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has casino plans for his own city.
By last week, it had become clear that Morse was having second thoughts about his second thoughts. After rushing to put together a process for evaluating casino proposals, in time for a January deadline for plans to be submitted to the state Gaming Commission, he now appeared to be hitting the brakes, saying, for instance, that he wasn’t ready to appoint the local casino advisory committee he’d recently called for. On Dec. 13, Morse released a one-page statement saying that after listening to feedback, particularly from Holyoke residents, he’d decided to drop the divisive casino idea. “Our City cannot afford to be diverted by this conversation,” he said. “At a time when our community needs unity of purpose, a yearlong debate over locating a casino within our borders will only sow division and discord.”
Like Morse’s previous bombshell, this week’s announcement generated blaring responses. Casino supporters, who’d been pleased by Morse’s first reversal, are now furious that he’s changed his mind again. More heartening for the mayor, others in the city-among them, City Councilors Gordon Alexander and Rebecca Lisi, both casino opponents who live near Mount Tom-praised him for changing course in response to the feedback he’d received. Others were not so forgiving, suggesting that Morse’s flip-flopping is a sign that he’s just not capable of doing the important job he holds.
Somewhat lost in the latest round of uproar are the actual words Morse used in this week’s statement-words that expressed a vulnerability that politicians rarely show. Morse should have realized the turmoil his change of position would create, he said, “and I apologize for introducing it. Initiating this process was a mistake and I accept that responsibility. … Now, more than ever, I recognize how complicated the work of good governance can be. I have learned from this experience. Ultimately, I hope to build on this humbling moment and become a better mayor as a result.”
Seriously, when was the last time you heard a politician (other than one resigning in the wake of some personal scandal) apologize for messing up and speak openly about the steep learning curve of public office? With the 2013 campaign season just around the corner, will Holyoke voters accept their first-term mayor’s avowal that he’s “now back on track” and his plea, in essence, that they give him a second chance? Or will they decide that he’s botched things too badly and that the mayor’s office is too important to allow on-the-job training?