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Standing Up for Holyoke

At 22, Alex Morse says he has the time, energy, passion and freedom from special interests to give his hometown the love and leadership it needs.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011
Laura Sofia Photo
Alex Morse on High Street: A "cheerleader" for Holyoke

The photos on Alex Morse's mayoral campaign website are, for the most part, garden-variety campaign shots: the candidate in posed conversation with residents on the street and on the steps of Holyoke City Hall. The candidate before a backdrop of an iconic city landmark, one of Holyoke's canals and old mills. The candidate with a couple of impossibly cute kids, his young niece and nephew.

But there's one photo that really stands out, that conveys the energy and message driving his candidacy: Morse stands smack in the middle of High Street wearing a broad smile on his face and a necktie that flaps in the breeze. His arms are spread wide, as if to encompass the city in all its strengths and all its possibilities—as if to say, "How could you not love this place?"

"Sometimes people run for office because they're unhappy with their community's direction," Morse says. "I'm running because I think we're on a good path"—and because he thinks he's the right person to keep that momentum going.

In a Sept. 20 preliminary election, Morse will face off against three other candidates: incumbent mayor Elaine Pluta; Dan Burns, a former city councilor; and Dan Boyle, a retired businessman and local newspaper writer who ran against Pluta in 2009. The top two vote-getters will go on to the general election on Nov. 8.

At 22, Morse is the youngest in the race, by decades. But he is not so inexperienced that he can't spin that as an asset rather than a drawback, ticking off a list of reasons why voters would do well to elect him: "I'm not tired. I don't have special interests." He's a child of the technology age, who understands that promising means of economic development better than his rivals. He's single, with no partner or kids, which frees him to be on the job 24 hours a day. "I live, breathe, eat, sleep Holyoke," he says.

Most of all, Morse says, he's the candidate who can lead Holyoke into a future that will look very different from its rich, if sometimes stubborn, past. "It's a choice between the past and the future," he says. "It's not personal, but we need to start having a new conversation."

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Morse is, by any measure, a Holyoke success story. A graduate of the city schools, he served as the student representative to the School Committee while at Holyoke High and founded the non-profit Holyoke For All while still in his teens. (The group's first project was a prom for gay teens; it has since broadened its agenda to serve the city's entire LGBTQ population.)

Morse was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Brown University this spring with a degree in urban studies. While in college, he worked in the Providence mayor's office (he calls David Cicilline, the former mayor now serving his first term in Congress, a mentor) and, during breaks, as a youth counselor at Holyoke's CareerPoint employment and training center. And somehow he also found the time to begin laying the groundwork, more than a year ago, for a campaign to be mayor of his hometown.

Typically, aspiring politicians set their sights lower. In municipal politics, the path to the mayor's office often starts with a stop on the City Council, maybe the School Committee before that. Morse considered running for City Council before deciding that the mayor's office was really the right place for him. And he dismisses the notion that politicians need to pay their dues and get more experience before aiming for the corner office.

"I think that mentality is the very thing that's wrong with Holyoke politics," he says—the idea that "you have to earn it, that you have to be around a couple of years."

Morse has won the support of a number of progressively minded Holyoke elected officials; at-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, outgoing Ward 4 Councilor Tim Purington, and Ward 1 School Committee member Gladys Lebron-Martinez (who now is running for that ward's Council seat) have all endorsed his campaign.

"He's a brilliant man, for one thing," says Purington, who once supervised Morse when the younger man did an internship at Tapestry Health, where Purington is a program director. "Everything he does he throws himself into, and he just super-achieves."

Purington supported Pluta for mayor in 2009. While he's been disappointed with the lack of progress her administration has made on issues like teen pregnancy prevention and city cleanup efforts, he initially refused Morse's request for campaign support, opting instead to remain neutral in this fall's mayor's race. "I really have a lot of respect for her, and I really like her," Purington says of the incumbent.

But after a couple of conversations with Morse, Purington was too impressed not to sign on to his campaign. "I realized I was holding back because I was afraid of hurting someone else's feelings, and I kind of wanted to play it safe," he says. "It dawned on me & that I was doing exactly the thing that is holding the city back. There's so many great things happening in the city, but people just want to play it safe."

Morse, Purington believes, is the candidate who can capitalize on all Holyoke has going for it. He cites the candidate's intellect and energy, his fluency in Spanish ("that's big"), his plans for promoting the city in a new, tech-based economy.

When Morse first told him of his plans, Purington questioned the decision to run for mayor rather than City Council. But he was persuaded, he says, by Morse's response that the city needs strong leadership from the top to move forward. And, Purington adds, any one new to the mayor's office will have a learning curve in the beginning, including the two other non-incumbents in the race.

"Alex is a very quick learner," Purington says. "He knows how to ask the right questions, he knows how to bring the right people to the table, he holds people accountable. There's no doubt in my mind that he's going to have very high expectations of people in City Hall and work with them to develop a budget and pass legislation that's good for the city."

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Morse sees a lot of positive things happening in Holyoke—at the top of the list, the $168 million computing center being developed downtown.

The Green High Performance Computing Center, a collaborative project of Cisco Systems, EMC, UMass and other universities, will occupy a former factory building on Bigelow Street. GHPCC will not create a great number of new jobs for the city, where the unemployment rate pushes 12 percent. But its enthusiastic backers—Morse among them—are confident that it will help draw other high-tech development to the city and also serve as a model for green businesses.

The consortium behind GHPCC sited it in Holyoke because the city offers both affordable, green hydroelectric power generated by its municipal dam, and easy access to high-speed data transmission lines. Those factors and others—including large, affordable former mills ripe for reuse, and easy access to I-90 and I-91—should make Holyoke an attractive spot for high-tech companies, Morse notes.

"We have a lot of selling points," he says. "[But] we're not selling our assets."

During his time in Providence, Morse saw firsthand the renaissance that city has undergone in the past couple of decades. "It didn't happen by accident," he says. "People in government did very specific things to bring in business development."

Holyoke's government can follow that same path, Morse says. The city's assets aside, "Right now, on paper, we're not a very business-friendly city," he says. Among the changes he calls for: Holyoke's business property tax rate of $37.10 per $1,000 valuation —among the highest in Massachusetts—needs to be lowered. The business permitting and licensing processes should be simplified, and incentives offered to existing companies looking to expand or renovate. Job training programs, at both private nonprofits and local schools, should be expanded.

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And, Morse says, Holyoke should embrace its urban identity, making its downtown a destination for diners and shoppers, families looking for places to go with the kids, young people looking for a night on the town. Holyoke's burgeoning arts community—including the renovation of the historic Victory Theater on Suffolk Street—also offers much promise, adds Morse, who would like to see old industrial buildings turned into live/work spaces for artists. The resulting new activity and foot traffic would make downtown more vibrant and safer.

The city would also be safer if residents and police officers felt more connected, Morse says. His campaign calls for the Holyoke Police Department to embrace community policing, with officers working with neighborhood groups, schools and social service agencies on everything from neighborhood watch programs to gang-prevention efforts. As mayor, he would also add foot and bike patrols downtown. "By getting police officers out of their vehicles and onto city sidewalks, this will create valuable opportunities for officers and residents to interact in a positive way," his campaign website says.

Another way to improve police/community relations: the creation of a civilian police commission. Morse's proposed commission, made up of mayoral appointees, would set "overall policy" for the Holyoke Police Department, while leaving day-to-day operations to the chief. Residents could bring complaints about alleged civil rights violations or other concerns to the commission, although it would not have subpoena powers or the power to discipline officers.

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One economic development proposal Morse does not embrace: a casino.

Massachusetts lawmakers have been kicking around the idea of legalizing casino gambling in the commonwealth for most of Morse's life. While several earlier gambling expansion bills have failed to make it out of the Legislature, the controversial idea now appears closer to reality than ever before. Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick and House and Senate leaders hammered out a bill that would allow three "Vegas-style" casinos in the state, as well as one slots parlor. Under the bill, one of the casinos would be somewhere in Western Mass.—some hope in Holyoke. While developers have been pushing a proposed casino in Palmer for several years, more recently, the Paper City Development group has pitched the site of Holyoke's Wyckoff Country Club for a casino.

Pluta, Boyle and Burns all support a casino in Holyoke, saying it would bring the city much-needed jobs and tax revenue. But Morse has other ideas. If the casino bill does pass, he wrote in an email to the Advocate, "I will not be leading the charge to bring a casino to our city. Instead, I will focus on the technology and innovation economy.

"As mayor, economic development and job creation will be my top priority," he continued. Those efforts would focus on tech development, "bring[ing] us from the Paper City to the Digital City, making sure we are always on the cutting edge. ...

"Bringing a casino to Holyoke will no doubt jeopardize efforts to revitalize our downtown," he added.

As Morse put it in the earlier interview: "We're a great city. We don't need a casino to make it a great city."

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One area where Holyoke does need to make vast improvements is its school system. The city has the lowest graduation rate in Massachusetts (52.5 percent, compared to 82.1 percent statewide) and among the lowest MCAS scores. Two city schools—Morgan Elementary and Dean Technical High School—are classified by the state as Level 4, or "chronically underperforming," schools; this summer, the city hired Northampton's Collaborative for Educational Services to take over management of Dean, after state officials rejected a turn-around plan submitted by the city. Meanwhile, looming over the city are comments made this spring by Mass. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester that the state might step in to run the Holyoke school system.

Morse describes his experience in Holyoke's public schools as positive (indeed, from there, he went on to an Ivy League university). But that's not the case for all students, a problem he attributes to the system's "one-size-fits-all" approach, and a lack of innovation.

Morse's campaign calls for dropout prevention efforts that would offer support to students (and their families) when they're just starting school, and a volunteer-run parent center to engage families in the schools. He'd like to see a "fair and rigorous" system for evaluating teachers, with support for those who are struggling, and programs with local colleges that would offer new teachers tuition breaks or student loan forgiveness if they commit to teaching in the Holyoke schools. He'd also like to see expanded arts education and a city-wide gifted and talented program, which would attract more families to the city schools, he says. Another priority: making Dean a "world-class vocational school" that prepares students for jobs in the emerging tech and green industries.

A lot of money is invested in the city's schools, but "we're investing in programs that don't work," Morse says. "We continue to blame poverty year after year, as if poor kids can't learn. & I think in Holyoke we have really low expectations."

Key to saving Holyoke's schools is getting the entire city to understand the value of a good school system—for attracting new businesses and residents, for developing a well-educated workforce. "If we don't do anything about it, look at the consequences," Morse says.

Indeed, much of Morse's campaign focuses on the importance of civic engagement, of residents from all the city's various racial and ethnic and economic factions coming together.

That will involve, in part, making city government more accessible to Latino residents, who make up almost half of the city's population but, to a large extent, stand outside its power structures. English-to-Spanish translation should be available at city meetings and on public documents, according to Morse, and the city should develop an official Latino commission. "The most important thing of all is to have Latinos at the table," he says.

Morse's campaign, he says, has attracted a diverse group of supporters, including people who've never been involved in city politics before. "The only way we're going to win is to run a real grassroots campaign," he says. "We have youth and energy on our side."

And that, he adds, is what he'd bring to the mayor's office. "The number one reason I'm running for mayor is, we need someone who will stand up for Holyoke," he says. "I want to be that cheerleader."

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