Alex Morse has a birthday coming up: On Jan. 29, he'll be 23 years old. But as a prudent workaholic, the 2011 Brown University graduate probably won't spend much time celebrating. Instead, he'll be 26 days into his first term as mayor of Holyoke, Mass., and he'll have a lot of work to do.
"People forget that I'm 22," said Morse, a Holyoke native who became active in the community early on, when he joined the city's Youth Commission at age 12. "I've always been very proactive and mature, and incredibly focused. Because I can talk intelligently and passionately about Holyoke...my age was never an obstacle. It never really mattered."
Morse is also gay. He started Holyoke High School's chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance and founded the city's first GLBTQ non-profit organization, Holyoke For All, which hosts an annual "pride prom" and offers support groups, advocacy training, and scholarship assistance for GLBTQ youth. When he takes office on Jan. 3, he'll also be the country's youngest openly gay mayor -- a label that, Morse said, is even less significant than his age.
"I've been open and honest about [my sexuality]," he said. "I haven't found it to be problematic. Whenever you claim something as your own, no one can use it against you."
There were, of course, naysayers along the campaign trail. One voter told Morse he "didn't have a chance in hell" of being elected, Morse said. When he unveiled his education plan last March, Pluta told The Springfield Republican that Morse should "graduate from college" before she would debate its worth.
Obviously, Morse said, people underestimated him.
"It never really bothered me," he said. "There was a sense of resentment among some folks -- there still is -- but I'll overcome that. I have the trust of the voters, and people continue to believe in me and support me."
An Urban Studies major at Brown, Morse announced his candidacy while still in school, opting to commute from Holyoke to the university's Providence campus for the latter part of his senior year. Although many 20-somethings yearn to move as far as possible from where they were raised, Morse said that, simply, he adores his hometown.
"I've always felt this way about Holyoke; I've always wanted to come back," he said. "I credit Holyoke with giving me the opportunities I have today."
Still, Morse added, "there are a lot of things that need to change" -- like Holyoke's poverty rate. With a population of 40,000, nearly one-third of the city's residents fall below the poverty line. Holyoke's unemployment rate, crime rate, and high school dropout rate all hover above the national average as well.
"I can't leave my community until those things are better," Morse said.
And Morse is confident that things will, indeed, get better. He praises the Holyoke community for fostering the dynamism that got him elected and is hopeful the energy of his base will help transform the city.
Morse is preparing for the transition from college student to mayor-elect by fielding press interviews and meeting with Holyoke residents. Is he nervous?
"No, just excited," he said. "This is my dream job."
And the world's best birthday present.
Photos by Rob Deza
About Kristen -- Fresh out of graduate school, my allegiances are in fearless reporting and impeccable enterprise journalism. That said, follow me on Twitter @bostonpipeline!
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