By Aaron Hicklin
Photography by Tim Klein
Alex Morse has a slick of red hair, crisp blue eyes, and a complexion the color of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. The hair is inherited from his father, Tracey, who retains a splash of it in his full beard. No one knows how he came by his eyes, shared neither by his Jewish mother nor Scots-Irish father, or either of his two brothers. “My mom always jokes around, ‘I don’t know where you came from,’ ” says Morse, who sits upright in his chair in the spacious wood-paneled mayor’s office he inherited January 3, following an election that pitted the 22-year-old against the 67-year-old incumbent, Elaine Pluta, a veteran of city politics. It was a race that galvanized voters around youth and experience, roused the press, and shifted the balance of power from the old guard to the new in Holyoke, a blighted mill town of 40,000 people—among the poorest in Massachusetts.
“We were never supposed to win,” says Morse. “I mean—22, openly gay, in an old Irish Catholic community.” He has not wasted time, firing five staff and quietly persuading the city council to vote off the president who had held the position for 26 years. That was on his first day. “Unfortunately, a lot of folks in Holyoke City Hall assume they are going to be here for their entire lives, and my mindset is that if you want to be here, you have to live, eat, and breathe it—the job has to be your life.”
Dori Dean, Morse’s Scotch-drinking, Patriots-loving chief of staff, recalls that, before his inauguration, there was plenty of ribbing in City Hall about Morse’s age—a running theme during the campaign. “The joke was that they were going to bring diapers and talcum powder, rattles, and all these baby accoutrements to City Hall to accommodate our arrival,” she says. “Then, when we showed up with the axe and started chopping folks’ heads off, the tenor changed. No one is talking any shit now.” To date, four lawsuits for wrongful termination have been filed by former city employees.
To get a sense of the magnitude of Morse’s win, you need only talk to Michael Kusek, 20 years Morse’s senior. He remembers seeing the groundbreaking “Gay America” Newsweek cover in 1983, when he was 15, and thinking, That’s me. “Having grown up in Holyoke, I fled,” he says, before repeating himself, this time with emphasis -- “Fled!”
Kusek came out while attending college in Ithaca, N.Y., and formed the local branch of ACT UP before moving to New York City to work for GLAAD, a “paid professional homosexual,” as he likes to say. When friends and colleagues asked about Holyoke, he would reply that it was a city stuck in the ’50s. Then, six years ago, he heard from a friend that a 16-year-old named Alex Morse had founded a Gay-Straight Alliance at Holyoke High School, and was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kusek says. “I thought, Moon made of cheese, more likely.” But stories of Morse’s activism continued to filter out -- the school assembly at which other students came out in front of their peers and parents, the teacher-training sessions on LGBT issues, and a gay prom that brought in 500 teens from all over New England. In 2010, Kusek finally met the wunderkind who had made such a name for himself, then 21 years old and running for mayor. “I walked up to him, and I said, ‘I’m going to throw you a fundraiser,’ ” Kusek says, “because you meet him and you know immediately that he can do it.”