Iron Man

2.14.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

What does it take for a 22-year-old gay man to be elected mayor of a gritty Massachusetts mill town? (A well-pressed tie for a start.)

Speak to almost anyone who has known or met Alex Morse, it seems, and you will get a version of this story. Lorie Banks, his algebra teacher in middle school, recalls running into Morse three years ago at the gym and asking what he was planning to do. “He said, ‘I’m going to run for mayor of Holyoke,’ ” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Sign me up, because I know you are going to do it.’ ” Alexandra Zapata met Morse in sixth grade, when they were selected for a summer program at Deerfield Academy, a Massachusetts prep school. She says, “I never believed it wasn’t going to happen. He was so serious about it from the age of 11.” Dorothy Albrecht, who taught Morse math in high school, says, “He had this in mind at 15. Myself, I think he wants to be president -- and for all the right reasons.” Each year Albrecht gives a lecture in which she tells her students that even the smartest kids she has taught had to do their homework. “And then they always ask who was one of the smartest kids, and I say, ‘Alex Morse, and he always did his homework.’ ”

Kids who always do their homework, who run for student councils, who are top of the class at everything, are not supposed to be popular. But Morse is that rare breed -- the popular nerd. For successful politicians, popularity is a certain kind of skill. It’s how they win elections. Morse campaigned for a week in fifth grade to win the Martin Luther King Jr. Award (in part by offering to redistribute the contents of his lunchbox). “I just wanted to win,” he says, simply. “I always push myself to do the best.”

On the Saturday after New Year’s Day, the sprawling gothic edifice of City Hall is empty, and our footsteps echo as Morse leads us through a maze of underutilized rooms designed to serve what was once one of the wealthiest cities in America. (For 60 years, until the middle of the last century, Holyoke was the world’s biggest supplier of paper, giving rise to its regional moniker, Paper City.) Now, much of the building is in disrepair, but the grandeur remains. Morse was 12 the first time he visited City Hall, as a member of the Holyoke Youth Commission, and recalls meeting his role model, then-mayor Michael Sullivan. “I was so in awe and excited to talk to him,” Morse says. “Now, kids come up to me and yell, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the mayor,’ so excited to take pictures and meet me. That’s when it sinks in: I’m the mayor. I’m the person I used to be excited to see.”

 

SLIDESHOW: MAYOR MORSE'S HOLYOKE

Sullivan, a five-term mayor of Holyoke, who jokes that he’s in a 12-Step Program for recovering politicians, recalls his first encounter with Morse. “Alex was really a 40-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old body -- very articulate, self-confident, bright,” he says. “He’s the freshman with a tie on, and you’re going, Does that kid have a tie on? Even at that early age, you could see that this kid is off-the-hook different from most of his peers -- well-liked, incredibly respected, but distinctly different. It was honestly a little bit spooky.” Sullivan tells a story of Morse’s contribution as the student representative on the school board. “The other kids would come with complaints about not enough pepperoni on the pizza, but Alex would come with ideas about curriculum alignment and things that were much more advanced. No one was even close to the ability that he possessed to recognize the challenges in the school and look for solutions in a very mature way.”

Sullivan was among Morse’s earliest campaign supporters, and his endorsement helped the young candidate win over some early naysayers, but not all of them. “As a Catholic, I did hear from some people that they were very upset with me for supporting someone who was openly gay,” he says. “I was at the YMCA working out, and a big holy-roller came over and laid into me, calling Alex immoral. I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t I recall you supporting a mayor in Holyoke in the late ’70s who had a mistress and had stolen money from the city? And you’re calling Alex immoral?’ ”

When I ask Morse how he won over his opponents, he replies bluntly, “I didn’t. You can’t win everybody and you have to be OK with that. You need 50%, plus one, to win an election, and you are not going to win elections if you don’t win your base. I won because I was progressive and I stayed true to those values.”

The story of Morse’s win last November starts with his deep-rooted affinity to his hometown. He loves Holyoke with a fanatical passion. While most students view college as an opportunity to escape home, Morse’s time in Rhode Island, at Brown University, where he majored in urban studies, was an act of endurance. He came home nearly every weekend. “A lot of people view college as their opportunity to find themselves,” he says. “I already did that before I got to college.”

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