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.)

Morse’s first post-inauguration encounter with the old-boys’ network he deposed is at a meet-and-greet for a local congressman, Richard Neal, at the Elks Lodge, a bland, squat building on the outskirts of town. As Morse and the congressman stand with their hands clasped before them, we are subjected to an exhausting roll call of the great and the good who are present -- former mayors, city councilors, former city councilors, officials with the redevelopment authority, a former Speaker of the House, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, school superintendents, the President of the Firefighters Association, the Treasurer of the Firefighters Association, the Vice Chairman of the Fire Department, and other firefighters too numerous to mention.

Finally, Morse is introduced to a smattering of applause. There are some allies in the room, but many more who aren’t, and the mayor recycles a Kennedy-esque line from his inaugural address: “We don’t have to see eye-to-eye to walk hand-in-hand.” He also throws in some self-deprecating wit about his upcoming 23rd birthday -- “I’ll soon be over the hill” -- that earns a polite chuckle. (Morse is good at pulling this particular rug from under the feet of his detractors -- at his Inauguration Ball a week later, he welcomed guests to his bar mitzvah.) Sullivan told me that some of those present later complained to him that Alex delivered a “me, me” speech, but Sullivan dismissed them as old-guard critics who saw Morse as a threat. “It’s just whiny crap from politicians, doesn’t mean anything,” he said. At a recent conference of municipal leaders in Boston, Sullivan encountered similar resentments, mainly focused around Morse’s outsize profile, and believes one of Morse’s challenges is to avoid being cast as an arrogant upstart. “I know people who say they feel inspired by him the way they were by a young JFK or Martin Luther King Jr.,” he says. “But we should temper that a little because it could hurt Alex’s growth. His image may come to seem arrogant, and he’s not like that.”

By attacking Morse’s age, however, his opponents may have done him a service. For decades, old-school Irish-American Democrats dominated the political culture in Holyoke. “If they were white and they were Irish and their name was on the ballot, you were required to flip the switch,” says Sullivan. But demographic shifts in the last few decades have altered the political calculus. With 43% of the city’s population under 30, Dori Dean thinks an apt comparison is Egypt or Tunisia, where the old guard was overthrown by a newly mobilized youth. “You look at international politics, you look at national politics, you break it all the way down to local -- it’s all about the economy,” she says. “Everyone needs a goddamn job. You see who’s benefiting, who’s not. Everyone’s grown tired of it.”

Michael Kusek believes the focus on Morse’s age may have deflected attention from his sexuality. “We’ve played the parlor game of, ‘Well, if he was 32 and gay, would he have won?’ ” he says. “A lot of people never got around to the gay thing because they were so focused on the age thing.” At the same time, Morse’s absence of discomfort or delicacy around his sexuality feels radically liberating. By refusing to play it down, he challenges people to deal with it. He likes to tell a story of visiting a senior center and spending three hours there, kneeling down at each table, shaking hands, introducing himself. “There was one woman, about 80 years old, with a walker,” he recalls. “She came up and grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I just want to thank you for what you did at the age of 16, coming out. You saved a lot of other kids’ lives.’ ”

Nevertheless, Holyoke is a religious city, with at least 82 churches -- Catholic and Pentecostal mainly -- so the fact that Morse’s sexuality did not sink his campaign is testimony to his strength on other issues -- particularly his steadfast opposition to a casino that his predecessor had embraced and which polarized opinion. “There are many powerful politicians that have exploited Holyoke in the past, and will probably exploit Holyoke in the future, that are on the other side of the fence and eager to get casino gambling for their own benefit,” says Sullivan. “He’s taken a very courageous stance on that.”

Some I spoke to suggested that the same powerful interests invested in building a casino in Holyoke may have inspired a rash of scare tactics that began shortly after Morse won a four-horse primary by one vote over Pluta, setting the two up for an election fight that had been speculative until then. Morse and his team frequently found themselves followed late at night by a car with tinted windows; homophobic graffiti materialized on sidewalks; hundreds of their campaign posters were slashed.

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