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.)

For Sullivan, an early test of Morse’s authority will be the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the second largest in the U.S. with 400,000 visitors. When Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was invited to the parade some years ago to receive the JFK Award, the bishop refused to give him communion or allow him to accept the award on the altar after being told that Ridge supported a woman’s right to choose. Morse will be the first gay (and Jewish) mayor to march in the parade.

O n a Saturday afternoon in a branch of Friendly’s, the 48th mayor of Holyoke glances at his menu and says, “If you choose a certain meal, you get, like, a free little Sundae.” He points to the glossy pictures of turkey clubs, chicken strips, and tuna melts. “Like these, right here, for example -- $9.99 -- you get one of these five entrees, a drink, and then a two-scoop, one-topping Sundae.” The mayor orders the Kickin’ Buffalo Chicken Strips with fries and a Peanut Butter Cup Frenzy. One of Morse’s many goals for Holyoke is to improve the dining options and sunder the so-called Tofu Curtain that separates wealthy, restaurant meccas, like nearby Northampton and Amherst, from Holyoke. But Morse has a soft spot for this restaurant -- as a teen, he came here with his mom for dinner twice a week, on days when his dad worked second shifts from 3–11 p.m. Sometimes they returned home to watch Will & Grace -- Morse upstairs in secret, his mother in the living room below.

 

SLIDESHOW: MAYOR MORSE'S HOLYOKE

“I was in middle school when I realized I felt a certain way about other guys,” he says, “but not really knowing what that was about.” He remembers the first time he met a gay couple, predictably while on a sponsored youth retreat to brainstorm public policy. “There was this gay couple there, from Framingham -- like 17, 18 -- and I’d never before met out gay people my age that were together and open and happy. That was a big turning point for me. I was, like, ‘Oh, I want to be able to feel that way, too.’ ” Two months later, he came out to his parents. “I told my mom first, and I was very nervous and she was nervous. She laughs about it now, because she thought it was going to be something awful about me. My mother told my dad, and he came up to me while I was doing my homework the next day -- he was just concerned about my safety and whether anyone was picking on me at school.”

His father remembers the occasion slightly differently. “I think it was a real moment in my life when I could have gone either way,” he says. “It was a little tough for me, but I finally came to the realization that I loved him and that it was not my place to tell him how to live his life.”

No one knows where Morse’s overweening desire to succeed comes from. “We had to push his two older brothers, but Alex didn’t need any pushing,” says his father. “He knew from a young age what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go.” Morse is the first in his family to go to college and the first to run for public office. Asked to recall the first time he had to speak in public, he trawls his memory for a second and says, “When I was 12 and on the youth commission, I had to speak at a press conference and I just got nervous, but that was when I used pre-written speeches. Now I rarely do that any more. When you speak off the cuff, it’s more sincere and effective.”

We are standing outside the blue clapboard home where Alex grew up, and Kim Morse is tut-tutting over the disheveled state of the neighborhood. “Do you remember how clean it used to be and how nice the house was?” she asks her son. “So trashy compared to when we lived here, huh?” Alex points to a building across the road. “That was a dance studio,” he says. “I did acrobatics there, jazz, and tap one year, too.” We talk about his favorite movies as a kid -- Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, in which two dogs and a cat cross America to find their way home. “My mom had a day care center growing up, so we watched Spice World all the time,” he says.

“He likes Milk now -- that’s one of his favorites,” says Kim.

As we talk, cars keep slowing at the intersection to honk their support. A middle-aged guy walks by and shouts, “You did it Mr. Mayor, you did it!” A man and a woman, with four children in tow, introduce themselves. Photographs are taken, hands are shaken. The children nominate things they want the mayor do for them -- more basketball courts, free candy. Morse listens to them and smiles. As they start to walk away, he calls out, “Do you all have straight As?” Kids are always being asked things like that, of course, but Morse, a straight-A student himself and barely five years out of the local high school, appreciates better than most why it matters and what it can mean. The same quality that made him an A student has made him a mayor: determination. “I love everything about my life right now,” he says. “This is my dream job -- it really is.”

<em>To view our slideshow of Mayor Alex Morse's Holyoke, click here.</em>

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