Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse will not seek fifth term

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks to supporters at an after-election gathering in Holyoke after his loss in a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks during an inaugural ceremony for city council and school committee members in the Holyoke City Hall auditorium on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Morse, in his third year of a four-year term, was not among those being sworn in so did not deliver an inaugural address. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2020 10:14:24 AM

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex Morse has announced that he will not run for reelection in November 2021, throwing open the door for potential candidates vying to be the city’s next chief executive.

January will mark a decade since 2011, when Morse first declared his candidacy as a 21-year-old college student in his final semester at Brown University. When he defeated incumbent Elaine Pluta later that year, he became Holyoke’s youngest and first openly gay mayor. When first elected, Morse said in interviews that he hoped to spend as many as 10 years as mayor.

“We’ve had a bold progressive vision for the city that I think in many ways we’ve implemented,” Morse said in a phone interview. With the next mayor election less than a year away, he said he wanted to announce now his plans not to seek reelection in order to give candidates a chance to mount campaigns.

In a city known for its political divisions, Morse’s election as mayor soon caused friction with the City Council, which sued him after he supported the opening of a needle-exchange program for intravenous drug users. Under the leadership of Morse, whose brother died of a heroin overdose in February, the city fought to keep the needle exchange open. State lawmakers ultimately passed a law giving municipal boards of health authority over such programs, which have now expanded across the state.

Morse pointed to that as a public health victory during his time in office, with overdose rates declining together with Hepatitis C and HIV infections.

Morse said he feels his biggest accomplishments while in office are achieving near-universal pre-k for city children, increased graduation rates in the city’s schools, bringing city families back into the public schools, increased investment downtown and becoming a sanctuary city early in his tenure.

“I think about our leadership on climate change,” he said, noting that during his tenure the city closed its last coal-fired power plant, replacing it with the state’s largest solar facility.

In 2019, after Holyoke Gas & Electric placed a moratorium on new natural gas connections, Morse came out against the expansion of a natural gas pipeline to meet demand for more energy consumption in Holyoke. As the planet faces climate catastrophe, he said he couldn’t in good conscience support the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, drawing the ire of some city councilors and businesses but receiving support from climate change organizations like Neighbor to Neighbor.

Another central part of his decade in office was the rise of the legal cannabis industry. Morse was the first and only mayor to come out in support of an ultimately successful ballot question to legalize marijuana in 2016, and since then Holyoke has sought to draw the cannabis industry into the city, particularly manufacturing and processing businesses. Morse said that at one point early in his tenure, some 5 million feet of vacant mill building space existed in Holyoke.

“A vast majority of that now is under option or under construction,” he said.

Morse has often clashed with the city’s more conservative City Council during his tenure as mayor, on topics ranging from marijuana to city finances. In a news release Tuesday, Morse referenced some of the “mean-spirited rhetoric,” contempt for facts and nativism he has seen creep into the national and local discourse during the last decade. He said he continues to believe local government is “uniquely positioned to resist” those trends.

“We are not enemies,” Morse wrote. “We are friends and neighbors. We can stand on each other’s doorsteps and have the conversations we need to have. We can refuse to caricature each other. We can insist on each other’s common humanity, and build a community where everyone feels that they belong.”

Morse won reelection three times, his fourth electoral win coming in 2017 after city voters increased the mayoral term to four years. In his victories, Morse won by knocking on doors across the city. He said he is proud of increasing civic engagement in the city, opening City Hall to communities who felt shut out of the political process.

“I think what my four elections have taught me is that you don’t win an election by tearing the city down,” Morse said. “All my opponents over the years didn’t necessarily provide a vision for the city moving forward. They were running against me.”

Recently, however, Morse has suffered defeats at the ballot box.

In November 2019, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question asking for a debt-exclusion override to build two new middle schools — a project Morse and most of the city’s elected officials publicly supported.

In September, Morse lost his bid to oust longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the 1st Congressional District. Neal won almost 60% of the vote, and defeated Morse in Holyoke after racking up big vote totals in Wards 3, 5 and 7 — areas representing some of the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Those wards, together with Ward 6, voted in large numbers against the schools ballot question.

Morse said that he wouldn’t rule out running against Neal again in 2022, but that for now he wants to prioritize his work as mayor as Holyoke struggles with COVID-19 and the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“I want to take some time to clear my head, to focus on this last year as mayor and the ambitious agenda we have,” he said.

In his last year, Morse said he also wants to focus on how City Hall could be reformed to improve operations and how effective a mayor can be.

In particular, Morse said the city’s finance department as it is currently structured is fragmented, with an elected treasurer and a City Council-appointed tax collector, assessor and auditor. He said he would favor a system in which the city’s financial officer is appointed by the mayor.

Morse said he would like to see more changes to the status quo — doing away, for example, with the large number of at-large seats on the City Council. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods have historically dominated those six seats, giving them a disproportionate voice on the 13-member body.

That would require a charter overhaul. The city last attempted to pass significant charter changes in 2011, when voters rejected a proposed new charter. Since then, smaller changes have been put forward, including recently when the City Council approved language that would have seen the creation of a recall process for mayors. Morse said he would veto the measure.

“I think it might be the time for us to go through that process again,” Morse said of a charter review. “Since 2011, the piecemeal process of amending our charter has been woefully inadequate in addressing the needs of our community.”

Morse said that he wants to continue to be a part of a political movement that challenges the status quo. Whether that means another run for political office is unclear, though he said the work of making city government more inclusive — particularly of Holyoke’s majority Hispanic population — remains.

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we have more work to do,” Morse said. “We need to make sure we continue that progress … We can only do that with a mayor who is forward-looking and inclusive and values every voice.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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