‘Bigger aspirations’: Residents on Mayor Alex Morse declining to run again

  • Edwin Ortiz talks about Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s decision to not seek reelection next year. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carlos Castaño is disappointed that Morse won’t be seeking another term as mayor of Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brian Falardeau talks about the decision the decision that Mayor Alex Morse made to not run again in the next election. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brian Falardeau talks about the decision that Mayor Alex Morse made to not run for Mayor of Holyoke in the next election. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anna Sanchez and Omayra Torres talk about the decision that Mayor Alex Morse made to not run again in the next election. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks at the retirement party for Director of Harm Reduction Services Timothy Purington at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Friday, January 27, 2017.

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse campaigns in the 1st Congressional District primary during an Aug. 29 standout at Northampton and Beech streets in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2020 7:31:00 AM

HOLYOKE — Pausing for a moment in the parking lot of CTown Supermarket, Carlos Castaño didn’t miss a beat when asked how he felt about Mayor Alex Morse declining to run for a fifth term next year.

“He’s an idiot,” Castaño joked, a smile evident in his eyes even though a surgical mask covered his face.

“I’m disappointed he’s not seeking reelection! He’s done a good job.”

Up the hill in the Highlands neighborhood, Brain Falardeau leaned out his front door on Thursday afternoon, reflecting on Morse’s nearly decade in office. Falardeau said he is conservative, and only voted for Morse when he first ran in 2011 as a 22-year-old recent college graduate.

“He’s probably run his course as Holyoke mayor,” Falardeau said. He described Morse as a “bright kid” who accomplished his goal of being mayor for several terms. “I think the dude has bigger aspirations.”

Morse, a native son of Holyoke whose parents met in one of the city’s public housing units, publicly announced Tuesday what many had expected: His last day in the mayor’s office will come in January 2022. When his term ends, the 31-year-old Morse will have been mayor of his hometown for nearly a third of his life.

“What I’m most proud of is the spirit of community we’ve nurtured — the way we’ve opened doors to people and communities that long felt shut out and left behind,” Morse said in an announcement of his decision. “We built a government that reflected and represented everyone, and not only those who traditionally had access.”

Morse will leave Holyokers with a wide range of opinions about his time in office.

“About time,” said one city resident reacting to Morse’s eventual departure on a popular city Facebook group. “Can’t wait to vote for another progressive candidate, enough with the ‘old boys’ club,’” another resident responded. “He was useless as mayor,” remarked a third.

The split reaction on social media was echoed by some on the city’s streets Thursday afternoon.

Walking in South Holyoke, longtime city resident Edwin Ortiz said he thinks Morse did a good job as mayor. But a decade in office is too long, he said.

“We need new blood,” Ortiz said. Pointing at the potholes beneath his feet, he said the city should pay more attention to his neighborhood and pressing issues in Holyoke. “Holyoke needs to do a lot of stuff.”

Others, however, felt Morse should run again for the chief executive job.

Walking into CTown, Ana Sanchez said she never hears anybody say anything negative about Morse. She said people at her church appreciate how helpful he has been.

“He’s done well for Holyoke,” she said.

Political divisions run deep in Holyoke, and Morse has clashed with some of the city’s other elected officials over the years. Shortly after taking office, the City Council sued Morse over his approval of a needle-exchange program.

Leading the push for legal action was Kevin Jourdain, who at the time was president of the City Council. In a statement Friday, Jourdain thanked Morse for his service to the city. He said that despite their different perspectives on city affairs and where Holyoke should be headed as a community, his personal interactions with Morse have always been cordial.

“I care to believe our dialogues helped him consider additional angles on critical issues,” Jourdain said. “He is a very bright person who cares very deeply about our city. We share a common love of Holyoke and we were always united in that. As someone who was elected at a very young age myself, I admire his passion.”

Morse was a political force, winning reelection three times after he became the youngest and first openly gay mayor in the city’s history. And he created a movement that brought others into the political process as well. One of them was former Ward 4 city councilor Jossie Valentin, who first got into politics as a volunteer on Morse’s first campaign before deciding to run for office himself.

Valentin said that as that as a Puerto Rican lesbian woman, she felt that Morse broke down a lot of barriers when he first ran for office. She noted that he could speak fluent Spanish with the city’s majority Hispanic population, and that many people told him he was the first politician to ever knock on their door. She said the inclusive environment he fostered in City Hall and the diversity of city government under his leadership were important.

“I think that he shifted some things here in the city, and I’m happy that I was able to witness that and be a part of that journey with him,” Valentin said. “I’m sure whatever he does next will be a great additional chapter.”

One of his opponents for mayor was business owner Fran O’Connell, who ran against Morse in 2015. He said he was happy to hear Morse would not seek reelection.

“I was trying to put an end to it a lot earlier,” he joked. O’Connell said he didn’t care for Morse’s management style or plan for the city, and that he didn’t think he had enough experience. But he knew how to win elections, he noted. “The guy’s good, there’s no doubt about it,” even if, O’Connell said, he had little in the way of accomplishments.

For some, Morse’s tenure represented a shift in Holyoke politics, attracting people who had previously felt excluded.

Ward 1 City Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez recalls that she first met Morse when she was on the School Committee and he was the student representative to the committee. She eventually offered him a job in the summers doing youth outreach, and was immediately impressed with his ability to connect with her community in Spanish, along with his leadership skills.

The two would go out on the streets to talk to young people in the Flats, South Holyoke and some of the city’s housing projects. She said Spanish-speaking residents began to know him affectionately as “el colorado” — the redhead. So when Morse first ran for office, his name and face clicked for people.

Lebron-Martinez was elected to the City Council the same year Morse was first elected mayor. She said that during his rallies and events at City Hall, he always made a place for the Latino community in Holyoke to feel welcome and a part of the process.

“When have you ever seen that? Nowhere in my community,” she said. Her grandchildren were proud to be at Morse’s rallies, and to see him celebrate holidays with the family. “For the kids to feel that kind of unity — to me he has united a community that had been divided … He tried to unite it as much as he could. And to me, that’s the takeaway.”

It is unclear who will run for mayor next year, though the rumor mill has already begun to churn. On Wednesday, City Clerk Brenna Murphy McGee noted that she has had many people ask about the election calendar for 2021.

Nomination papers for those running for office will be available beginning Jan. 11. Murphy McGee said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, anyone who wants to pull papers should call the clerk’s office at 413-322-5520 or email clerks@holyoke.org to make an appointment to do so.

Nomination papers are due July 27. The last day to register to vote before a Sept. 21 preliminary election is Sept. 1. The general election will take place on Nov. 2, with the last day to register to vote in that election on Oct. 13.

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

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