Holyoke mayor trying to get back on track

ALEX MORSE took Holyoke by storm two years ago. The 22-year-old freshly minted Brown University graduate shocked the city’s political establishment by defeating Holyoke’s incumbent mayor in a campaign that drew heavily on his youth and energy. Morse argued that the beleaguered former mill city needs to embrace the innovation and arts economy in order to draw new businesses and residents. And he vowed to help make dramatic improvements in its schools, which Morse said was the best way to launch children from low-income families out of poverty.

But if there was a single issue that catapulted the red-headed Holyoke native into office it was his unwavering opposition to a proposed casino in the city. “I’ll do whatever I can to keep it out of here,” Morse told Common­Wealth in a profile shortly after his election in November 2011. “I think it’s bad economic policy. I think it’s an act of desperation for the state and for the city of Holyoke. It doesn’t alleviate poverty, it adds to poverty. We’re on the verge. We can choose to have a casino economy or aim for something better.”

It was a stance that fit well with Morse’s innovation-economy message, and many think it provided his 650-vote margin of victory. So it sent shockwaves on a scale nearly as great as his election when Morse announced last November, less than year after taking office, that he was dropping his casino opposition. He insisted that his view on the downsides of casinos had not changed. Morse said he felt compelled to consider a new Holyoke casino proposal that had surfaced and to weigh whether hosting a casino—and receiving the tax payments and other potential upsides—might be preferable to seeing a casino land in a neighboring community and having Holyoke suffer all the harm of a nearby casino while reaping none of the offsetting benefits.

The reaction from casino opponents, many of whom had been his strongest supporters, came fast and furious. More than 100 of them, some heckling and calling him a liar, crowded into City Hall where Morse made his dramatic announcement on the Monday following Thanks­giving. “We were a pretty unhappy bunch,” says John Epstein, a leader of the city’s anti-casino forces who had worked hard to help elect Morse.

Epstein put it mildly. Casino opponents weren’t just un­happy; they were livid. Morse—who only a month earlier had penned a detailed commentary piece laying out his anti-casino stance for CommonWealth’s fall issue—was pummeled by supporters who felt betrayed by his sudden reversal on the issue. But less than three weeks after his casino change of heart, Morse reversed course again, declaring that he was ending any consideration of a casino. He said he had concluded his original opposition to a casino in Holyoke was the right stand after all, and vowed that he was sticking with it—for good. “A casino may be coming to our area, but it will not be coming here,” he said in a statement.

Today, Morse is trying to put the whole casino contretemps behind him. “I apologized for getting off track and I want to do everything I can to get back on track,” he says. Morse says he spent a week knocking unannounced on the doors of his biggest supporters, asking to come in and sit in their kitchens or living rooms and explain himself.  “It was a message of humility and having the courage to admit when you’ve made a mistake,” he says. “I think the fact that I was sincere and honest went a long way.”

Morse says he has been eager to return his focus to the issues he ran on. He successfully appealed to the City Council to fund a new position for Holyoke’s first creative economy coordinator. He points to urban renewal plans that were recently approved for four downtown neighborhoods and the start of work on the redevelopment of the former Holyoke Catholic High School which is being converted into 50 units of moderate-income housing.

Meanwhile, with Holyoke mayors serving two-year terms, Morse is already gearing up for his first reelection race this fall.  (So far, Morse has drawn only one declared challenger, first-time candidate Jim Santiago.) “I’m confident entering the election season,” Morse says. “Without a doubt we’ve been able to repair my base really quickly,” he says when asked about any lasting political damage from the casino controversy.

City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, a casino opponent who strongly supported Morse’s mayoral campaign, says anti-casino residents have largely forgiven his brief dalliance with casino support. “For the most part, they’re satisfied,” she says. “I don’t see any grudges.” Lisi thinks the burst of energy and new ideas Morse has brought to City Hall, which has been so welcomed, also explains his casino missteps. “What we really loved about Alex during the campaign was how brazen and bold he could be. I think this was the flip side of that coin,” she says of his zigzagging on the casino issue. “I think it exposed Alex’s inexperience to a certain extent.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“He dug himself a bit of a hole,” says City Council President Kevin Jourdain. “He’s trying to dig out of it and reestablish his credibility. There’s mixed opinion as to whether or not he’s weathered it.”

Jourdain says voters will tend to be forgiving, especially if Morse can show progress in other areas. “I think he needs to bring some economic development projects to the city,” says Jourdain. “That’s ultimately going to be the test of whether or not he’s been successful as mayor or not. He said no to casinos. If he can bring other stuff, people will be happy.”