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Embracing 'Change Of Scenery,' Holyoke Mayor Morse Reflects On Tenure And New Job In Provincetown

This Friday is Alex Morse's last day as mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Morse received national attention in 2011, when he was elected the city's youngest and first openly gay mayor. Late last year, he announced he wasn't running for reelection, and now he's resigning to become town manager of Provincetown. 

In an interview, Morse talked about the difference between answering to a select board in his new job, instead of to voters.

Alex Morse: In a town manager/select board form of government, all of us have an incentive to work together and collaborate and deliver for the residents of Provincetown, whereas a mayor/council form of government, not everyone necessarily wants to row in the same boat and oftentimes people want to help sink the boat.

When I took office as mayor back in 2012, we had a 15-member city council. And going through the process in Provincetown, I was told I would need to have thick skin and, you know, navigate different dynamics and town government. And the fact that I've worked with a largely, I think, dysfunctional, 15-member city council for six years and and now a 13-member board of different ambitions and personalities and a very fragmented city government in many ways, has required pretty tremendous leadership and ability to bring people together to deliver results for the city.

And so, I think it's a welcome change for me that I have five committed adults that love the town of Provincetown that want to make progress happen. And they were looking for someone that could help bring them together, bring the town together, bring out the best in town employees and senior managers.

Adam Frenier, NEPM: When you look back at your nine-plus years as mayor of Holyoke, what's the biggest accomplishment for you?

You know, as a kid that grew up here in Holyoke, I remember that our democracy, I think, was fragile and almost non-existent. We had the same faces in office year after year on the council, the school committee and the mayor's office. And it certainly didn't look like the community that we have. We're about 50% Latino, even upwards of that now. And you would never know it looking at our government 10 years ago.

And, I think, I could talk a lot about progress in our public schools and economic development, downtown revitalization. But I think that the thing I'm most proud of, is opening up the doors of city hall to the people and communities and neighborhoods that oftentimes felt ignored or excluded. We have a government now that looks more like the people we represent. We have historic numbers of women and people of color on boards and commissions, serving as department heads, and also just making investments in neighborhoods that have been divested from for so long.

And so, I hope and think my legacy will be making Holyoke a more inclusive, just and equitable community. And those will be forces of progress that will continue to impact our city for years and decades to come.

You mentioned the schools. In 2015, the state took over Holyoke's schools, citing them as chronically underperforming. And six years later, the state still has control of the schools. Do you regret that you're leaving before the schools are back under local control?

No. I've oftentimes said that I think this obsession with control...misses the point. I worry less about local control versus receivership. I worry more about outcomes and the quality of education that our students are receiving.

And so, I think we're on our way to to local control. But I would also say that receivership was, to some extent, a turning point in accountability and raising expectations for all students in our district. And I couldn't in good faith as mayor defend a system that was largely failing our Latino children in the public school system.

As you look back at your time in office, is there anything that you regret or something that you wish you had more time to focus on?

You know, of course, while we've accomplished a lot over the last decade, there are still many challenges ahead. And I've been frustrated over the years by a much larger system that I think doesn't allow mayors and policymakers and leaders in communities like Holyoke, to make the substantive change that needs to be made for the most vulnerable members of our community. And oftentimes, government is as slow and bureaucracy — you know, there's a lot of inertia to making progress in as quick a way as I think people need it. And so, that's one of the things about government sometimes I lament, despite the fact that we've made progress.

Of course, I think there are moments in time over the last decade where, you know, I may have had poor judgment, and I've certainly learned from those experiences. I will never forget November 2012 when I briefly flirted with a casino in the city. I think that was a real turning point in my tenure as mayor, because I learned very quickly that at the end of the day, I need to stick to my convictions and I should never try to be everything to everyone.

Last year, you were in a contentious Democratic congressional primary against U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, one that included charges against you that you've described as a "manufactured scandal." Did this race changed you as a person at all?

I think the race, it was certainly an experience. And I do think the word "charges" is a little bit of a misnomer. There were false allegations and "charges" implies something much more serious. And at the end of the day, very grateful that two subsequent investigations found no wrongdoing or violation of policy.

But, besides the point of the question, I think that campaign, coupled with nearly 10 years in the mayor's office in a very difficult, challenging job, in an increasingly hostile and divisive political and cultural environment. It's an incredibly difficult time to to communicate and to and to govern, and it takes critical focus and intention to to overcome those challenges.

And so, I will say the last seven months of my life have been some of the most restorative personally. Since the September 1 election, I've had time to a look back at my time as mayor, to look back at the congressional campaign, and really focus on where I want to be and who I want to be in in the years to come. And, you know, I turned 32 a few months ago. I have my entire life ahead of me. And getting back to to the joys of life, things that I think are most important, be it my family and my friends and my dog, Oliver, who I likely wouldn't have gotten if I won the election last September. And obviously I wouldn't be headed to Provincetown for this incredible opportunity if I won that election.

So I'm very thankful for for what has transpired over the last several months, both professionally, but almost more importantly personally, reconnecting with who I am and who I want to be. And I certainly don't want to be that person in Washington that spends time with lobbyists and folks that have no interest in who I am as a person other than getting access for personal gain.

Do you think you'll run for an elected position again? You still have about $85,000 in your federal campaign account.

I will likely be closing that account in the next few weeks and donating it all to charity and closing that account very soon. And so I, at the moment, I want to transition it to not being a candidate and just to doing good work with good people.

And finally, your entire professional career has been about Holyoke. You grew up there. You became mayor right out of college. How weird is it going to feel for you when your primary responsibility and even your address is in an entirely different part of the state?

Yeah, like I said, Holyoke is my home. I was I was born here. I've been here my entire life. Even when I went to college in Rhode Island, I was back and forth quite often. But my family still lives here, my friends, I'm invested here — I always will be. I'll be back quite often.

But I also, over the last several months, as I reflected on both the congressional campaign and my time as mayor, I didn't want to wake up in 30 years and say, 'I never left and I never got out of my comfort zone.' At age 32, with the experience that I have, it's important for me to get out and have a new personal and professional experience. And I think honestly, a change of scenery will be good for me, it'll be good for my family and be good for my personal life.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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