Alex Morse knew he had his work cut out when he declared himself a candidate for mayor of Holyoke.
"The fact that I was 22 and openly gay were barriers," he said. "I knew to win we had to run a new kind of campaign."
As everyone now knows, Morse did win. How he did it and what comes next for Holyoke were the subjects of a talk he gave at HCC on March 22, sponsored by Student Activities.
Morse, a lifelong Holyoke resident, began his campaign for mayor before he had finished his undergraduate degree at Brown University. He spent his junior year in the Dominican Republic, brushing up on his Spanish. For his senior year, rather than living on campus in Providence, he commuted to college a couple of days a week so he could focus on his campaign.
During the six months leading up to the election last November, he hit the streets, introducing himself to Holyoke residents, talking about issues that concerned them and asking for their support. "Every single day I put on my walking shoes and knocked on doors," he said.
Morse said he met people in their 80s who told him they had lived in Holyoke their entire lives and had never had a mayoral candidate visit their homes. He kept track of their opinions, logged each resident into a database and revisited those who were still undecided.
He beat incumbent Mayor Elaine Pluta in the primary by a single vote, which provided the momentum that carried him to victory in the general election. "We won because we were able to get average voters to care again," he said. "It was a very exciting, grassroots campaign."
His administration will carry forward the issues and themes he raised in the campaign. "We have a real opportunity to work together to make Holyoke the place we want it to be," he said.
Morse noted that only 24 percent of Holyoke third graders are performing at grade level, which is a good predictor of future educational success. So, he said, he is placing a high priority on what he called "family literacy."
Economic development is another top priority, he said, mentioning the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computer Center now under construction.
That's a beacon of hope," he said. "Something we need to take advantage of, part of what we're calling the ‘Innovative District.'"
He also noted the construction of a new senior center and a Big Y Supermarket that will add 250 jobs and additional tax revenue, the conversion of the former Holyoke Catholic School into affordable apartments, a $1.4 million renovation of Veterans Park, the addition of commuter rail service, continued development of walkways and bike paths along the Holyoke canals and the creation of an ad hoc downtown potluck every Friday night.
"Downtown is slowly becoming a place where people want to go out and have fun," he said. "Holyoke is a place with great people and great potential, so it's important to take advantage of that."
Morse spent a lot of time answering questions, many of which related to economic development and ideas for new downtown businesses, such as recording studios and nightclubs.
"That's exactly what we need," Morse said. "I think we have to create some sort of night life where people want to come to downtown Holyoke at night."
Morse's opposition to a casino in Holyoke is well known. He said he has no tolerance for people who talk about a casino being the only hope for Holyoke. "That discounts everything else we are doing," he said.
He said casinos prey on the elderly and on low income people and take money out of the local economy and give it to people who don't need it. "We're on the cusp of doing some great things in downtown Holyoke," he said, "but it's not a smart idea to put a casino in the city."
In response to a comment from someone who said he did not feel safe bringing his children to Heritage Park, Morse said that perception didn't mesh with declining crime data. "I would argue that the park is one of the most family friendly places in Western Massachusetts," he said, noting that the park, includes the Holyoke Carousel, is across the street from the new Holyoke police station and next to the Volleyball Hall of Fame and the Holyoke Children's Museum. He also said the city hopes to expand its community policing program through grants.
"Holyoke is a much different place than it was 10 years ago," he said. "It's not perfect, but it's getting better."
Photos: (Left) HCC English Professor Patricia Sullivan stands with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse before his talk. (Right) Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks at HCC on March 22.