By Kenya Hunter
Alex Morse just got out of his 20s, but not without a few scars. His wedding-to-be went awry, then he lost a parent, and is now considering a shift in career — all while also working as the mayor of his hometown of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
“Break ups suck,” Morse told MTV News. “You have constant ups and downs when dealing with a break up, and having to be in public and do your job and pretend you’re OK. In many ways, being mayor provided a great distraction.”
The 30-year-old mayor has been single since, and says he hopes for love to come one day. Today, though, he’s running for Congress.
Born and raised in Holyoke, a town of 40,000, Morse became the town’s youngest and first openly gay mayor in 2011, a time when his hometown was declining economically. He jumped into the race during his senior year at Brown University; in addition to studying to complete his Urban Studies major, and spent much of 2010 campaigning. The mayor at the time, Elaine Pluta, was almost three times his age, and had served in Holyoke’s city council for 14 years before her two years in office. He won the preliminary election by one vote.
“People had resigned themselves to the fact that our best days were behind us,” he said. “Only 49 percent of our kids were graduating from high school. There was very little economic development happening in the downtown, and people had just lost faith in the city and lost faith in local governments. All at the same time, we’ve have the same people in office, year after year, decade after decade.”
Morse’s mayoral campaign platform included getting interesting jobs to Holyoke, and simply putting hope a city that once relied on paper mills for economic growth. Under his tenure as mayor, Holyoke became a sanctuary city, established a needle exchange program, saw an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in crime. He was also the first Massachusetts mayor to endorse marijuana legalization, according to BuzzFeed News. Now, he wants to take that same campaign strategy to beat New England’s longest serving congressman, Democrat Richard Neal, who has consistently been elected on more moderate stances.
The two are polar opposites, especially on some of Massachusetts’ most contested ballot initiatives. Morse was the first mayor to openly endorse Question 4, a 2016 state referendum that legalized marijuana for recreational use, and is running his Congressional campaign on endorsing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Neal opposed Question 4, and hasn’t publicly endorsed the Green New Deal that was co-authored by fellow Massachusetts senator Ed Markey. According to House Democrats, Neal has referred to “Medicare-For-All” as a “political loser,” and reportedly went as far as asking members of the Ways & Means committee to use the term “universal healthcare” during hearings instead. When MTV News inquired about the report, a spokesperson for Neal said: “This is about protecting the American people, not about semantics.”
The spokesperson also highlighted the Congressman’s work on the Affordable Care Act, saying that Neal “has led the fight to make healthcare more affordable and accessible — and he will keep fighting until we have universal healthcare.” When asked if the Congressman supported the Green New Deal, the spokesperson could not give MTV News a straight answer. “Richie believes that climate change is real and we have a moral imperative to act now,” they said, and cited the May 2019 Ways & Means committee hearing he held on the issue as proof of his commitment to the issue. “He believes that the federal government has a significant role to play in creating real pathways for meaningful, long-term economic growth that creates solutions to reduce carbon emissions.”
For Morse, such stances are the tip of the proverbial, melting iceberg — and he believes that maintaining the status quo is holding his neighbors back. With the help of community activists, he closed the state’s last coal plant and replaced it with Massachusetts’ largest solar farm this year. He tells MTV News that he is prioritizing “making sure that our response to climate change is as big as it needs to be to end this crisis and advocating for the Green New Deal and what it would mean for people in Western Massachusetts.” He is also looking to ways in which new legislation can address the wrongs of the past, like expunging records for people with marijuana-related convictions.
But first, there’s the matter of running: His platform involves a promise to pass Medicare for All, tackle climate change and the opioid epidemic, and provide sanctuary for immigrants. If he wins, he’ll be the youngest-serving member of Congress from Massachusetts. And he’s not scared to shake things up should he be sworn in.
“We have a member of Congress who would rather be kind and respectful and follow partisan norms of the 1980s instead of holding this President accountable,” Morse told MTV News about Neal being slow to embrace an impeachment inquiry in the past. “He’s in this insanity land that pretends this is business as usual.”
Neal, for his part, voted in favor of establishing the procedures for an impeachment inquiry on October 31. After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal inquiry in September, Neal called the President’s Ukraine phone calls “a tipping point,” and added: “It is time that President Trump be held accountable for his actions,” per MassLive. When asked why the Congressman did not openly support an impeachment inquiry prior to Pelosi’s announcement, Neal's spokesperson pointed MTV News to his work as the chair of the Ways & Means committee, which is currently seeking the President’s tax returns.
"Richie Neal is the one being sued by Donald Trump. Richie did not pick this fight but he will not shy away from it," they said; the committee was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the President in July, after filing a suit against the Treasury and the IRS earlier that month.
Morse’s immediate stance on impeachment, climate change policies, and Medicare for All merit comparisons to other progressive politicians, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who serves Massachusetts’s 7th district. Like Pressley, who jumped into politics at age 22 as a political director for former Rep. John Kerry and served on the Boston City Council for ten years, Morse has served his community of Holyoke for close to a decade, working as the mayor since the early aughts.
“Most of my 20s have been spent campaigning, but I wouldn’t change it,” he told MTV News. “The impact that I’ve had on my home town has made it all worth it. I think my life has been atypical of the average 20-something… but I happen to see public office as a means of making a difference in the community.”
The Neal-Morse race is one that can call for a big political upset, much like the one Pressley scored in 2018 when she unseated 10-year incumbent Mike Capuano. And while primary challenges garner a lot of attention and often highlight generational shifts in American politics, congressional incumbents have historically kept their seats. Oftentimes, challengers lack the funding or the name recognition to beat powerful, established incumbents.
But Morse thinks he has a chance. “I don’t make a decision like this lightly,” he said. “I ran for mayor when I was 21, and I was openly gay and very progressive. A lot of people told me to wait my turn or run for city council or school committee. But as a 22-year-old, by knocking on thousands of doors, bringing my campaign directly to people… I was able to convince people that public office can be a force for good.”
He says he wants to bring that same force to the 87 cities and towns that make up Massachusetts’s first congressional district. He points to constituent claims that Neal has not held a town hall in the district in almost two years, and says he plans to bring more engagement to the district overall. “People here don’t know how to get in contact with their congressman. I want to do town halls and meet people where they’re at,” Morse adds.
“Richie has held over 600 public events in the district Massachusetts, including in-person and telephone town halls with thousands of constituents to hear their concerns and looks forward to continuing that dialogue into 2020,” Neal’s spokesperson told MTV News.
Massachusetts’s 1st district is home to a predominantly white population, and usually votes in favor of Democrats. The last Republican who ran for Congress there, William L. Gunn, only received 34 percent of the vote when he ran against John Olver in 2010 (Neal represented Massachusetts's 2nd District from 1989 to 2013; Olver retired after redistricting merged the 1st and 2nd Districts together). In 2018, the progressive candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud challenged Neal and ran on a platform similar to Morse’s; she championed Medicare For All and a compassionate response to the opioid epidemic. Neal defeated her in a landslide, earning 70.9 percent of the vote.
But Morse believes Holyoke is ready for change — after all, growing up in the town drove much of his interest in serving public office. He and his two siblings grew up in low-income housing, much like their parents. His mom, Ingrid, became pregnant with Alex’s older brother at the age of 17 after meeting his father, Tracey; the two got married at City Hall and Ingrid dropped out of high school soon after. “My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, and my dad got a job at a meatpacking company,” Morse reflected. His dad, who appears in his campaign announcement video, still works for that same company in Springfield, MA.
Most recently, the mayor has been navigating his congressional campaign without his mother, who worked odd jobs and ran a daycare out of their Holyoke home in order to keep her family afloat. She passed away in January 2018 to an unexpected heart attack, which Morse describes as one of the worst times of his life, especially since his parents inspired him to get into politics.
“It’s like entering a new phase of life and entering a new phase of adulthood,” he says. There aren’t words that can describe the love I have for my mom. It makes me think of how this is my experience as mayor, but I’m also a person who has experienced a number of things.”
That those experiences informed a number of Morse’s political moves shouldn’t be surprising; often, marginalized people breaking ground in politics do so with the hope of changing the world so that future generations don’t have to experience the same hardships they did.
Morse started realizing his full leadership potential when he started Holyoke’s first Gay-Straight Alliance in 2006. “I thought I was the only gay kid at school,” he said. “After I started the GSA, other kids started coming out and coming to the meetings.” In the alliance, he wrote policies for his high school that helped destigmatize mental health and holding school-wide assemblies to teach solidarity for straight allies.
He hopes to draw on both his lived experience and his history as an organizer in the House, especially at a time when the Supreme Court is deliberating over three of the biggest cases regarding LGBTQ+ rights in our lifetime. But it’s key, he adds, that lawmakers look at things holistically, and not as goalposts: “How do we craft policies that are intentional about eradicating disparities and not seeing marriage equality as the end of our fight?,” he said. “We see the Trump administration rolling back rights for the transgender community, and there are about 27 states where you can still be fired for being LGBTQ+.”
Morse understands that his bid for what would essentially be his second job out of college is one of the most ambitious application processes you can find. However, as he navigates the campaign trail in a new phase of adulthood, he hopes that he can be more than a headline: Instead, he wants to be a voice to the unheard.
“There are people in places, cities and towns here that feel left behind and forgotten about in Washington,” he added. “I think it's important to have a member of Congress that is rooted here, in partnership with people here, advocating for the needs and challenges of the people who live here.”