Morse is joined by a large crowd of supporters at the Unicorn Inn on Monday night.
HOLYOKE, Mass. — They said he couldn't do it.
There is no way a 21-year-old, turning 22, could defeat an incumbent mayor with years of political experience. And there was no way the city of Holyoke was ever going to be as good as it had been.
"When I ran for mayor eight years ago, people had a few things to say. They said No. 1, wait your turn. No. 2 maybe run for something else. Or No. 3, don't run at all, you are too young, too gay, too progressive, you are not going get elected here in the city of Holyoke," Alex Morse said at the Unicorn Inn on Monday night to a crowd full of supporters.
"And what did we do?"
The answer: he won that election in 2011.
And then he won twice more, the city upped the mayoral term to four years, and he won again. He's been sitting in the corner office for eight years and is now 30 years old. He boasts of seeing all-time high private investment in the city, crime decreased by 40 percent, high school graduation rates up, and a government whose doors are open to those who never felt like government worked for them before.
"Although we've made a lot of progress on the local level, I can only imagine the progress we could make if we had a champion on the federal level," Morse said.
Morse is now looking to overcome an incumbent with years of experience again. This time he wants a seat in Washington.
On Monday, he announced his bid to unseat current U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.
"I think we've restored faith in government on a smaller scale here in Holyoke and we want to make sure everyone here in the district and across the country gets their faith restored in government once again," Morse said. "Congressman Neal knows how government works. But we want a change in how Washington works because it is not working for the people."
Neal is a heavyweight in Congress. He has been in the House of Representatives as long as Morse has been alive. The former mayor of Springfield is now sitting atop the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
But, at the same, there has been some dissatisfaction in recent years in the district with some constituents feeling he isn't around enough and isn't as progressive as they'd like. Morse has every confidence he can beat Neal in the Democratic primary next year as he sees a movement growing to topple the establishment.
"I understand the gravity of the challenge before us but we've done it before on a smaller scale," Morse said. "We want to build a people-powered campaign that relies on donations from individuals and a campaign that organizes in every single city and town in the district and actually includes people that have been left out of campaigns and left out of governing altogether."
He pre-empted Neal's presumed talking points of how much clout he's earned in Congress and the importance of the positions he currently holds as the dean of the Massachusetts House delegation.
"For me, it is about power for who? For us, it is about power for all of you," he told the crowd. "We want to make sure it is not power for the wealthy and well connected, the corporations, the corporate PACs and special interests. When I go to Washington to take votes, when I go to Washington to make decisions, the only special interests I will have are the people of the 1st Congressional District."
Morse said when he took office, Holyoke was in a position where there wasn't much civic engagement, that the same people were running for office year after year and the results were the same — businesses were moving out of downtown, the crime rate was increasing in some neighborhoods, some people didn't have access to good schools and a good economy while some others did. He set a goal of changing that and focusing his time in office on creating an equal playing field.
After speaking, he spent plenty of time taking photos with supporters.
"People over time had given up on this place, have given up on cities like Holyoke and Springfield that were once powered by manufacturing and products in these mills that have now moved south and overseas," Morse said.
Those issues aren't just in Holyoke but he sees the same issues of health care, the "brain drain," the lack of high-quality jobs, and opioid addiction across Western Massachusetts. While his focus has been on Holyoke primarily for the last eight years, he sees a lot of cross-cutting issues throughout the district.
"I've spent some time with people in the Berkshires over the last few months just trying to do my part in getting to know the challenges. Granted, I have been focused on Holyoke for the last eight years, but when you think about transportation, education, the fact that the economy has changed — whether in Pittsfield or some of the small hilltowns and rural towns that once relied on some form of manufacturing or one mill — the communities may look different, demographics might be different, landscape might be different, but I think there is a common thread, common themes that bind us together," Morse said.
And he sees those common themes across the United States.
"What is wonderful about the 1st Congressional District when you look at the demographics and the population, the geography, the urban centers, the suburban areas, the rural parts, our district is representative in many ways of the country as a whole. We have a lot of the same challenges here in the First District," Morse said.
While he didn't go into specifics about his platform on his first night of what will be about a year and a half race, he did promise that he won't take any corporate donations and he'll be in the communities, at events, neighborhood meetings, and talking with the people, throughout the district.
"If you don't put yourself in a position to be held accountable and to listen and to learn, it is very hard to be responsive," Morse said.
Overall, the focus of his campaign is going to be inclusion, to engage with people who have become disenfranchised with the government. He sees his campaign as one that is a partnership with the communities.
"I want to build a movement that includes everyone. What bothered me growing up in Holyoke was that some people had the opportunity and some didn't and oftentimes is depended on what you looked like, what language you spoke, what neighborhood you come from, what country you come from. We want a build a movement where everyone is on level ground, that everybody has the same opportunities," Morse said.
Morse is a Holyoke native, growing up in public housing. His father worked for a meatpacking plant and his mother ran a daycare from the home. He went to Brown University and became the first in his family to earn a college degree. He was still a senior at Brown when he launched his bid for mayor and hasn't looked back. He is not only the youngest but also the first openly gay mayor of Holyoke.
Morse was introduced by City Councilor Theresa Gordon-Cooper, who has supported him since his first election.
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