Meet Alex Morse, the gay progressive mayor taking on a 30-year Democratic incumbent

Rep. Richard Neal is the top recipient of corporate dollars in Congress. Here's the guy who hopes to take him down

Published July 14, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Alex B. Morse, Mayor of Holyoke, Mass.  (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Alex B. Morse, Mayor of Holyoke, Mass. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

At age 22, Alex Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, while still a senior at Brown University, becoming the youngest openly gay mayor in America. It's the only job he's known for his adult working life.

Morse trying to change that now, running as a progressive in the Democratic primary against Rep. Richard Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and has represented Massachusetts in Congress for almost as long as Morse has been alive. The primary will be held Sept. 1.

Morse comes across as thoughtful and self-assured, with an irrepressible lifelong love for, of all things, local civics, which he's been engaged with since middle school.

He spoke with Salon about what motivated him to take on Neal, and how he plans to use his appetite and talents for the hands-on, nitty-gritty of municipal policy to execute a progressive agenda so ambitious it can sometimes disappear into abstraction.

Morse also spoke deeply about his personal experiences growing up gay in a working-class town, jumping headlong into civics and local politics as a high schooler, and his own journey as a young mayor while helping his mother and brother navigate serious struggles with mental illness and addiction.

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Could you start with your own background?

So Holyoke, Massachusetts, where I'm mayor, is a post-industrial city of about 40,000 people, once the paper capital of the world and, you know, it fell on hard times with forces of globalization and capitalism. I grew up in the backdrop of a community that had high poverty, a dead downtown, white flight, poorly performing public schools, high crime. People just had this quiet resignation that nothing could ever improve. And we just had the same people in office year after year, decade after decade.

My mom and dad grew up in public housing and poverty here, both raised by single mothers. They met as teenagers in public housing. My mom got pregnant at 17 with my oldest brother Doug and dropped out of high school. Neither she or my dad had the opportunity to go to college. My dad's worked at the same meat packing company in Springfield for 35 years, Coronado Meat Company, and when I was born my mom started a family daycare in our childhood home.

I'm the youngest of three boys and went to the public schools. I got involved in a few civic efforts in middle school and high school that really got me into government politics. I joined a youth commission. I joined a statewide group called Teens Leading the Way, and worked on policy and mental health issues.

And as I did that, I came out as gay. I was 16, a sophomore at Holyoke High School, and I started the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. And then I founded a citywide LGBTQ nonprofit, and every year we organize a youth Pride Prom.

I went on to Brown University, but unlike a lot of my classmates and friends, stayed very connected to my hometown. My family has had some very real challenges and struggles that have kept me close to home and close to them. My mom, when she was alive, struggled with mental illness and addiction for most of her life, and I wanted to be there for her. And then my oldest brother, Doug, struggled with heroin addiction for the last 20 years, and unfortunately passed away from an overdose just a few months ago.

Those two real-life experiences informed the way that I knew the world and healthcare, and so my senior year I decided I was going to run for mayor. I announced my candidacy while still a senior, running against the 68-year-old Democratic incumbent. I knocked on thousands of doors, ran a very grassroots campaign, reached out and included the Latino community for the first time in decades and became the youngest and first openly gay mayor of the city. Nine years later, I'm still the mayor, in my fourth term. I'm 31 years old, and now I'm running for Congress. 

How did you get into public service at such a young age? 

My family was not political at all. No one in the family had ever run for office. The first time that people in my family held a campaign sign or went to a fundraiser was for me.

Nothing can teach you in a class what you learned by growing up and noticing inequity in a very real way in a community like Holyoke. Taking the bus to school every day and seeing some kids, where they go home to, and others not having much to go home to.

That lens helped me. I was always interested in service and government and helping when possible in middle school. I joined these school commissions, and we'd meet with the mayor every couple of months, give out grants. So that really gave me an interest in civics and getting involved and working with other young people.

In high school I sat on committee meetings with the mayor and the school superintendent, and we'd offer a comprehensive sexual education curriculum, and racial and social justice training for our teachers. I became an organizer and that stuck with me.

You mentioned the Pride prom. I'm a little older than you, not a lot. I'm going to be 38. I grew up in Fairfax County, just outside D.C., a pretty wealthy suburban school district. I remember when the first kid came out as gay in my school. I think I was a senior. It was just him, and he just took it all on. He had a lot of support, but it was also ugly. But you put together a Pride prom, and you were an active organizer for that community in your school. And the difference in years between us is so slim. Something happened, there, culturally, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

You know, it's changed even more rapidly since I had my experience in high school. It's so encouraging to see students coming out younger, and there's more trans visibility in the community.

I remember, you know, like most closeted kids, struggling with my sexuality my whole childhood. I mean, you're sending messages from the minute you're born, like about your gender presentation and heteronormative behavior or languages. And if you veer from those norms, then you're automatically labeled as "other," as gay. We all kind of have a community struggle with that.

I knew I was gay in middle school, and in high school it was very hard to find openly gay students. I remember at the time the prevalence of homophobic and derogatory language. It was so pervasive, in classes and hallways and gym class, and it would never be interrupted or stopped by adults or educators.

If you're in a class and some kid says, "Oh, that's so gay" or calls someone a faggot or whatnot, the teacher just says, "Oh, let's move on." When I heard that stuff as a closeted kid, and a teacher just dropped it, that validates that kind of language and it's obviously not helpful.

But when I went to the first retreat for Teens Leading the Way, that was the first time in my life I met people my age that were openly gay, happy and in a relationship. It opened my eyes, and I kept in touch with them, and within a few months I came out to my parents. I didn't want them to find out from anyone else.

And I remember — it was MySpace at the time, and when I updated my "interested in" tab on MySpace, it just spread throughout the school. 

Lost to the sands of time. 

I know, it doesn't exist anywhere anymore. Maybe I can pull it up somehow.

But I started the gay-straight alliance. I thought we would just have a couple of students there, but we had dozens of people at the first meeting. We organized a school-wide assembly on LGBT issues, two hours long, all 1,200 students were required to go. I gave a speech about coming out, and my sexuality, in front of the whole student body. I invited some special guests. We did student-led training for all the teachers in the district or at the high school about interrupting homophobic language, putting "safe space" stickers on the classrooms. Many of them are still in those classrooms. 

Now, when I walked the halls with the mayor, that was pretty cool. But I remember at the time there were parents of classmates of mine that had a lot of issues with that assembly. And there were teachers who were equally upset with the principal for allowing us to do the teacher training. There were some letters to the editor from parents saying we were encouraging sexual experimentation and deviancy all that other stuff. And I was a very vocal teenager, so I wrote letters back and and rallied people around us. It felt like we were a little bit ahead of our time in terms of high school organizing. 

Now it's evolved a lot. We used to do that youth Pride prom, and we had upwards of 600 or 700 kids from all over western Massachusetts, but I think now, to an extent, more and more young people feel comfortable with expressing their gender. Going with a same-gender partner to a regular high school prom is much more normal today than it was even 15 years ago.

I mean, it's fun, and kind of nice to have our own space where we can be ourselves. But it's also progress to know that we could be in those spaces and also feel like we can express ourselves the way that we want to. 

There are a lot of superficial similarities between you and another mayor, Pete Buttigieg. Both of you are young, ambitious, openly gay, running blue-collar towns. Care to speak to what's similar, and maybe draw lines between you?

Well, it's interesting. Pete and I got elected the same day in November 2011. I first met him because Harvard runs a new mayor's program at the Kennedy School of Government, where they bring all these mayors-elect together from around the country. And we both went to that in 2011. So that's when I first met Pete, another young mayor, probably the closest one there to my age. I was 22, and I think he was in his late twenties, early thirties, from South Bend. But he wasn't out at the time. I was 22 and openly gay. I had been out for maybe six or seven years by then, and I had no idea that he was gay at the time. But we hung out to some extent, at the dinners and the classes.

Did he know at the time that you were gay?

I think he knew I was gay. I'm pretty open about it and there had been a lot of articles written about the youngest openly gay mayor elected in the country, stuff like that. So I imagine he knew, but we never really got there. He was in the closet, he would've likely avoided going there anyway.

We're both from relatively working-class areas. We certainly have different backgrounds in terms of our families, and in terms of backgrounds of class and privilege and educational attainment. So it's different struggles and challenges.

But when I see Pete being an openly gay presidential candidate, married to his husband, being open and honest, all of that is very real. We all have our own timelines and it's never too early or too late to come out, and we all have to respect each other's processes and internal struggles and never invalidate someone's decisions. I have the utmost respect for him. We agree on a lot of policies and I think we disagree sometimes on how to get there. But we both love our country and that we want it to be a more just place for everybody. 

What are the things that you want to change or create? 

I've always been driven by a passion to provide a voice to those that have just been like shut out for so long. So many people are just doing the best they can to get by, to stay healthy, to pay their rent, to live in a safe place, to find housing. The daily decisions that I make can lead to those things being possible for people in my city.

I'm in a city that is 50% Latino, and there's a very strong old guard here. I have had a very intense focus on making investments in the downtown, and including the Puerto Rican community. You would never know that we have the diversity we have when you looked at our government in the past, our fire department, our police department, our department heads, our city boards and commissions.

I've been very intentional about building a city hall that includes everyone. It looks like it speaks the language of the vast majority of our people here. When you make decisions that way you oftentimes get pushback from people who have privilege, who feel like they're losing something. But the center of my mission is making Holyoke a place where no matter what you look like or what language you speak or where you come from or what neighborhood you live in you too can get a good education and live in a safe neighborhood and get a good job.

Fights for fairness and justice and equity have been ingrained with me since I was a kid. And that's what always drives me when I think about what I do.

When I took office only 49% of our students were graduating from high school. The vast majority of students not being well served by our district were low-income Latino students. And today nearly 75% of our students are graduating from high school. We've done that by building a school system that actually meets our students where they're at and provides a pathway for every student. It doesn't shut out or exclude the students who need a good public education the most.

For example, we at one point had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the entire state. Our school district pushed young mothers out of the system and made them feel they were unworthy of a quality education. We built a school system that accommodates young mothers, and partners with local organizations to provide day care. It sends a message that you don't have to choose between being a mother and getting a high school diploma.

We've also formed partnerships with our community college, we've revamped our vocational high school, offering night and weekend and alternative education pathways for students that just don't thrive in a typical eight-hour school day. Those are some of the improvements we've made.

Congressman Neal will criticize me for our schools being in what's called state receivership, when the state takes over the control of the local school district. But these are his schools too, right? He's our member of Congress. So what has he done for our public schools in Holyoke and in Springfield or throughout the district? Two of the three school districts in Massachusetts that are under receivership are in the 1st congressional district. When we were struggling to maintain local control in 2015, Congressman Neal was nowhere to be found.

How else do you distinguish yourself from the incumbent?

It starts with the influence of money in politics. Congressman Neal is like the poster child for everything that's wrong with government in Washington, given that he's the top recipient of corporate money of any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, and that has directly impacted the way he uses his power in Washington. Look no further than his influence in killing a piece of legislation on surprise medical billing, after Blackstone became his biggest donor of this cycle, giving him $50,000 and lobbying against the bill that he singlehandedly killed.

I believe health care is a human right, particularly in the midst of this pandemic, where 40 million Americans have lost their jobs and many have now lost their health insurance. But Congressman Neal is using his power to subsidize the private health care industry rather than to fight for health care to be a human right. We have hospitals closing in the district, birthing centers closing, psychiatric beds shuttering.

He's the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation — nine members of Congress and two senators — who refuses to get behind the Green New Deal and continues to take money from the fossil fuel industry. At the same time he negotiated the USMCA with the Trump administration, which completely ignores the climate crisis. I mean, every major national environmental organization came out against that agreement, and Congressman Neal is incredibly proud of negotiating it.

He supports defense authorization budgets that, again, divest from domestic priorities and provide billions of dollars to war and militarization.

But regardless of your political affiliation or values, people just want a member of Congress that is accessible, that shows up, that's in touch with the district. And Congressman Neal is none of those things. He hasn't had a town hall here in nearly three years and people right now are looking for a visible leadership that they can hold accountable, that they can communicate with. So I'm not asking people to send me to Washington to do the work for them. I want to be their partner in Congress. I want to be a partner to local elected officials, to the residents and constituents that live here, to feel like they have a member of Congress that is looking out for them and their interests, not looking out for the interests of the wealthy and the well-connected.

Coming from being a mayor to going into Congress, how will your skills and approaches translate, or serve like a bridge to national change?

I would arrive in Washington with nine years of executive governing experience, which is different than some members of Congress. So I have experience working with people who don't necessarily share my values.

One of the differences between House Democrats, and Congressman Neal in particular, and myself is I don't walk into the council chamber ceding the argument to them at the onset. I know my values, I know what I want to accomplish and why, and I work as hard as I can to accomplish as much as I can to meet that policy goal. I realize that I'll never get 100 percent, but I think too often Democrats like Congressman Neal cave to the right, allow the Republicans to set the parameters.

You don't get what you don't fight for. But if we actually have a Democratic Party that isn't bought by corporations and special interests, imagine what we can do with the White House and a House of Representatives and the Senate. We've had that before but we haven't been able to deliver transformative change to the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Last year was the first time that the House ever had hearings on Medicare for All, not because the speaker decided it was a good idea suddenly, but because we grew the progressive caucus and elected more progressives to Congress in 2018. And that's what we're going to do again in 2020.

But right now we don't have a congressman that is accessible. People want to know that their representative in Washington comes from this community.

You're young, and you got involved in a serious job at an impressionable age. This is a weird time to be in charge of a city. What did you learn as you became an adult in the world at the same time you were responsible for a small corner of that world? What mistakes shaped you?

Thank you for asking that. My whole 20s I've spent campaigning or being mayor, and I've also had some very real personal challenges too, since becoming mayor. Navigating the death of my brother, as I said before, experiencing loss in a very real way the last few years with that, and the death of my mother and the death of my grandmother. Dealing with that while being a mayor and having the support of your constituents and your community has been a beautiful thing, but also very difficult. In my 2017 campaign, I'd have to leave the campaign office and then visit my mom at an inpatient psychiatric unit in town. Navigating those different spaces and struggles has been a challenge.

In terms of the political space and the stakes, I learned my first year in office I can't be everything to everybody. I campaigned on an anti-casino platform, and in my first year in office, there came a moment where I decided to explore a proposal from a casino developer. I thought there was an opportunity to explore the possibility of that in the city, and I got intense pushback from my strongest supporters and constituents who were disappointed. But I felt like it was my responsibility as mayor to examine a new proposal.

But then I remember thinking, I ran on this issue and my conscience and my values, my personal feelings are that this is a lose-lose. It sucks money out of the local economy. Doesn't add value to our city. And we need to invest in that more sustainable long-term economic development strategy.

I decided not to move forward, but I remember the day that I decided to pull the plug on the casino's proposal, and I just felt complete relief. I'm glad I did that my first year in office. I'm never going to make everyone happy, but to the extent that I can, I will always be open and honest and explain my position and why I think it serves the best interests of my constituents and the community.

If that makes you lose an election or lose supporters, it is what it is. You have to live with yourself and look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of the decisions you make. And some will be with me and some won't. In many ways, it's my job to educate folks and bring them along with me.

Would you feel comfortable talking about your mother and your brother? How those experiences shaped not just your personally, but your politics as well?

Sure. I mean, I don't think you need to have personal experience with folks who are struggling with substance abuse or mental health to be empathetic or passionate about it. But it's hard to separate the two.

When I took office in January 2012 we had the third-highest rate of HIV and hepatitis C in the state, because of IV drug use. The findings showed that harm-reduction programs, like needle exchange programs, make a big difference. This was 2012, and there were only four needle exchange programs in the state at the time, and not a single program had opened up since 1995. So I opened up a needle exchange program that spring in partnership with the board of health. Our city council, years prior, had put a nonbinding referendum before the voters to ask if they approved of one or not, and overwhelmingly the voters said no.

I knew that, but I also knew it was in the best interest of public health to start this program, despite the fact that I would get pushed back. I  got sued by the city council at the time. The lawsuit went on for I think four years, but we ended up settling, and it led to a change of state law that defined boards of health, not city councils, as the authority that could open up a needle exchange program in Massachusetts cities and towns. So today there are 30 needle exchange programs around the state, when in 2012, there were five.

And my brother was one of those people who had hepatitis C from IV drug use, and you want your family members and your friends and your community to be healthy when they seek treatment. Needle exchange programs are more than just about receiving and distributing a clean syringe. It's also about connecting people to harm-reduction programs. And it may not be the first time they show up, it may be the 12th time, but they'll go to the needle exchange program and maybe decide to seek treatment and go to detox. We give out bleach kits and Narcan and do overdose prevention trainings.

My brother would sometimes disappear for a few days, but we had a close enough relationship where when he was ready to be picked up wherever he was, I would pick him up and make some calls and try to find a detox bed for him and drop him off and make sure he was OK. And a number of times, even I, as mayor of Holyoke, literally couldn't find a bed for him in all of western Massachusetts. It's very real for my family, and if it's real for me, I can only imagine the struggle it is for other families throughout the district. 

Similar to my mom. She struggled with depression and mental illness, and many people would never know it. She'd have good years but then she would get into a darker place where she would just say to me, "I wish people understood what I was going through."

I wish I had some fantastical element that people could see and understand, but when it comes to mental health, there's still so much stigma and misunderstanding of what people are experiencing. And sometimes it meant my mom couldn't be at my events, but she was always there in spirit. 

I had to navigate this health system with her. I can't tell you how many times we went to a place and they'd say, "Sorry, your insurance can't be taken here." We have a federal health care system that doesn't give a majority of people coverage for mental health or substance abuse, and in the middle of this epidemic in our district, psychiatric hospitals are closing, people can't find mental health care. They can't find treatment beds. I mean, that's the status quo. How could someone, after 32 years in Congress, be proud of the outcomes here in the district?

What is, in your view, the biggest challenge facing the country today, or specifically facing progressives?

Our biggest challenge right now in the country is eradicating white supremacy and systemic racism in our institutions, and how it is embedded in every single policy decision we make, from the federal government on down. Until we can actually face the ugly history of this country and the modern manifestations of slavery and how it continues to prevent people from being their full selves, we're not going to be the country that we think we are.

I know that is a big statement and kind of broad, not one specific policy issue, but I think that this by far is our biggest challenge as a country. We have a lot of work to do in terms of how we live our lives, but also in how we formulate policy that will directly attack our country's history and make sure that we're the country we want to be.

We don't have a member of Congress that understands the urgency of this moment, on this issue in particular. I was one of the first mayors in the country to make Holyoke a sanctuary city back in 2014. I was the first and only mayor in 2016 to publicly endorse the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis and marijuana.

We've done what we can on the local level, but without a member of Congress that actually shares those values and is using the power of their voice, we can only do so much. Trump signed an executive order last fall that requires mayors like me to explicitly send a letter to the federal government saying we continue to be OK with the resettlement of refugees in our communities, which has been the case for decades. I signed that letter, but the mayor of Springfield, Congressman Neal's ally, refused to sign it. When asked if he agreed with one of his biggest supporters and surrogates as to his refusal to sign the letter, Congressman Neal refused to take a side.

So even during this uprising around the country, the police commissioner and the mayor of Springfield tried to reinstate five white officers who assaulted black men off-duty at a bar, and just fired an officer of color for posting a Black Lives Matter image on her personal Instagram. All to the silence of our congressman.

People are looking for a member of Congress who grasps the urgency of the moment, understands these issues. As a white man, too, with my privilege, I need to use my voice as a mayor and eventually as a member of Congress to be an ally, to be an accomplice, and to be active in dismantling these systems and creating policy that directly addresses it. Congressman Neal is just unable to be that person.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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