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Town Manager, Provincetown
Serving as the 44th mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, from 2012 to 2021, Morse became the youngest and first openly gay mayor in the city's history. As of this spring (2021), he is now town manager of Provincetown. We recently chatted about his experience navigating the political arena and the highlights of his remarkable, young career
BSV: How have you been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. How are things in Provincetown right now?
AM: Provincetown has been bustling. Indoor and outdoor entertainment are back in full swing. People are really excited to get back in action. When the pandemic hit, I was mayor back home in Holyoke and guided my city though the earlier stages. I then came to Provincetown on April 5th and have been working to re-open the town and re-open town government. We officially opened the door of town hall for the public on June 1st..
BSV: You became mayor of Holyoke at only 22-years-old. What comes to mind as you reflect on your time as mayor?
AM: I went through many personal challenges while being mayor; I lost my mom and my brother. While you're an elected official, you're also a person.
I built a number of life-lasting relationships with people and certainly was able to give back to my hometown in really tangible ways. From improving our public schools, to making the city safer, revitalizing the downtown, focusing on entrepreneurship and the creative economy and the cannabis industry.
I loved being the mayor of my hometown. It was a wonderful nine-and-a-half years. I had a fantastic team that were like family to me. As I enter my next phase, I'll always be grateful for my time and experience there.
BSV: Did you have any mentors as a young person?
AM: One of my mentors was a former mayor of Holyoke. Michael Sullivan was mayor when I grew up in the city. Really wonderful man! I was a student representative on the School Committee when I was in high school, and he was the chair of the School Committee. He went on to support me in my first campaign for mayor.
I was lucky enough to get a Point Foundation Scholarship throughout my time at Brown University. Point Foundation is a national LGBT scholarship fund for graduate and undergraduate students that identify as queer or non-binary. Not only do they give you money for college, but they also match you with a mentor who is openly queer and in your field of study. They matched me with the then-mayor of Providence, openly gay mayor David Cicilline, who went on to become a Congressman for the first district of Rhode Island.
Those are two mentors that I think of when I think of my career and being mayor.
BSV: Do any of your interactions with constituents stand out as being particularly impactful?
AM: One of my favorite parts of the job was directly interacting with people. They made the job special and unique and reminded me why I was in public service in the first place.
It wasn't unusual to get folks coming to my office, calling or emailing, who were dealing with housing insecurity or homelessness.
The nights where I would get a call from the fire chief or police chief saying there'd been a fire in a populated apartment building, opening up the city's emergency shelter, ordering pizza, and just first-hand witnessing the resilience, kindness and grace of people and their kids, through tragedy and challenging circumstances, was always really inspiring to me.
BSV: What initiatives are you most proud of during your time as mayor?
AM: Number one, opening up the doors of city government to people that were historically excluded from feeling like the government was there for them. What I mean by that is making investments in neighborhoods that had been ignored for decades, in parks, in public spaces, in public infrastructure, in affordable housing.
There's still the modern manifestations of segregation in places like Holyoke, where you have neighborhoods that are over 90 per cent Latino, and I've seen years of divestment from those neighborhoods and areas of the city.
I really made sure to invest resources and show up in places that had been ignored. That also meant building a city government and staff that looked like the community and increasing the number of people of color, of women, of young people, on city boards and commissions.
Number two, in Holyoke, we had one of the oldest public housing complexes in the country, built in 1938. It was called Lyman Terrace. When I took office in 2012, it was slated for demolition. There were about 450 people living there, predominately low income, that would be displaced without any plan for relocation.
I pulled the demolition permit and embarked on a multi-year process to revitalize that housing complex. $60 million dollars and six years later, we ended up finishing that project. The people that lived there were able to stay and move back into essentially brand new apartments with parks and public spaces. That was a really special project.
We also really capitalized on the cannabis industry. When I left, we had the most licenses granted to any community in the state for cannabis, both cultivation and dispensing, which I think was the first step in really combatting the war on drugs in communities like Holyoke.
BSV: How do you keep from becoming cynical in politics?
AM: It's not always easy. No job is going to be 100 per cent positive and gratifying. I think it's important to ensure that the good always outweighs the bad. I try to keep that in mind.
There are good days and bad days, but there seems to always be a daily reminder as to why public service is important and why the work that we're doing makes a difference in our community.
BSV: How old were you when you came out? What was your experience like?
AM: I came out when I was 16. I remember being incredibly scared to do so. I really am grateful to mentors, and even just gay kids a couple years older than I was, who helped me gain the confidence to tell my parents.
I came out to my mom first and then my dad, both were incredibly loving and supportive which made me feel like a weight was lifted.
After I came out, I started the Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school. We had dozens of kids that showed up to the group. I ended up planning a school-wide assembly at Holyoke High School around LGBT issues. We also conducted the first LGBT staff training to empower and educate teachers as to how they could interrupt homophobic behavior and language in the classroom and make the school a more supportive environment for everyone.
I then went on to start the city's first LGBT non-profit organization when I was 17. We planned an annual Pride Prom for LGBT young people; it was an alternative high school prom for queer kids and allies, where they could go to prom with who they wanted to go with, dress how they wanted to dress.
After having the support of my family and friends, I felt confident enough to take a leadership position in my community.
BSV: You're now town manager of Provincetown. What has this experience been like for you?
AM: In some ways it's a change, and in some ways, it's very similar. While I'm not elected directly by the people like I was in Holyoke, I do feel accountable to the people of Provincetown and want to be as responsive and transparent as possible. Provincetown is a place I'm familiar with. I've been coming here on and off for the last ten years as a visitor. I feel very fortunate and grateful to be in this position and to live in Provincetown.
Interview Recorded: 2019 | Updated: 2022
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