The recent political explosion in Holyoke over Mayor Alex Morse’s reversal on casinos may have been one of the few news stories that was able to actually muscle the gas explosion in Springfield out of the headlines for a bit. Fighting two fronts between each detonation, media from here to Boston actually did a fairly good job balancing and reporting both. Now comes Morse’s juggling.
Judging by the reaction from allies and enemies alike in the city, Morse’s decision was a total gut punch. The ground was not softened very much at all, with only vague suggestions that some outside the mayor’s inner circle knew it was coming. He had gone on the record in print, opposite Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno opposing casinos. The media strategy was bungled—badly—and turned what was a sudden and treacherous, but navigable policy change into a full-blown media disaster. It also calls into question the staff and advising behind the scenes, too. Nevertheless, the boy-mayor is not dead…yet.
Holyoke Ward 7 Councilor Gordon Alexander called the move “political suicide.” Certainly, it made Morse‘s reelection significantly more complicated. The simplest reason for that is something Alexander would know best. His constituents do not want a casino and most proposals call for one in his ward where Mount Tom and Wyckoff Country Club are located. A Springfield Institute analysis found significant support for Morse there in 2011 and arguably this is due to Morse’s anti-casino stance. Ward 7 may be defined as the “finger” at the north end of Holyoke.
However, the death of Morse’s political career also presupposes a few things. In particular that he faces a strong candidate and that such an opponent can actually pick off votes from Morse’s coalition. It is anything but clear that both will happen.
An opponent has emerged against Morse, already, Jim Santiago. Santiago says he was head of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, but absent more it is hard to imagine him beating Morse in a primary or one-on-one. Although Morse was no more known in 2011 than Santiago is now, Morse had a broad supporter network raising money and organizing for him.
The most likely strong challenger right now is City Council President Kevin Jourdain. Political watchers have long thought Jourdain, based on his battles with Morse, would run next year. Yet others who know Jourdain say he is also incredibly cautious and would only pursue a run if he thought he could win.
Jourdain did oppose a casino near Wyckoff during the campaign last year so he may have some credibility on the issue. That could certainly get him votes in Ward 7. But will it be enough? Additionally, wherever Jourdain was before may be irrelevant based on his actions now. His prior opposition may mean nothing if he does not vote for at-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi and Ward 4 Councilor Jason Ferreira’s anti-casino resolution.
In end Morse’s reelection will depend heavily on Morse himself. He cannot reverse this mess. However, his interview with Bax & O’Brien might be a step in the right direction, although too late. Now that Morse has opened the process, how he handles it will be just as important. He cannot simply shut the process down again and risk another flip-flop. He could, however, design a process that scares developers, but doing so carries risk, too.
The casino law only allows for a ward vote if the municipality meets a certain population threshold, which Holyoke does not. Because a municipal referendum is months away anyway, Morse could seek a home rule petition asking that Holyoke have a ward vote. He might also simply warn he will shut down the process if the ward in which a proposal will be votes no. That might scare off developers too obviously, though
Another complicating factor, although not a determinative one, is whether the developers really want to propose in Holyoke at all. That could work in either direction for Morse, but political observers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mount Tom and Wyckoff share the same problem as the MGM plan in Brimfield, which was abandoned in March. Considerable engineering of the highway would be necessary and absent that, any plan of the sort may not be feasible.
What may be more important for Morse, however, will be rebuilding relationships with the people who supported him in the last election. While either side may decry its existence, the New/Old Holyoke divide is very real. The New/Old split may not match up perfectly with the casino divide. Still, Morse is on the New side and that side, as a group, disfavors a casino most vehemently.
These are the people whom Morse needs to woo again. It is the New Holyoke crowd he has to focus on, who shared and believed in his vision of a reborn city.
Many councilors, if they may be barometers of public opinion in Holyoke, appeared actually surprised and betrayed by Morse move (further evidence of this as a bigger PR than policy disaster). Those among Morse’s supporters must feel most hurt by the mayor’s actions. Still, as much as they may feel betrayed by Morse’s decision, they also know they need him as much as he needs them.
Councilor Lisi’s statement illustrates this point, perhaps unintentionally. She took time to point out the successes and attitude Morse has had on other issues. At-large Councilor Aaron Vega, who recently won a State Rep seat, also sounded a disappointed, but conciliatory note seemingly directed at Morse. Both, just as importantly, called for civility, rather than rancor, which has largely greeted Morse since Saturday.
These same one-time Morse backers may fear an Old Holyoke mayoralty enough to fall in line should Morse and his coalition reconcile their differences. If somebody like Jourdain is viewed as an Old Holyoke type, it will prove difficult for him or another Old Holyoker to pick off supporters from Morse’s coalition.
At the same time Lisi told New England Public Radio that Morse could draw several challengers. If so, he could get killed during a clown car preliminary election next September. Also a risk is the potential for a host community vote on any day Morse appears on a ballot.
If Morse can rebuild bridges and re-energize his coalition, he still could defeat any opponent. That is no assurance that he will. However, if the young mayor picked up any survival skills while interning for Rep. David Cicilline when the congressman ran Providence, Morse may have cause for hope. Shortly after Cicilline went to Congress in 2010, the bottom fell out of Providence’s finances and the finger was pointed at Cicilline’s mayoralty. He attracted a strong challenger and after erratic polling, the final polls showed Cicilline effectively tied or slightly behind. In sapphire blue Rhode Island, that was all, but the end for Cicilline.
Cicilline won reelection this month by more than twelve points.