Afterglow 2015: Morse Win Portends Shift in Holyoke’s Balance of Power…
UPDATED 11/9/15 5:41PM: To reflect that O’Connell did give an interview on Election night to The Reminder.
Afterglow 2015 is a series analyzing the results of the 2015 municipal elections in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.
HOLYOKE—Music blared, drinks flowed and hugs abounded.
In the hours after Mayor Alex Morse decisively fended off the well-financed challenge of Francis “Fran” O’Connell, determination and anxiety melted away into celebration at Gateway City Arts near the city’s Canal Walk. More than secure a third term, Morse’s win perhaps marked a tidal shift in politics here, one that could reverberate for years and elections to come.
In a forceful speech punctuated by chants of “we’re not done, yet,” Morse thanked supporters and emphasized their role on the ground getting him across the finish line.
“My opponent may have had $120,000 lying around in his bank account, but what he didn’t have was all of you!” he said, referring O’Connell’s investment in his own campaign. Morse also spent a similar figure, but from funds raised from contributors.
Though O’Connell slightly cut Morse’s margin of victory over 2013 general election challenger Jeffrey Stanek, the mayor grew his overall vote totals amid higher turnout. O’Connell’s name recognition in the city, reputation as a successful businessman and dwarfing of Stanek’s 2013 spending had little impact on the ground or at the ballot box.
O’Connell won three of Holyoke’s 14 precincts, cracking 60% in only one, while losing by cartoonish margins in the poorer, albeit lower turnout wards.
A theme in Tuesday’s elections was the better campaign prevailing, but one town over in West Springfield, the tone and implications were far different. The campaign of Town Attorney William Reichelt overcame the institutional advantages of the town’s three-term state representative, Michael Finn.
Though running for an open seat, like Morse, Reichelt swamped his opponent with a much more aggressive and largely—if not exclusively—positive campaign. The mood at Reichelt’s victory party at the Dante Club was also jubilant, if not quite as electric as Morse’s.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” a beaming Reichelt told WMassP&I. Of the impending transition, he added, undaunted, “It’s unique in that I am already in the office.”
Although Finn supporters were disappointed, the animus between West Springfield’s mayoral aspirants was nonexistent compared to Holyoke. Media reports describe O’Connell’s handlers grimly—and sometimes roughly—refusing requests for comment as they exited Gateway City Arts after conceding to Morse in person. Morse, for his part, had precious little to say about O’Connell either.
By contrast, a somber Finn, no less disappointed, politely spoke to the media, as he prepared to visit the Dante Club to congratulate Reichelt.
“We came up short,” he said. Voters “wanted to go in a different direction.”
Since defeating then-mayor Elaine Pluta in 2011, Morse has earned the enmity of a certain subset of Holyoke, but Tuesday’s results suggested sheer opposition to the 26 year-old’s rule alone cannot dislodge him.
Although something gaffe-tastic could ignominiously end Morse’s mayoralty, his base of support is large enough to weather the onslaughts of the city’s old guard. Morse’s opponents have attempted to inflate every piddling error into scandal, perhaps even mishandling review of Morse’s actual mistakes. Consequently, Holyoke’s middle-of-the-road voters slough off claims of Morse’s mayoral unsuitability and agree he has presided over progress.
The evidence points to a tipping point, both demographically and politically, toward a newer, more diverse order in Holyoke. This new order, a union of civic reformers, progressives, gays, Latinos and the arts community, is one challengers like O’Connell cannot easily conquer.
In an interview outside a Gateway City gallery awash in dance music and festivities, Morse identified “A conglomerate of people that just can’t accept Holyoke is not what is used to be.” Of that transformation, he added, “I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”
The tone of O’Connell’s campaign and Morse’s opponents generally did not help.
“We didn’t tear down our city to win an election. We built it up,” Morse said in his speech, alluding to the gloomy portrait of the Paper City O’Connell campaigned on.
The former establishment could strike back, but only if its candidate can excite voters and put forward real ideas. Even in a post-Morse Holyoke, it is hard to imagine some tenets of American urban politics—name recognition, patronage and family ties—could alone restore power to the old guard.
There is a degree to which this may be more about Morse himself than the changes he has signaled. Media reports indicate he said he sometimes felt personally attacked. He told WMassP&I that opponents often campaigned not for Holyoke, but “against Alex Morse.”
Morse did not utter the “h” word Tuesday night, but others have attributed homophobia to powering some opposition to Morse, who is gay. While probably true to a point, a greater factor is the old political regime’s inability to accept broader changes afoot here or adapt to them. Nevertheless, that establishment retains outsized influence on the Holyoke City Council.
Thus the angry resign of O’Connell’s camp seems is unsurprising. O’Connell did issue a statement Wednesday shorn of the apocalyptic combativeness that typified his campaign.
“It is with great disappointment that I will not become the next mayor of Holyoke, but I wish Alex the best in guiding our great city back to its rightful place of prosperity,” he said in his statement. O’Connell’s sole interview on Election night with the press, given to The Reminder, had a similar tone.
For Morse, the organization and movement he leads proved it could overcome unified opposition, money, his own missteps and a challenger with name recognition.
“This is our third victory together and this one feels the best!” Morse said in his victory speech Tuesday. He added that he and supporters always knew realizing their goals would require several terms in office, “And that’s why, guess what? We’ll be back again in two years.”
At that point Morse would be running for the city’s first four-year mayoral term.