Holyoke is enjoying an impressive renaissance these days, with new energy focused on high-tech development and a revived arts scene breathing new life into its downtown. That energy comes from a mix of small businesses, creative-economy types, community organizations, and a new, often progressive middle class, including many newcomers who fled the overpriced housing markets in places like Northampton for great deals in neighborhoods like the Highlands.
Going into next week’s mayoral election, it’s hard not to see Alex Morse—who in the Sept. 20 preliminary beat incumbent Elaine Pluta by one vote—as the face of that renaissance. In broad strokes, if the 22-year-old Morse is the symbol of a new Holyoke, the 67-year-old Pluta would be the symbol of the city’s political and cultural past. As Valley-based Democratic consultant Matt Barron puts it, she “represents the old-guard Paper City.”
Certainly Morse hopes voters see him as the person to lead Holyoke into a bright future. “It’s a choice between the past and the future,” he told the Advocate last summer. “It’s not personal, but we need to start having a new conversation.”
Pluta, critics say, is stuck in the old conversation. Barron describes her as a benign “caretaker” for the city. “She’s like a nice aunt—not threatening, but she’s not necessarily going to set the world on fire,” he said. “She’s nice and she smiles and she has a warm personality, but where’s the beef?”
Ward 4 City Councilor Tim Purington, a former Pluta supporter, now backs Morse. While he had high hopes for Pluta, Purington’s been disappointed by her lack of progress on important issues. “She’s not the change agent that I was expecting her to be,” he said. “There are so many great things happening in the city now. We really need someone who’s going to keep moving that forward.”
And Pluta hasn’t avoided political controversy—most notoriously, her relationship with Holyoke firefighter William Moran, a political supporter whose brother Timothy was Pluta’s campaign manager. In 2009, then-Mayor Mike Sullivan’s Fire Commission demoted Moran from deputy captain to captain for what was reported as “conduct unbecoming a firefighter.” After Pluta took office, her newly appointed Fire Commission reinstated Moran to his former position, with $20,000 in back pay. Pluta denied that the move was political.
Earlier this year, District Attorney Mark Mastroianni announced that he would seek a criminal complaint against Moran for allegedly making a false emergency call to the HFD this summer. That matter is still pending. Earlier this month, the city’s Retirement Board accepted Moran’s retirement application. Pluta, meanwhile, announced that Timothy Moran would no longer serve as her campaign manager.
(The Advocate tried, unsuccessfully, to interview Pluta. Initially, her new campaign manager, Nelson Roman, expressed enthusiasm about an interview and made a tentative appointment. He subsequently left a message saying the appointment should instead be made with another staffer who did not return calls from the Advocate.)
Morse’s nail-biter preliminary victory was a surprise but not a shock to people who’ve been following his candidacy. Morse has run a high-energy, positive campaign, winning over even supporters who initially questioned whether a candidate who six months ago was a college student—albeit one with a very ambitious resume—has the professional and life experience to run a city.
While much of his support comes from white, middle-class residents, Morse has also worked hard to connect with the city’s Latino community, which historically has been left out of its political scene, and is at risk of being left out of its promising economic and cultural development.
Morse maintains that his youth is a plus, giving him the energy and fresh perspective Holyoke needs for a new era. “This Morse kid is sort of cobbling together the progressive and people-of-color base,” Barron noted. “It will be interesting to see how some of the older voters break down. A lot of older voters & say, ‘This person has youth and vim and vigor and energy, and I’m going to give him a vote.’ They see their hopes embodied in someone who’s young and idealistic.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to see next week’s mayoral election as a potential watershed for Holyoke, with the results revealing the aspirations and vision voters have for the future of their city.