Alex Morse Takes Over As Town Manager
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Alex Morse Provincetown’s new Town Manager
Photo: Steve Desroches
Wearing a navy blue and white pin-striped mask, Alex Morse walks down the hallway in Town Hall past the paintings by Charles Hawthorne and Henry Hensche that make Provincetown’s main municipal building also a stunning art museum. It’s his fourth day on the job, taking the helm of town government at the early start of the season with the pandemic still dragging on and Town Hall closed to the general public. As he takes his seat behind his desk it’s clear he’s already begun to make it his own. Photos of him with Democratic Party leaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, as well as a poster from his first run for mayor of Holyoke, Mass., which he won at the age of just 22, making him a political wunderkind as one of the few openly gay city leaders in the nation and the youngest mayor in the country at the time.
That reputation held and grew in his 10 years as a he made headlines for real progress in Holyoke, a working class Berkshire County city that had slipped into decline when the factories closed decades ago, a familiar story for many communities like it in New England. He gained a reputation as a leader and rising star in the new progressives movement and gained national attention when he announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2019, taking on incumbent Representative Richard Neal in the Democratic primary. It wasn’t just Morse’s age and promise that attracted attention, but also Neal’s powerful position as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. A defeat of Neal, would signal a change in that leadership that would most likely shake up party leadership in general. Neal had represented the first congressional district of Massachusetts since 1989, the year Morse was born, immediately drawing comparisons to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the now 31-year-old liberal superstar who toppled Congressman Joe Crowley, a longtime incumbent.
Morse’s campaign gained locomotive steam until August of 2020, just a few weeks before the September 1 primary election day. In what turned out to be bogus claims, the College Democrats of Massachusetts made vague allegations that Morse had made students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was an adjunct instructor, uncomfortable, and that he had used his position to meet students inappropriately. Organizations withdrew their support for him based on these unsubstantiated accusations, and his campaign began to falter. But within the week, The Intercept uncovered that this was all an orchestrated smear campaign using homophobic tropes of gay men as predators to hurt his run for Congress and to help Neal, with UMass Amherst College Democrat president Tim Ennis hoping to get a coveted job in Neal’s office. The news of the homophobic attempted takedown made national news, and numerous media outlets as well as two independent investigations at UMass showed the same, that there was no there there. It was made up. But the damage had been done and come the primary election Morse lost to Neal by 17 points. Thus began a period of reflection for Morse.
“In many ways I’ve moved on,” says Morse. “Justice for me is being able to hold on and be happy and to be myself professionally and personally. I do not think there was an adequate resolution to that experience. But for me, I’ve been through a lot. I wouldn’t let this stop me. I learned from it. I’m happy to be in a diverse community where I can be myself, do my work and not have my sexuality weaponized against me.”
Since September 1, Morse says he’s achieved clarity as to what he wanted to do. He was still grieving the loss of his mother in 2018 and then that of his brother who, after 20 years of struggles with addiction, died in February 2020. And it’s apparent the way the election went hurt. So, Morse bought a dog, a now eight-month-old golden doodle named Oliver, which explains the box of Milk Bones behind him. And then he saw the job posting for town manager of Provincetown. He notes it’s not that he wanted to be the town manager of any town, just Provincetown. He loves to govern, not campaign. In Provincetown he can do the work.
“First and foremost, working towards a larger vision of preserving what is special about Provincetown, its uniqueness, is important,” says Morse. “We have to be intentional in our actions so that Provincetown is still special, inclusive, fun with a strong community. We need to make this a place people can afford to live. If Provincetown is a town where only a certain group can afford it, that’s a real loss to Provincetown.”
Housing is a priority, as is a backlog of municipal projects, including finally building a new police station, he says. There may be disagreement on where and how, but anyone who looks at the current one knows it’s unacceptable, he adds. Also a priority is bringing all the stakeholders in Provincetown together, doing outreach to make town government more inclusive, something he successfully did in Holyoke, diversifying the city boards and municipal positions, adding that “it’s not up to white people to say what feels inclusive.” Diverse voices need to be in the room and around the table, he says. Providing an environment that allows people to successfully start and run a business is vital, too, as is preparing for climate change. Perhaps above all else he wants transparency, saying that it strengthens democracy and builds trust and confidence.
As part of building that trust and confidence, Morse wants to quell concerns that he moved here only to make a run for higher office in the near future. He’s committed to being town manager, so much that he closed his congressional campaign account and donated the almost $80,000 to local nonprofits: Helping Our Women, Camp Lightbulb, the Pilgrim Bark Park, AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, the Homeless Prevention Council, and the Soup Kitchen in Provincetown. While he’s settling into his new home on Brown Street, he’s also getting to know Provincetown better and doesn’t balk at the town’s reputation for chewing up and spitting out its elected and appointed officials and for decades frequently being called “ungovernable.”
“Everyone has an opinion and isn’t afraid to share it,” says Morse. “People are passionate about Provincetown and care about it, and it shows.”
Ed. Note: Proper health care protocols were followed for this interview. Both Morse and Desroches are fully vaccinated, practiced social distancing, and wore masks, with the exception of the moment Morse was photographed.