Alex Morse has a slick of red hair, crisp blue eyes, and a complexion the color of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. The hair is inherited from his father, Tracey, who retains a splash of it in his full beard. No one knows how he came by his eyes, shared neither by his Jewish mother nor Scots-Irish father, or either of his two brothers. "My mom always jokes around, 'I don't know where you came from,' " says Morse, who sits upright in his chair in the spacious wood-paneled mayor's office he inherited January 3, following an election that pitted the 22-year-old against the 67-year-old incumbent, Elaine Pluta, a veteran of city politics. It was a race that galvanized voters around youth and experience, roused the press, and shifted the balance of power from the old guard to the new in Holyoke, a blighted mill town of 40,000 people--among the poorest in Massachusetts.
"We were never supposed to win," says Morse. "I mean--22, openly gay, in an old Irish Catholic community." He has not wasted time, firing five staff and quietly persuading the city council to vote off the president who had held the position for 26 years. That was on his first day. "Unfortunately, a lot of folks in Holyoke City Hall assume they are going to be here for their entire lives, and my mindset is that if you want to be here, you have to live, eat, and breathe it--the job has to be your life."