Holyoke Mayoral Race Heats Up

Holyoke, Massachusetts is in some ways a poor city, with a third of its residents living below the poverty line. It's also a city of possibility, with new economic and cultural development efforts underway, particularly in its historic canal district. And now, a potential Hard Rock casino development is in the mix too. Holyoke voters will face clear choices about the city's future when they vote for mayor next week.

The mayor's race has become a tense one, with so-called "anonymous" smear flyers and letters circulating town and the two candidates sparring at local debates. They're both red-headed, life-long Holyoke residents, but Elaine Pluta and Alex Morse have a 45-year age difference.

"Of course with a campaign you always have a little bit of tension here and there and, you know, the thing about my campaign is that I have a record, I have a record of over 20 years of service to the city so it's easy to poke holes at what I've done. Where on the other hand the other person, he has no record as far as governmental service."

67-year-old Pluta appears calm, not combative, when she talks about her challenger, 22-year-old Alex Morse. But he's making it a close race — Morse finished one vote ahead of Pluta in September’s four-way preliminary.

Now both are campaigning door-to-door to be sure Holyoke voters get to the polls. Pluta's is hardly a new face in town. She attended Holyoke High School, Holyoke Community College and Mount Holyoke College, where she received a bachelor's degree in politics and urban studies. She was a long-term city councilor and assistant for Democratic United States Representative John Olver before being elected mayor two years ago. She says she's seeking reelection because she wants to oversee several initiatives she recently put in place.

"There's a new literacy component that I want to see move forward and also a full-service coordinator that is going to be working out of my office to help with education for family and students. And also I have a new police chief. I have a south Holyoke initiative working with him and the sheriff's department and other public safety organizations that are going to be targeting the south Holyoke neighborhood."

Pluta's reading initiative sets a goal for 85% of 3rd graders to read at grade level by 2014. Holyoke's public schools are now 80 percent Hispanic, and the system is working to accommodate the many Spanish speakers. Pluta says she's very concerned about Holyoke high school students and adults lacking basic reading and writing skills, which she says is a major contributor to poverty in the city.

"My goal is to have enough jobs in the city for everyone who wants one. There's been 85 new businesses that have come on board in the last year and a half."

But Morse argues that those have been mostly small businesses, with low-paying jobs. He says they aren't enough to bring a younger, more educated population to Holyoke.

"When I entered Holyoke High School I had 500 classmates. When I graduated it was down to 215. And those couple hundred young people stay in the community without basic job skills. And those who graduate and go on to college often leave the community. So like a lot of American cities we have a brain drain problem and we're not able to attract and keep our educated young folks in the community."

Morse stands out as an exception to that rule. He's 22-years-old and graduated from Brown University this past spring. He's been involved in the Holyoke Youth Commission for a decade. In college he volunteered in the Office of Neighborhood Services in Providence, R.I., and worked on the mayor's campaign there. A fluent Spanish speaker, he talks about becoming Holyoke's "chief marketing director."

"I think our future is in taking advantage of the green high performance computing center, supporting our thriving and emerging artist community in the downtown. We really have an opportunity to be an innovation and art capital of Western Mass and the entire state of Massachusetts. And I think it's sad that we have a current mayor that goes to Boston and says that a casino is the only thing that will make us a destination city because we have a great history."

The casino issue is the most divisive for the candidates. Pluta sees it as opportunity not only for jobs and tourism but also for lowering the city’s commercial tax rate. 

"If the governor signs the legislation and they set up a license commission I believe that we will get some casino proposals that we'll be able to look at and see if that's something we can do in Holyoke because that would go a long way in improving our job situation and our revenue situation."

A casino might be the biggest difference in the candidate's vision. But they both want this city of 40 thousand people to have lower poverty, crime and teen birth rates. Morse says his age is an asset and that he offers a new perspective.

"I think this election is more important than the mayor and me. It's a choice between the past and the future. And unlike past elections we really have an opportunity on November 8th to vote for the future and vote for someone who isn't connected to the same old folks that have been around the table for decades in Holyoke politics."

The introduction of a candidate so young has made this race a fun one to watch, says Tim Vercellotti, director of the polling institute and professor of political science at Western New England University.  

"This is an amazing race. You think about municipal elections and we have contested mayors races up and down the valley but this is the marquee race. I think a lot o f eyes are on Holyoke because of the personalities involved as well as the issues."

Despite the candidates' talk about education, economic development and public safety, Vercolotti speculates that voters will base their decisions largely on casino development and experience. Both Pluta and Morse say they should be evaluated not on their age, but on what each intends to bring to the city.