Bickford reelected to lead Mass. Democratic Party

Wins race against 2 opponents, despite Morse scandal

GUS BICKFORD was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in a Thursday night vote of the Democratic State Committee.

Despite a scandal related to the party’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations involving a former congressional candidate, Bickford defeated Mike Lake and Bob Massie in a contentious three-way race to lead the party.

Bickford received 229 votes, with 87 votes for Lake and 49 for Massie. Because he got more than half of the 365 votes cast, Bickford won on the first ballot. The meeting, held on Zoom, was rife with technical difficulties.

Bickford, 57, a long-time political operative, was elected state party chair in 2016. Before that, he had spent decades working for numerous Democratic political campaigns, with an expertise in survey research and database targeting.

“It does come down to experience, to a lifetime of experience and the experience I had the last four years,” Bickford said. Bickford touted his record in the last four years flipping seven legislative seats and two seats in county government from Republican to Democrat, holding meetings in Senate districts around the state, passing a strong party platform, advocating for an increased minimum wage and expanded abortion rights, and fundraising.

Looking forward, Bickford pledged to create a “governor’s circle” that will raise $1 million to be available to the Democratic gubernatorial nominee the day after the 2022 primary. He said he would work to keep activists informed more regularly about legislation and implementation of the party platform. Priorities will include taking back the governor’s office, and flipping county-level offices in Bristol, Plymouth, and Barnstable counties.

Party vice chair Debra Kozikowski, who nominated Bickford, said Bickford “has a proven record and lifetime of dedication to this party.”

The biggest controversy of Bickford’s tenure came before the September primary, when Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse was challenging US Rep. Richard Neal for his congressional seat. A letter circulated by the UMass Amherst College Democrats alleged that Morse, who is gay, acted inappropriately by having sexual relationships with college students. On Friday, a report was released by independent investigator Cheryl Jacques that criticized Bickford and Democratic Party executive director Veronica Martinez for how they dealt with the accusations. Bickford and Martinez, bound by party bylaws to remain neutral in primaries, spoke to the College Democrats and referred them to a party lawyer, and Martinez stayed in touch with one of the students.

After the report came out, Morse and some State Committee members called on Bickford to step down. Southbridge Democratic Town Committee Chair Jasmin Rivas wrote an open letter calling on Bickford and Martinez to resign, writing that they “failed to meet the most basic standard expected in a primary contest.”

Both Bickford and Martinez denied wrongdoing, but in his speech accepting the nomination for chair, Bickford apologized for the pain caused to members of the gay and lesbian community and apologized to Democratic activists. “What’s out there is not who we are,” Bickford said. “There’s not a homophobic bone in this body. In a short period of time I mishandled the crisis, and I can do better. There was no malintent.”

Bickford said he will implement recommendations made in Jacques’ report, which include staff training and creating a State Judicial Counsel to draft protocols for how the party should deal with allegations of sexual misconduct or unethical behavior and to establish guidelines for behavior in contested primaries.

Before the report came out, more than 500 Democrats submitted formal complaints to the party seeking the removal of Bickford, Martinez, and party attorney Jim Roosevelt from their positions.

Party attorney Chip Flowers said the complaints will be referred to the party’s Rules Committee by Monday. Rules Committee Chair Bill Eddy said the committee will meet in December and report back to the full State Committee in January.

The race had been a contentious one, centered on Bickford’s record as chair. Both Massie and Lake had argued that Bickford lagged on fundraising, did not do a good job recruiting new members, and was not bold enough in pushing to pass Democratic priorities in the state Legislature.

Massie, 64, has led several organizations related to climate change and corporate responsibility and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and lieutenant governor in 1994.

Massie stressed the need to attract new members, in light of declining numbers of people enrolling as Democrats. “So many young people don’t identify with the Democratic Party partly because they feel we don’t take their issues seriously,” Massie said in his speech, mentioning issues around diversity and climate change.

“We can keep going with business as usual, same old, same old, which is what reelecting Gus will say,” Massie said. “Unfortunately, many of the things we tried aren’t working.”

Lake, 42, is the president and CEO of the nonprofit Leading Cities. He ran unsuccessfully for auditor in 2012 and lieutenant governor in 2014.

Lake, in his speech, spoke personally about how after his father, a sheet metal worker, died when Lake was five, Democrat-created programs helped his single mother. “We as a party have to do more than just elect Democrats, we need to deliver the promises of our platform,” Lake said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Lake said it is “unacceptable” that many Democrats do not feel included in the decisions made by party leadership. He said he would diversify the party, noting that people of color remain “woefully underrepresented” in elected office.

“We can’t simply show up before the election asking for their votes. We need to be present every day in these communities with our resources,” Lake said. Lake said he would focus on building a diverse pipeline to ensure “that whatever barriers prevent nonwhite men from running for party chair or any other position that they’re completely dismantled.”