Supporting player or power broker?

Democrats square off over role of party chair

AN EXPLOSIVE REPORT into how the Massachusetts Democratic Party leadership handled sexual misconduct allegations involving former congressional candidate Alex Morse and his relationship with college students is bringing fresh controversy to an already contentious battle over control of the state party. 

The report released Friday by independent investigator Cheryl Jacques faults Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford and the party’s executive director for their handling of the Morse incident – and comes less than a week before Bickford is up for reelection as party chair. 

Democratic State Committee members will vote on Thursday whether to give Bickford a second four-year term or to replace him with either party deputy treasurer Mike Lake or longtime nonprofit leader Bob Massie 

The report is giving added fuel to calls to replace Bickford in Thursday’s vote. On Friday, Bay State Stonewall Democrats, the party’s LGBT affiliate, called for his ouster, saying Bickford’s actions involved “perpetuating a homophobic attack from within the Democratic Party” against Morse, the openly gay mayor of Holyoke. 

But even before the report’s release, the race for party chair revealed deep infighting among Massachusetts Democrats over the role of the state party and its elected chair.  

Although it operates in one of the most Democratic-dominated states in the country, the Massachusetts Democratic Party itself is not a particularly powerful forceThe State Committee is a 400-person party governing body that includes party officials, members from each geographic district, and “add-on” members chosen to represent a certain constituency like young people, minorities, or people with disabilities. But the political agenda in the state is set by Democratic leaders in the Legislature, statewide officeholders, and members of the congressional delegation.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets supporters at the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Springfield in September 2019.

Bickford’s two challengers are out to change that equation, arguing that the party chair should go beyond just recruiting and supporting Democratic candidates to push the Legislature to advance the party platform.  

“There’s little connection between what the party says it stands for and what actually gets done,” said Massie, 64, who has led several organizations related to climate change and corporate responsibility and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and lieutenant governor in 1994. 

Lake, 42, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Leading Cities, said the party under Bickford has not been bold enough. “We have this platform that thousands of Democrats worked on and contributed to yet after three years, weve seen almost no movement,” said Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for auditor in 2012 and lieutenant governor in 2014. 

In 2017, the party adopted a wide-ranging, decidedly liberal platform that includes support for free public college, adopting single-payer health care, and moving to a tax system where the wealthier pay more. The platform is voted on by thousands of Democratic delegates at a party convention.  

Listen to Bickford, Lake, and Massie make their case on this week’s Codcast

Massie and Lake think the party chair should do more to advance the party’s official left-leaning agenda. But the party platform is not necessarily a guiding document for the Democrats who actually hold power.  

John Walsh, a former Democratic Party chair, said lawmakers’ relationship to the party platform “runs the full gamut.” Walsh said the platform tends to be “aspirational” – implying that is more ambitious than many of those who actually govern are willing to accept. 

Walsh said some legislators focus on it and help draft it. At the same time, he said, “I’m sure there are many who will tell you they hardly even read it.”  

Party activists show support for their candidates outside the DCU Center in Worcester where the Massachusetts Democratic Convention was held in June 2014. (Photo via Flickr by Creekmore + Co.)

Walsh said the role of the party chair is to be a manager and fundraiser and to elect Democrats — not to sway legislators. “The voters in each district choose the Democratic nominee, and that nominee competes, and if they win, they’re accountable to the voters that elected them,” Walsh said.  

That is how the 57-year-old Bickford and his supporters have seen his role. Bill Eddy, a State Committee member for over 20 years from Worcester, who supports Bickford, said the chair isn’t supposed to be giving direction to Democrats in elected office. “It’s not his job to tell them how to vote any more than it’s Tom Perez’s job in the DNC to tell Democratic congressmen how to vote,” he said referring to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.   

Bickford and his allies say the party has done exactly what it was created to do: elect Democrats to office. “We’ve had a really strong four years when it comes to the number of seats that we picked up for the Democratic Party, the grassroots we built, the communications structure that we’ve helped our activists with,” Bickford said. 

But both Massie and Lake and their supporters say party officials should do more to convince Democratic lawmakers to support the party platform and actually enshrine its ideas into state law.  

Elaine Almquist, a 10-year state committee member, nominated Bickford as chair at the 2016 party convention, but now supports Lake. “In 2017, we passed one of the most exciting progressive collaborative platforms I’ve ever seen out of the state party, but we’ve made very little gains in passing those despite having a supermajority in both houses,” Almquist said, referring to the House and the Senate. “It’s incumbent on the party to make sure we’re not just electing people to office but we’re electing people to office with the purpose of advancing our platform.”  

When it comes to electing people to office, the state’s top job has often eluded Democrats: Republicans have held the governor’s office for 22 of the last 30 years. But Democrats otherwise hold every statewide office, both US Senate seats, all nine US House seats, and more than 80 percent of seats in the Legislature.   

Despite having Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in the corner office, Almquist said, “Our supermajority means we could steamroll anything he wanted to do if we had the political will.” 

Almquist and other Democrats supporting a change in party leadership point to the Legislature’s failure to pass the ROE Act, which would expand abortion rights, to pass ambitious environmental policies like carbon pricing, to negotiate a final police reform bill, and to prohibit local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.   

Alex Pratt, who joined the State Committee in 2016 as a youth member and supports Lake, said it comes down to a willingness to push the envelope. The current platform was adopted three years ago nearly unanimously and since then the party has spent not a penny on trying to get issues passed because it would mean putting pressure on the Legislature to do something,” he said.  

As Bickford readies to make his case for reelection, the Morse incident clearly looms as the biggest controversy of his tenure. 

Before the September primary, the UMass Amherst College Democrats released a letter accusing the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor of having inappropriate sexual relationships with college students he met on dating apps. Morse was running against US Rep. Richard Neal. The Intercept, an investigative publication, reported that Bickford had connected the students with the Democratic Party’s attorney, Jim Roosevelt, despite requirements that party officials remain neutral in primaries. The party launched an internal investigation by attorney Cheryl Jacques, a former Democratic state senator and lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  

More than 70 Democratic state committee members questioned Jacques’s selection, saying she is too closely tied to the Democratic Party and UMass Amherst to be independent. After state committee officials failed to respond to the letter, more than 500 Democrats submitted formal complaints to the party seeking the removal of Bickford, Roosevelt, and the party’s executive director, Veronica Martinez, from their positions, and the censure of two College Democrats involved in the scandal. 

The report, which came out Friday, faulted Bickford for not advising the students to go to their college’s officials for guidance, and for implying that the students should talk to a reporter who was seeking to question them. It faulted Martinez – who was hired and is managed by Bickford – for communicating with one of the students for weeks, providing her with informal guidance and support, then denying those contacts in a public statement and urging the student to destroy records of their communications. 

The complaints and report will go to the State Committee’s personnel and rules committees for potential further action. 

Bickford said he will accept recommendations made in the independent report, but both Bickford and Martinez denied any wrongdoing. “We were approached by college students who expressed concerns and asked for help.  We earnestly attempted to help these students, and connected them with the guidance they were seeking,” Bickford said. “At all times I was determined to stay out of this race, and I know I did that,” he said of Morse’s unsuccessful primary run against Neal. 

Lake called the result of the investigation a damning indictment of Bickford’s leadership. “The report confirms both the scandal and the coverup, and finds our party chair coaching college kids to spread a homophobic rumor in the press.” Lake said. He said his first priority as chair “will be to restore trust with the LGBTQ community, young people, the Party grassroots, and the public, and to model our Democratic values in our personal and professional behavior.” 

Morse, in a statement Friday, said the report shows that the party “is in desperate need of new leadership.” 

Critics on the state committee have also raised questions about Bickford’s fundraising record.    

Since January 2017, the Democratic Party raised just $2.5 million to spend in state races while the state Republican Party raised $4.5 million. In comparison, from January 2013 through October 2016, the Democratic Party raised $4.8 million to spend on state races. The Democratic Party raised another $9 million since 2017 to spend on federal races – more than the $5.7 million raised by state Republicans, but less than Democrats raised in the prior four-year period. 

Enrollment in the Democratic Party dropped by 15,000 people between October 2016 and October 2020, from 34 percent of the electorate to 32 percent. But that marks the continuation of a long trend of more voters choosing to be registered under no party affiliation. Most Massachusetts voters are not registered under a party banner. 

Lake said the party is still suffering from divisions that date back to the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton Democratic primary in 2016. “In four years, we’ve only added to the factions rather than bridging the divide,” he said. 

Pratt, the young state committee member supporting Lake, said given the outrage many liberal voters felt about President Trump, the party had an opportunity to engage newly politically active voters. Instead, it “totally fumbled this once in a lifetime opportunity, he said. “We’ve done a bad job of fundraising, of volunteer outreach, we’ve had local Democratic town committees…that have not been active the last four years,” Pratt said. “It feels like we’re a party that is listing when really we have a perfect tailwind.” 

Bickford’s supporters note that fundraising is more difficult with a Republican governor, since the governor often helps the party raise money. Governor’s Councilor Eileen Duff, a Bickford supporter, said because Massachusetts is such a blue state, a lot of Massachusetts donors give their money to congressional races outside the state to have a greater impact.  

On fundraising, Bickford acknowledged, “We need to do better, and I know I can do that.” 

Ironically for a party that prides itself on diversity, all three candidates are straight, white men, a fact both Lake and Massie pointed out in interviews.  

Rev. Vernon K. Walker, a new state committee member and black activist who works for a climate-related organization and supports Massie, said he has not seen “an intentional coalition building” among the state Democratic Party, which has left many black Democrats disenchanted.  

Bickford said he has recruited diverse staff and diverse candidates, including several women who won legislative elections. 

Meet the Author

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 he was recruited to run for party chair four years ago, but declined because he hoped to see someone other than a white man in the post  

Lake said there’s been a failure in the party to create a talent pipeline of diverse leaders. Addressing that can start, he said, with recruiting candidates for local offices, like school committee and select board, which can be springboards to higher office. “One of my goals as chair is to build that pipeline so that four years from now someone will be replacing me that does not look like me,” Lake said.