State Dems call for probe into party’s role in Alex Morse allegations

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse  FILE PHOTO

  • Massachusetts Democratic State Committee Chairman Gus Bickford  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2020 11:03:53 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Dozens of Democratic State Committee members have signed a letter calling for an immediate investigation into whether state Democratic Party leaders had a role in “smearing” Holyoke Mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse.

The letter, signed by 48 of the committee’s members, comes a week after the University of Massachusetts Amherst student newspaper The Daily Collegian published anonymous allegations contained in a letter that three college Democratic groups sent to Morse, accusing him of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students.”

But those allegations have been called into question after The Intercept published messages that appeared to show UMass Amherst College Democrats leaders attempting to use social media conversations with Morse in a ploy to “sink his campaign.” Another Intercept story suggested a coordinated effort by state party leaders, as well as a powerful attorney they connected with the College Democrats of Massachusetts, were behind efforts to make the allegations public.

Morse is running in the 1st Congressional District against incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who has held office since 1989 and chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

MA Democratic State Committee letter Regarding Alex Morse by Dusty Christensen on Scribd

Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, sent a message to Democratic State Committee members on Sunday morning in which he said he had tapped other party higher-ups — First Vice Chair Deb Kozikowski, Second Vice Chair Leon Brathwaite and Personnel Committee Chair Mark DiSalvo — to initiate an investigation of “recent news reports regarding certain activity of the Democratic Party staff and volunteers in the CD-1 primary.”

“This group will, upon their unilateral authority, select an independent investigator to review the matter, determine whether rules were broken, and publish in due order a report and attendant recommendations, if any,” Bickford wrote. “The report, in full, will be provided to the entire DSC membership upon its receipt.”

However, the 48 Democratic State Committee members who signed a separate letter later in the day calling for a quicker review questioned “the ability of the party to investigate itself, and the role leadership may have played.”

“Indeed the suggestion that the investigation should await the primary results so as not to affect them is ludicrous given the damage that has already been inflicted on Mayor Morse’s campaign by the actions of the Mass College Dems,” the letter reads.

The letter pointed to The Intercept’s reporting, which says that Bickford and party executive director Veronica Martinez connected the College Democrats of Massachusetts, or CDMA, with powerful attorney Jim Roosevelt, a major establishment figure in the state and national Democratic Party. Roosevelt, a former health insurance executive with close ties to the industry, reportedly advised the CDMA to make public their letter to Morse, who is running on a platform that includes Medicare for All.

In a statement, state Democratic Party communications manager Allison Mitchell said that “the Party” had heard concerns from “several members of organizations connected to the Party” and referred them to “an attorney who volunteers as legal counsel to the Party.”

“We had no further involvement,” Mitchell said. “We absolutely do not get involved in contested primaries, and this race is no different.”

Given that the party did have some involvement, though, the 48 committee members said an organization outside the Massachusetts Democratic Party should conduct the investigation.

“And, depending on the results of the investigation, we call for the immediate resignation, suspension, or removal of individuals responsible for, or with participation or knowledge of, what appears to be an unprecedented abuse of power,” the letter states.

Several of the names on the letter are local to the 1st Congressional District, including Easthampton’s Nancy Stenberg.

“We cannot investigate ourselves, that’s what it comes down to for me,” Stenberg said in a phone interview Monday. “At this point, that’s what’s going on. I find that unacceptable.”

When news of the initial, unspecific accusations against Morse broke, some politicians and organizations backed away from his campaign or unendorsed him.

But many have since rallied back to his campaign, including congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman, D-New York, and the youth-led environmental organization Sunrise Movement, which had paused campaigning for Morse. Morse also had what his campaign said was his best fundraising week following the controversy.

Morse and Neal are squaring off in their first debate on Monday at 7 p.m. on New England Public Media WGBY TV. The debate will be on TV channel 57 and will be broadcast on the radio at 88.5 FM and online at nepm.org.

Hampshire County cities and towns in the 1st Congressional District are Easthampton, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington. The district also includes all of Berkshire County, all of Hampden County except for one precinct in Palmer, and parts of Franklin and Worcester counties.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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