Democratic State Committee election looms amid controversy

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Staff Writer
Published: 11/10/2020 6:52:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — State Democratic Party politics can sometimes seem inscrutable to outsiders. Party leadership is not very well known outside of political circles, and residents could be forgiven for not knowing who represents their communities on the more than 400-person Democratic State Committee, or DSC.

This Thursday, however, the DSC will be the focus of the state’s political intrigue as incumbent party Chairman Gus Bickford faces an electoral challenge from two other candidates — party deputy treasurer Mike Lake and nonprofit head Bob Massie — amid a controversy.

The party election comes less than a week after the DSC released an independent report it commissioned that found Bickford broke party rules by interfering in a contested primary election in the 1st Congressional District. Bickford allegedly encouraged university students to send a letter to candidate and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse before the election raising sexual misconduct accusations against him, and suggesting they talk about the letter with a reporter, according to the report.

That letter was eventually the focus of an unbylined article in the UMass Amherst independent student newspaper, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, just weeks before the election between Morse and incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. The allegations — that Morse used his position of power as a politician and university lecturer to pursue sex with college students — caused a stir, as did subsequent reporting from the news outlet The Intercept that revealed party leadership had been in touch with the students about crafting their letter and that several students had discussed smearing Morse.

The DSC commissioned former state senator Cheryl Jacques to investigate the episode. In addition to finding fault with Bickford’s actions, Jacques concluded that party executive director Veronica Martinez showed “poor judgment” by remaining in contact with one of the college students after referring them to legal counsel. Two College Democrats leaders told Jacques that attorney Jim Roosevelt, an influential member of the state and national Democratic parties, advised them to “leak the letter” to the press — a claim Roosevelt denies, and which Jacques said in her report she could not substantiate.

Bickford said in a statement that he did not suggest the students send a letter before election day and that his commenting on the credibility of a national political reporter did not imply he wanted students to leak the letter. He noted that the report said he had expressed his preference that the students speak with Morse’s campaign manager directly.

Martinez also provided a statement that challenged some of Jacques’ conclusions. She said she spoke with then College Democrats of Massachusetts President Hayley Fleming because she wanted to support her during an overwhelming moment. She said she made it clear that she couldn’t provide advice relative to the Morse situation, and she denied telling the student to delete messages they had sent each other. The student told Jacques that Martinez suggested she delete any text or phone records between them “in case they get into the wrong hands.”

Mixed reactions

Jacques’ report was released just six days before DSC members vote for party chair on Thursday. In interviews this week, local DSC members voiced split opinions on the election, the finding of Jacques’ report and how the investigation may affect the race.

Following the report’s release, the party’s LGBTQ affiliate Bay State Stonewall Democrats said in a statement that the report showed party leadership interfering in the primary, lying to DSC members and trying to cover up their actions.

“Not only are we outraged by the extent of the unethical actions from these two party leaders, but we are extremely disappointed in their refusal to acknowledge and apologize for their actions in perpetuating a homophobic attack from within the Democratic Party,” the group’s statement read.

The group’s outrage was shared by Nancy Stenberg, of Easthampton. She said she found both Bickford’s and Martinez’s actions to be unethical and in violation of party rules, though Jacques only found Bickford to have broken bylaws.

“Those two disappointed the Democrats of this congressional district, and I feel very badly about that, and I feel like that means they need to go,” Stenberg said. She said she is supporting Massie for chairman because she is unhappy with how Bickford has centralized tasks state committee members used to do, taking away interaction between state members and local committee members in the process.

“I have heard firsthand about how grassroots democrats feel abandoned by this state committee,” she said.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, a former party treasurer, said that she will be voting for Bickford. She referred to a section of Jacques’ report that said Bickford may have violated the spirit of party bylaws by discouraging Morse to run against Neal in the first place.

“I’ve had that conversation with Gus about running for office and what he thought about me running for mayor and me taking a look at the state Senate,” LaChapelle said. She said recruiting candidates and thinking strategically is how Democrats win seats. “That happens all the time, and I think it should happen all the time,” she said.

As for why Bickford is the right person for the job, she said that he is a known entity on the national level and that she feels he advocates well for the party’s platform.

“Being a party chair is really difficult and there’s a lot of crazy, arcane rules,” LaChapelle said. “Gus knows them, and he’s navigated that pretty well for a huge committee.”

There are those who have expressed displeasure with what the party has failed to accomplish during Bickford’s four-year tenure, despite Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. Others have taken issue with the party’s weak opposition to Gov. Charlie Baker.

For David Morin — a DSC member from Agawam and a former state Senate candidate in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District — the choice is between Massie and Lake. Both of the challengers have argued that the party chairman shouldn’t just be recruiting candidates but should also be pressing state lawmakers to follow through on the party’s platform, which includes planks like single-payer health care and free public higher education. Morin said the 1st Congressional District episode has weighed on his decision.

“I was shocked by the initial reporting from The Intercept that sort of showed how the state party leadership — the chair, the executive director, the counsel — all certainly nudged the College Democrats at UMass into doing something that was going to be definitely interfering, if not outright defamatory and harmful to one of the candidates, in the Democratic primary in a congressional race,” Morin said.

Mary Ford, the former mayor of Northampton, has been on the DSC for more than 30 years. She said that this year’s election for party chairman has been painted as a battle between the progressive grassroots and the conservative, establishment wing of the party. But she said she doesn’t see it that way.

“I have not been unhappy with Gus,” Ford said. She added that she has seen Bickford visit progressive Hampshire County more than any other past chairman. “I also feel like communications from Gus and Veronica have been very frequent and helpful.”

Ford said the party under Bickford has been supportive of progressive Democrats. As for the Jacques report, she said that it did not convince her that what Bickford did was “egregious enough to outweigh the fact that I feel overall he’s been a strong chair.”

“Is it worth kicking somebody out of a position where they’ve done well?” she asked. “I’d say probably not.”

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



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