The executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, as the scandal around congressional candidate Alex Morse began to implode, told student leaders to delete records of communications between themselves and the state party, according to five sources with knowledge of the matter. The executive director, Veronica Martinez, had personally coordinated with College Democrats ahead of the release of allegations of sexual impropriety against the Holyoke mayor.
Martinez, one of at least three senior members of the party who spoke with the College Democrats of Massachusetts about the Morse allegations, made the demand after reporting from The Intercept early last week revealed the existence of a long-running scheme by some members of CDMA and the organization’s UMass Amherst chapter to undermine Morse, according to two people involved with College Democrats of Massachusetts leadership and three members of the commonwealth’s Democratic State Committee, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The College Democrats have also been advised not to put anything additional in writing.
On Friday, Martinez flatly denied the suggestion that she demanded records of her communications with CDMA members be destroyed, saying simply, “That’s completely false.” The instructions were delivered verbally, but call records obtained by The Intercept line up with the timing, and other statements from Martinez on the timeline and her involvement have also been proven wrong by documents reviewed by The Intercept. Multiple attempts throughout the weekend to reach Martinez for follow-up comments were unsuccessful.
Evidence of the communications was not successfully destroyed, and, along with multiple sources, formed the basis of an Intercept report Friday that Mass Dems leadership was in communication with the College Democrats about the concerns they raised regarding Morse, including offering coaching on how to deal with the press. Martinez on Thursday told The Intercept that her involvement with the CDMA letter ended when she and Mass Dems chair Gus Bickford referred members of the student organization’s board to legal counsel — a lawyer who turned out to be Jim Roosevelt, a powerful attorney with ties to players in state and national Democratic politics.
Bickford on Monday insisted that party leadership was only involved in referring CDMA to Roosevelt and rejected the suggestion that the state party put its thumb on the scale. “We absolutely do not get involved in contested primaries, and this race is no different,” he said.
Morse is running against Rep. Richard Neal, the chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee, which oversees tax policy and is involved with most legislation that goes through Congress, in Massachusetts’s September 1 Democratic primary. An internal poll conducted for the Morse campaign over the weekend has the challenger closing to within 5 percentage points; Morse and Neal will be part of a debate that streams Monday at 7 p.m.
Samuel Biagetti, an openly gay candidate running for state representative in Worcester’s 5th District, told The Intercept that he confronted Bickford on Saturday about the decision to connect the student group with Roosevelt, arguing that Roosevelt’s long tenure with the party and his former role as a health insurance CEO made him unable to be unbiased in a race by an insurgent challenger against a longtime incumbent. (Roosevelt was also previously chair of the board of trustees for the Massachusetts Hospital Association.) Bickford told Biagetti that Roosevelt’s private work was irrelevant and that his position on the Democratic National Committee made him an ideal choice. He also claimed to Biagetti that he had no interaction with any members of the College Democrats nor did he have any knowledge of their interactions with Roosevelt since he had referred the group to the lawyer.
The College Democrat allegations against Morse were first published on Friday, August 7, by the Daily Collegian, the UMass Amherst college paper, in an unbylined article. The story was quickly picked up by Politico, with a headline that set off days of recriminations against Morse. Roosevelt, according to sources connected to CDMA leadership and familiar with the matter, was actively involved in developing the letter, advising on the content and looking it over when it was done to ensure it was not defamatory. After the letter was completed, it was leaked to the Collegian by an unknown source — a move that came as a surprise to at least two members of the CDMA executive board, as well as some members of the UMass Amherst chapter’s executive board.
The next morning, a member of the UMass Amherst chapter’s executive board (referred to internally as the e-board) shared the article with the group’s rank and file via the text messaging app GroupMe, according to logs that were shared with The Intercept. It was the first time most members were made aware of the allegations or the plan to confront Morse.
The letter had made three claims: First, that Morse had matched with students on dating apps, including members of the College Democrats; second, that he had attended College Democrat events and approached students later on social media in a way that made them uncomfortable; and third, that Morse, who had previously been a lecturer at UMass Amherst, teaching a single course per semester, had had “sexual contact” with students. Morse acknowledged having relationships and conversations online with students but said he had never slept with one of his own students, which is barred by UMass policy. The university has announced a Title IX investigation.
The article was considered by the College Democrats chapter to be damning enough to end his campaign. On the GroupMe chat, another e-board member told the group, “No one should feel bad for having supported Alex Morse in the past. … And it’s totally valid for people to feel disappointed and frustrated that the leftist challenger to an incumbent like Neal has tanked his own candidacy like this.”
The group’s president, Andrew Abramson, seconded the comment but has otherwise been mostly silent in the GroupMe. Abramson matched with Morse on Tinder last year and also chatted with Morse on Instagram after a College Democrats event, as The Intercept previously reported.
The conversation in the group chat over the next several days moved on to other races, and talk of whether Neal’s 2018 challenger might run again in 2022, until one student posted The Intercept’s first investigation of the allegations, showing that the chapter’s former president, Timothy Ennis, had been hoping to get a job with Neal and had known about rumors of Morse chatting with and having relationships with students as far back as last fall. That post was met with silence. The same student also then posted the second Intercept article, which included Abramson’s messages with Morse as well as messages from Ennis confirming his support for Neal and his hope to launch his career through the Ways and Means chair. Met again with no response, the student posted, “Is leadership going to pretend like this group isn’t involved in a national news scandal or is there actually going to be some communication and explanation?”
A third e-board member noted that a public response had been offered to HuffPost. “How about a response made to us?” the student suggested. “If you’re going to speak for all of us, maybe you could speak to us.”
A different e-board member offered to address the concerns, asking that the comments not be leaked to reporters and allowing that the frustration was both justified and shared. “[W]e did not intend for our communication with Morse to be public,” she said. “We FIRMLY deplore homophobia against anyone, and (especially since many of us are queer) it was in no way our intention to smear Alex in the press in a public way. That’s why we sent a private letter.”
The first signs of dissension among the upper ranks of the group began to appear. The e-board member said that Ennis was not involved in writing the letter but that Abramson was — acknowledging that given The Intercept’s reporting on Abramson and his chats with Morse, it may have been inappropriate for him to be involved. Ennis has not responded to requests for comment; Abramson declined to comment. E-board members told the group that the leadership believed that if they remained silent, the story would end sooner.
After The Intercept published an article on Friday detailing the collusion between the state party and the College Democrats, a member of the e-board posted it to the group chat. “I know many of you will have questions, and frankly I do as well,” she said, specifically addressing Jim Roosevelt’s involvement: “The CDMA president was the one interfacing with him and MassDems and she relayed his comments back to the CDMA executive board.”
Members began calling for Abramson’s resignation as chapter president, and were informed privately that he would be stepping down. Sources also said that Hayley Fleming, CDMA president, would be leaving her post as well.
To date, no one has brought forward specific allegations of misconduct or misbehavior against Morse. The 31-year-old mayor has denied any impropriety, telling The Intercept on Friday that state party leadership had “never” reached out to him about the issues raised by the students, suggesting that concern for the safety of students was not what drove the party. For his part, Neal has said that he had no involvement. “Any implications that I or anyone from my campaign are involved are flat wrong and an attempt to distract from the issue at hand,” he said, going on to condemn “homophobic attacks or efforts to criticize someone for who they choose to love.”
The Massachusetts Democratic Party last week said it would look into the origin of the accusations against Morse after the September 1 primary, to avoid impacting the election — effectively investigating the students Martinez has told to stay silent.
Zelda MacGregor, a DSC member, told The Intercept that she found the focus on the college group distressing, especially in light of the revelations about the state party’s role in developing the letter. “I’m deeply concerned the party is about to throw some college kids under the bus when the only thing they did wrong was come to the Mass Dems leadership for advice,” said MacGregor.
From August 12-16, A Case for Women, a Texas-based law firm that focuses on massive class-action lawsuits, ran a Facebook ad soliciting information from people who had been contacted by the mayor in “a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy,” language lifted directly from the CDMA letter. The advertisement reached between 50,000-100,000 people in the district over the course of four days.
The founder of the group, Susan Knape, has donated thousands of dollars to Beto O’Rourke’s People Powered Action PAC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the House Senate Victory Fund, according to FEC documents. Not long after news of the ad broke, it was deactivated. A Case for Women, which has worked on rideshare sexual abuse settlements and defective breast implant cases, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement on Monday, Sean Meloy, the political director of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorsed Morse in late June, responded to A Case for Women’s ad as well. The Facebook ad campaign was part of “a series of orchestrated political attacks meant to weaponize Alex’s sexuality and appeal to a homophobic narrative around the sex lives of LGBTQ people,” Meloy said.
“It is evident that those involved in this plot planned to unleash these homophobic forces and setup a campaign of slander as ballots hit mailboxes,” said Meloy. “While the lies and coverups are being exposed, primary day is just two weeks away and the attacks continue, just as the perpetrators intended. It is essential that voters in the 1st Congressional District learn the source or sources of these attacks so they can make an informed decision about who they want as their next member of Congress.”
On Sunday, Sunrise Movement, which had paused its support of Morse, announced it would be reentering the race with vigor. Justice Democrats, according to an FEC filing, pumped another $150,000 into the campaign against Neal the same day. And Jamaal Bowman, who had been backed by both groups in his successful bid to unseat Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel in New York, also announced he was jumping back into the race on behalf of Morse.
The scandal has provoked anger within the state party against Bickford and Martinez, who many members of the DSC, speaking on condition of anonymity, described as out of step with the party base.
On Saturday, Bay State Stonewall Democrats issued a statement demanding “an independent investigation of all individuals involved in any way and for the immediate resignation, suspension, or removal of individuals responsible for, or with participation or knowledge of, this unprecedented abuse of power. That includes any party involved from the College Democrats of Massachusetts, the Democratic State Committee, and Democratic Party.”
On Sunday afternoon, Bickford said in a statement that he was asking the state party’s “First Vice Chair Deb Kozikowski, Second Vice Chair Leon Brathwaite, and Personnel Committee Chair Mark DiSalvo to initiate an independent review. 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. The report, in full, will be provided to the entire DSC membership upon its receipt.”
But the effort by Bickford to quell what has become an uprising in the party is falling flat with the rank and file, with members of the DSC privately handicapping Bickford’s odds of surviving the fallout from the scandal. Sources also noted that the trio does not include a single member of the LGBTQ+ community, a major sticking point. “Three state committee leaders appointed to a panel to oversee the investigation and not one openly LGBTQ+ member? The Chair is ignoring the voices in the community crying out for to be heard,” one dissatisfied DSC member said.
By Sunday night, an open letter signed by, thus far, 54 members of the DSC was released. Waiting to investigate the party’s conduct until after the primary “so as not to affect [the contest] 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 argued. The investigation, the letter continued, ought to be “conducted by individuals or an organization outside of the MDP to ensure independence and transparency.”
In a lengthy, fiery statement on Saturday, the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America made clear they reject attempts by the state party and its acolytes “to capitalize on a cynical theory that voters in MA-1 are sex-panicked homophobes to ‘sink the career’ of a progressive candidate of growing popularity, and keep one of their own in power.”
“We’re pleased this crude, disgusting ploy is blowing up in their faces, and are pleased Alex Morse is vindicated by his actions and the factual record, which he has spoken about himself in recent days,” the groups said. “We think it’s absurd he was ever forced to defend himself at all.”