Massachusetts Democratic Party leadership lied to The Intercept when it denied involvement with a College Democrats of Massachusetts effort that undermined the insurgent congressional campaign of Alex Morse, a new internal report produced by the party has found. Among other damning revelations, the report paints a portrait of a party that at best mishandled the situation from start to finish, and at worst deliberately stoked a homophobic smear to undermine Morse’s challenge.
The report is the latest chapter in a saga that began on August 7 when University of Massachusetts Amherst’s college newspaper, the Daily Collegian, reported that the College Democrats of Massachusetts had accused Morse of unspecified inappropriate behavior. The bombshell dropped a week before the first debate between incumbent Rep. Richard Neal and Holyoke mayor Morse, whose campaign was gathering steam.
The investigation was conducted by former state Sen. Cheryl Jacques, and was demanded by party regulars after The Intercept uncovered evidence that the attack on Morse was a coordinated and manufactured smear campaign put together jointly by party officials and student activists. Messages obtained by The Intercept showed that CDMA leaders like Timothy Ennis had planned for a year to weaponize allegations against Morse for political ends. Subsequent reporting from The Intercept detailed how the students received advice and guidance from leaders of the Democratic State Committee, or DSC. After revelations about the involvement of party chair Gus Bickford, state committee attorney Jim Roosevelt, and executive director Veronica Martinez, the DSC opened an investigation into the party’s role in the scandal.
Despite its public assurances, the report concluded, the party remained in close touch with the College Democrats as the attack unfolded. Even more damningly, party officials, the report found, spoke to an attorney who said that the allegations, which were not specific nor backed up by evidence, did not rise to the level of something that could be made public without risk of a slander lawsuit. Party leaders then referred the students to a different attorney, Jim Roosevelt, who advised them to put their concerns in writing and helped edit the letter to Morse. The students told party investigators that Roosevelt urged them to leak the letter, but Roosevelt denied giving such advice. Regardless, it was immediately leaked.
While the report details the failings of party leadership to properly handle the allegations, and levels criticism for those leaders involving themselves in the primary, some unanswered questions remain. Morse, however, sees it as vindication of the claim that he was specifically targeted. “It stated pretty clearly that the chair of the party violated their bylaws and that the executive director also violated the bylaws, and that the leadership of the Democratic Party essentially tipped the scales to favor an incumbent and against the challenger,” said Morse. “And it said that pretty unequivocally.”
In the spring of 2019, Gus Bickford, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chair, took Morse to lunch in an attempt to discourage the young mayor from running against Neal, suggesting that Morse could have a chance to run for lieutenant governor in 2022 alongside state Attorney General Maura Healey. While this meeting may have avoided a violation of the governing rules of the DSC, Jacques did find that it was at least against the spirit of organizational guidelines.
Bickford claimed to Jacques that he was trying to ensure that Morse’s primary challenge did not drain resources from the state party as they prepared to defeat Donald Trump in the general election — but Trump’s ability to win Massachusetts was never even a concern, as the state now goes comfortably to Democrats in national elections.
DSC member Nancy Stenberg, whose committee district includes Morse’s home, told The Intercept that the excuse was “bullshit” and that Bickford was using it to deflect from his real motivations.
“We spend our resources as a state committee on state level races; that’s where we put our money and our time and our effort — state Senate, state representative races,” said Stenberg. “So I find that kind of suspect.”
In August, after the allegations were leaked, Morse noted that Bickford had urged him not to run and suggested the party leaders were working against him. “At no point did I tell the Mayor that he should not run for Congress,” Bickford said in response. “The Party has been and remains neutral on this race and in all contested Democratic primaries.”
Alex Pratt, another DSC member, said Bickford’s previous lie, which has since been exposed, calls his current denials into question. “It’s so hard to trust someone when they’ve been caught lying so many times,” said Pratt.
Students that Jacques spoke to said that their concerns over Morse’s behavior had existed for years. At some point in early 2020, as The Intercept previously reported and Jacques confirmed, somebody with knowledge of those concerns reached out to Politico reporter Alex Thompson alleging inappropriate behavior by Morse. Thompson, who declined to comment for this story, asked members of the CDMA if they would comment on the allegations, but nobody was willing to do so on the record.
However, Andrew Abramson, then a leader of the UMass College Dems, told Hayley Fleming, then head of the statewide chapter, that the inquiries at the time made him feel “proactive” about “doing something,” the report found. What that “something” was is unclear; it’s also unclear that the impulse was acted on. CDMA member Prerna Jagadeesh dismissed Morse as a candidate on Twitter in July, saying of the mayor’s promotion by the Justice Democrats “big thumbs down, if you know you know.” When Morse campaign manager Max Clermont reached out to Jagadeesh and Fleming to assess their problems with his boss, he got no response.
The CDMA was already planning on sending an open letter to Morse. Plans for a public statement had been in the works since late June, and on July 24, Fleming reached out to Young Democrats of Massachusetts President Lezlie Braxton Campbell to see if the group had any attorneys who could help.
Braxton referred Fleming to YDMA member Lisa Stevens-Goodnight, an up and coming Democratic Party operative in the commonwealth and lawyer. CDMA member Harry Brussel reached out to Stevens-Goodnight, who declined to give the students legal advice and instead, given the nature of the situation, urged the CDMA to reach out to a Title IX attorney and talk to UMass.
CDMA did neither, instead turning to Bickford, who Fleming said they at the time considered a “responsible adult.”
During a discussion between CDMA leadership and Bickford and Martinez, the group weighed their options, including talking to Thompson at Politico. Ultimately, the group decided on a letter, with Fleming and Abramson recalling that Bickford said “go with that one” and “do it before the election.”
Jacques said she asked Bickford why he didn’t follow Title IX and refer the students to their school. Bickford replied that his personal experiences — students he went to school with were harassed and assaulted by staff — “colored” his response to the dissimilar and unrelated accusations against Morse. Bickford also told Jacques that “he coached lacrosse for eleven years and received a lot of training on sexual abuse and harassment,” training that apparently did not stick with respect to Title IX procedures — protocols that are federally mandated to provide students with protections that often fail to materialize in the criminal justice system.
In Jacques’s findings, she faults the DSC leadership for lying about their lack of involvement in the scandal after and for not referring the students to the appropriate authorities through Title IX recommendations. “Such a referral would have been a wise course of action and would have protected DSC staff from allegations of interference in a contested democratic primary,” Jacques wrote.
“To me, that’s just a big red flag,” said Stenberg. “And, you know, why did they continue down that path?”
Bickford and Martinez went to DSC volunteer attorneys Andrea Kramer and Jim Roosevelt. Kramer said she found the allegations “yucky” but that they did not rise to the level of harassment and recommended the CDMA not take the story to the media, warning it could be viewed as slander. Rather, Kramer said, the students should talk to Morse over the phone so as not to leave a paper trail, and that if an email or letter was necessary, to keep as short and vague as possible, because the allegations were unsubstantiated and “could cause legal problems.”
DSC leadership then referred CDMA to Roosevelt. But, claimed Bickford, it wasn’t so that Roosevelt would be more aggressive in coming after Morse.
According to the report:
Gus told me the reason the students were connected with Jim rather than Andrea was because Jim was a “volunteer” who never charged the DSC and Andrea “sometimes charged” for her services.
The referral, said state committee member Zelda MacGregor, was an act of “pure malfeasance.”
“It shows a direct lack of interest — at the very best — in terms of helping these young Democrats,” said MacGregor. “It shows an absurd and alarming lack of respect and attention being paid to them by referring them repeatedly to the same kind of non help.”
Roosevelt, as The Intercept previously reported, acted as a guide for Fleming and the CDMA, editing the letter and advising the students. According to Fleming, she “spoke to Jim by phone or text ‘every 2 days for a period of 2 weeks.’”
According to Fleming, Roosevelt recommended she tip off Politico’s Thompson on the letter and then leak it, which was confirmed by Abramson. Roosevelt, for his part, denied Fleming’s account and his wife Ann backed up that version of events, leaving Jacques unable to come to a clear finding on that matter.
Nonetheless, the letter was leaked to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, setting the scandal in motion. Martinez, who told Fleming she “couldn’t help her in her professional role,” nonetheless advised the younger woman on how to handle reporters. But the executive director had her own problems with the media.
By August 12, interest from The Intercept in the ongoing scandal was creating a headache for party leaders. Emailed questions from The Intercept prompted a conversation between Martinez, Bickford, and DSC communications consultant Kevin Ready in which the trio decided to use neutral language to avoid admitting to any involvement in the allegations, letter, or scheme.
As Jacques makes clear, the statement Martinez provided to The Intercept was not based in reality.
Claims of “no further involvement” were repeated on many occasions, however, this was not the case. In fact, as I previously found, there was significant communication between Veronica [Martinez] and Hayley [Fleming] after Hayley had been referred to Jim [Roosevelt]. I conclude that DSC staff were not honest in their public communications denying that they had further involvement in this matter once CDMA was referred to legal counsel.
“They clearly lied,” said Stenberg. “They were lying to us at that point and lying to the press.”
The report recommends that the DSC take any and all necessary actions for the behavior of its leadership and recommends that the DSC establish a Judicial Council — which is allowed for in the organization’s rules — to avoid a situation like the one in which Roosevelt was involved. The absence of such a committee despite charter mandate, Pratt told The Intercept, is another example of the real problem: Party leadership wanted complete control over the scandal.
“The real failure when it comes to Jim Roosevelt is that we could have had a judicial council, this ethics body that has never existed before but is in the party charter,” said Pratt. “That’s who this matter should have been referred to, but it wasn’t and the reason it wasn’t is because they want to be in control.”
The report raises a political liability for Bickford as he faces reelection on Thursday against Bob Massie and Mike Lake. DSC member Pratt was hesitant to say that Massie or Lake could defeat Bickford, noting the incumbent’s long-standing ties to committee members.
“He’s obviously doing a terrible job and it’s still going to be very uncomfortable for people to vote him out,” said Pratt.
Morse was also unimpressed with Bickford’s term, calling the chair’s antipathy to progressive policies part of a problem that will continue to harm the party going forward with key constituencies like young people and the gay community.
“Even when you look at Gus’s record in terms of fundraising, I mean, it’s been abysmal,” said Morse. “It’s gone down the last four years of his term. The Democratic Party lost the governor’s race in 2018. And so I just think it’s important for the party to do some soul-searching as to what we want to stand for here.”
Jonathan Cohn, a DSC member, told The Intercept that the report’s findings were clear and that Bickford has a lot to answer for.
“The fact that Gus Bickford was actively discouraging candidates from running for office seriously calls into question his ability to effectively lead the party,” said Cohn.
Bickford replied to the report’s findings early Friday morning by protesting his innocence in an emailed statement to the committee.
“At all times I was determined to stay out of this race, and I know I did that,” Bickford wrote. “Consequently I am certain that I never suggested any action be taken before the election.”
Stenberg fired back in an email to party members less than two hours later.
“Fellow members, the Recommendations portion of the report show that we, the members of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, have a lot of work to do to ensure that something like this does not happen again,” wrote Stenberg. “The first task at hand is to elect a new chair, to lead us in a new direction, on November 12th.”
Reached by The Intercept by phone Sunday, Bickford said of his email, “I think that that covers it and I appreciate your call,” before hanging up.
Calls for Bickford’s resignation, which began after The Intercept publicized his role in the scheme to smear Morse, have increased since the report was released. It’s impossible for those in DSC leadership involved in the scandal to remain in their positions, the Massachusetts CD-1 Progressive Coalition said in a statement Sunday night.
“These conclusions lead us to demand that Gus Bickford remove himself from the race for Party Chair because of his serious violations of the Party’s bylaws,” the group said. “Furthermore, we demand that both Veronica Martinez and Jim Roosevelt, who were complicit in this premeditated smear campaign against Alex, be removed from their roles in the Party.”
The Bay State Stonewall Democrats, a group that has been consistently critical of the party’s handling of the Morse case, released a scathing statement Friday faulting Bickford and Martinez for their “unethical actions” in handling the situation.
“The report is extensive and conclusive,” the group declared. “Gus Bickford and Veronica Martinez violated the policies of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee prohibiting staff from participating in contested primaries, lied to members of the Democratic State Committee, and attempted to cover up their actions, all to spread homophobic rumors and tropes about a gay elected official and rising star in our Party.”
Jim Roosevelt, the grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime health care executive, is known for his hostility to the left. As the co-chair of both the Democratic National Committee rules and credentialing committees in 2016, Roosevelt played a high-profile role in the testy battle between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, steadfastly siding with Clinton.
Since his 2016 run off victory for party chair, Bickford too has drawn the ire of Massachusetts progressives for his stances on issues ranging from climate change to opposing the state’s powerful Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. In August 2019, Sunrise activists agitated for Massachusetts DNC delegates to push for a climate change debate at a DNC planning meeting in San Francisco that same year. Despite the state committee unanimously passing a resolution to support the debate, Bickford and Roosevelt voted against the idea just weeks later at the DNC meeting, in direct opposition to the state committee’s resolution.
To Pratt, the report confirms that if the party wants to rebuild trust with its progressive wing, the queer community, youth community, and grassroots donors, it will have to shake up leadership. That’s part of an ongoing problem, he continued, referring to data showing a plummet in donations since Bickford took office.
“Why would you as a donor give to the state party now especially?” said Pratt. “Our small-dollar donations have dropped 50 percent since Gus took office.”
Morse agreed that Bickford should step down, saying that “without question” the chair needs to resign in order to rebuild trust and confidence in the party among the state committee and regular people. The actions of the chair, Morse said, have severely damaged the credibility of the DSC.
“People are angry,” Morse said. “Not just people here in the district, but across the state.”
Update: November 13, 2020
Members of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee on Thursday night reelected Gus Bickford. The vote was not close, with Bickford taking 229 votes to Mike Lake’s 87 and Bob Massie’s 49.