On Wednesday, January 13 — the same day that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst released the results of an investigation into the romantic life of Alex Morse, finding no wrongdoing — the Cambridge Democratic City Committee met to debate a resolution brought forward by a local ward condemning the party for its handling of the situation.
It did not go well.
Backers of the resolution were surprised that opponents were ready with a substitute amendment, which replaced the call for the Massachusetts Democratic Party chair’s resignation and broad criticism of the organization’s handling of the scandal with vague affirmation of the party’s commitment to LGBTQ people.
It got even worse.
When party member Dan Totten, one of the leading proponents of the resolution, voted against the amendment, a party board member, George Goverman, shot back: “You faggot.”
Audio of the meeting is included in this week’s Deconstructed podcast, along with an interview with Totten. Goverman spoke to Deconstructed but declined to do a recorded interview; he said he thought his mic was off during the meeting and that he had reached out to Totten. “I have reached out and as far as why I said it, I think it’s pure stupidity, and that’s about all I can say,” said Goverman. “I really didn’t know I was on an open mic.”
The Alex Morse “scandal” exploded in August after students with the UMass College Democrats and the College Democrats of Massachusetts told the Holyoke mayor he was no longer allowed at their events in a letter which was leaked to the Massachusetts Daily Daily Collegian on August 7. Full of vague claims of inappropriate conduct, the letter threatened to derail the mayor’s congressional campaign against incumbent Rep. Richard Neal.
The Intercept subsequently revealed the charges were part of a scheme on the part of students to take down the progressive insurgent, done in collaboration with the state party. Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford, along with party Executive Director Veronica Martinez, had acted to connect students making the vague claims against Morse with party attorney Jim Roosevelt in July.
Asked if he planned to resign from the party board, Goverman said that he was leaning in that direction.
During the Cambridge Democratic City Committee meeting, Totten was outspoken about his support for the resolution that would have called for the resignation of Bickford for “aiding and abetting an attack on a LGBTQ candidate,” in part because “such attacks may discourage more diverse and younger people from participating in the Party; thereby weakening the party’s ability to win elections.” The CDCC is one of many grassroots party organizations across the state whose leadership is elected at the ballot box.
Displeasure with Bickford’s handling of the scandal is not unique to Cambridge, though Bickford was recently reelected party chair by a landslide on the back of the state party’s entrenched old guard. Lifetime members — who are allowed to serve at will without running for their position — overwhelmingly backed Bickford, who beat out challengers Bob Massie and Mike Lake with 62 percent of the vote in the November 12 contest.
“93 percent of lifetime members who voted, voted for Gus,” Matt Walsh, a Massachusetts Democratic State Committee member, told The Flashpoint newsletter. “86 percent of people under 36 voted against him.”
“We’re a party that proclaims to be pro-everyone but our leadership, membership, and many electeds lack any true understanding of what it means to be an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist party.”
According to Donovan Birch, a member of the state committee who has been helping lead the push against Bickford for his actions, “frustration” with the chair is pervasive in Massachusetts Democratic town and ward committees.
“Many folks believe he should resign and are organizing their individual town and ward committees,” said Birch, who is gay. “Folks are taking these actions on their own in an effort to keep the pressure on.”
“We’re a party that proclaims to be pro-everyone but our leadership, membership, and many electeds lack any true understanding of what it means to be an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist, etc. party,” Birch added.
The Cambridge meeting quickly turned contentious as other party members — including Roosevelt himself — instead worked toward the passage of a watered-down resolution that neither named Bickford nor called for concrete action. Rather, the new resolution offered suggestions on how the party could better address concerns of LGBTQ members.
One of the new resolution’s biggest boosters in the meeting was none other than Roosevelt himself, who repeatedly misrepresented the findings of a report prepared for the state party by attorney Cheryl Jacques.
Roosevelt claimed “the Jacques report found that there was no homophobic intent or action in the actions by Gus Bickford,” while Jacques instead said that she did not make findings either way on the “motivations” for any actions taken — a clarification helpfully located at the top of the report on the first page. Roosevelt also said, “Mayor Morse responded and acknowledged there were no false allegations.” While Morse has acknowledged “concerns” and apologized for making anyone uncomfortable, he never made a statement on the nature of the allegations — since, in fact, no concrete allegations were made.
The Intercept asked Roosevelt what he made of the suggestion that while Goverman’s slur was the most explicit expression of bigotry at the meeting, the entire thrust of the opposition was touched with homophobia. Roosevelt pointed to the state party investigation which he claimed found no evidence of homophobic intent. Asked why so many people felt otherwise, he said, “I think they’re misinformed. I don’t think they understand the facts of what happened. Now, I’m not saying that there was no homophobic motivation by any of the students, but I don’t have any way of knowing that one way or the other. There’s some pretty good evidence there was some careerist motivation among some of the students. Whether there was any homophobic intent really there, I don’t have any way to know.”
The perceived undercurrent of homophobia in Roosevelt’s framing struck Democratic State Committee member Nancy Stenberg, whose district includes Morse’s home, as an indication that the state party doesn’t reflect its members.
“Jim Roosevelt’s words and actions during this meeting are a continuation of his pattern of lies about his role in the Morse matter,” Stenberg said. “He continues to parrot the old tropes, designed to re-enforce his hold on a Democratic Party model that will only be changed when we permanently remove these sadly misguided homophobic members.”
Chris Addis, a member of the Cambridge Democrats who was also on the call, told The Intercept that he saw the incident last Wednesday as “further evidence that homophobia and other forms of bigotry are alive and well in the Massachusetts Democratic Party and don’t simply age out.”
Addis told The Intercept that a restorative justice process was needed that would hold both Roosevelt and the party as a whole accountable for the ongoing issues with how Massachusetts Democrats treat their LGBTQ members.
“If he doesn’t agree to said process I think he should step down,” Addis said.
During a routine vote as the process stretched into its third hour, Goverman blurted out the slur after Totten voted. The slur was the subject of fallout later in the meeting, as members called for Goverman to resign from the city party.
Totten wrote about his experience in the local newspaper Cambridge Day and told The Intercept that he was in fact more bothered by the subtle homophobia on display in the meeting before the slur was uttered.
“At this point in the meeting, I knew we were going to lose the vote by five or six votes,” Totten said. “If this homophobic slur had come in a different context, I’d have been much more taken aback. But here I was like, you know, that’s kind of the natural extension of the argument that was just made.”
Totten noted Goverman’s defense, which he also offered to Totten, implies that the only problem was that the mic was on and that it’s not an isolated case.
“I don’t use that word except to myself and very rarely to myself,” Goverman told The Intercept. “It was not meant to go out to the meeting. I mutter things to myself and that’s one of them. One of the things I mutter to myself is ‘communist.’ Because I’m an old guy and back when I was growing up, anything I disagreed with would have to be communist. So it’s just a bad habit. Even when I agree with someone, I sometimes will say communist. … It’s a silly thing.”
Throughout much of the 20th century, homophobia and anti-communism were tightly linked. The hunt for gay civil servants being blackmailed by the Soviets was led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and known as the Lavender Scare.
Told that people at the meeting felt that while his blurting out of a slur was the most explicit expression of homophobia, the entire push against the resolution was as well, Goverman declined to comment. But, he said, he was disturbed when the party treasurer, a longtime activist, resigned in protest.
DSC member Walsh, who is also a member of the gay community, said the comments from Goverman are part of a larger problem: a partywide culture of permissiveness toward homophobia that needs to be addressed.
“Unfortunately, most members of the community, myself included, have been on the receiving end of that slur countless times,” he told The Intercept in a text message. “People use it to dehumanize, and to justify treating LGBTQ+ folks as less than human. After all — we’re not people, we’re just f*ggots.”