At a recent meeting of Democratic Party officials, Massachusetts Democratic Chair Gus Bickford apologized for his role in the Alex Morse scandal — a gesture that many at the meeting felt was long overdue.
“I recognize the pain that has been caused,” said Bickford. “And I apologize, profusely, to everyone about the actions and what may have occurred to people, because we did not intend to do that.”
Bickford, along with party Executive Director Veronica Martinez and attorney Jim Roosevelt, helped to perpetuate a smear campaign against Morse during the Holyoke mayor’s primary challenge to Rep. Richard Neal in the summer of 2020. Morse was accused of vague misconduct by members of the UMass Democrats in a letter that was leaked to the press; The Intercept’s subsequent reporting revealed that members of the state party leadership were intimately involved in preparing the accusations for delivery to Morse despite there being no actual underlying allegations to put forward.
Morse told The Intercept that Bickford has yet to contact him.
“Gus has my email address and cell number if he has anything to say,” said Morse.
In his remarks at the January 28 meeting acknowledging the harm of his behavior, Bickford did not apologize to Morse.
It was an omission that came after members had called on the chair, both before and after his apology, to publicly address Morse. But the chair ignored those calls, instead focusing on what appeared to be prepared remarks. Bickford stopped short of taking personal responsibility, framing what happened as out of his control.
“I look at what I had to deal with at the time; I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Bickford said, promising that he would embark on a listening tour to rebuild relationships with those angered and hurt by his behavior.
That’s an insufficient response, said Matt Walsh, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee. Walsh told The Intercept that Bickford’s expression of regret was welcomed, but didn’t go far enough — not to mention the silence from Martinez and Roosevelt, who were both involved in the scheme and were at the same meeting.
“I appreciate Chair Bickford’s apology,” Walsh said, “but the absence of an apology from our executive director and senior counsel, the lack of any public statement of apology, and the shameful conduct of many members in the past few meetings all make it clear that we have a long way to go.”
Committee member and frequent Bickford critic Zelda MacGregor was more direct in her assessment.
“The chair’s statement — which I would not describe as an apology — raises more questions for me than it settles,” MacGregor told The Intercept. “He mentions ‘actions’ and that they may have occurred but that they did not intend to do them. What actions, specifically, did they not intend to do? In situations like these, the only way to heal is to clean out the wound, and we can’t do that if the inflictor won’t directly confront what caused it or even accept any amount of responsibility for it.”
Dan Totten, a Democrat from the city of Cambridge who was called a homophobic slur by another party member earlier in January during a meeting of the Cambridge City Democrats after he lobbied for a resolution condemning Bickford for his behavior, watched the meeting closely and noted the chair’s omission of Morse. The apology fell short of what was needed, Totten said, but not short of his expectations.
“Bickford’s apology felt insincere, and he did not take enough responsibility for his actions,” Totten told The Intercept, adding that he felt the chair and Roosevelt’s desire is to move on from the controversy.
“I was wholly unsatisfied with the apology, but I also wasn’t surprised because I still don’t think Gus Bickford (or Jim) understands the points people are trying to make about their behavior,” said Totten in a text message. “Party leadership is more concerned with keeping up appearances than addressing the deeper issues plaguing the party.”
Though party leaders are trying to move forward and leave the scandal behind, the damage from the party’s involvement in the smear campaign lingers, and there is a clear generational split in how the state party is approaching it. That split continues to present problems in an increasingly fractious state party — problems that were on full display the night of January 28.
“I think that what Gus witnessed in the meeting is that there is discontent,” said Elaine Almquist, committee member who planned to make a motion for a formal apology from the party during the “new business” section of the meeting before it was adjourned. “It was the first time he had to hear it in a way he couldn’t get out of. I hope the more he hears about the impact of his actions, it will inspire him to do the right thing.”
“What we witnessed was a new generation of Democrats who want to tackle and address tough conversations regarding racism and homophobia within the party.”
The hourslong meeting included a charge of racism from one younger member and was rife with intergenerational hostility and charges of bias. The older members, many of whom have seats ensured for life, pushed back, arguing that such accusations were unfair and divisive.
The generational divide was apparent to Rebecca Pinn, a committee member and secretary of the Young Democrats of America in Massachusetts.
“What we witnessed was a new generation of Democrats who want to tackle and address tough conversations regarding racism and homophobia within the party,” said Pin. “It was clear that more tenured members refused to acknowledge this is even a problem and became incredibly defensive and uncomfortable when members continued to push.”
Morse put it more bluntly.
“Those meetings are an exclusive club and out of touch with everyday folks,” he said.