A Williamstown attorney has requested the removal of Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford, after an investigation found that Bickford broke a party rule by involving himself in a contested primary election.
The investigator’s report alleges that Bickford encouraged University of Massachusetts college Democrats to publicize a letter raising concerns about Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who was challenging U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, ahead of the Sept. 1 primary. The anonymous claims of sexual misconduct in that letter against Morse, who is openly gay, since have been shown to be politically motivated. Some observers have cited the letter as a factor in Morse’s defeat.
Steve Dew, of Williamstown, sent a complaint to party leaders Tuesday afternoon calling for Bickford, who is running for reelection at the party’s meeting Thursday evening, to be removed and made ineligible for reelection.
“My concern is and remains that Gus Bickford will be reelected as the chairperson of the DSC [Democratic State Committee] — I think that’s actually very likely,” Dew said by phone Tuesday. “I don’t have a lot of faith that my complaint will result in any significant changes at the DSC, but I just wanted to get it out there.”
The state party’s communications manager did not respond to requests for comment sent Tuesday morning asking how the party planned to respond to the complaint and whether other complaints had been lodged.
In the wake of revelations that suggested that the college Democrats’ letter was politically motivated, the party ordered an investigation into the college Democrats’ actions.
The party said it had “no further involvement” in the letter, other than referring the college Democrats to legal counsel.
The investigator — attorney and former state Sen. Cheryl Jacques — concluded in a Nov. 5 report that the party’s public statements regarding its involvement “were not honest.”
Jacques found that while the party did not originate the “rumors” about Morse and played no role in generating interest from the media, Bickford broke party rules when advising students in their communications with a reporter.
When students told Bickford they were in contact with Politico reporter Alex Thompson about Morse, Bickford said that “Thompson has credibility” and “if you don’t go on the record with him, he won’t write the story.” Jacques decided that the advice, which Bickford did not dispute that he had given, indicated he was encouraging students to go on the record with Thompson before the election.
The party’s bylaws state “no staff member of the State Committee shall endorse or participate in any contested Democratic Primary campaign.”
Bickford has argued that his comments on Thompson’s credibility did not mean he was suggesting students leak material to influence the election.
“The bottom line is this: We were approached by college students who expressed concerns and asked for help,” he told The Boston Globe. “We earnestly attempted to help these students, and connected them with the guidance they were seeking.”
Rather, Jacques said in the report, the party should have referred the students to their university’s legal counsel, Title IX coordinator and/or dean of students.
The volunteer lawyer, Jim Roosevelt, “made very minor edits” to the letter students drafted, Jacques found. Roosevelt is a former donor to Neal.
While Veronica Martinez, the party’s executive director, remained in contact with a student after referring the group to Roosevelt, Jacques found “nothing nefarious in the communications itself.” Jacques also said she believed a student’s account that Martinez told the student to delete records of the communications.
“Throughout this situation, I believed it was important to provide support to a young college student who felt, as the report states, ‘way in over her head,’ ” Martinez told the Globe. “I made explicitly clear to this student that I could not provide advice in my professional capacity or as it directly relates to this situation, and I did not.”
The report also states that Bickford discouraged Morse from running in 2019, although that action did not violate party bylaws because Morse was not yet a declared candidate.
Morse has said the report shows that the party needs new leadership in order to move forward.
“As the election for chair quickly approaches, it has become abundantly clear that the party is in desperate need of new leadership,” Morse told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “If we want to build a state where people like me — young, queer and working class — can run, win and lead, we can and must do better.”
The report recommends that the party create a Judicial Council to establish clear protocols on what actions are prohibited during a contested primary and on how the party handles misconduct or other possibly illegal behavior.
The party is scheduled to vote for its chairperson at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Bob Massie and Mike Lake, both former statewide candidates, also are vying for Bickford’s position.