In the aftermath of the Massachusetts state Democratic Committee’s election for its leader, a breakdown of how members voted suggests that assessments of the party differ across demographics.
Nearly 63 percent of members who voted at last week’s meeting opted to reelect Chairman Gus Bickford, with Bickford and supporters touting the party’s success in winning seats in the Legislature. Yet, others, including several younger members, people of color and members who identify as LGBTQ+, say leaders must do more to diversify the party and to push lawmakers to pursue the party platform.
Bickford’s challengers, Mike Lake and Bob Massie, received votes from 86 percent of members younger than 36, 75 percent of members who identify as LGBTQ+ and 62 percent of people of color, according to member Rebecca Pinn.
Among lifetime members — those who have served on the committee for at least 20 years — 93 percent voted for Bickford, accounting for 49 percent of his vote total. Fifteen percent of the lifetime members who voted for Bickford hadn’t attended a meeting in four years before last week.
Pinn, who worked on the campaign to elect Lake, said that group called members to learn their age, sexuality and race — as well as whether they were lifetime members. She matched that information with individuals’ votes, which are publicly available.
Much of the split might come down to differing views over the party’s role.
“The state Democratic Party’s main mission is to elect Democrats, which seems obvious, but that’s what it is,” said Lee Harrison, a 20-year member who formerly chaired the Berkshire Democratic Brigades and has worked as a consultant for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield.
Democrats gained two Statehouse seats in November’s election, three in special elections earlier this year and three in 2018, despite losing the race for governor in 2018 by the widest margin since 1994.
Harrison, who said he has known Bickford for 20 years, sees the gains from Bickford’s first four-year-term as “a remarkable achievement.”
Yet, for Pittsfield Ward 1 City Councilor Helen Moon, who voted for Lake, the party must do more to press its veto-proof Statehouse majorities to pass legislation aligning with the party’s “progressive and bold” platform.
“We are working as a state party to elect Democrats and not holding any of the Democrats that we worked to elect, with our money and our energy and our time, accountable to support this platform that we all agreed we wanted to see,” said Moon, who won an affirmative action add-on seat this year.
While the platform calls, for instance, to establish health care “through a single-payer government-sponsored program, like Medicare” and to make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state,” critics say the party’s work on those issues has lagged.
“We’re Democrats not because we like winning races,” said Alex Pratt, of Malden, who, along with Moon and Pinn, belongs to the committee’s progressive caucus. “We’re Democrats because we believe in a set of values and principles, and we elect candidates for that purpose.”
There had been some “appetite for change” among some committee members when Pratt joined in 2016, he said.
Thirty-two percent of Massachusetts voters are registered Democrats, a decrease from the 40 percent registered in 1990, a trend Massie noted in his campaign materials. Also, the party has seen a fundraising decrease in the past three gubernatorial election years, including a decline from $2.3 million raised from 1,569 donations in 2014 to $500,000 raised from 486 donations in 2018.
Those trends concerned some progressives, Pratt said, but “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was the the party’s handling of a September primary race between Neal, the U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, a challenger from Neal’s left.
After a group of students at the University of Massachusetts college Democrats circulated a letter raising politically motivated claims against Morse, the party ordered an investigation of the students’ and its own members’ conduct. Morse supporters have said the allegations played a role in his loss to Neal.
Investigator Cheryl Jacques, an attorney and former state senator, concluded that Bickford violated a party bylaw, which prohibits staff members from participating in contested primaries, when he gave advice to students regarding the credibility of a news reporter.
Bickford has said he had “no malintent” and would work to implement the report’s suggestions.
Members’ interpretations of the report vary, depending on which candidate they supported in the Morse-Neal race and their pick for party chair.
Yet, Pinn argued that, regardless of the report’s findings, the episode led many activists on the left to lose trust in the party.
“If we reelect the person who oversaw the scandal, how are we supposed to raise the money?” asked Pinn, who added that she believes Bickford “is not a bad person.” “How are we supposed to win the governor’s seat in 2022?”
Harrison said he believed party leaders handled a difficult situation “as well as they could.”
“I’ve known all these people for a very long time,” he said. “They’re honorable people, and they believe in honest elections, and they’re conducting themselves fairly.”
As the election results show, Bickford maintains the support of much of the committee.
Marietta Rapetti Cawse, newly elected this year, said she chose Bickford for his experience. She said she agreed with many of the priorities Lake and Massie raised but thought Bickford to be the most effective leader who could achieve those goals.
“He makes a difference,” she said of Bickford. “It takes commitment and it takes patience to achieve these step-by-step improvements.”
Harrison said the party is making gains toward converting its “amazingly progressive” platform into legislation, adding that “politics is the art of the possible.”
Moon, who is Korean American, sees the election as a missed opportunity for white allies to affirm diversity, which Lake and Massie emphasized.
Pushing the party to diversify, she said, “feels like our issue instead of a party issue, and that’s unfortunate.”
For Pinn and Pratt, the results show progressive activists might need to work outside the party to achieve the change they seek.
Eight committee members represent Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties.
Cawse, Harrison and Clifford Nilan voted for Bickford. Moon and Sherwood Guernsey voted for Lake.
No votes were recorded for Sheila Murray, Mary O’Brien or state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.