Our Opinion: Massachusetts Democratic Party has some questions to answer

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"This is exactly what turns people away from politics."

That statement came from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse during a debate with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal as they battled for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the primary is now over, some bitterness that originated in the final stretch lingers beyond the finish line from a scandal that leaves more questions than answers about the Massachusetts Democratic Party's involvement.

In a convoluted plot that reached its zenith near the primary's conclusion, members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of the College Democrats sought to implicate Mayor Morse and "sink his campaign" with allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, according to the group's internal communications.

The explosive story was initially spurred on by a letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts that publicly accused Mayor Morse of ill-defined improprieties, which was first published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. It was later revealed that this letter was crafted with the aid of attorney Jim Roosevelt after state party officials referred the scheming students to the Democratic Party-linked lawyer for free legal counsel.

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The state party has some explaining to do. Is it normal for the state party to receive these sorts of complaints against Democratic primary candidates and refer them not to police nor other authorities but instead to pro bono legal counsel? If so, is it usual for that attorney to be a high-powered state party affiliate like Mr. Roosevelt? Were members of party leadership that referred the scheming students to Mr. Roosevelt aware of the unsubstantiated nature and political motivations of the allegations? Did the state party's participation violate its own neutrality rules that bar interference in primaries?

So far, the party has only anemically addressed this mess. When the connection to party leadership was brought to light, they announced an internal probe into the origins of the College Democrats letter — a move that essentially entails the Massachusetts Democratic Party investigating itself. While we hope this probe addresses the above questions, an independent investigation, as Mayor Morse has called for, would be a more reassuring step for constituents who want answers.

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No evidence has surfaced that links Rep. Neal to the College Democrats' smear effort, and the incumbent has broadly denounced the specter of homophobia that looms over this sort of salacious scrutiny of a gay candidate's dating life. It might behoove the congressman to join his former opponent in publicly pressuring the state Democrats for more transparency on the party's involvement.  Further, it behooves all of us to learn an overdue lesson — that it's unequivocally wrong to hurl baseless and vague accusations as political artillery — and refrain from pointing conspiratorial fingers at the incumbent in absence of any proof.

Whatever the ground truth, it's certainly not a good look for the state party, and slow-playing transparency hasn't helped those optics. More alarmingly, sources within the state party recently told The Intercept that the party's executive director told leaders of the College Democrats to delete records of communication between the students and party leadership.

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What we do know is that vague and unsubstantiated allegations derailed a congressional primary, unfairly forcing the challenger to talk about his dating life when voters preferred to hear both candidates discuss issues facing the district.

Last week, student leaders of the UMass Amherst chapter of the College Democrats apologized to Mayor Morse, acknowledging that their letter played into "homophobic stereotypes" in its attempt to malign him. It is shameful, especially in a supposedly progressive bastion like Massachusetts, that this sort of harmful innuendo continues to be weaponized against queer political figures.

Now, it's the state party's turn for accountability. Was its leadership duped into unwittingly amplifying a politically motivated hit-job hatched by a handful of overly ambitious college students? Or did they knowingly facilitate the lowest kind of realpolitik in a bid to put a finger on the scales of a decisive primary for the 1st District?

This race, its candidates and the voters deserved far better than this. What they deserve now is timely transparency from the Massachusetts Democratic Party. We hope the investigation's conclusion gets as much ink as the initial allegations.


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