Dozens of Massachusetts Democratic state committee members on Monday pushed for an expedited and independent investigation into what role state party leaders played in misconduct allegations leveled against Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke, adding a new layer to imbroglio that’s roiled both his congressional race and the party itself.
The letter, signed by roughly 50 of the committee’s 400-plus members, follows similar calls from the Bay State Stonewall Democrats and questioned whether state party leaders had a role in “smearing” Morse just weeks ahead of his Sept. 1 challenge to Representative Richard Neal in the First Congressional District primary.
Gus Bickford, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, told committee members in a Sunday e-mail that he has appointed three party leaders to pick an outside investigator to review whether “rules were broken” within the party, which bars its staff or officers from endorsing or supporting candidates in a primary.
Bickford’s statement, however, set no specific timeframe for completing a review, leaving that to the “unilateral authority” of the group of party leaders. A party spokesman said Bickford didn’t want to dictate a timeframe, because he’s “serious about the group being independent.”
But the situation has quickly sowed divisions within the Democratic Party as a whole. Several LGBTQ state committee members said Monday their confidence in party leadership had been shaken by the reported revelations, and left open the possibility of finding a challenger to Bickford when he’s up for reelection this November.
The College Democrats of Massachusetts earlier this month accused Morse of inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign and said he used his position of power for “romantic or sexual gain.”
Morse, who until recently was a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, quickly apologized to anyone he made feel uncomfortable, but maintained that he had done nothing wrong. Reporting last week by the news website The Intercept revealed a string of messages between club leaders that appear to indicate that the accusations were part of an effort by club leaders, one of whom explicitly stated that he hoped to get a job with Neal, to engineer an attack on Morse.
Then Friday, The Intercept published another story charging that Massachusetts Democratic Party officials coordinated with the College Democrats of Massachusetts to launch the allegations against Morse.
Jim Roosevelt, chief counsel to the Massachusetts Democratic Party, told a Boston Globe columnist that at the request of state party leaders, he gave the College Democrats of Massachusetts legal guidance on how to communicate the information about Morse without exposing themselves to libel.
But he denied that the state party had “engineered this,” or that party officials coordinated with the group specifically to launch the allegations against Morse.
Bickford, citing reports of “certain activity of the Democratic Party staff and volunteers,” wrote in an e-mail to state committee members on Sunday that he had appointed three party leaders — Deb Kozikowski, Leon Brathwaite, and Mark DiSalvo — to select an “independent investigator” to review the situation and publish a report.
“The report, in full, will be provided to the entire [state committee] membership upon its receipt,” Bickford wrote.
In a statement Monday, Bickford added: “I am confident that this review will show that party staff acted appropriately.”
But the state committee members in their letter on Monday questioned “the ability of the party to investigate itself, and the role leadership may have played,” as well as the timing of completing the probe, given the quickly approaching primary.
“The suggestion that the investigation should await the primary results so as not to affect them is ludicrous given the damage that has already been inflicted on Mayor Morse’s campaign by the actions of the Mass College Dems,” the state committee members wrote.
UMass Amherst has announced its own investigation, by Natashia Tidwell, a former federal prosecutor.
Fallout from the allegations against Morse has drawn national attention to a race that, at one point, was held up as a potential progressive litmus test for Western Massachusetts Democrats who’ve long backed Neal, now the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Morse has said the uproar has only served to underscore the need to oust longtime political insiders, and some backers, including the Sunrise Movement and Jamaal Bowman, a New York progressive who defeated longtime Representative Eliot Engel in their primary, have returned to backing Morse. Bowman had initially said he would “pause” his endorsement and the Sunrise Movement had suspended its campaigning for Morse in the immediate aftermath of the allegations.
Neal has denied any involvement in the airing of the allegations, and has said that “homophobia has no place in campaigns or public life.”
But the situation has crept well beyond the bounds of the primary, quickly creating unease within the party and its LGBTQ membership, several of whom said Monday they fear it could harm the party’s fund-raising or its ability to attract openly gay candidates.
“If these allegations are true and the leadership helped perpetuate these homophobic tropes against an out gay candidate, I think the LGBTQ community will be looking for someone to run for party chair,” said one state committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
State Representative Jack Patrick Lewis, the House’s only openly gay man and one of those who’ve called for an outside probe, said if any party members did “attempt to harm Morse’s election and larger political career, those members must resign.”
“The Democratic Party has long claimed to advocate for the LGBTQ community, celebrating marriage-equality and anti-discrimination policies, but I am alarmed by how quickly so many resorted to hypocritical, homophobic, and puritanic attacks on Morse,” Lewis said in a statement Monday.
State Senator Julian Cyr, one of the state’s highest-profile openly gay elected officials, said Monday he wants to see the results of an investigation “before I comment on my confidence of the party.”
“If people were acting in an inappropriate way, they need to be held accountable. But second, if they were acting in any way that was homophobic, that needs to come to light and we need to talk about how these alleged things, the alleged plot, about how there’s an inherent homophobia in that,” he said. “That’s why the investigations are important.”
John Hilliard and Laura Krantz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.