Something’s rotten in the state Democratic Party.
Based on the findings of an independent investigation, party leaders played an inappropriate, behind-the-scenes role that encouraged college students to communicate negative information about Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke. At the time he was challenging Representative Richard E. Neal, a longtime incumbent from Springfield and one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress.
According to the investigation done by Cheryl Jacques, a lawyer and former state lawmaker, Gus Bickford, the state party chairman, encouraged a group of college Democrats to send a letter to Morse raising allegations of sexual misconduct — and to send it just weeks before the Sept. 1 state primary. That letter triggered news stories that essentially dominated the final chapter of the primary contest. The report found that Bickford also encouraged the students to talk to a reporter about the accusations. Those actions violated party rules against interference in a contested primary, the report said. Veronica Martinez, the party’s executive director, also kept ongoing contact with the college students and later told them to delete the text messages and phone records of those communications, according to the Jacques report.
Morse’s campaign against Neal — the chair of the House Ways and Means committee — was always a long shot. But the race attracted national media attention as a test of the power of the party’s progressive left wing — represented by Morse — as he went up against one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s confidantes and lieutenants. In the end, Morse, who is gay, lost more than an election. He lost some of his good reputation.
When he received the letter via e-mail from the College Democrats of Massachusetts, Morse, who had been a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, apologized to anyone he might have made uncomfortable. He acknowledged some consensual sexual relationships with students he met on dating apps, but said none involved students he taught. He insisted he had done nothing wrong and said the accusations were meant to stir up homophobia. The UMass student newspaper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, subsequently reported on the letter; the students behind it said they didn’t know how the paper had gotten a copy. That news report led to a cascade of related media coverage. The university is conducting its own investigation of the matter.
In the report, Jacques states that it’s clear from her interviews with students that state party leaders “did not initiate the Morse ‘rumors,’ they didn’t plant negative ideas in the minds of the students, nor did they initiate the students’ complaints about Morse’s behavior.” Jacques said the party leaders should have steered the students to appropriate academic channels, instead of encouraging the letter to Morse.
Bickford and Martinez also referred the students to James Roosevelt, who serves as an unpaid attorney for the party; Roosevelt reviewed the letter the students sent to Morse. According to the report, Roosevelt also suggested they “leak” the letter, although he denied that he did so to Jacques, the lead investigator.
Neal insisted from the start that he had nothing to do with the attack on Morse, and he was not interviewed for the report. (No evidence directly and credibly connecting Neal to the attack has publicly surfaced.) Bickford and Martinez also deny any wrongdoing, but given the findings, they doth protest too much.
The release of this report comes just as Bickford is running for reelection as the party chairman against Mike Lake and Bob Massie, two former statewide candidates. The Bay State Stonewall Democrats, the party’s LBGTQ affiliate, have called for Bickford’s ouster, which is necessary, they said, to “provide for an avenue to repair the relationship between the party and the LGBTQIA+ community.” The state committee is scheduled to vote on Thursday.
The primary fight between Neal and Morse was supposed to be about the party’s future — would it stay in the center or shift left? That’s a legitimate debate that Democrats needed to have, as well as the question of whether to unseat an influential congressman like Neal. But instead of a debate over party identity, it turned into a complicated takedown of the progressive candidate based on allegations that were intended to appeal to voters’ homophobia. How it played out raises serious questions about the competence and ethics of the current state party leadership and raises the question of whether they can be trusted to conduct fair play in future primary seasons.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.