Gus Bickford easily won reelection as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party on Thursday, topping two challengers less than a week after an internal probe found he violated party rules that barred him from getting involved in a contested primary.
Bickford, 57, won 229 votes out of 365 cast by the Democratic State Committee to earn a second, four-year term and hold off Mike Lake and Bob Massie, both former statewide candidates who pitched themselves as the best choices to grow the state’s already dominant political party.
Bickford, a veteran operative who has led the party since 2016, touted both his experience and the gains the party has made under him, including adding to its super-majority in the Legislature — Democrats picked up five seats this year — without facing a true threat from Republicans in keeping the state’s all-Democratic federal delegation intact.
Looming over the intraparty vote, however, were the results of a party-ordered investigation released last week. The probe, conducted by former state Senator Cheryl Jacques, found that Bickford had violated party rules prohibiting him from being involved in a contested primary when he encouraged a group of college Democrats to send a letter to Holyoke mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse that raised misconduct allegations against him before the Sept. 1 election.
The College Democrats of Massachusetts in August had 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 had been a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, quickly apologized to anyone he made feel uncomfortable, but maintained that he had done nothing wrong.
Bickford appeared to encourage the students to talk to a reporter about the accusations against Morse, whom Bickford had once tried to “discourage” from running against Representative Richard E. Neal in the First Congressional District, Jacques wrote in her report.
Bickford denied that he was trying to push the students to leak their concerns about Morse, who is gay, or that he tried to involve himself in the race that Neal ultimately won by nearly 18 points.
But the findings inflamed not just criticism of Bickford but what had already been unease within the party’s LGBTQ membership, who felt the allegations against Morse perpetuated homophobic tropes against an out gay candidate. After the investigation was released, the Bay State Stonewall Democrats called for a new party chair to “provide for an avenue to repair the relationship between the party and the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Bickford offered an apologetic message Thursday before the vote, saying he was “so sorry for the pain caused to many members of the LGBTQIA+ community" while promising to implement several recommendations included in the report.
“What is out there is not who we are. There is not a homophobic bone in this body,” Bickford said. "In a short period of time, I mishandled a crisis. And I can do better. There was no malintent.”
Lake and Massie had both twice run for statewide office, including for lieutenant governor 20 years apart. They each offered themselves as alternatives for the $100,000-a-year party post who could refocus efforts in expanding the party and better position it to top Governor Charlie Baker Baker or another Republican nominee in 2022. (Baker has not said whether he’ll seek a third term.)
Lake and Massie have also seized on the party’s stagnant share of registered voters, which reached 1.53 million last month — its lowest total immediately ahead of a presidential election since 2004 — even as the state’s total voter rolls bulged to 4.8 million.
Lake won 87 votes Thursday, and Massie got 49.
The party has largely been unable to chip into Baker’s popularity, and it failed to offer a legitimate challenge to the Republican’s reelection in 2018, when nominee Jay Gonzalez lost to Baker by nearly 34 points.
Lake, who has promised to “rebuild trust with the grassroots of our party” if elected, said after the vote that Democrats “only win” with three constituencies — people of color, young people, and the LGBTQ community.
“Our coalition was built from these communities, and I pray that the Democratic Party does right by them,” he said.
But Bickford, who has worked for Senator Elizabeth Warren and former attorney general Martha Coakley, argued he’s the “best person” to help the party retake the governorship — the only statewide office, along with lieutenant governor, Democrats currently don’t hold.
"I just look at the results. I know how to help people win elections,” Bickford said. “Taking back the corner office is going to be a significant goal of ours.”
Speaking by phone after the vote, Bickford also acknowledged that he still has bridges to rebuild within the party in the wake of the report. He said the party’s executive committee would discuss the report “relatively soon,” though some members of the Democratic State Committee expressed frustration after Thursday’s virtual meeting ended without more discussion on it.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to basically reach out to people and build back the faith and trust we have,” Bickford said. “It’s going to take work to make sure everyone knows that I am sorry.”