MARLBOROUGH — A Republican state committeewoman facing calls to step down from her elected position after making anti-gay remarks told a room full of her colleagues Wednesday evening that “I do not intend to be bullied into resigning,” according to multiple people in attendance.
Deborah Martell, who represents Ludlow on the 80-member GOP State Committee, lamented at the closed-door meeting that her e-mails declaring she was “sickened” that a GOP congressional candidate had adopted children with his husband had been taken out of context, and insisted she would not stand down from her role, as Massachusetts politicians as prominent as Governor Charlie Baker have called on her to do.
Her defiant stance came at the start of a contentious meeting of the party’s divided state committee, which has been roiled in recent weeks by the fallout from her anti-gay comments as well as a debate over a rules change that would undermine Baker and other elected officials.
Many in the party, including Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have condemned Martell, calling her remarks abhorrent and out of step with the GOP’s embrace of individual liberty. But Martell has become something of a martyr to some social conservatives in Massachusetts, who claim she is being unfairly attacked for her religious beliefs.
Those divisions were on full view in warring rallies outside the meeting venue Wednesday evening, when Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, the Republican congressional candidate that Martell had written to and about, faced off with demonstrators who defended her.
Sossa-Paquette lamented that GOP chairman Jim Lyons, who heads a more socially conservative faction of the party, has failed to defend him.
“How is he possibly running the Republican Party and saying that [it] is an inclusive party... while turning his back on bigotry and hatred and intolerance?” questioned Sossa-Paquette, who is running for the Second Congressional District.
Sossa-Paquette was confronted on the sidewalk outside the meeting venue by several counter-demonstrators, including Rayla Campbell, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Dianna Ploss, a Donald Trump supporter and former radio host who called Sossa-Paquette a “fraud” and declared “tolerance is a two-way street.”
In a rebuke of Martell, the committee supported a resolution stating that bigotry and intolerance “have no place in the Republican Party of Massachusetts.” But the measure won support only after it was significantly watered down.
Written by State Representative Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, the resolution had originally stated that any member of the committee espousing hateful ideology should receive “swift condemnation,” and receive no endorsement or support from the state GOP. That language was stripped out of the resolution before it was approved.
Dooley said he was disappointed that the committee hadn’t gone further, though he said the party’s bylaws committee will look into adding penalties for offensive remarks in the future.
“A resolution without any consequence is nothing but words,” Dooley said in an interview after the meeting. “’We don’t believe in hate or racism or bigotry or anything like that, but if you do it, there’s no consequence.’ I don’t think that sends a strong message to anybody.”
The events have further split the party, which is already divided between social conservatives and establishment moderates, and also diminished the standing of Lyons among some of his fellow Republicans. Last week, as he stayed silent on Martell’s remarks, nearly the entire Massachusetts House GOP caucus demanded he condemn her words or resign.
Lyons ultimately acknowledged Martell’s comments were “offensive” but insisted that the party must be “unafraid to stand up against censorship and ‘cancel culture.’ ”
“Members of the Massachusetts House Republican caucus are demanding that I force a woman of deep Catholic faith to resign from the Massachusetts Republican State Committee,” Lyons said. “Party bylaws are clear: Freedom of speech and religious liberty are values that are unbending and uncompromising.”
Party officials did not allow members of the press into the meeting, citing restrictions from the venue, which according to its website can accommodate events of more than 600. When vice chairman Tom Mountain sought to allow others to enter the room, Lyons declared him “out of order,” according to multiple attendees. And Sossa-Paquette claimed that Lyons personally blocked Sossa-Paquette’s 19-year-old daughter from entering the venue.
Martell, who has not returned requests for comment from the Globe, was given the floor to speak on her own behalf at the start of the meeting.
The e-mails at issue were sent last month and reviewed by the Globe in full.
“I am a Catholic who loves God and His Ten Commandments. I wish the best for every person in the world, including you!” Martell wrote to Sossa-Paquette on May 19. “What sickened me was that you adopted children. . . . Children deserve a mom and a dad. That’s how God designed marriage and the family.”
Mountain, who called on Martell to resign — a step he said Lyons should have taken — said Martell’s remarks did not present a “free speech issue,” but rather a question of bigotry. He stopped short of calling on Lyons to resign.
Several attendees said Lyons raised his voice at committee members during the Wednesday evening meeting, rebuking individual Republicans, calling one a “wise ass,” and complaining about allegations that he had discriminated against Asian Americans in the process of filling a seat on the state committee.
“I am damn tired of being called a racist!” Lyons vented, according to multiple attendees. A spokesman for the party did not immediately return a request for comment about the meeting.
And the party committee did not take up a Lyons-backed proposal that would have stripped voting power from Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and other elected officials who serve on the state party’s executive committee. That proposal — which could have cleared the way for the party to back a primary challenger to Baker — was tabled once it became clear that Lyons did not have the votes to pass it.
Instead, the group expressed early support for shifting endorsement power from the smaller executive committee, of which Baker is a member, to the full 80-member body. That change requires two more rounds of approval before it would go into effect.
In a statement, Lyons praised the committee’s work.
“There are those that spend so much time trying to sow chaos within the Massachusetts Republican Party, as shown by recent media coverage, but I’m proud tonight to say that Massachusetts Republican State Committee members found common ground on several positions that matter most,” Lyons added.