As tensions within the Massachusetts Republican Party rise to a fever pitch, seven former GOP leaders, including a lieutenant governor and congressman, on Thursday wrote that its chairman, Jim Lyons, has lost his right to lead — and that if he will not step down, the Republican State Committee should remove him.
Lyons has been criticized by many in his own party for his handling of anti-gay remarks by a fellow Republican, as well as his own attacks on GOP leaders like Governor Charlie Baker, all while the party’s fund-raising lags and its electoral power dwindles.
“As State Committee leaders, we put the party ahead of ourselves. We were not the party. We were not bigger than the party. We served the party,” they wrote in a letter to the party’s 80-member governing panel. “A chair who is unable to put the welfare of the party ahead of his or her own interests should have the decency to step aside, for the sake of the party they claim to serve. If the chair will not, the time has come for the State Committee to act.”
The letter was signed by seven former party chairs: Jeanne Kangas; Kerry Healey, a lieutenant governor and gubernatorial nominee; Jennifer Nassour; Brian Cresta; Peter Torkildsen, a former congressman from the Sixth District; Jean Inman; and Darrell Crate.
Already a divisive figure in the state party, Lyons has been under fire in recent days for not forcefully condemning Deborah Martell, an elected Republican leader who told a GOP congressional candidate she was “sickened” that he and his husband had adopted children together. After staying silent for days, ignoring media requests and calls from some of his fellow Republicans, Lyons called Martell’s remarks “offensive” but did not call on her to resign, as many top party officials had, saying he refused to bow to “cancel culture.” And Republican critics, many of them more moderate than Lyons, say the chairman has failed the party by failing to fund-raise and recruit strong candidates, as well as applying an overly strict litmus test to a party that should be inclusive.
Lyons did not immediately return a request for comment on the letter.
The party’s long-simmering tensions came to a head Wednesday night at a meeting of the Republican State Committee, where Martell said she would not be “bullied” into resigning.
The incident has damaged Lyons’s standing in the party, with 29 of 30 Massachusetts House Republicans calling on him last week to speak out against Martell or resign. Still, at Wednesday’s meeting, there was no concerted effort to strip him of his leadership role, which would require a two-thirds vote of the committee. Lyons was reelected as chairman in January with 39 votes out of 75 cast, and he still has the support of much of the committee, fellow Republicans said.
Lyons lashed out at his rivals on Thursday, writing in an e-mail to fellow Republicans that the House lawmakers who spoke out against him had bowed to “poisonous woke cancel culture groupthink.”
He exhorted fellow Republicans to join a letter slamming the House lawmakers for giving in to “the woke mob.”
“Not only did you all wave the white flag of surrender, but you all betrayed our fundamental principles,” two Lyons allies, committee members Mary Lou Stuart and Jay Fleitman, wrote to the legislators. “It is unforgivable for Republicans to be giving left wing democrats ammunition to use against us: accepting their cancel culture tactics only emboldens them.”
The Martell incident has only inflamed divisions in the party, which is split between social conservatives who line up behind Lyons and establishment moderates more loyal to Governor Charlie Baker.
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 whom Martell had written to and about, faced off with demonstrators who defended her.
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 that “tolerance is a two-way street.”
In a rebuke of Martell, the committee on Wednesday 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 to remove any consequences for Republicans who make offensive remarks.
Lyons tried to project a united front for the party after Wednesday’s meeting, when Republicans agreed to pass a resolution supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and others related to voting.
“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 Republicans State Committee members found common ground on several positions that matter most,” Lyons said in a statement after the meeting.
But for many in the room that night, it was far from a unifying event. Multiple attendees said Lyons repeatedly raised his voice, calling one member a “wise ass” and refusing to recognize others to speak.
Tom Mountain, the party’s vice chairman, is no longer on speaking terms with Lyons. At the meeting Wednesday evening, Lyons declared Mountain “out of order” when he tried to allow more people to enter the room for a meeting that Lyons insisted was closed-door.
In an e-mail to fellow Republican State Committee members Thursday morning, Lindsay Valanzola, who represents Wales, wrote that she was “truly saddened at the state of the MassGOP after last night’s meeting,” where she said members wasted their time “fighting each other, name calling, and blatantly disrespecting members of our party.”
In six years on the state committee, she wrote, “I’ve never been ashamed to be associated with the party like I am right now.”
Top Republicans have said Lyons’s response to the Martell incident was insufficient, including Governor Charlie Baker, who said that the party’s leader was out of touch with most Republicans’ more accepting beliefs.
In a May 19 e-mail obtained by the Globe, Martell told Sossa-Paquette that “I am a Catholic who loves God and His Ten Commandments. I wish the best for every person in the world, including you!”
She added: “What sickened me was that you adopted children. . . . Children deserve a mom and a dad. That’s how God designed marriage and the family.”
Sossa-Paquette said Lyons should be “ashamed” of himself for failing to stand up for him. He called on Lyons to resign.
Sossa-Paquette is seeking a Second Congressional District seat.
Jasper Goodman contributed reporting.