The state Democratic Party is set to vote on its leadership this evening. The choice the party makes and how it reaches that decision will have repercussions here in Massachusetts, and it could tell us something about national politics as well. GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath discussed the race with GBH Radio's Adam Reilly. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: National politics has been sucking all of the oxygen out of the room and then some, but there's some interesting stuff here. Tell us about the vote that's going to decide who serves as the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Who's running?
Adam Reilly: It's a three person race. We've got the current chair, a guy named Gus Bickford, a longtime political operative who's worked for a bunch of big names behind the scenes over the years. He wants to keep his job and get another four-year term. He is running against and getting a challenge from Bob Massie, the former gubernatorial candidate who lost to Jay Gonzalez in the race for the Democratic nomination in the last election cycle. Also Mike Lake, who some will recognize as a candidate for lieutenant governor back in 2014. So we have three white men, which is something that some of those white men themselves bemoan. I think there's a keen awareness that the party needs to get more diverse, especially in leadership positions. But while three guys who demographically are pretty similar are going for the job, they are not the same when it comes to philosophy, about what the job should be.
Rath: Talk about that. What are their their pitches? What are the differences in philosophy?
Reilly: The big argument that Bob Massie makes is that the party shouldn't just be focused on getting people into office, it should also be focused on pressuring Democrats to act the right way once they've been elected. He's been circulating a 30-plus page manifesto to the members of the Democratic State Committee who are going to vote on the next chair, and he points out that even though the legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic, there are a whole bunch of pieces of lingering progressive legislation that is right in keeping with the party's platform. Party platforms are these sort of idealistic documents in which parties state what their priorities are. They describe the world that they would like to see come into existence. Massie says we've got all these Democrats on Beacon Hill and all this legislation that corresponds with what we say, our platform, that isn't getting passed, and it should be the job of the state party to push and hector and try to get people to vote the right way once they've won election.
Bickford, the incumbent, has a much more traditional conception of what the party is about. He thinks it's about winning elections, finding the financial resources, the organizational resources to help Democrats get elected, although he concedes that the party could do better than it has as serving as a source of pressure from the outside. Mike Lake, I would say, has a similar take to Massie's, although his critique is a little bit less detailed. He also, when I chatted with him, talked about the parties need to connect with constituencies that it's tended to take for granted over the years, to give people reasons to identify as Democrats. For example, women of color on the one hand and working class white men on the other. He believes that the party isn't doing enough to say to people, hey, you should be a Democrat given what your priorities are, so why aren't you one? Come on into the fold.
Rath: You mentioned how some of these local stories we've been missing because of everything else going on right now. One would ordinarily would have been a headline grabbing scandal was hat happened in the Massachusetts 1st Congressional District between incumbent Congressman Richard Neal and his challenger, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse. Refresh our memory about that scandal.
Reilly: I'm glad you brought that up, because it's playing a role in this race. This was the scandal involving Holyoke mayor Alex Morse, who was challenging that Democratic congressional incumbent Richard Neal in the 1st congressional district. Morse was accused by the College Democrats of Massachusetts of inappropriate behavior involving their members, making inappropriate overtures to some of their members. And then as the state party heard about this, the state party was accused of inappropriately putting their finger on the scale and intervening, trying to steer these complaints in certain directions that would help Neal, the incumbent, keep his seat in the primary and hurt Morse. There was a confidential report created for the Massachusetts Democratic Party which found that Gus Bickford, the incumbent chair, had erred by suggesting that one of these younger Democratic activists contact a reporter, that that constituted a violation of state bylaws that say that party staff cannot get involved in primaries, that they have to stay neutral. I've seen this document. It is not scathing. I wouldn't say that it identifies a vast conspiracy to take Alex Morse down, but it did chide Bickford for taking this step. When I talk to Bickford about this, he said basically that there was no ill intent here on our part, we didn't have an established protocol for dealing with this kind of thing, I feel terrible that people have been hurt by this, and because I know what happened, I'm in a position to help heal the party moving forward.
Rath: There's a lot of Democratic soul-searching right now because across the country, Democrats didn't do as well as expected. I'm even talking about Democrats at the local level across the country who didn't do as well as expected. First off, how was the election for Massachusetts Democrats? And how much are those broader party debates affecting what we're talking about right now, the contest tonight?
Reilly: For Massachusetts Democrats, they're in fine shape. I mean, they have maintained virtually total control in the State House. The congressional delegation is all Democratic. The big catch, of course, is that they don't have the governorship. Some people would tell you that some of the Democrats on Beacon Hill don't want the governorship and they like working with Governor Baker, perhaps more than they might have liked working with Deval Patrick, who is a member of their own party, back in the day. They're not sweating here, but what I do think we see at play in this race for state party chair - and by the way, all three candidates say they've got the answer for taking back the corner office, that they've got to work harder and be crisper when it comes to differentiating themselves from Charlie Baker and him from them - what I do think we see a play here is a combination of a proposed change in tactics and ideology. I'm thinking here especially about Massie and to some extent Mike Lake. If you have the state party as an outside entity that is pushing legislators once they've been elected to follow the party platform, you are effectively going to be pushing the party to the left. That gets us into these debates that we've heard from congresspeople who lost their seats or almost lost their seats, who say oh, we can never let the word socialism cross our lips again, we can't talk about defunding the police or Medicare for All. And then other Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say no, we didn't lose because we were talking about that stuff, we lost because we didn't run campaigns well. These big ideas for, I think Elizabeth Warren might have coined the phrase or appropriated phrase "big structural change" - these are the ideas that we need to be passionate about in order to win elections that we're not winning. So in that sense, I think this race isn't only about that discussion, but it is at least in part about that conversation that's going on.
Rath: Will we get sense out of this vote tonight which of those directions the Massachusetts Democrats might be taking?
Reilly: I think we'll get some sense, but there are also issues of personality at play here. There are some people who for various reasons aren't fans of Bickford. There are other people who for various reasons are kind of Massie and Lake. What we might get is some sense of how strong the progressive left is in comparison with more standard, centrist, traditional Massachusetts Democrats. I think of people like House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who embodies that type. We might get a sense of where that balance of power is right now in the state party, which could be a tea leaf to read as we start looking at which Democrats are going to challenge Governor Baker and which ones are going to gain traction as they try to get the nomination.