Bickford to step down as MassDems chair

Last updated on February 11, 2023

BOSTON — Gus Bickford is stepping down as chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party this spring, paving the way for new Gov. Maura Healey to reshape her party’s leadership.

Bickford, a veteran operative who specializes in voter contact, has worked for the Democratic National Committee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 campaign, several state parties and for John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. He announced his April departure in an emotional speech at the party’s meeting Saturday, according to a video shared with POLITICO.

Healey and Bickford are backing Steve Kerrigan, a former lieutenant governor nominee who Bickford defeated to win party chair in 2016, as the Democrats’ next leader. Kerrigan will have to join the Democratic State Committee to be eligible to be elected to the job.

The leadership shakeup marks one of Healey’s first major power plays as her party’s top elected official in Massachusetts. Healey’s historic victory last fall as the first woman and open lesbian to be elected governor paved the way for Democrats to claim full control over Beacon Hill for just the second time in 30 years.

“It’s no coincidence that under Gus’ leadership, last year was one of the most successful years ever for our party — electing Democrats up and down the ticket. I want to thank Gus for his outstanding service as party chair,” Healey, who’s in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association winter meeting, said in a statement.

Democrats flipped 19 seats under Bickford’s tenure, including more than a dozen in the Legislature and, this past fall, a trio of law enforcement seats long held by Republicans on Cape Cod and the South Coast. With Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll’s elections last fall, Democrats now hold every statewide and congressional office in Massachusetts, giving the party a governing trifecta on Beacon Hill.

Bickford noted all of those achievements in an interview, saying that after finally electing a woman as governor, he’s ready to step aside.

“I’ve been trying to elect a woman governor for 30 years. That’s done. I’ve got options, and I think at some point you’ve got to move on,” Bickford said.

Bickford’s term doesn’t expire until November 2024. But he will leave on April 24 with some stains on his otherwise stellar record of electing Democrats.

An internal review found Bickford violated party bylaws by getting involved in the 2020 primary between Rep. Richard Neal and then-Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. A scathing report found Bickford broke party rules by “encouraging” a group of college Democrats to come forward with allegations about inappropriate behavior by Morse. Bickford won reelection as party chair days later, though some Democrats remain stung by the ordeal.

A few procedural moves need to happen before Healey’s wish to transfer power between Bickford and Kerrigan can be fulfilled.

Kerrigan will need to be elected to the state committee in order to run for chair. He’ll likely be elected treasurer at the party’s next meeting — the current treasurer, Kathy Gasperine, also announced her departure on Saturday — and then chair. Democrats followed a similar process in making John Walsh party chair after Deval Patrick’s election as governor in 2006.

Healey said she’s “proudly supporting” Kerrigan for chair. “Steve is smart, collaborative, and knows what it takes to build successful campaigns at the federal, state and local level. I am confident that Steve is the best choice to lead our party forward,” she said.

Kerrigan, in an interview, lauded Bickford for his decades of service and said he looks forward to working with both the outgoing chair and Healey “as we move into the next phase and continue to advance Democratic causes and candidates.” He also said he intends to keep his job as president and CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center while serving as chair.