The Martha Coakley Story

Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general and candidate for U.S. Senate, has played this role before and lost. Twelve years ago, when she was a politically hungry assistant D.A. and her local state representative quit mid-term, Coakley jumped into the special election—the only woman running against four men. It seemed like good strategy.

But she forgot where she was: Dorchester, Mass., the most parochial neighborhood (with the possible exception of Southie) in the most parochial city in the country. The ladies of Savin Hill and Neponset didn’t embrace the ambitious, unmarried, Berkshire-born prosecutor as one of their own; instead, they treated her with the same cool indifference that anyone who’s not OFD—Originally From Dorchester—gets. On Election Day, Coakley finished a dismal fourth in the five-way field.

And now here she is, all these years later, the only woman vying to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat. The field isn’t as crowded as initially expected—South Boston Rep. Stephen Lynch stunned the Massachusetts political world by pulling out on Tuesday—but Coakley will still probably end up facing two or three male candidates in the December vote.

Unlike her first foray into politics, though, Coakley enters this campaign as the clear front-runner, and for good reason. No one named Kennedy is running, for one thing, and none of her prospective opponents has the statewide reputation she already enjoys thanks to her role as A.G. And, wince the jury isn’t limited to OFD’s anymore, this time her gender is a big help.

Yes, we should repeat the cliché that lots can happen between now and Election Day.

With Lynch’s departure, Coakley’s main rival figures to be Michael Capuano, an 11-year House veteran from Somerville, a city about evenly divided between old school “white ethnics” and liberal, educated newcomers. The next most likely entrant is a surprise: Stephen Pagliuca, an owner of the Boston Celtics who is being advised by Tad Devine, Joel Benenson, and Doug Rubin (who ran Deval Patrick’s winning gubernatorial campaign in 2006). John Tierney, the congressman from the North Shore, might possibly jump in, along with Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year.

It’s between difficult and impossible to conceive of a winning formula for any one of these men, but who knows?

Right now, though, it’s more than likely that on the night of December 8, Martha Coakley will be accepting the Democratic nomination for Kennedy’s Senate seat—which in Massachusetts in 2009 is the same thing as winning the general election.

A Coakley triumph would, first and foremost, mark a breakthrough for female candidates in Massachusetts, where no woman has ever been elected to the governorship or the U.S. Senate. Evelyn Murphy and Jane Swift both won the lieutenant governor’s office, but they ran on tickets with male gubernatorial candidates. Swift actually inherited the governorship when Paul Cellucci skipped town two years into his term, but she struggled mightily and Republicans pushed her aside long before the 2002 primary.

It would also mark the culmination of a decade of shrewd maneuvering by Coakley, who, after the humbling denouement of that ill-advised ’97 campaign, really hasn’t made a bad political move.

A native of North Adams, a small western Massachusetts city that’s a lot closer to Albany than it is to Boston, she graduated in 1975 from Williams College in next-door Williamstown, then headed off to law school at Boston University. After stints in private practice and with the Justice Department, she made her way in 1989 to Middlesex County District Attorney’s office—which has long-served as an incubator for future Massachusetts political talent (John Kerry is among its alumni).

Because Middlesex is the largest and most diverse county in the state (and because of its proximity to Boston), its D.A.’s office handles a disproportionate number of sexy cases—the ones that attract the kind of media coverage that can be very helpful to a prosecutor with political aspirations. Coakley’s first boss, Scott Harshbarger, was elected attorney general in 1990 and narrowly lost the governor’s race in 1998. Her second boss, Tom Reilly, made the move to A.G. in 1998—which created a perfect opportunity for Coakley, months after the Dorchester fiasco, to take another shot at elected office.

So she moved to suburban Arlington, a recovering dry town that, unlike Dorchester, is actually in Middlesex County. Reilly, who’d richly earned a reputation as a publicity hound, threw his support behind Coakley, but she drew two opponents in the Democratic primary: Michael Sullivan, a Cambridge city councilman, and Michael Flaherty, the son of a former state House Speaker who’d resigned two years earlier after being charged with federal tax fraud.

The primary was a low-key affair, but Coakley did take some heat for one Reilly P.R. move that backfired: the aggressive 1997 prosecution of Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair whom Reilly charged with first-degree murder after the eight-month old boy in her care died of brain swelling caused by shaken baby syndrome.

The fall ’97 trial, which was followed locally and nationally, turned the public’s sympathy toward Woodward. Perhaps she’d handled the boy too aggressively, most concluded, but surely she didn’t mean to kill him. Reilly, who was known to prosecute high-profile cases himself, handed off the prosecution to his assistants, most prominently Coakley—making her the public face of an effort many voters disagreed with strongly.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Woodward of second-degree murder, a decision that was quickly overturned by the trial’s judge, who reduced the crime to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced the au pair to time served.

Unpopular though it was, the Woodward prosecution didn’t hurt Coakley much at the polls: She won the September 1998 primary handily, with 47 percent. (On the same day, Reilly edged out state Senator Lois Pines by four points for the Democratic nod for A.G.). Neither Coakley nor Reilly had any trouble in November.

Coakley’s stewardship of the Middlesex D.A.’s office is a case study in effective political positioning. Her two predecessors, Reilly and Harshbarger, had both parlayed the gig into the A.G.’s office and Coakley made it clear right away that she intended to follow their lead.

While tending to her day job, which afforded her plenty of on-air time on local newscasts, she assembled a powerful financial machine, relying on her deep contacts in the state’s legal community (here, her says of private practice came in handy) and cultivating a network of female donors—to whom it was made clear that they were investing in a woman with potential to go much farther than the D.A.’s office,

When the 2002 governor’s race ended with Republican Mitt Romney winning, it became apparent Reilly would run for the office in 2006—meaning that the A.G.’s job would be open. Several other Democrats were interested, but they quickly backed off: Coakley had money, unusual (for a D.A.) name recognition, and had effectively sealed off the logical fund-raising avenues for potential rivals. She won the nomination unopposed and coasted in the general election.

And from the moment she was sworn in as A.G., the only question was whether her next move would be a run for governor or for the U.S. Senate. After all, seven of her eight immediate predecessors ended up seeking one (or both) of those offices (and the only one who didn’t, James Shannon, surely would have ultimately done so had he not been defeated for re-nomination in the 1990 Democratic primary).

Kennedy’s grim May 2008 diagnosis essentially resolved the matter of Coakley’s next move. There is said to be some resentment within the Kennedy family of Coakley’s posturing during the senator’s 15-month cancer battle (and of the speed with which she entered the race after his death), but it hasn’t hurt her with the public.

Who knows, she might even do well in Dorchester this time around. Even back during that hopeless ’97 campaign, the publisher of the neighborhood’s weekly paper—a man who proudly and transparently dedicated every page of his publication to the election of one of Coakley’s opponents—watched the spunky non-OFDer in a debate and had to admit: “This girl can go places someday.”