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The Rehabilitation of Martha Coakley

+(Jason Grow)

The Rehabilitation of Martha Coakley

She was the most vilified politician in America. Four years later, she's on the brink of a remarkable comeback.


In Boston, Massachusetts, sports are as serious as politics, and politics are as bloody as sports, so it was only natural that Martha Coakley used baseball to take a jab at her opponent for the Senate in January 2010. Scott Brown had brought former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to stump for him, and Coakley was having none of it. “He’s a Yankee fan, I just want people to know,” she said with a laugh in a radio interview.

“Uhhh, yeah, but now Scott Brown has Curt Schilling,” the host, Dan Rea, bantered back.


“And another Yankee fan!” Coakley said.

Around the state, jaws dropped.

“Schilling? Curt Schilling, a Yankee fan,” Rea sputtered.

The ease evaporated from Coakley’s voice. “No,” she interjected, “all right, I’m wrong on my—I’m wrong.”

“The Red Sox great pitcher of the bloody sock?” Rea pressed.

“Well,” Coakley said lamely, “he’s not there anymore.”

If only calling the pitcher who defeated the 86-year Curse of the Bambino a “Yankee fan” were Coakley’s sole misstep, she might still have managed to win the special election to fill Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat. But her gaffe reel was long: the time one of her supporters (some say it was a staffer) knocked over a Weekly Standard reporter and Coakley didn’t extend a hand to help him up; the time her campaign misspelled “Massachusetts” in an attack ad (which was also criticized for being distastefully negative). Perhaps worst of all, there was the time a Boston Globe reporter suggested she had run a “passive” race, and she shot back, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”—apparently a dig at Brown for doing just that.

By the time Coakley conceded in 2010, the mockery she faced was merciless. (UPI/Ryan T. Conaty)Four years ago, Coakley was “a national punch line,” as David Bernstein, a political journalist at Boston Magazine who was then at The Boston Phoenix, puts it. She was the once-popular attorney general who blew a 20-point lead; the politician who lost Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican—a virtual unknown, no less—in a state Barack Obama had won by a country mile.

At the time, the mockery was merciless. Jon Stewart deadpanned that “Coakley went into the bar in Cheers and didn’t know anybody’s name.” Saturday Night Live did a skit in which Coakley was the subject of Obama’s State of the Union speech. “Martha Coakley, you are a disgrace,” intoned Fred Armisen-Obama. “You couldn’t beat Dick Cheney for mayor of Berkeley.”

To make matters worse, Brown’s win wiped out the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate, and liberals from Chris Matthews to Barney Frank predicted that health care reform would die with it. High-ranking Democrats turned on Coakley; Obama senior adviser David Axelrod didn’t wait until the polls were closed to rail against her for waiting too long to seek help from the White House. He even praised then-state Sen. Brown for running “a very clever campaign.” Recalls Bernstein: “There were a lot of people saying, ‘She’s going to have to get out of politics.’ ”


TWO YEARS LATER, Martha Coakley was—improbably—the most popular elected official in Massachusetts, with a 62 percent favorability rating in a Boston Globe poll. It was a pretty impressive turnaround, but Coakley wasn’t finished. She had spent years collecting tchotchkes in the shape of giraffes—joking that the animal was her “mascot,” says her best friend from college, Andrea Axelrod, because “it sticks its neck out.” Last September, Coakley stuck her neck out, too, and announced that she would run for governor in 2014.

In June, a Suffolk University survey found her leading her closest primary opponent, state Treasurer Steve Grossman, by more than 30 points, and her prospective Republican rival, Charlie Baker, by 7. Coakley, it now appears, is on the verge of pulling off one of the greatest feats of political redemption in recent memory.

Part of the explanation for this remarkable comeback is what you might expect: Coakley didn’t dwell on the loss; she didn’t slink away in humiliation; she simply owned up to what happened, and moved on. About a month after the election, she gathered a group of her supporters to say, “ ‘Get over it,’ ” recalls Georgia Murray, one of her financial backers. “ ‘I’m back at work. I made a mistake. It’s over, it’s done.’ I thought, ‘Wow, she has an inner steel core.’ ”

Within weeks of her Senate loss, Coakley hit the road again to start collecting signatures for her reelection campaign for attorney general. “I remember approaching a fellow in Arlington, near where I lived,” she tells me. “And he had a soldier’s kinda ball cap, and I thought, this is probably someone who voted for Scott Brown. You know, just by the demographics.” When she stuck out her hand and her pad, she recalls, “He said, ‘Maaar-tha Coooak-ley?”—she imitates his gravelly voice—“and then he stopped, and he said, ‘You know, I voted for Scott Brown, but you’re a good attorney general.’ ” She shrugs. “And he signed my papers.”

As her run for governor gets underway, it’s clear that she has reviewed the game tapes from her last outing, learned from her errors, and modified once-central parts of her public identity.

It didn’t hurt Coakley that, 10 months after her Senate defeat, Democrats were routed nationwide in the midterms. That GOP cascade made Brown’s victory feel, in retrospect, less like a function of Coakley’s incompetence and more like a harbinger of larger trends. “Scott Brown was the first race in America where the tea party proved to be more than an angry group of people,” John Walsh, the state Democratic Party chairman at the time, says. “People lay too much at the feet of Martha for that.” Walsh says now that he and Massachusetts Democrats were “asleep at the switch,” and didn’t do enough to get out the vote. That loss, he contends, was the wake-up call local Democrats needed to revamp their grassroots machine.

It didn’t take long for the party’s reckoning with itself to bear fruit, and it might have been easier for Democrats to forgive Coakley once Elizabeth Warren had vanquished Brown in 2012. (As Massachusetts Democratic operative Lou DiNatale puts it: “She’s lucky Brown is no longer the senator, or she couldn’t be running. It was OK—she didn’t permanently lose the fucking Kennedy seat!”) Nor, it turned out, did the dismantling of the Democrats’ supermajority prevent the Affordable Care Act from reaching the president’s desk.

In other words, the context for, and consequences of, Coakley’s loss have begun to look a little less black-and-white with the passage of time. But perhaps the biggest factor driving Coakley’s resurrection belongs to a different category entirely. As her run for governor gets underway, it’s clear that she has reviewed the game tapes from her last outing, learned from her errors, and modified once-central parts of her public identity. The resulting shifts tell you a lot about what we expect of our politicians these days. They also say something about what it means to be a female politician of a certain generation.


COAKLEY IS FOND of telling reporters that when she graduated from Boston University School of Law, her father gave her a plaque that read, “Sometimes, the best man for the job is a woman.” It was 1979, the year Hillary Clinton became a partner in the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, and around the same time that a young reporter named Jill Abramson was launching her career.

It was also the beginning of the antifeminist backlash of the 1980s. Coakley and her female peers were joining male-dominated professions—roughly 12 percent of American lawyers at the time were women—in which their presence was grudgingly tolerated, and they knew it. Their response? To mold and armor themselves carefully—with padded shoulders and helmet hair—in order to fit into the culture without seeming to disrupt it. They just wanted to be allowed to do their jobs, and to be taken seriously. That meant being tough without being perceived as threatening. It also meant becoming adept at keeping the personal and the emotional separate from the professional.

“The people who were successful and had a lot of friends and accomplished their objectives were people who had the ability to acculturate and work within the system that was presented,” says Barbara Austell, who attended college with Coakley and went on to work at JPMorgan Chase. She describes Coakley as “very businesslike, but I never thought of her as being strident.”

“These women, they got it,” says Chris Alberti, another classmate who has stayed close to Coakley, and who supports her even though he is a registered Massachusetts Republican. “They were effective without being strident,” he says—repeating a word that has become a kind of shorthand for feminists who are perceived as aggressive, confrontational, or demanding. He adds, “They worked well with the men.”

"I do realize that people want to know who you are," Coakley says. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Born in 1953, Coakley was raised in the more rural, western half of Massachusetts, in the town of North Adams. Her father was an insurance salesman, and her mother stayed home with their brood of five. Coakley was interested in politics from an early age—her love of American history was second only to her passion for show tunes, recalls Nancy Louden, who met her at debate camp.

In 1971, Coakley became part of the first freshman class at nearby Williams College to include women. The experience, she tells me, made her a feminist. “I appreciated that I now had the opportunity that men had, to have great teachers and make those contacts,” she recalls. “We were part of an experiment, in a way, to say, ‘What does this mean for women to be at the table?’ ” She involved herself in the transition to coeducation, cofounding a women’s club and helping to publish the first “Williams Guide to Health and Sex.” But, remembers Andrea Axelrod, “she was never a bra burner.”

According to friends who knew her as a young lawyer, Coakley spent her 20s and 30s refining the approach she’d learned in college. “I think that Martha ends up having a reserved personality in her public face,” says Jane Tewksbury, who worked with her at the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, of which Coakley was president from 1986 to 1988. “And I think this is probably due to an experience of growing up in a situation where there were acceptable and unacceptable ways to advocate for what you believed in. If [women] were not measured and careful in our advocacy, we were not taken as seriously.”

When I ask Coakley how she thinks being a pioneering woman shaped her, she answers evasively. “Um, well, of course, we’re all shaped by the times we grow up in,” she says. Then she details all the good fortune that got her here, and veers into her experiences as a lawyer with “women who were victimized as drug carriers for boyfriends or husbands … women who were trafficked and had huge records for prostitution.” She’s ever the prosecutor, never the victim. (When The New York Times asked her whether gender hurt her in the Brown race, she said, “I can’t say specifically that that played a role.”)

Coakley spent seven years in private practice before taking a job in the district attorney’s office in Middlesex, the most populous county in the state. She left the firm because she was tired of settling out of court. “I realized that criminal [law] was where the action was,” she told The Globe. “I wanted to do murders.” Instead, she was handpicked to lead a new child-abuse unit, which she built nearly from scratch. She supervised roughly a thousand of the grisly cases in less than a decade. On the strength of her record, she became the first woman elected Middlesex district attorney, and then, eight years later, Massachusetts’ first female attorney general.

"You’re not tough enough, or you’re too tough. You’re not feminine enough, or you’re too feminine. It becomes a double-bind."

COAKLEY'S FRIENDS DESCRIBE her as warm and witty behind the scenes. “Martha, she has friends from kindergarten,” marvels Louden. “She’s an incredibly loyal person who just stays connected to people.” She has woven a web of what Louden calls “Friends of Martha—FOMs,” people like Louden and Axelrod, who have been close since Coakley “knowingly presented” them to each other when they were teens. In those days, they say, Coakley loved a good prank; as AG, she is known for writing tongue-in-cheek limericks about staffers and singing karaoke at holiday parties.

The gap between this private Coakley and the flinty figure who emerged from the 2010 race confused the people who knew her best. “I took it really hard when she lost,” Louden says. “I don’t know if advisers were trying to get her to be seen as somebody who you could see in the Senate—I don’t know where that came from. It was so far apart, so distant from the Martha that I know.”

Scott Brown, after winning the Massachusetts Senate race in 2010. (Robert Spencer/Getty Images)The adamantine professionalism that had helped Coakley succeed now became part of what pundits criticized and voters rejected. Coakley faced a candidate who, in 1982, had posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine—an unthinkable choice in those days for a woman with professional aspirations. Brown was a handsome, charming, pickup-truck-driving “regular guy” whose likability was his biggest selling point—an approach that wasn’t in Coakley’s repertoire.

Even if it had been, running against him on his terms might well have backfired. “If [women] get too personal, they’re seen as soft,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “You’re not tough enough, or you’re too tough. You’re not feminine enough, or you’re too feminine. It becomes a double-bind.”

To be warm and relatable without being perceived as too feminine or emotional; to be tough and competent without coming off as too cold or impersonal: It was a balancing act that the Coakley of 2010 couldn’t manage. In this, she was hardly alone. As first lady, Hillary Clinton never quite struck this balance until her husband’s affair publicly “humanized” her in the most painful way possible. And Jill Abramson reached the top of her profession only to have some of the traits that brought her there morph into liabilities.

COAKLEY, NOT SURPRISINGLY, doesn’t speak about the evolution of her public image in terms of gender. But it’s very clear that, this time around, she set out to recalibrate how voters view her. Last time, she told The Globe that campaigning, like prosecuting a case, is not like “talking to my husband”; now, she appears to be working overtime to crack open her no-nonsense veneer.

One of the first things she did was to hire Doug Rubin, a strategist on two of the most successful populist campaigns in Massachusetts history: Gov. Deval Patrick’s and Sen. Warren’s. Rubin tells me Coakley approached him with a playbook in mind. “She came to us and wanted to run a more grassroots campaign,” he says. “It wasn’t us saying it to her; it was her saying, ‘This is how I want to run. Can you put this together for us?’ ”

It’s a strategy that wasn’t available to her in 2010, when she had just six weeks between the primary and Election Day. It’s also one that suggests some self-awareness. Patrick and Warren are charismatic speakers. Coakley looks stiff at a podium, like she’s hunching her shoulders—but she’s persuasive in a smaller room. So, she’s been schlepping all over the state to sit down with groups of 10 or 20 pre-K teachers, or community organizers, or union members. Coakley opens by saying she’s there to collect stories and suggestions, not to make a case for herself. “Every campaign is different, and you have to play to that candidate’s strength,” Rubin says. “Martha’s strength is that she’s very sincere, very genuine.”

If Coakley doesn’t light up a room, she does put people at ease. When she meets with about a dozen unemployed constituents in down-at-the-heels Gardner, in late June, one woman’s face goes red as they shake hands. “I just put on hand lotion,” she apologizes. “I need some!” Coakley responds. “I’m taking it off.” She rubs the woman’s hand between both of hers; the room chuckles and exhales.

Coakley is unfailingly substantive, smoothly injecting nuggets of policy knowledge—where the Legislature stands on an issue, or how an agency could improve. But in settings like this, she’s also animated. She balls her hands into fists and makes a rolling motion while she talks, like a mechanic winding up a machine or a boxer prepping for a fight. When she listens, she pinions you with unwavering eye contact.

"Martha’s strength is that she’s very sincere, very genuine."

In Gardner, she leans forward, nodding, as one job seeker holds back tears. The constituent has a master’s in early-childhood education, she explains shakily, and recently lost out on a job doing event planning for children—to someone who had training as a clown. “You changed careers to do something that you love, and now you’re at the bottom of the ladder, which is unfortunate,” Coakley tells her. As her staff tries to hustle her out after the meeting, she pulls the young woman aside for a few more words of encouragement.

During this campaign, Coakley has also been sharing the story of her younger brother, Edward, who committed suicide in 1996. “She started mentioning it a few times in a couple of the early campaign settings we had, and the thing she noticed right away was that every time she mentioned it, a couple people afterwards came up to her, very quietly, and said, ‘My brother,’ or, ‘My father,’ or, ‘Somebody’s dealing with that, and it really meant a lot to me that you would talk about it,’ ” Rubin says. “She realized that her talking about it publicly helped them. It more grew organically than from any calculated decision.”

IT'S ALSO HELPED that Coakley has had an ambitious second term as attorney general. She launched a “HomeCorps” program that made it easier for Bay Staters slammed by the mortgage crisis to refinance. In 2009, during her first term, she had been the first AG in the country to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, and she continued to hammer away at it in appeals. She defended Massachusetts’ law barring abortion protesters from a “buffer zone” around clinics—and now that the Supreme Court has ruled against her, she is at work on a replacement.

In 2010, “maybe people saw somebody other than who I think I am,” Coakley admits to me over coffee in Sebastians, a café in downtown Boston with pea-green walls. When I ask her to elaborate, she reframes her comment a bit: “Or didn’t have a chance to see me, in other words.” She adds, “I do realize that people want to know who you are. If they think you’re competent, that’s fine, but they want to trust you. … It’s one of the reasons why I’m glad my husband’s been out campaigning. I want them to see him, and who we are.”

Coakley and her husband, Thomas O’Connor, a retired Cambridge police officer, married when she was 47. They don’t have children. (“They have dogs instead,” Alberti says.) Coakley says that, when she was in her 30s, she “made a conscious decision at the time that, for me, at least, I couldn’t do everything in life.”

Coakley and husband Thomas O'Connor. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)She is right that her husband’s presence on the trail has probably been a boon. “The complaint when she ran for Senate was, ‘She has no family … she’s not warm and fuzzy, because she has no children,’ ” says Massachusetts state Senate President Therese Murray, a supporter of Coakley’s. “She brought out her sister and her niece, and she’s talking about her brother’s death from mental illness. How much more do people want?”

At least one more thing: They undoubtedly want her to prove that she’s not above shaking hands with voters—no matter how well she’s doing in the polls, and no matter how bad the weather. So on a torrid Saturday in late June, when she had already driven 30 miles south from her hometown of Medford for a campaign event, then 30 miles back to Medford to give a speech, and then 10 gridlocked miles into Boston, she spent more than two hours at a picnic, marching from one cluster of revelers to the next. “Hi, I’m Martha Coakley,” she said again and again, extending a hand over half-empty beer coolers and the backs of lawn chairs. “I’m your attorney general, and I’m running for governor.”

This article appears in the July 19, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Rehabilitation of Martha Coakley.


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