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.

This image can only be used for the story that originally ran in the 7/19/2014 issue of National Journal.  Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), currently running for Governor.
Nora Caplan-Bricker
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Nora Caplan-Bricker
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.”

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