Massachusetts hasn’t seen a competitive Senate race in over a decade. John Kerry has had his seat for 24 years. Edward Kennedy held his for twice as long. So you’d think that the line of local pols waiting to fill an open seat would be longer than the morning rush at Dunkin' Donuts.
But at this point in a lightning quick campaign—the Democratic primary is less than two months off—Massachusetts’ most powerful politicians have begged off. The colorful Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, doesn’t want in. Neither does Rep. Ed Markey, the most senior member of the state’s delegation to the U.S. House. The same is true of Reps. Richard Neal, John Tierney and Stephen Lynch—who have nearly 30 years’ experience in Washington between them—have also decided to stay away. Even Teddy’s nephew, former Rep. Joe Kennedy II, has steered clear.
“This one of the more visible Senate seats in the country,” said Debbie Walsh of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. “And it’s in a state that, while it is a very progressive state, does not have a great record for electing women to office.”
What gives? One explanation: After waiting so long in the wings, the House members have built up so much seniority they’re reluctant to give up their clout to become a Senate freshman. Or maybe these guys are scared of the biggest name to enter the race so far: Martha Coakley, the state’s hard-nosed attorney general.
Coakley, who has worked as a state prosecutor since 1986, has such high name recognition and polling numbers statewide that nearly all other the big dogs in the Democratic field have heeled. Indeed, recent polling shows that Coakley’s advantage is only growing. She is now winning the vote of 47 percent of those surveyed; her closest possible rival, Rep. Michael Capuano, the former mayor of Somerville, polls only 9 percent. Capuano will formally announce his candidacy Friday.
Coakley’s background allows her to sport both white and blue collars when the occasion requires it—an alluring combination for someone who is going to need to raise millions of dollars in the next few weeks. She grew up in the working-class communities of Pittsfield and North Adams and then received an elite liberal arts education, graduating from Williams College in 1975.
A professor at Boston University Law School, where Coakley attended, told The Daily Beast that Coakley was “a standout” when she was there in the late '70s.
“She had a certain refinement and intellectual maturity,” Ira C. Lupu, now a professor at George Washington University Law School, said this week.
Coakley won the moot-court competition there before collecting her diploma and heading downtown for a stint at the major Boston law firm of Goodwin Procter.
“She had presence in court,” said Paul F. Ware, Jr., the chairman of Goodwin Procter’s litigation department. “She can be direct and forceful but sufficiently restrained and courteous. She makes a positive impression as well as a compelling legal point. That combination is frequently in short supply among stand-up lawyers.”
In 1986, Coakley joined the Middlesex County district attorney’s office and was appointed chief of child-abuse prosecution five years later. A year before being elected head of that office, Coakley made national headlines with her prosecution of Louise Woodward, a British nanny who was convicted of manslaughter for the death of a baby in her care. Coakley was the first district attorney to bring criminal charges against clergy, part of the fallout from a Catholic church scandal that began in Massachusetts but was felt all the way back in Rome. In 2006, Coakley was elected attorney general and made headlines again—this time for her decision to drop charges against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the construction firm behind Boston’s billion-dollar Big Dig project, responsible for the death of a woman who was crushed by a falling tunnel panel. (Coakley appointed Ware, her former supervisor at Goodwin Procter, a special prosecutor in that case.)
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to running as a prosecutor. On the one hand, Coakley can stress her tough-on-crime credentials.
“There’s always bad guys to put into prison,” said Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. “She gets to stand in front of a microphone and say she’s responsible for it.”
On the other hand, Coakley is stuck seeking the support of politicians who she is responsible for investigating. Just this week, her nascent campaign got tangled up with Boston’s mayoral election, which has a taken a slightly testy turn, as challengers want the incumbent Tom Menino investigated because his political aide has been deleting public emails.
Coakley, who would love an endorsement from Menino, deemed the sniping political, and not worth pursuing.
“We get lots of complaints from folks who are adversaries who have a particular agenda,” she told the Boston Herald.
Coakley must also overcome Massachusetts’ reputation as a state that has been surprisingly inhospitable to women, despite its progressive reputation.
The state has sent only four women to the House of Representatives in its history, and it has never elected a female senator; only a handful, including Coakley, have won statewide office of any sort. Jane Swift and Kerry Healey both served as lieutenant governors in Republican administrations (Swift served as acting governor from 2001 to 2003) and both faded rather quickly from the scene. According to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, Massachusetts ranks 18th in the United States for the number of women serving in the state legislature.
“This one of the more visible Senate seats in the country, and it’s in a state that, while it is a very progressive state, does not have a great record for electing women to office,” Walsh said.
Women’s groups are moving swiftly to seize the opportunity. Emily’s List endorsed Coakley last week. Barbara Lee, a noted Boston philanthropist and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, has signed on as a campaign co-chair.
The race has mostly gotten attention for its implications for health-care legislation as state officials wrangle over how to find an interim replacement for Kennedy, before the winner of the Jan. 19 election takes the seat. Most observers see former governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as the obvious choice to warm the seat (under the proposal being debated, the appointee would agree not to run for election). For his part, the Duke has dodged any questions about his interest in the job.
Coakley does have other challengers. Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year, a noted Boston public service organization, will oppose her. Khazei might be able to call upon a little Kennedy luster: The senator was often seen sporting one of the City Year’s bright red jackets during his final months. And Stephen Pagliuca, a managing director at Bain Capital—the firm where former Gov. Mitt Romney made his millions—has gathered together a group of top-flight advisers. Pagliuca may be able to count on the support of a few grateful Celtics fans. He is part owner of the team, which won a championship in 2008.
Pagliuca is a not the only non-politician with a sporting interest in the seat. Curt Schilling, a former Red Sox pitcher, has carried on a very public Hamlet act, trying to determine whether he wants to run as a Republican. So far, seems unlikely. Also adding spice to the race has been Massachusetts State Rep. Scott Brown, another Republican, who appeared naked in a 1982 Cosmo magazine centerfold, which reemerges any time he suggests interest in a higher office.
But those candidates are not taken too seriously—making the race, at this juncture, anyway, Coakley’s to lose. Said Jeffrey Berry, the Tufts political scientist, “I don’t see anything on the horizon, baring a scandal, that could stop her.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.