I wanted to like Martha Coakley. I wanted to be swept into the narrative, 50 years in the making, in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s efforts for equality culminated in a worthy successor, a nice Catholic girl from the Berkshires who had risen through the legal world and then the political ranks because of her savvy and hard work. There’s a storytelling appeal there. A satisfying symmetry to it. But that was far from the only reason to like Martha Coakley.
She’s smart, for one thing. In fact, her intelligence would be intimidating were it not for her warm demeanor, friends say. Though our attorney general is meticulous when preparing a case, she’s spontaneous in person: She once sang alongside a children’s choir performing for Governor Patrick. This dichotomy, this splash of color in the otherwise monochromatic world of law, inspires loyalty among staffers in Coakley’s office. They work hard for her. And she works just as hard, which gives her an impressive air of assurance when handling the more political parts of her job.
In the days before her Senate campaign, Coakley held many press conferences to tout the cases that she, as attorney general, had won. There was an unflinching confidence to those appearances, as if she were a figure in an Ayn Rand novel, all lifted chin and steady gaze. I had read that Coakley’s first role models were the nuns who educated her in North Adams parochial schools: strong women who taught their pupils there was nothing wrong with being as cerebral as their teachers. Years later, as Coakley talked about the predatory-lending settlement she’d reached with Goldman Sachs (the first in the nation), or the $458 million she’d won the state for the Big Dig collapse, she must have made the sisters proud.
She also looks the way you’d want your senator to look. The short, parted hair—no doubt cut for the utility it offers a woman with such a demanding schedule—frames a face that well into its sixth decade remains taut and angular and, in the right light, as stunning as it surely appeared 25 years ago, when Coakley was a young associate at Goodwin Procter. Her attractiveness, coupled with her intelligence, gives her a remarkable charisma. And the natural it that Coakley possesses inspires statements like Barbara Lee’s, the Cambridge philanthropist cochairing Coakley’s Senate campaign: “When I met Martha years ago…I thought, This woman could be president.”
This is how people have talked about Coakley’s political potential for close to two decades now. Her friend Beth Boland, a partner at Bingham McCutchen, says she came to know Coakley while serving as president of the state Women’s Bar Association in the 1990s. Boland was so impressed with Coakley—she lived up to all the promise Boland had heard—that she vowed, “If Martha ever runs for higher office, I want to get in on the ground floor.” Boland served as finance chair for Coakley’s attorney general run in 2006, a race that ended up requiring little cash: Coakley ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and won the general election in a landslide. Such was her appeal. It was her time—and if the polling can be trusted, it’s her time again.
The fervor that follows Coakley now—through all the interminable stops that exhaust and exhilarate a candidate—holds within it a simple truth, the reason Coakley is the frontrunner for Kennedy’s seat: She is not like any senator we’ve had before. She is, well, a she. And in this race, where the four Democratic candidates are all pro-choice disciples of universal healthcare, where they vary from one another only in the amount of drool they drip on Teddy’s legacy, something like gender counts.
But few supporters of Coakley’s would ever admit that. Instead, her fans have convinced themselves that her lead is reflective of her fairness, intelligence, compassion—attributes synonymous with her character, sure. But those traits are also claimed by all her opponents. The only difference is that her lead allows her to use this stuff in speeches while they must resort to smaller, wedge issues as a means to make inroads against her.
For Coakley, this is a neat trick and a smart strategy, running on something as broad as a well-rounded personality, and one she fully exploits. Add to that the flair of her presence—always in high heels these days, always bejeweled—and we have a Senate candidate with the panache of a Kennedy and, increasingly, the one-name ubiquity of a Hillary. (Which may be the neatest trick of all, taking a name like “Martha” and making it stand for something more than crocheting your own wardrobe.)