But assumptions have their shortcomings. At the first televised debate at the Kennedy Library, Coakley looked wooden and spoke in a stilted manner. The caution she’d applied to her cases had now been applied to her campaign. The insouciant, even humorous Coakley I’d heard about—the one who wrote irreverent poems for outgoing staffers—had been replaced by a guarded politron who, in her effort to grip each tense finger around her lead, looked to be slowly strangling it.
She played much better on TV. That was the weird thing. Coakley was the one candidate to direct her answers to the camera, not to moderator Peter Meade. It was a subtle move, and a canny one: Moments before the debate aired, Coakley had motioned to Meade, asking which camera was hers. He pointed to one to the left of her, and she pointed twice more to confirm. To viewers, her responses offered reassuring warmth. She knew the audience she needed to impress.
Savvy politics doesn’t always make for great policy, though. Take, for instance, the cases Coakley didn’t prosecute as AG. Though she’s gone after public officials, the three biggest public-corruption cases of the past three years—the only three that anyone remembers—saw her sitting on the sidelines. The indictment of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi for allegedly receiving payments for state software contracts that he helped push through; the indictments of state Senator Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner for allegedly accepting bribe money from undercover FBI agents—Coakley didn’t charge any of these people with crimes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did. The FBI had video proof of Wilkerson stuffing bribe money into her bra. Coakley did nothing. The Globe and Secretary of State William Galvin hammered DiMasi and his (allegedly) shady friends for 14 months. And the best Coakley could do was indict DiMasi’s golfing buddy Richard Vitale? On misdemeanor charges?
Coakley knows that pouncing on big-name prey (like Goldman Sachs) will score headlines and position her as a tough prosecutor. But she also knows toughness will get her only so far. As AG, Scott Harshbarger nailed all sorts of public officials in the 1990s, and paid the price: When he ran for governor in 1998, he did it without the help of state Democrats, many of whom he’d angered at some point. Harshbarger lost.
Coakley has done an intricate little dance these past few years, avoiding Harshbarger’s missteps. When the big-name prey wields statewide political clout (DiMasi), or represents a key minority group (Wilkerson), Coakley defers, staying popular at the State House in the process. Today more than 80 state legislators have lent her their full support.
Coakley is calculating in other ways, too. Just look at her campaign finance forms. A candidate can’t use state funds for a federal campaign, but that’s exactly what Coakley has done. The state GOP was the first to pick up on this, saying she had paid roughly $30,000 to people on her payroll who had the ostensible job of helping with her AG run in 2010. Only problem is, these people are also helping her now with her Senate campaign. Coakley has publicly called the allegation petty politics, but she also quietly moved $35,000 from her state campaign coffers to her federal ones. The Federal Election Committee has taken the complaint from the state GOP under review.
Before it finishes, the FEC should know that it’s not $35,000 at issue. It’s more like $130,000. Boston looked through Coakley’s state campaign expenditures going back to the fall of 2008, and found that from that time to this August—just after Ted Kennedy died and just before Coakley announced her Senate run—her state payroll included DC political consulting firms, DC-based website design firms, and political strategists known for their work on federal campaigns. The expenditures totaled roughly $130,000.
Coakley says these people worked toward only one initial goal: getting her reelected attorney general in 2010. But she never faced a Democratic opponent for AG. She was a popular incumbent. Why then was she spending, beginning in late 2008 (two full years before the election), all this money for a race she knew she had in the bag?
As far back as 2004, Coakley has wanted to be a U.S. senator. She told the Associated Press that year that if John Kerry won the presidency, she, then the Middlesex County district attorney, would run for his Senate seat. Now, with an even higher public profile, she is running. The FEC penalty for this campaign stuff will be light, probably just a fine. But the perception may be much more damaging: that the do-good prosecutor spent more than $100,000 skirting the law to fulfill her ambition.
This might be why Coakley has appeared so cautious in public, why she was a no-show at a western Massachusetts debate, even why, initially, she decided not to speak to Boston.
Back in October, Coakley’s spokeswoman, Alex Zaroulis, called me to say Coakley would not answer questions about her life and campaign. The decision was made for “numerous” reasons—none of which Zaroulis would discuss.
It seemed at the time a very un-Martha decision for Martha to make. It seemed downright cowardly, in fact. But looking back on it, it mostly seemed as if Coakley knew that, in the end, she didn’t need to persuade everyone out there after all.