Running Scared

Martha Coakley has many wonderful qualities. So why doesn't her Senate campaign feature any of them?

Illustration by Heather Burke

Illustration by Heather Burke

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.)


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.


Then she changed her mind. Weeks later Zaroulis called, saying Coakley wanted to be “helpful.” I asked repeatedly what had changed. Zaroulis wouldn’t say.

Coakley and I met two nights later at Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge. She opened by apologizing for avoiding me. She said it had to do more with her schedule than any deliberate stance. Perhaps. But this is the same woman who has staffers appear at each of her opponents’ public outings, video camera in hand, the better to know exactly what they’re saying—and saying about her. The more likely reason Coakley agreed to talk was that she realized I was doing a story regardless of her cooperation, and so she wanted to mitigate any ill will.

Still, as the conversation progressed, I could see why she charms people. She’s personable. At one point, she gave me a sly smile and a wink. I never got the sense that she was selling anything, that this was a stump speech.

Her eyes narrowed, though, at the question of Wilkerson and DiMasi and her lack of involvement in those cases. “I find the complaints or the challenges that somehow I dropped the ball on that completely inaccurate.” She said her office is limited in what it can prosecute, especially in clandestine cases. Federal officials have much more leeway regarding the evidence that will stand up in court. (A person close to the U.S. Attorney’s Office says Coakley could have convened a grand jury for the Wilkerson and DiMasi cases. Boston College law professor Bob Bloom says though certain state statutes are more restrictive than their federal counterparts, “crimes can still be prosecuted [at the state level]…I’ve found Martha to be a less than courageous prosecutor.”)

About her campaign finances, Coakley didn’t dispute the $130,000. (Her office later called to say that $25,000 should be exempt from the total because it was paid for, in part, by her federal exploratory committee.) But she continued to claim that any allegations are politically motivated. “I am convinced the Federal Election Committee will do the [right] thing,” she said.

When I pressed her on why she would need to spend all this money, given that she’d previously won the AG’s office so handily, she asked if we could go off the record. When I said no, Coakley said, “Let me just say this: We wanted to gear up and make sure we were ready for reelection.”


Even if Coakley wins, she won’t do it in a way that will convince the populace she’s the best person for the job. That’s not necessarily her fault, of course. The race is too short, the field too crowded, and she’s got a big lead. But it’s hard to avoid feeling that it doesn’t have to be this way, that Coakley is better than the campaign she’s running. Avoiding the press or, worse, the opponents who seek to debate her is a cynical ploy; touting the inevitability of her candidacy is the hollowest of platforms.

If her lead holds through the eve of this December primary, she will win on shrewdness. Not on the boldness her campaign promised. Not on the potential her friends talked about. Not on the greatness her predecessor held. She may yet be a great senator, but senators don’t become great by acting like every other politician.