In Defense of Martha

Massachusetts’ problem with women candidates.

martha coakley

Ilustration by Edel Rodriguez

LAST JANUARY, MARTHA COAKLEY lost a special election to an affable fellow with a handsome face, a thin résumé, and an independent streak, a defeat that got her branded as the worst campaigner in American history. “The Incredible Incompetence of Martha Coakley,” read one headline in the final days of the campaign. “Coakley is like the Waterworld of American politics, an indelible symbol of failure and, yes, arrogance and stupidity,” Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek.

Nine months later, Delaware Republican Mike Castle lost a safe primary to a Sarah Palin look-alike with a fondness for witchcraft, a fixation on masturbation, and a raft of financial troubles — a defeat that got the moderate congressman tagged as an undeserving victim of public rage against political insiders. “Castle Should Run for Senate Despite Loss in the Primary,” read one headline. “Castle, the potential write-in candidate, has unique and proven appeal to Democrats and independents. For Republicans, such a person is not so much a spoiler as he is a savior,” wrote another Newsweek writer, Alan Mascarenhas.

In politics, it is never advisable to be ahead of a wave. But now that the angry, tea-colored surf has swallowed “invulnerable” candidates from Alaska to Florida, it’s time to acknowledge something: No Democrat would have fared any better than Martha Coakley did against Scott Brown. In fact, only one thing would have been different had Mike Capuano been the one to lose to the telegenic Everyman last January. Fellow Democrats would have rallied to his side — with the same mix of loyalty and regret that prompted so many Republicans to bemoan a political climate that cost Castle a seat they felt he was “entitled” to in the United States Senate.

Instead, the venomous attacks on Coakley transformed an accomplished public figure into a punch line. But the mistakes she made — from the television ads (too late, too negative) to the gaffes (Schilling, Afghanistan) — can’t explain the anger directed at her in defeat. What can? The disdain for women politicians that’s ingrained in Massachusetts’ cultural DNA.

Let’s consider the bill of particulars that, according to conventional wisdom, explains how Coakley managed the unthinkable: losing a seat held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy for 47 years.

She was a “diva,” contemptuous of the people because she didn’t campaign in the snow outside Fenway Park after an open-air Bruins game. The venerable ballyard might well be Boston’s most sacred sporting venue, but it is no more legitimate a campaign stop for greeting voters than the coffee shops, union halls, community centers, and retirement villages where Coakley shook just as many hands as Brown.

She was an “idiot,” scornful of Red Sox Nation because she misidentified Curt Schilling as a Yankees fan during a radio appearance. Within weeks of that egregious gaffe, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino attributed a game-winning field goal in the 2002 Super Bowl to Jason Varitek instead of to Adam Vinatieri, while Scott Brown, the infallible standard against which all political aspirants must now be measured, asked a Capitol Hill reporter whether the Buffalo Sabres, then set to meet the Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs, were a Washington team.

She was “entitled,” so confident of victory that she did not ask for help from the national party until it was too late. Washington pitched that story line hard in the aftermath of the loss to counter any suggestion that the vote was a referendum on President Obama and the healthcare bill. However, this spin does not square with a Coakley campaign memo written in early December bemoaning the party’s complacency about the race. Massachusetts is the bluest state in the nation only to people who don’t live here, people who are unaware of our fondness for Republican governors and Ronald Reagan.

She was “arrogant,” so cocky that she took a Caribbean vacation during the Christmas holidays only weeks before the vote. Except, of course, that she never left Massachusetts during the campaign, despite the flogging of the vacation myth by talk radio and its repetition by Jonathan Alter, first in Newsweek and later in his fact-challenged book about President Obama’s first year in office.

Martha Coakley lost a race Democrats wanted to win. But two months earlier, so had gubernatorial candidates Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Jon Corzine in New Jersey. Neither was subjected to the sanctimonious fury directed at Coakley. Capuano was such a sore loser after the drubbing he took at Coakley’s hands in the primary that he never campaigned for her at all. Richard E. Neal, the underachieving congressman from Springfield, a guy most Massachusetts residents couldn’t pick out of a lineup, blamed her for not being fast enough out of the gate after the primary. This astute analysis from a guy who waited until January 8 to even endorse her.

Massachusetts has never been an easy place for women with political ambitions. Coakley is the only woman currently serving in statewide office. Niki Tsongas is the only woman in the Congressional delegation. Therese Murray is the president of the Massachusetts Senate, but she serves in a legislature where only 26 percent of the members are women, in a state where they make up 51 percent of the population. “The Massachusetts landscape is strewn with the corpses of women candidates,” laments Evelyn Murphy, a former lieutenant governor who lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990. Shannon O’Brien. Patricia McGovern. Kerry Healey. Jane Swift. Democrat. Republican. They run. They lose. They disappear.

Not Coakley.

By February, she was back at it, attending Democratic caucus meetings and greeting voters outside shopping malls to collect the 10,000 signatures she needed to get on the ballot for re-election as attorney general. She did not have a Republican opponent until the September primary, when James P. McKenna waged a successful write-in campaign, but she was taking nothing for granted. She showed up at the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Southie waving a Curt Schilling T-shirt. She skipped a summer vacation, lest she be accused of complacency. She turned up so often at political fundraisers for state Democrats last summer that even her harshest critics marveled at her resiliency.

On a recent morning, a fine mist was falling as Coakley took a walking tour of a revitalized neighborhood in Worcester, anchored at one end by the downtown business district and at the other by the UMass Memorial Medical Center. This was the retail politics that her critics contend she disdains. But the conversation flowed easily with the small-business owners she met in the auto repair shop, the eyewear store, the bakery, and the corner diner. Government isn’t the enemy to these voters, who credit the city for the new sidewalks, better streetlights, and plans to renovate the local park, all of which have brought more pedestrian traffic to the area.

At the East Side Community Development Corporation, Coakley talked with city officials, social workers, and tenant advocates about the foreclosure crisis that threatens the stability of neighborhoods like this one. She introduced a lawyer from her office who has set up shop on Mechanic Street to help Worcester housing officials track down absentee landlords who have defaulted on their taxes and let houses fall into disrepair.

This is Martha Coakley at her most animated, describing the particulars of a legal process that can yield visible, concrete results. Scrap-metal companies required to document their purchases to ensure that the copper they buy was not stripped from a boarded-up triple-decker. Mortgage companies made to negotiate with tenants left stranded when a landlord walks away from his obligations. Housing court judges asked to place abandoned properties in receivership before they deteriorate so badly the neighborhood is blighted.

Her opponent wants to bray about illegal immigrants, instead.

In the Democratic primary this fall, Martha Coakley polled more votes than any other statewide candidate, including Governor Deval Patrick. Could she still lose to a bumbling GOP candidate being flogged by talk radio? Of course she could. This is Massachusetts.