As Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley sets her sights on a higher office, a wide-open contest may be starting to brew for the seat she has held for six years.
Coakley, a Medford Democrat, says she intends to run for Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's seat in 2006, provided Reilly becomes a candidate for governor. At least six people are being widely mentioned as potential contenders to succeed her.
The prospective field includes five Democratic state legislators: Senator Jarrett T. Barrios of Cambridge; Representatives Michael E. Festa of Melrose, Peter J. Koutoujian of Waltham, Charles A. Murphy of Burlington, and David P. Linsky of Natick; and Gerard T. Leone Jr., a Hopkinton Independent who is first assistant US Attorney in Boston.
Competition is likely to be spirited for a $117,500-a-year position that is considered among the state's most coveted prosecutorial posts.
The Middlesex district attorney oversees a staff of 250, half of them assistant district attorneys who prosecute the 45,000 cases heard annually in the county's district courts, and the 1,000 cases that are heard in its superior courts.
While Suffolk County can claim more cases overall, the Middlesex County district attorney's office, which covers 54 cities and towns, is the largest in the state in terms of territory.
''It's a position of enormous responsibility," said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.
Adding to the allure of the seat is that Coakley's two immediate predecessors, Reilly and Scott Harshbarger, have gone from that job to attorney general.
Coakley said last week that her run for attorney general is ''contingent on Tom Reilly's plans. I wouldn't challenge him in a primary. But given the understanding that he's likely to run for governor, I've contacted folks to let them know I'm running."
She said she anticipates the race for her position will be a lively one.
''This is a great job. It's a very high-profile job, and whenever there is an empty seat in Middlesex, it attracts a lot of attention," said Coakley, who first won the seat in 1998.
Coakley said it is a job worth pursuing, and ''from a public point of view, it's a [race] worth watching. It's 25 percent of the state. People are always amazed at how big Middlesex County is. It covers a lot of territory and a lot of people, and it's important someone take this job who understands prosecution and who understands the prevention work we do."
Berry predicted, though, that while ''political junkies are going to watch it closely," the race is likely to be ''relatively obscure" to the general public.
''It's a bottom-of-the-ballot office, and the electorate is going to be consumed with the gubernatorial race," he said.
Murphy, Linsky, Festa, Koutoujian, and Leone all said last week they are giving serious thought to running for district attorney. Barrios could not be reached for comment. But people in local politics say he is weighing a run for either district attorney or attorney general.
A lawyer since 1990, Murphy spent four years as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps, two of them as a prosecutor. He has practiced as a defense lawyer since.
Murphy said he would be a ''strong candidate" for the job given his experience as a prosecutor and defense lawyer, and his legislative background.
Prior to entering the House in 1999, Linsky spent 14 years as an assistant Middlesex district attorney. The last four of those years he was a senior assistant district attorney assigned to the superior court, where the most serious cases are heard. Since 1999, he has maintained a private law practice.
''It's something I'm extremely well qualified for," he said of the district attorney's job, noting both his prosecutorial background and his experience dealing with criminal justice issues in the Legislature.
Festa has been an attorney for 26 years, the first two as an assistant Middlesex district attorney and the remainder as a defense lawyer.
''My entire professional career has revolved directly or indirectly around criminal justice," Festa said. He noted that as a legislator, he served on the Criminal Justice Committee, and will shortly become chairman of the Criminal Justice Board of the Council of State Governments.
Festa said he will not run for district attorney if Linsky, a friend and colleague, enters the race.
Koutoujian was formerly an assistant Middlesex district attorney for four years and now maintains a small law practice.
Recently renamed chairman of the Public Health Committee, Koutoujian said his first focus is attending to his committee duties and to ''getting good legislation out of the House." But he said he is taking a strong look at the race. The position is ''one where you can actually improve people's lives, and I've done a lot of work with criminal justice issues," he said.
Leone spent nearly eight years as an assistant Middlesex district attorney, where he rose to become deputy first assistant. He later spent nearly two years as chief of the Criminal Bureau in the Attorney General's office. He joined the US Attorney's office in Boston in early 2002 as antiterrorism coordinator for Massachusetts, becoming first assistant later that year.
''I've managed the offices, I've prosecuted the case, and I've run programs at the highest levels in three different levels county, state, and federal," he said.
Leone, whose current boss, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, is a Republican, has maintained an unenrolled voting status throughout his years as a prosecutor. He said Justice Department rules precluded him from commenting on what his party status would be if he enters the race.