Coakley keeps eye on options for moving up

AG's recent moves enhance her profile

A future Senate run is 'just something that I certainly don't rule out.' -- Attorney General Martha Coakley A future Senate run is "just something that I certainly don't rule out." -- Attorney General Martha Coakley
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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Attorney General Martha Coakley spent Friday afternoon in the rarefied environs of the White House Rose Garden, among the onlookers as President Obama signed into law the so-called Credit Card Bill of Rights. It was quite a distance, measured in more than miles, from the start of her political career a dozen years ago, when, as a little-known county prosecutor, she finished a distant fourth in a special primary to fill a state representative seat in Dorchester.

The White House event was one of a series of steps, beginning late last year, that have raised the political profile of the former Middlesex district attorney, putting her on every short list of potentially strong candidates for higher office, especially US Senate if Edward M. Kennedy, battling incurable brain cancer, is unable to complete his term.

Coakley also has not ruled out running for governor next year if incumbent Deval Patrick changes his mind and decides not to seek reelection.

The Medford Democrat insisted that her activities reflect her approach to government and politics, not the pursuit a specific goal.

"If you're going to be a good public official, and you want to stay viable for your reelection or another opening, you are always active and busy and engaged," she said in an interview last week. "It helps me do my job better."

But the first-term attorney general's recent steps expand her résumé and, possibly, her options.

In November, Coakley argued her first case before the US Supreme Court, but by many accounts fumbled responses to a justice's questions during her oral argument. A ruling in the case is expected shortly.

Coakley also opened a political bank account to pay for polling, both in 2004 and last November while exploring a possible run for Senate, the Associated Press reported in February. The account, which is permitted under federal election rules, allows Coakley to raise money to test the waters for a run for federal office, without having to disclose the sources of her contributions, unless she decides to run.

Both times she polled, Coakley said she was considering a run if Senator John F. Kerry, not Kennedy, were to give up his seat - in 2004 when Kerry ran for president and more recently when he was under consideration as a choice for secretary of state.

Her federal account is currently inactive but remains open, Coakley said in the interview, because "there may be a Senate seat [open] in 2012 or 2014. It's just something that I certainly don't rule out and would be interested in."

Coakley, elected attorney general in 2006 and the only female statewide officeholder, has about $700,000 in her state political account but the funds may not be used in a campaign for federal office.

"I have always said that should something else open, that I think I could do well, that I would certainly look at it," Coakley said. "I don't rule any of that out." But, she asserted, there are no current openings. If it appears she is raising her profile, she said, it is because she is gearing up to run for a second term as attorney general next year.

Coakley, who will turn 56 in July, came late to politics. At 43, she lost her first campaign, the Dorchester special election; she was 45 when she won the first of two terms as DA in Middlesex, by far the state's most populous county; and was 53 when she followed in the path of L. Scott Harshbarger and Thomas F. Reilly, a pair of Middlesex DAs for whom she worked, to become attorney general.

Reaching for higher office from attorney general can be difficult, however - both Harshbarger, in 1998, and Reilly, in 2006, failed in their election bids for governor.

Politics may be her second career after the law, but Coakley has showed some aptitude for what can be a bruising game in Massachusetts. Several veteran political operatives in the state gave her very high marks for her mastery of the performance part of politics - public speaking and television presentation.

She also showed some dexterity at the inside game during the last days of the Obama-Hillary Clinton war for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. A Clinton backer, Coakley moved into the Obama camp seamlessly as the battle wound down, according to Barbara Lee, another Clinton supporter and Coakley admirer.

"When I began to attend the Obama steering committee meetings, Martha was already on board, was vocal and very active in the meetings trying to solidify that support," said Lee, a philanthropic activist and major political fundraiser for women.

Nevertheless, at the convention in Denver, Coakley cast a vote for Clinton during the roll call, telling Obama partisans that she could not afford to alienate a large group of women who supported Clinton and were slow to embrace the nominee. "She wanted to squeeze the vote in under the radar and not anger either side too badly," recalled an Obama backer who dealt with her at that time and asked not to be identified.

Attorney Daniel B. Winslow, a Republican who knows Coakley from his years as district court judge and legal counsel to Patrick's predecessor, Mitt Romney, called her a "straight shooter" with a sense for the symbolism of governing.

"In their first month in office, Deval got a Cadillac and a lot of criticism, while Martha got a hybrid SUV," he said.

Coakley's office, with 525 employees, 250 of them lawyers, enforces numerous business and consumer-related laws and this month announced the settlement of some major cases: a first-in-the-nation settlement with Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs, to provide $50 million in subprime mortgage relief to more than 700 Bay State homeowners, plus $10 million to the state; and a guilty plea by Modern Continental, a major Big Dig contractor, on charges of overbilling and lying about defects on the construction project. The action closed the books on years of prosecutions and other actions that recovered $610 million from contractors on the massive tunnel project.

In her first two-plus years in office, however, she has earned generally positive marks from business leaders.

"I don't think she's viewed at all as a headline-seeker in terms of some of these issues," said Paul Guzzi, head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 1,700 member businesses. "She has tried to reach settlements she thought were fair, and we didn't hear about them until they were done."

Guzzi said her creation of a division for business, technology, and economic development is viewed by the business community as a focal point to streamline what he called "the maze of regulations that exist."

But veteran consumer activist Edgar Dworsky gives Coakley mixed reviews and said he fears the new business division may be a vehicle to water down existing consumer safeguards. Her office, he said, has not vigorously pursued, at least not in a high-profile way, day-to-day problems with crackdowns on issues like deceptive advertising, unit-pricing errors, and debt harassment.

"She tends to focus on bigger issues, such as predatory lending and mortgage foreclosures, which are important, and she's done a good job," Dworsky said. "But . . . she really has not become the voice of consumers yet."

Coakley said her office tries to target its efforts. "I've really made an effort not to grab the headline or grandstand and say, 'Oh, I'm going to do this because this constituency wants me to,' " she said. "I'm more interested in the result."