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The fall and rise of Martha Coakley

Two years after her crushing defeat to Scott Brown, the attorney general has rebuilt her reputation

“The thing I feel worst about is people’s perception, and the media, that somehow I felt entitled to the seat, that I hadn’t worked hard enough, that I took it for granted,” Martha Coakley said.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“The thing I feel worst about is people’s perception, and the media, that somehow I felt entitled to the seat, that I hadn’t worked hard enough, that I took it for granted,” Martha Coakley said.

Two years ago, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley pulled off the impossible. To the horror of Democrats and the delight of Republicans, she managed to lose Ted Kennedy’s sacred Senate seat to a little-known guy in a barn jacket and pickup truck.

“Saturday Night Live’’ responded with a devastating parody in which President Obama called her “the single most incompetent candidate to seek public office in this nation’s history.’’ He added: “You deserved to lose, Martha. You stunk up the joint.’’

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The reputation Coakley had spent 20 years building - as chief of the Child Abuse Unit in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office, then as Middlesex DA, and finally as attorney general - had been shredded in just weeks.

Few were as disappointed as Coakley herself, who felt she had let down her party and her people. But she was back at her desk the next day, and two days later she was out campaigning again, this time to keep her job as attorney general. Ten months after her crushing defeat to Scott Brown, she was reelected with 63 percent of the vote.

Coakley has spent the past two years trying to restore her reputation. She recently spoke to the Globe about her regrets on the Senate race and her efforts to become the best attorney general in the country - a goal she feels she has achieved through landmark lawsuits, settlements, and investigations involving the mortgage crisis, spiraling energy and health care costs, and public corruption.

This month the National Journal wrote: “Coakley has quietly built up an impressive record as attorney general in Massachusetts. I wonder if we will see her on the national scene again at some point.’’

“What a difference two years makes,’’ says Coakley, 58. Dressed in a stylish suit and gold jewelry, she seems relaxed and confident in her 20th-floor corner office with sweeping views of Boston. Desk-bound at work, she’ll walk up four to eight flights of stairs at a time, the better to keep in shape for the skiing that she enjoys with her husband, retired police deputy superintendent Thomas F. O’Connor Jr.

Two years ago, Coakley was far from relaxed and confident. “The thing I feel worst about is people’s perception, and the media, that somehow I felt entitled to the seat, that I hadn’t worked hard enough, that I took it for granted,’’ Coakley says. “I knew if I was going to run for reelection I had to face it head-on among constituents.’’

And they were angry constituents. Coakley showed up at Democratic caucuses and shook hands at malls, acknowledging her mistakes, chief among them underestimating the anger over the economy and the national health care bill.

She is not a natural campaigner, but bit by bit, voters seemed to soften. A turning point, she says, came on a cold Saturday in March as she campaigned in an Arlington supermarket. She approached a man wearing a “Vietnam Veteran’’ jacket and hat.

“I’m Martha Coakley, and I’d love to get your signature for reelection,’’ she remembers telling him.

To which, she says, he replied: “I voted for Scott Brown, but you’re a good attorney general, and I’ll vote for you.’’

The exchange gave Coakley hope that if she could get that guy, she could get others and perhaps turn the page on her loss. “That’s what kept me going, that I got back out there and started campaigning again,’’ she says.

The hallway outside Coakley’s office is lined with portraits of former attorneys general, including Eddie McCormack, Edward Brooke, Elliot Richardson, and Scott Harshbarger. Hers is the lone female face.

Inside her office is a framed saying her father gave her when she graduated from law school: “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.’’

Coakley was first elected to the job in 2006 and took office in January 2007, as the housing market was collapsing. Unlawful and deceptive loans and foreclosures became her mission, and that first year she sued banks to get relief for the 45,000 Massachusetts residents who had lost their homes.

In December she brought the first lawsuit in the country against the five major banks responsible for unlawful foreclosures against Massachusetts homeowners, including Bank of America. Overall, her office has recovered more than $600 million in relief for investors and borrowers, helped keep 25,000 people in their homes, and returned nearly $60 million in taxpayer funds back to the Commonwealth.

Coakley had pulled out of a multi-state settlement because she “didn’t see a solution on the horizon.’’ Though she recently signed on to the settlement, she continues to pursue additional relief for the state through her own lawsuit.

She hasn’t stopped there, now pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce loan principal payments for underwater mortgage holders and do more to prevent “unnecessary foreclosures.’’

Last month her office was named part of a federal-state task force to investigate the mortgage industry. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said the task force would consist of “the most aggressive’’ attorneys general on the issue.

In a recent speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce sponsored by Bank of America, Coakley stood at the podium, a large Bank of America logo behind her, and proceeded to lecture, politely, the room full of bankers.

“The banks got huge taxpayer relief, they have survived and are doing well,’’ she told them. “We need to even this out and move forward. I firmly believe that addressing the foreclosure crisis is the single most important thing we can do to restore a healthy economy.’’

Coakley also told them that for the first time ever, unfair mortgages constituted the single biggest complaint to her office last year, surpassing the usual top complaint-getter: automobile dealers. She quipped that, in the public view, this meant that bankers were below used car salesmen. (She added, diplomatically, that the public doesn’t love lawyers, either.) The audience laughed with her; it seems Coakley has learned something about working a crowd.

Eric MacLeish, a lawyer who represented scores of victims of priest sexual abuse, has known Coakley since they were classmates at Boston University School of Law. “I think she deserves a lot of accolades for getting back up on her feet and continuing to run that office,’’ he says. “It’s a first-class outfit, and she’s able to attract top-flight talent because of her national reputation,’’ he says. The office has 500 employees, including 250 lawyers.

He adds: “She was ridiculed and humiliated nationally. People are amazed that she was able to come back after what would have been a meltdown for 98 percent of us.’’

Besides her bank lawsuit, Coakley went her own way when Massachusetts became the first and only state to challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman. US Federal Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro struck down the law, saying it was unconstitutional.

Her office helped draft a bill that protects transgenders from discrimination and hate crimes; Governor Deval Patrick signed it into law in November. A year ago, Coakley filed a bill making human trafficking a crime in Massachusetts; it too was signed into law in November.

Part of the attorney general’s job is to protect taxpayers’ money, and Coakley’s office has tackled rising health care and utility costs. Her new Public Integrity Unit has brought several public corruption cases, including the indictment of the former commissioner of probation John O’Brien, and indictments against four Medicaid fraud schemes last year, recovering over $100 million. Her cybercrime unit has trained more than 10,000 police officers to combat such crimes.

In 2010 alone, her office recovered $650 million for taxpayers from various cases.

Nowadays, Scott Brown finds himself in a tight reelection race against consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren. (Brown did not respond to requests for comment for this story.) Coakley, who says she gets along with Brown just fine, called to congratulate Warren on entering the race.

“She’s a great candidate, she’s very smart, and I think she’s going to run a tough race,’’ Coakley says.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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