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Brian McGrory

Tim Cahill’s done, overkill isn’t

As I watched Martha Coakley announce criminal indictments against Tim Cahill this week, one simple thought kept banging around my head: This doesn’t feel right.

First, cry not for Tim. He was an unremarkable public official, a former sandwich shop owner and consummate Quincy city councilor who never understood that his path to the state treasurer’s office was paved with extraordinary luck.

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He should have pinched himself every day that he spent in that cavernous office on Beacon Hill, whispered to the bathroom mirror that he was the most fortunate man in the world, and slipped off to the bond desk at J.P. Morgan after a couple of terms to collect a hefty six-figure salary that he wasn’t actually worth.

But somewhere along the way he started to believe the sycophants and supplicants who vied for his time and gaze. He loved the “Mr. Treasurer’’ stuff, the crowds holding signs at campaign rallies, the men in dark suits lining up at fund-raising events in downtown restaurants.

Tim wanted more, and patience was never a virtue. He wanted to be recognized more, lauded more, to prove that his rise was no fluke in a world that he always imagined was against him. The self-involvement that is native to so many politicians became a self-obsession with him.

All of which led to a gubernatorial race two years ago that he had no business running. Cahill lacked any obvious talent on the trail, offered no real vision for higher office, and never built a policy platform.

Disaster was inevitable, though extraordinary. His strategists defected. His hand-picked running mate threw his support behind rival Charlie Baker. Cahill sued his own campaign manager, which proved to be a very unfortunate move.

On election night, the mystery wasn’t how Cahill got only 8 percent of the vote. Rather, it was how did he keep that many supporters. Is Quincy really that big?

Which brings us back to Martha Coakley and the criminal indictment. The attorney general is, in many obvious ways, so much of what Cahill never was - a serious-minded, straightforward public official who has very little ego to trip her up. Yes, she ran a miserable campaign of her own, but its failing was one of strategy, not idiocy. She has recovered nicely.

I get why she’s bringing this case. I know I’m supposed to huff and puff about Cahill using public funds to run a television campaign lauding the management of the state lottery as he made the management of the lottery the cornerstone of his failing gubernatorial campaign.

But I keep getting back to the essential fact that the system already worked. Coakley, as attorney general, stopped the lottery television ads in their tracks in 2010. The voters kicked Cahill to the curb. He has no future whatsoever in public life.

At Monday’s news conference, Coakley was flanked by four grim-faced men, lawyers and a detective, who spent what Coakley herself described as “enormous amounts of time’’ on a 17-month investigation. They dedicated untold state resources to prove what anyone with a TV and a Barcalounger already knew: That some two-bit politician tried capitalizing on his office to win another election.

Was there really not a way to sanction Cahill civilly in a month-and-a-half, rather than criminally after a year-and-a-half? Are these charges worth all this time?

One final note. As Coakley spoke, a photographer in a jacket and tie cut in front of me. He snapped pictures of Coakley, then turned sideways and took pictures of the news media. I knew he didn’t work for a newspaper because he was in the jacket and tie, so I asked a veteran State House reporter his identity.

“Works in Coakley’s communications office,’’ I was told.

Imagine that, Coakley preserving the official moment, perhaps for use in some future newsletter or campaign.

As I said, very little feels right about any of this.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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