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Martha Coakley has much to showcase and something to surmount

Martha Coakley is out to prove in this gubernatorial campaign that she is personable, empathetic, and qualified.John Blanding/Globe Staff

Second of three profiles of the Democratic candidates for governor.

The candidate steps into a crowded Peabody restaurant, and it happens again.

The place is open early for the first of her campaign's nine weekend events, and volunteers have passed out stickers with her name on them.

But even so, one woman's first thought upon seeing the candidate in real life is this: "You look like Martha Coakley."

"I get that a lot," Martha Coakley says, and smiles.

For the better part of a year, Coakley has come to places like this to convince people that this Martha Coakley — the one who will listen attentively to voters, who will share personal anecdotes that range from funny to heartbreaking, and who will shake 49 hands before she even starts speaking — is the real Martha Coakley.


And that candidate who ran the ill-conceived and ill-fated campaign for Senate in 2010? The one who rushed through public appearances, avoided contact with voters, and kept personal details private? Well, that wasn't the real Martha Coakley — she just looked like her.

The state's attorney general for the last eight years, Coakley, 61, has one of the best-known names in Massachusetts politics and is one of the least-known people. Now, as she runs for governor four years after her upset loss to Scott Brown, Coakley says she is out to change the perception that she's an aloof candidate unwilling to do the surprisingly hard work of meeting voters face to face.

"The criticisms of me, whatever they were in the Senate race, I own that," Coakley said. "People didn't see who I was."

Whether all those handshakes are slowly unearthing the real Martha Coakley from under the rubble of 2010 is hard to know. Polls show her leading comfortably over Don Berwick and Steve Grossman in the race for the Democratic nomination. But she won the nomination easily last time, too, and some of the same polls show her slipping into a virtual tie with the likely Republican nominee, Charlie Baker. And unlike the primary race, in which Coakley and her closest opponent differ little on policy issues, a general election contest against Baker could hinge on specific plans for the state that Coakley so far has spent little time discussing in detail.


Coakley, who has proven to be a vigorous campaigner this year, says her two terms as attorney general better prepare her for the governor’s job she’s seeking now than for the one that slipped through her fingers four years ago in the Senate race won by Scott Brown.John Blanding/Globe Staff

This year, her campaign is hoping to prove that the real Martha Coakley is not taking another race for granted, acting like an unenthusiastic guest at a party she's supposed to be hosting. The real Martha Coakley, they say, isn't that at all. She's personable. She's empathetic. She listens.

And so at Wardhurst Grille in Peabody, where the danish is piled on a table near the bar, the handshakes come first because how else can you prove that . . .

. . . the real Martha Coakley is personable.

"Martha's got a great sense of humor," Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett says, campaigning alongside Coakley. "I've seen her do impersonations of some of my fellow DAs, and they are spot on. I haven't seen her do one of me yet."

"You just don't know about it," Coakley says.

Four years ago, aides and friends also talked up Coakley's allegedly sharp wit, but they did it backstage and behind the scenes.

This time, "I hope they get a better sense of the personal side of me," Coakley says.


And so, standing in a small crowd in a Gloucester driveway, Coakley encounters another woman named Martha and immediately creates an informal two-person campaign committee.

"We'll call it Marthas for Martha," she stage whispers, and the two women laugh. Then, after her stump speech, she takes their inside joke out for a spin. If your name is Martha, you're welcome to join, she says. If your middle name is Martha, we'll consider you.

Before a debate at Stonehill College, she spots Democratic gubernatorial candidate Donald Berwick backstage and needles him about his recent photo op with two floppy-eared therapy bunnies.

And at a union picnic in Dorchester, she judges a kids' dance contest.

Her weekends are packed with events like this one all over the state — Coakley's husband, retired police deputy superintendent Thomas O'Connor, usually tags along — and the campaign fits weekday stops in when her day job allows.

Coakley smiles and bounces awkwardly to Top 40 hits that the 61-year-old showtune enthusiast has almost surely never heard before. Why Martha Coakley is judging the dance moves of 6-year-olds is never explained, but she claps and laughs gamely while the little girls flail and shake to the music.

But campaign challenges lurk in strange places.

After the dance contest, a young woman confronts Coakley, complaining that she focused too much of her attention on the lighter-skinned contestants. Whether that's true or not, Coakley handles it with grace. She listens, offers an explanation — she had trouble hearing some of the girls' names and was trying to make sure everybody was recognized — and apologizes.


The young woman does not walk away totally convinced, but she walks away satisfied because . . .

. . . the real Martha Coakley is empathetic.

Empathy only works if it's authentic — something Coakley learned 15 years ago, early in her stint as Middlesex County district attorney.

The parents of a girl killed by a car wanted the driver to be charged, but the evidence of wrongdoing wasn't there. It was dark, it was rainy — witnesses said she darted in front of the car.

"I know how you feel," Coakley told the couple, aiming for empathy.

"And the mother was apoplectic," Coakley recalls, "saying, 'You don't know how I feel. My daughter was killed. You haven't lost a child.' And she was right. My first response was to become defensive about it. It was a lesson I've taken with me since then."

Now, instead of telling people she's walked in their shoes, she shows them her own.

At nearly every one of her appearances, Coakley tells the story of her brother, Edward Coakley — of his descent into depression as a teenager and of his suicide at age 33.

She chose to share the story, she says, because eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness is important and because treating depression and other mental illnesses the same way we treat diabetes or cancer is a key part of her platform.


"When we first started doing this, I said, 'I don't want to exploit this,' " Coakley says of the decision to share something that is still painful nearly 20 years on. That appearance is a risk she knew she was taking, she says, but sharing something so personal doesn't come without other risks. Some days, as she works the story into her campaign appearances, something catches in her mind and makes its way down to her throat.

"There had been times when I hadn't necessarily planned to talk about it but it seems to make sense, and it'll catch me," Coakley says, recalling an appearance at a senior living facility in Peabody when she had to stop to compose herself. As she tells the story, she chokes up again.

"I think part of it . . . I'm going to well up again [her voice breaks] everybody in that audience looked like my parents [she's crying now] and I just saw what they went through with him."

And while Coakley acknowledges that she risks appearing to make political hay out of something so personal, people often come up to her to share their own stories.

In Peabody, it's an older woman waiting in the chapel's pews to tell Coakley quietly, "that was my son." Coakley listens to every one of the stories because . . .

“I know that I’m changing hats. I totally understand,” Coakley says. But, “I have been here. I have been in Middlesex County, and I have been in this state, working every day to make sure people get a fair shot.”John Blanding/Globe Staff

. . . the real Martha Coakley is attentive.

The rain is beating down on the skylights of a Somerville community center at lunch time. The 15 or so women sitting around the table are the mothers of addicts — heroin, mostly. Some are not the mothers of addicts anymore: They've buried their children already.

After 17 handshakes, Coakley shares Edward's story today as evidence that mental and behavioral health — depression and addiction alike — are every bit as debilitating as physical maladies.

Addiction, the state's top prosecutor says, can't strictly be an enforcement issue for people whose only crime is drug use.

But Coakley isn't here just to talk. She's here to listen:

To a woman whose 26-year-old grandson, in a drug-fueled rage, tried to kill her with a machete.

To a woman who took too long to figure out why her spoons were disappearing from the silverware drawer.

And to Judy Walker, who pleads for help with her son, soon to be released from prison after an eight-year stint for bank robbery and desperate to stay clean.

"I have hope right now," Walker says after the event. "I have hope that someone is going to help us."

But when the call from a staffer comes a few days later, the woman tasked with calling Walker doesn't know how she can help — she called because Walker was on the list, Walker recalls.

When Walker left that meeting in Somerville, she felt like finally somebody was listening. Now, she's telling her family and friends not to vote for Coakley.

"I feel bad about that," Coakley says, pledging to follow up again. "I don't know that I can do anything . . . but it was helpful for me to hear from her because I know there are many moms like her."

The months spent listening to people like Walker, Coakley says, has "given me a new understanding — in this race, particularly — about what it would mean to be a good governor."

As a result, she says, she'll arrive ready to hit the ground running because . . .

. . . the real Martha Coakley is qualified.

Toughness and competence weren't what sunk Coakley in 2010.

"It's likely that in 2010 she thought that emphasizing leadership and competence was going to be the most important thing," said Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women & Politics Institute. Women running for office often get accused of being soft or touchy-feely, but "that's not people's predispositions about Martha Coakley."

Coakley says her two terms as attorney general — the second was won just months after her Senate loss — better prepare her for the job she's seeking now than for the one that slipped through her fingers four years ago.

"I've worked with the regulators and the regulated," she says, pointing to her office's actions during the foreclosure crisis as well as progress made on health care.

But her standing as the state's top lawyer also leaves her open to criticism. This spring, Coakley the AG defended the embattled Department of Children and Families against a class action suit, while Coakley the candidate called for reforms. And Coakley the AG tried to block a repeal of the state's casino law from appearing on the November ballot, leaving Coakley the candidate to answer questions about why people shouldn't be allowed to vote on the issue.

Then there are the issues over which her office has little authority. At event after event, she's asked about the Market Basket supermarket meltdown, and though her office is limited in what it can do, she says her actions show the kind of governor she'd be.

"We talked to a lot of people and said, first of all, can we help?" she says. Next, her office reminded Market Basket of its obligation to its employees, even should they be fired. She set up a hotline for employees, which she says was inundated with calls.

"That was one way of saying — which I think is important for government — 'Hey, we care. We're watching. We're going to help if we can.' "

Coakley knows the job she's seeking is different.

"I know that I'm changing hats. I totally understand," she says. But, "I have been here. I have been in Middlesex County, and I have been in this state, working every day to make sure people get a fair shot."

And so she turns up in Taunton (11 handshakes) one afternoon at an electrical workers union training facility that's nearing completion. Here, she aims to introduce people to The Real Martha Coakley — the one who is personable, empathetic, attentive, and qualified.

She talks about the facility's role in a modern economy as a training center for high-tech jobs. She fields questions from school committee members who say her position on charter schools is too vague but who give her credit for listening to their concerns about traditional public schools losing resources. She shares her brother's story as a segue into a point about better behavioral health care helping stem the addiction crisis that has hit Taunton hard.

She poses for a picture with Taunton's mayor and the union's business manager flanking her.

"A thorn between two roses," she jokes.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.