Quietly, Martha Coakley’s husband buttresses her efforts
Every year, Martha Coakley sends a Christmas card to supporters with a photo of herself and her husband, posing with their Labradors, Jackson and Jefferson.
“I always say I’m the least famous,” said Thomas F. O’Connor Jr., a soft-spoken former Cambridge police officer who married Coakley in 2000. “It’s Martha first, and they recognize the dogs, and then they go, ‘You look vaguely familiar.’ ”
O’Connor is the barely visible spouse in the brightest spotlight in Massachusetts politics, the sturdily built, silver-haired man holding Coakley’s umbrella or walking a step behind her as she shakes hands at senior centers and cafes.
When he stands behind her during speeches, ramrod straight, hands clasped in front of him, he could be mistaken for a member of her security detail. Indeed, in his day job, he works part-time providing “executive protection” for traveling chief executives.
For Coakley, he is a constant presence behind the scenes, traveling with her on long days on the trail and acting as one of her toughest critics, she said. He is also an object of curiosity for voters who pepper him with personal questions about Coakley, a carefully controlled career prosecutor who has not made her private life a central part of her campaign.
“Is she a good wife?” said Polly Griffin, 66, tugging on the elbow of O’Connor’s suit jacket as he accompanied Coakley on a recent visit to a senior center in Quincy.
“The best,” O’Connor said. “She’s a great cook. She knows her way around a kitchen.”
When Coakley introduced O’Connor to the crowd, Ginny Johnson, 67, nudged her friend in the side. “I never knew she had a husband,” she whispered.
O’Connor, 66, and Coakley, 61, first met in 1998, when he was an officer in Cambridge and she was running for Middlesex district attorney.
Coakley had been pointed out to him after she gained national attention for prosecuting Louise Woodward, a British au pair who was accused in the shaking death of a Newton baby.
O’Connor’s father, a retired firefighter in Stamford, Conn., had seen Coakley defending the case on “60 Minutes,” and told his son he was impressed.
“‘Who’s this good-looking Irish girl?’” O’Connor said, recalling his father’s words during their regular Sunday night phone call. “He said, ‘She just dope-slapped this guy on ‘60 Minutes.’ They’d come after her and she had an answer: boom, boom, boom.’ ”
O’Connor said he thought of Coakley again when several detectives in Cambridge confided that they wanted her to win the district attorney’s race, even though she was running against two candidates with deep roots in Cambridge politics, Michael Sullivan and Tim Flaherty.
So, on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1998, after picking up his dry cleaning, O’Connor walked into Coakley’s campaign office in Kendall Square with a check.
“I think I’m going to see some James Carville-like war room and it was Martha and her campaign manager,” O’Connor said. “I said, ‘Oh, hi. I was just dropping this check off.’ ”
As a political neophyte, he said, he didn’t realize that once the campaign had his name and address, he would start getting invitations to events.
A few weeks later, he showed up at a fund-raiser she was hosting at the Irish-American Club in Malden. After she spoke, he was at the bar, having a beer with a few other officers, when Coakley came by to thank him for coming. He bought her a beer and they talked, but he said he was too intimidated to ask her out.
“If her name hadn’t been Martha Coakley, I would have gone, ‘Hey, can I call you sometime?’ ” he said. “But I’m thinking, like, she’s a big-time lawyer, she’s very good-looking, she’s world-famous, she’s done ‘60 Minutes.’ I figured she’s probably dating other State Street lawyers. I’m not in that world. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘Don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t even go there.’ ”
A few days later, he got a card in the mail — the kind of standard thank-you the campaign sent to anyone who attended a fund-raiser. But on the bottom, Coakley had added a handwritten note: “Hey, maybe I can buy you a beer sometime?”
“All right!” O’Connor recalled thinking.
They went to dinner and a movie on their first date. Later, she took him skiing in Colorado and Utah.
“’I can’t marry anybody that’s not a skier,’” he recalled her telling him. “So, at an advanced age in life, I took up skiing and I’ve gotten to really enjoy it.”
Two years later, when he was 52 and she was 47, they married on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Neither of us had been married,” Coakley told the seniors in Quincy. “Our families had kind of given up on us.”
In 2005, O’Connor retired from the Cambridge Police Department after 31 years.
Now, he works part time for Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, and is a veteran of her campaigns. He was there with her when she was elected attorney general in 2006 and when she shocked the political world by losing the US Senate seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy to Republican Scott Brown in 2010.
Like Coakley, who responded stoically to that defeat, he said he brushed aside her loss without much emotion.
“I don’t mean to minimize it, but you put your boots on the next day and you move on,” he said. “And that’s what we did. We’re both kind of of that mindset. As Martha says, ‘The good news is, we are very much alike; the bad news is, we are very much alike.’ ”
As her political profile began to rebound, O’Connor said he did not urge or discourage her from running for governor this year.
“I was good either way,” he said. But he said he also told her, “If you’re jumping in the fray, I’m there.”
Coakley said she enjoys campaigning with her husband.
“The first thing that is great is, we actually get to spend a lot more time together,” she said. “I don’t have to come home at the end of the day and fill him in, and I think it’s helpful for me because he’s one of my toughest critics in terms of handling questions or doing speeches.”
She added: “We’ve been together only 14 years, so we’re still good friends.”
Said O’Connor: “For reasons totally unexplainable, she likes having me around.”