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From the Archives | January 13, 2010

In short race, Coakley picks targets carefully

This article is from the Boston Globe archives, and was originally published on January 13, 2010.

First of two articles from the campaign trail in the race for US Senate.

SALEM - An air of anticipation builds as well-wishers pack Salem’s Old Town Hall. A color guard kicks off the ceremonies, followed by a nifty a cappella rendition of the national anthem by a high school chamber choir. Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for the seat held for 47 years by Edward M. Kennedy, sits quietly in the front row.

She is the focal point of an historic election, vying to replace a Massachusetts icon and to become the state’s first woman senator.


But on this day in Salem, two weeks before the vote, she is not the star of the show. That would be Mayor Kimberley Driscoll; this is her inauguration. After about an hour of speeches and oath-taking, Driscoll cries out, “This is Coakley country!” The crowd roars. Coakley stands, turns, smiles, and waves to the cheering hall. Then she sits down and the event wraps up.

Coakley leaves quickly, hurrying through a reception downstairs, passing up the refreshments, shaking maybe a few hands on the way out. On the front steps, she rubs elbows with city councilors and School Committee members. She gives the mayor a comradely hug and a peck on the cheek. Then she is gone.

“Do you know where Coakley went?” a man asks. He wants to get another picture of her. He chases her black Ford Taurus and tries in vain to wave it down.

The appearance characterizes Coakley’s approach to this truncated race. Aware that she has little time for the hand-shaking and baby-kissing of a standard political campaign, she has focused instead on rallying key political leaders, Democratic activists, and union organizers, in hope they will get people to the polls.


Coakley enjoys statewide popularity because of her successes as attorney general and Middlesex district attorney. By at least one measure, her strategy is working: A Globe poll published Sunday showed her leading her Republican rival, state Senator Scott Brown, by 15 percentage points.

For many Democrats, that is too close for comfort, in a race for the seat held for so long by a Kennedy in one of the bluest states in the land. Other polls have showed the race much tighter.

Despite that, there is a subdued, almost dispassionate quality to her public appearances, which are surprisingly few. Her voice is not hoarse from late-night rallies. Even yesterday, the day after a hard-hitting debate, she had no public campaign appearances in the state.

Coakley bristles at the suggestion that, with so little time left, in an election with such high stakes, she is being too passive.

“As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” she fires back, in an apparent reference to a Brown online video of him doing just that. “This is a special election. And I know that I have the support of Kim Driscoll. And I now know the members of the [Salem] School Committee, who know far more people than I could ever meet.”

“This is about getting people out on a cold Tuesday morning,” she says.

Coakley eschews slogans and sound bites in favor of carefully worded, measured arguments. She hides her personality behind a businesslike veneer. She tends to brush off questions about the social significance of her ascent in state politics, and sticks to her talking points: her accomplishments as attorney general and how they would apply to her performance as senator.


She sounds like what she has been for much of her professional career: a prosecutor making an argument to a jury. She knows her unwillingness to loosen up sometimes drives her strategists crazy.

“I just know when I’m addressing a jury what I have to do and what I have to communicate is different from when I’m talking to my husband,” she says. “My job is to make sure that I communicate my message ... It may not be the best way to be the average candidate, but I’m not an average candidate.”

Coakley has had anything but an average political career. As attorney general, she has amassed an impressive record of cases that resonate with voters. She wrested millions from Big Dig contractors after the collapse of a ceiling panel in a tunnel killed a passenger in a car. She won huge settlements from financial companies during the foreclosure crisis. She collected a $17 million settlement from a company accused of luring people into buying low-cost health insurance and then denying coverage when they became ill.

She graduated in the first class at Williams College to accept women. She was the first woman to be elected Middlesex district attorney and the first woman to be elected attorney general of Massachusetts. And though she is well positioned to make history again next week, she seems intent on not letting this overshadow the campaign.


“To me, it’s secondary,” she says with a shrug.

By her own admission, Coakley is driven by her work.

She metes out details of her life sparingly outside the spotlight (“I love skiing, I love going to the beach, I love to spend time with my husband,” she told one television interviewer in a practiced delivery). She has spent a lot of time in the public eye, at homicide scenes, in courtrooms, announcing indictments or convictions. These duties, she says, have left little room for personality or levity.

“I understand that my role as US senator will be very different,” she says. “We’ll work on that.”

Behind the scenes, Coakley reveals a quick wit and an almost easygoing personality that is striking in its contrast to her campaign identity. She expounds on her preference for pale ales (and Sam Adams or Harpoon over Guinness). She quotes lyrics from Broadway musicals (favorite: “Man of La Mancha”). She describes hearing former governor Mitt Romney sing show tunes (yes, he can sing). She explains her unusual accent (it reflects her youth in North Adams, her career as a lawyer, and her parents’ Rhode Island origins).

When asked, she also readily discusses serious personal issues: the mental disorder that dogged her younger brother, Edward, who hanged himself in 1996, and the way it influenced her younger sister, Mary Coakley-Welch, as a neuropsychologist who studies disabilities in young children.


Coakley-Welch, incidentally, expresses surprise at her sister’s reputation as being somewhat stiff in public.

“She loves being out with people, shaking hands,” Coakley-Welch says. “I think that it’s a side of her that people don’t often see, but I’ve always seen.”

Coakley-Welch recalls the witty poems her sister recites at family gatherings and other celebrations, a tradition she inherited from their father. Everyone talks about the one she did for her campaign staff. They say it was a riot. But no one can recall a single verse.

“The problem is I don’t remember them,” Coakley says. “I make them up in my head and then I write them down and then they’re gone. It’s a performance art. It’s an old Irish tradition. You can roast somebody, you can make fun of them in an inoffensive way.”

The momentous event is minutes away. Members of the Kennedy family, including the late senator’s widow, Vicki, are about to announce their endorsement of Coakley at a Medford senior center. It is a moment of great symbolism, as well as tactical expediency: The blessing of Vicki Kennedy would seem to trump Brown’s effort to tout his own similarities to John F. Kennedy.

In the auditorium, the television cameras are in place and a brass band plays “It’s A Grand Old Flag.” As Coakley and the others wait in a small, nondescript room, the banter is light. The wisecracking Coakley with the quick wit and easy smile comes out. An aide is giving the speakers directions on how to take their seats on stage.

“The stools have your name on them,” the man says.

“So we can’t mess up,” Coakley quips, drawing titters from the assemblage of VIPs. “And you can take the stools with you when you leave.”

The bonhomie stops. The ceremony begins. The cameras roll. The speeches extol the life and work of Senator Kennedy more than they do their candidate to replace him. The event is nearly an hour old before Coakley steps up to the podium.

“There’s very little left for me to say,” she says. “I feel a little bit like I’m the anticlimax of what is personally a tremendously emotional morning for me.”

“No,” shouts a supporter. “You’re the whole shebang!”

Coakley steps off the stage and shakes hands with some of the residents.

In the hallway, a delivery man taps a reporter on the shoulder.

“Hey, what’s going on here? Why are there all these cameras?” he asks. He is told that the Kennedys have announced their support of Martha Coakley for Senate.

“Oh, now she’s going to lose,” he says with a grin.

The brass band plays “Hello Dolly.”

Afterward, Coakley defends her self-effacing speech. The Kennedy endorsement, she says, was not about her.

“The importance of the endorsement is, who is the endorser,” she says. “I’m the second part of the story.”

Same deal with the inauguration of Driscoll, the Salem mayor. “That was her thing,” Coakley says.

She describes visiting the senior center the day before the Kennedy endorsement and talking to everyone she met. A few days later, she will take a walking tour of businesses on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain.

“People know who I am; they know I’m the candidate,” Coakley says. “They like me; they may not. They may be undecided.”

The phone bank hums steadily in the Coakley campaign office on the first floor of the Schrafft’s building in Charlestown. Campaign posters adorn walls; the only visible picture of the candidate is a Warholesque portrait in a tiny media office. The campaign slogan, “A different kind of leader,” is nowhere to be found. A green square frames the date Jan. 19 on a calendar in the office of Kevin Conroy, the campaign manager.

Crammed into that office are a dozen or so members of the pipefitters union. They are pretty big guys. It looks like a campaign version of the how-many-people-fit-into-a-Volkswagen prank.

Coakley, seated at the head of a table, looks comfortable commanding the attention of this burly audience. She crisply ticks off planks in her platform that appeal to them: pension reform, health care, and “jobs, jobs, jobs, the kind of things I’ve taken on as AG.”

She takes notes on a manila folder. She tells them she will work with Republicans, citing her experience collaborating with attorneys general from red states.

“I’m not afraid to work both sides of the aisle,” she says. The plumbers nod approvingly. Their members do not always vote for Democrats.

Coakley then sounds a note of urgency.

“Jan. 19 is going to be a cold, hopefully not snowy, but a cold Tuesday after a long weekend,” she says. “Our aim now is to get everybody out to vote.”

It is a Friday morning, and the election is little more than a week away. Coakley is in Springfield, the hub of her Western Massachusetts homeland, to rally supporters. This time, they are packed into a way-too-small conference room in a Hilton Garden Inn.

No one seems to mind, any more than they mind that Coakley is not trying to emulate Kennedy’s presence.

“If someone’s going to be a little less charismatic but equally up to the job, then that’s good,” says Calvin Feliciano, political organizer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. “Health care’s number one, looking out for workers is number two, and she delivers on that.”

“No candidate is going to have the energy Kennedy had,” says Jason Garand, business manager of Local 108 of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “We would rather have a person who talks quietly and carries a big stick than someone who talks a good game but doesn’t remember your name.”

The carpenters cite the attorney general’s investigation into the underground economy in the construction business, a phenomenon Garand says costs builders jobs and the state millions in unpaid taxes.

“Martha really is a breath of fresh air for labor,” he says. “She does what she says she will do.”

William Weckerly, a former Marine and a Vietnam War veteran, expresses appreciation for her concern about homeless veterans.

“She’s a very caring person; she’s done a lot of good for the Commonwealth,” he says.

The positive mood is overshadowed by a poll that seems to suggest the gap between Coakley and Brown is closing.

“We do have a race,” she tells supporters, urging them to mobilize voters. “If we do not understand that we have a race, then we will not win it.”

It is as close to fiery as she has come in a week of public appearances. The real fire is reserved for a small meeting of local officials, behind closed doors, in a room next to the rally.

“Massachusetts needs Martha Coakley to be the next senator!” she says, her voice rising. “There is no way in hell Massachusetts is going to send a Republican to Washington!”

The 10 people in the room holler, cheer, and applaud. They believe her.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.