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Joan Vennochi

Martha Coakley and the AG jinx

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 1, 2009

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MARTHA COAKLEY launched her campaign to succeed the late Ted Kennedy with a big lead - and a big hurdle.

She is the state’s attorney general, and in Massachusetts that position can be a curse.

In 1966, Republican Edward W. Brooke went from AG to the US Senate. But since then, six AGs have tried and failed to make a similar leap to higher office. As the last two unsuccessful candidates show, AGs get in trouble for what they do and what they don’t do.

Attorney General Scott Harshbarger made a name for himself by tackling white-collar crime and investigating fellow politicians. When he ran for governor in 1996, the friends of those he prosecuted got back at him by helping Republican Paul Cellucci, who ultimately beat him.

Attorney General Tom Reilly left the pols alone during his tenure, but his refusal to prosecute Cardinal Bernard Law over the clergy sexual abuse scandal raised other issues with the public. When he ran for governor in 2006, Reilly had plenty of money and support from the political establishment. But, he couldn’t win the hearts of voters who fell for newcomer Deval Patrick.

The political climate of the times played a role in each of these unhappy outcomes. But the style and mind-set that make AGs effective can work uniquely against them if they vie for higher office.

“As much as AGs want to try to convince people they are policy people, they really aren’t. That’s where the breakdown comes,’’ said Will Keyser, who worked as an unpaid adviser to the Reilly campaign and believes some of the characteristics that go with AGs “absolutely’’ undercut Reilly’s bid to become governor.

Keyser, now spokesman for Stephen Pagliuca, the Celtics co-owner who is one of Coakley’s three rivals, said the problem for AGs is “learning how to talk a different language that connects with people and, generally, a lack of familiarity and sometimes passion for policy issues.’’

The AG is the state’s top law enforcement official. AGs look and sound like career prosecutors, because they usually are. Candidates traditionally position themselves as serious, fair-minded, and scrupulously careful enforcers of the law. Given ethical guidelines and judicial sensitivities, an AG’s communication with the press is generally cautious, not candid.

AGs also pledge to carry out the job in a nonpolitical fashion. For instance, the TV ad that Coakley ran in her 2006 campaign proclaimed that “Martha Coakley does what’s right, not what’s political.’’

Voters will naturally weigh whether the AG lived up to a pledge to pursue cases on their merits, no matter what powerful person is involved.

Coakley indicted Richard Vitale, the personal accountant and close friend of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. There are solid legal reasons why she left it to federal prosecutors to indict DiMasi himself, but still, she must explain them.

She led the way in recouping $550 million from contractors who delivered shoddy work on the Big Dig. There are solid legal reasons why she dropped a manslaughter charge against the only company to face state criminal charges over a fatal tunnel collapse, but again, she must justify it to voters.

When she appeared reluctant to investigate the case of the deleted Boston City Hall e-mails, she was criticized on the grounds that she didn’t want to cross Mayor Thomas M. Menino. When the case was officially referred to her, she was criticized for saying it could not be resolved by Election Day.

During last week’s debate, the four Senate candidates were asked about “horse-trading,’’ a staple of life in Washington that requires a lust for highly partisan give and take. Lawyers negotiate settlements, so the concept is not alien. But it seems more antiseptic and less personal in the courtroom than in the halls of Congress.

Coakley insists she will reverse the curse of the Massachusetts AG, and she might. The six who failed to get beyond that office were all white men. Brooke is African-American. Coakley hopes to clear another hurdle by making history as the first woman Massachusetts voters send to the Senate.

She should hope the prospect of making history will lift her to higher office, because her current job won’t.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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