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Coakley publicity stirs political speculation

2010 defeat did not end her higher office options

Attorney General Martha Coakley addressed the media Tuesday after a hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act. Her public appearances have fueled questions about her next career move. Attorney General Martha Coakley addressed the media Tuesday after a hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act. Her public appearances have fueled questions about her next career move. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / April 9, 2012
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On Monday, she stood before the media announcing her indictment of the former state treasurer on public corruption charges. Two days later, she spearheaded Massachusetts’ court battle against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Attorney General Martha Coakley was so often spotted behind media microphones last week that the average voter might have assumed she was making a big announcement of her own. But no, she was not running for higher office, she told a reporter who asked about her next move.

The most remarkable aspect of the question is that it was asked.

Two years ago, Coakley was political Kryptonite. The Democrat who lost the seat held by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy to a little-known Republican wasn’t expected to have a political future, much less a rising one.

But following her reelection win as attorney general, she beat her way back to grudging respect.

A Boston Globe poll last weekend found her to be the most popular politician in Massachusetts. And when her office brought criminal charges last Monday against Timothy P. Cahill, former treasurer, some questioned her political motives, thinking they spied an opening salvo in a new campaign.

All of which raises the question of whether a Coakley comeback is possible, or whether her appeal is confined to the office she occupies.

Do Massachusetts voters really want more of Coakley, or do they merely approve of her handling of her current role? Could she - or any Massachusetts attorney general - transcend the limitations of the law-and-order office and appeal to the public more broadly and more passionately?

Political observers say it’s quite possible. Her 2010 Senate defeat, while embarrassing, did not write her political obituary.

“There are second acts in politics,’’ said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University. “When Democratic voters looked back at the race they saw an incompetent candidate, not an incompetent attorney general. Looking at her now, I think they are assuming this is somebody who learned from her campaign and, given how strong an attorney general she is, she’s worth another look.’’

As his favorite example, Berry cites Richard Nixon, whose presidency followed losing campaigns for president and governor of California, not to mention his declaration that reporters would not have him to “kick around anymore’’ because he was getting out of the game. (He came to be seen as an acceptable moderate after conservative Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat further divided the Republican Party.)

The Boston Globe poll showing Coakley to be the most popular politician in Massachusetts found her to be even more well-liked than Senator Scott Brown, the obscure Republican who unexpectedly vanquished her in the 2010 special Senate election to fill the seat that had been held by Kennedy.

Brown had consistently topped polls since he took office in 2010.

Coakley’s favorable rating of 62 percent put her ahead of Brown (54 percent), Governor Deval Patrick (57 percent), and Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, whose dismal 29-to-30 percent favorable-unfavorable ratings reflect his vulnerability to Democratic challengers who also aspire to be governor.

Coakley told the State House News Service last week that she is not pursuing another office but is focused on her job as attorney general and intends to run for a third term.

Nonetheless, speculation was fueled last week by her office’s highly publicized indictment of the former state treasurer, which some ascribed to political motives of her own.

Cahill is accused of conspiring to coordinate $1.5 million in state-funded advertising for the Lottery to inappropriately benefit his 2010 campaign for governor.

But the indictment left some analysts scratching their heads because election-year advertising is widely done with impunity by politicians to highlight the successes of their government offices.

Some saw Coakley’s press conference on the case as more of the same self-serving publicity that incumbents have traditionally employed.

“I think that this case sort of illustrates the difficulty of being attorney general if you want to move up the political ladder,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College. “When confronted with evidence . . . she thought it was her professional duty to bring an indictment. But the reaction has been pretty swift in that this is a real stretch.’’

“That’s the dilemma for top prosecutors,’’ Ubertaccio added. “If they’re good at their job, they don’t pay a lot of attention to which way the political winds are blowing.

“A well-run prosecutor’s office does not necessarily give someone a good stepping stone for higher office. You can offend and put off a lot of people simply by doing your job and doing it well.’’

For years, long before Coakley’s Senate loss, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has proved a problematic launching pad for higher office.

Thomas Reilly lost the primary to Patrick in 2006, and L. Scott Harshbarger lost to Republican Paul Cellucci in 1998. Before that, attorneys general Francis X. Bellotti and Robert H. Quinn lost their bids for governor, too.

The last Massachusetts attorney general who successfully rose through the ranks was Edward Brooke, who moved to the US Senate in 1966.

Certainly, there are successes from the law enforcement ranks - William F. Weld, former governor, had been US attorney - and other statewide officeholders have faltered, too.

The last state treasurer to become governor was Foster Furcolo in 1954, Ubertaccio noted. Lieutenant governors have fared better, mostly because they step up when the boss steps out, as Francis Sargent, Cellucci, and Jane Swift did.

John F. Kerry also served as lieutenant governor for two years before winning election to the US Senate.

So, what’s the lesson for an ambitious politician who wants to run statewide?

“If you want to be governor and don’t think you have the wherewithal to run for the top slot,’’ said Ubertaccio, “you should run for lieutenant governor.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.

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