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Powerful women line up for Coakley

Attorney General Martha Coakley (left) is backed by state Senate President Terese Murray in her bid for the US Senate. Attorney General Martha Coakley (left) is backed by state Senate President Terese Murray in her bid for the US Senate. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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High in the seats at last year’s Democratic National Convention, Attorney General Martha Coakley rose to register her vote for Hillary Clinton. The vote carried no mathematical weight - Barack Obama had already secured the nomination - but was a symbolic show of support for the woman who had come closest to the presidency.

Coakley, now trying to become the first woman to serve as US senator from Massachusetts, is tapping many of the same supporters, including a coterie of powerful women who backed Clinton in 2008.

“There’s just a real sense of excitement that she’s qualified and she’s got the whole package,’’ said Senate President Therese Murray. “Women have never been at this point in Massachusetts before for this office.’’

Today, Murray will join dozens of politically active wom en in helping Coakley launch a major push for women voters.

Coakley will be formally endorsed this morning by several prominent women, including Murray and more than two dozen state legislators. There will be a luncheon and fund-raiser at the Fairmont Copley Plaza sponsored by Emily’s List, a political group based in Washington that advocates for Democratic women who support abortion rights. And Coakley is being given an award tonight by the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus that is named for Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams.

“There’s certainly a sense that this is historic,’’ said Jesse Mermell, a Brookline selectwoman and former executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, who, for professional reasons, has not endorsed in the race. “It’s a great opportunity and would be groundbreaking. I don’t think we can deny that that has created a certain magnetism for women around Martha Coakley’s campaign.’’

But much as Clinton did, Coakley faces a complex calculus. Her supporters and campaign aides want women voters, but they don’t want to be seen as courting them on gender alone.

“Women are pleased that, as an added bonus, Martha is a woman,’’ said Cheryl Cronin, an attorney and Democratic fund-raiser. “But we’re all supporting her because she’s the best candidate.’’

Murray said, “Will she maybe get a bounce from women because she’s a woman? I think so. But it won’t be enough to get her elected.’’

Coakley, the first woman to serve as Massachusetts attorney general, declined requests for an interview yesterday. But on the day she declared her Senate candidacy she spoke in an interview of barriers that have been broken by past politicians, including John F. Kennedy becoming the first Irish Catholic president.

“That’s an important symbol, in some respects,’’ she said of her own candidacy. “But I think it’s more important that I’m the woman who was able to grow up at a time when I got the education, I went to law school, I got to get my hands dirty running for office.’’

Coakley also frequently tells a story of a plaque that her father gave her, which reads: “Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.’’

In her bid for the Democratic nomination, Coakley is battling three other major candidates: US Representative Michael E. Capuano, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, and Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca.

Supporters and aides point out that Coakley’s support extends far beyond alumnae from Clinton’s network, adding that many Obama supporters, as well as prominent men, are also behind her campaign.

Indeed, she has won a number of endorsements from unions, as well as support from prominent men such as attorney Ralph Martin. She has also enlisted Todd Patkin, a Foxborough auto parts entrepreneur, who was a key fund-raiser for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and for Clinton’s campaign last year. Women for Change, an outgrowth of those who supported Obama, has endorsed Coakley.

Coakley’s competitors are drawing support from prominent women, as well.

Among those supporting Capuano are former state senator Lois Pines and several state representatives, including Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, Ellen Story of Amherst, and Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester.

“I know when I ran for office I didn’t want anyone turning away from me because of my gender . . . and if I’m going to be a real honest feminist, I’m going to say the door should swing both ways,’’ said Capuano supporter Marjorie Clapprood, a former state representative who ran for lieutenant governor in 1990, for Congress in 1998, and strongly supported Clinton in the primary. “I wouldn’t want to be one of those women who ditched the guy because he had the wrong anatomy.’’

Khazei has won the endorsement of Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral.

“I don’t discount or discredit in any way wanting a female US senator,’’ Cabral said. “Alan and I have been friends for a long time. For me, this is very much about the direction I want to see this country go in. I think we’ve got to pull this country back from the brink of where politics has been headed, and we’ve got to start electing people like Alan Khazei to bring us back to where politics should be.’’

Pagliuca’s campaign has not announced formal endorsements, but a spokesman said his message of economic security and health care and his charity work for disadvantaged children would resonate with women.

“We expect to be and will be competing for the votes of women,’’ said campaign spokesman Will Keyser.

In the interview, Murray, an ardent Clinton supporter in 2008, showed a little of the fight she may bring to Coakley’s side.

She called Pagliuca a “Republican’’ and “this guy who nobody knows.’’ She referred to Khazei as “a public activist.’’ And she accused Capuano, and others who have called Coakley cautious, of being sexist.

“You all have these little code words; now it’s cautious,’’ she said. “Well, she wasn’t cautious when she went after the mortgage companies and the banks.’’

Murray continued, “If the word wasn’t cautious, it would be . . . ‘overly aggressive’ - the way you guys talk about me.’’

Capuano’s campaign countered that he was merely criticizing Coakley on the issues.

“It didn’t take long for the name-calling to begin,’’ said campaign spokeswoman Alison Mills. “Describing anyone in this race as cautious has everything to do with their failure to take tough stands on the important issues of the day when it could have made a difference, such as the Patriot Act, which Mike opposed when that was a very tough vote.’’

Massachusetts has never elected a female US senator, and currently only one member of the state’s congressional delegation is a woman, US Representative Niki Tsongas.

“The United States Senate has been a men’s club,’’ said state Representative Alice Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat whose State House office has a poster from 2004 with female senators that reads, “Nine and counting.’’

“So for us in Massachusetts to at least send one more woman to represent us, to me, matters,’’ Wolf said.

Well-known philanthropist Barbara Lee, Coakley’s campaign cochairwoman who was active in Clinton’s campaign, echoed several supporters in saying, “We’ve waited a long time for this.’’

“Like Hillary,’’ Lee said, “people see Martha as a fighter and as someone who doesn’t quit.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.