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Coakley runs against history in state where old boys rule

Mass. slow to embrace women in high places

By Matt Viser and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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Twenty-three states have sent at least one woman to the United States Senate, and in three states - California, Maine, and Washington - female senators hold both seats.

But Massachusetts, a bastion of liberal politics and a pioneer in civil rights, is just now marking the milestone of nominating a woman as a Democratic candidate for Senate with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s overwhelming victory in Tuesday’s primary.

“Whenever you’re talking about firsts, it’s always ironic that we’re in 2009 and we’re still talking about them,’’ said Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral, who is the first woman elected to her position and who supported a Coakley rival in the primary. “People say there are certain jobs that are jobs for men. All that means is that a woman hasn’t been hired yet.’’

Coakley has grown more comfortable openly discussing her gender - she used it to great effect in the one of the last debates, and then made barrier-breaking a theme of her acceptance speech Tuesday night - and the issue poses a potential challenge for her Republican opponent, state Senator Scott Brown, as he plots his campaign.

“They said women don’t have much luck in Massachusetts politics,’’ Coakley said Tuesday. “We believed that it was quite possible that that luck was about to change.’’

In her prepared remarks that night, the line was followed by five exclamation points.

There are various reasons cited as to why Massachusetts has not elected more women to top elected positions, including the power of incumbency, which has kept many men who first ran years ago in office for long stretches. Also, many men holding office have been strong advocates for women’s rights.

But while Massachusetts has been slower than some states to send women to Washington, it is not going unnoticed that a Coakley victory in the Jan. 19 special election would mean that two consecutive open congressional seats have been filled by women. Until US Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell won a special election in 2007, several women had run for Congress but come up short; in other races, no women had joined the field.

“We’ve been accumulating pieces of this,’’ Tsongas said in an interview. “I do think it’s a real milestone and reflective of a critical mass in Massachusetts. It’s not over, obviously, but it does show that women can run and can win.’’

“It seems like in the last three years maybe Massachusetts has decided to catch up with the rest of the country, which is a good thing,’’ said state Senate President Therese Murray, who is the first woman to hold that position in state history and is a strong Coakley supporter.

“We’ve developed our sharp elbows, and we now have a good farm team and we’ve got a good back bench,’’ Murray said. “And I think we’ve got a lot of women mentoring other women. And we finally hit the jackpot with our ability to raise the funds in a short period of time and make a woman candidate viable, an experienced, qualified woman viable.’’

Coakley would be the 39th woman to serve in the Senate and the 25th to win the seat through an election. She would be the 18th woman in the chamber, if she were to win in January.

Of course, she has to get past Brown first. The Republican nominee has come out of the gate attacking Coakley’s positions, calling her an obstacle to job creation and a candidate who would simply do the bidding of Democratic leadership in Congress.

“When people are asked to rank the most important issues, they don’t mention gender at all,’’ Felix Browne, a spokesman for Brown’s campaign, said in an e-mail. “They’re concerned about the loss of jobs, out-of-control spending in Washington, and their taxes going up. Martha Coakley’s plans to increase spending and raise taxes are bad for Massachusetts.’’

Brown could also make a claim to a different kind of history: the first Republican senator to be elected from Massachusetts since 1972.

But he has largely downplayed his GOP affiliation, not even naming the party on his campaign website.

Throughout the primary, Coakley’s three male opponents were wary of appearing too aggressive. Early in the campaign, when US Representative Michael E. Capuano called her “cautious,’’ his remarks were called sexist by Murray.

From that point on, none of Coakley’s challengers attacked her with any vigor.

Coakley also drew some flak for exploring her prospects as a potential candidate prior to the death of Edward M. Kennedy, and for being the first to jump into the race officially, though her preparedness would prove a key ingredient in her effective campaign.

“A lot of women get criticized for not being brave enough to jump in, and yet she really kind of got criticized for jumping in,’’ said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School. “Guys have always had this gumption of, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.’ ’’

Politically active women pointed out after Coakley’s win that while progress has been made, numerous political positions in Massachusetts remain dominated by men.

“We’re not great on women in politics,’’ said Andrea C. Kramer, a lawyer who teaches sex-discrimination law at Brandeis University and serves as treasurer of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus. “Massachusetts has very much an old boy feeling to it.’’

While the number of female mayors has grown steadily in recent years, the number of women serving on boards of selectmen, city councils, and boards of aldermen has remained largely stagnant.

Twenty-six percent of the Legislature is made up of women, placing it 17th in the country, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. Among New England states, Massachusetts is ahead of only Rhode Island. New Hampshire and Vermont are first and second in the country, respectively.

The Bay State is also one of 30 that have never elected a female governor, though Jane Swift served as acting governor for almost two years after Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada.

Coakley is the state’s only female constitutional officer, and if she vacates her position, it would leave a void.

But there are several female candidates running for higher office, including two women gunning for state auditor: Mary Connaughton, a Republican and former Turnpike Authority board member from Framingham, and Suzanne Bump, a former Patrick administration labor secretary.

“It’s an old boys’ sport in Massachusetts, and women have had a hard time breaking through,’’ said philanthropist Barbara Lee, who is Coakley’s campaign cochairwoman. “But women are on a roll.’’