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Campaign 2010 | The race for Attorney General

AG rival looks to voter anger

Coakley runs on 1st-term record

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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She appeared to be an easy target: a Democrat who deeply embarrassed her party and disrupted the balance of power nationally when she failed to retain the US Senate seat held for decades by Edward M. Kennedy.

But an invigorated Republican Party, which is mounting challenges across the state, initially took a pass on trying to oust Attorney General Martha Coakley this fall.

Enter James P. McKenna, a low-profile political newcomer from Worcester. He mounted a write-in campaign for the September primary and became just the second candidate since the 1970s to win a write-in campaign for nomination to statewide office.

Since his victory, the solo practitioner from Millbury has tried to capitalize on this fall’s anti-incumbent fever and hammered away at Coakley, questioning her commitment to prosecuting public corruption, illegal immigration, and financial crimes, as well as focusing on some of the gaffes that haunted Coakley during her Senate race.

In a debate on WBZ radio last week, he vowed to join a lawsuit filed by other attorneys general against the new national health care overhaul law, said he favored the death penalty in some cases, and questioned the state’s approval of the nation’s first offshore wind farm in the waters off Cape Cod.

“We have to work to restore trust in government,’’ he said. “We have to work to put enforcement back in law enforcement.’’

But as Election Day approaches, the 49-year-old former prosecutor and father of six has been hard to pin down on exactly what he would do differently from Coakley on the major issues he has campaigned on to become the state’s top law enforcement officer.

To be sure, the candidates have pronounced differences. Coakley, for example, supports the new federal health care law and says it is as constitutional as the universal health care system in Massachusetts, which Governor Mitt Romney signed into law, she points out.

She opposes the death penalty, has challenged a federal law that opposes same-sex marriage, and trumpets her efforts to negotiate a reduction in the price of electricity from the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, which she supports.

But it has not been clear what McKenna would do differently about the building of Cape Wind, fighting public corruption, or illegal immigration.

They both, for example, oppose in-state college tuition and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Over the past four years, Coakley says, she has prosecuted 40 public corruption cases, including those against people in her own party.

She said she has also recovered $160 million as a result of prosecuting fraud in the state Medicaid program.

McKenna has sidestepped questions about whether he supports same-sex marriage, if he approves of the offshore wind farm, how he would apply a death penalty in Massachusetts, and what he would have done differently in handling the proposed sale of Caritas Christi Health Care.

“He has been silent on specifics,’’ Coakley said in a phone interview. “What would he do about energy, consumer protection, health care costs? It’s hard to disagree with him, because he won’t tell me where he is on most issues.’’

McKenna, a graduate of Boston College Law School who worked for public prosecutors in Franklin County, Ohio, Suffolk County, and Worcester County during the 1980s and 1990s, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Last night, when he and Coakley were interviewed on Fox-TV, he reiterated his positions on illegal immigrants and the death penalty.

When asked about his alleged reputation for negative campaigning, he said: “I have spoken at length about the failures that Martha Coakley has had as attorney general. . . . No candidate should speak negatively about another candidate personally. With respect to the issues, with respect to not prosecuting the big fish in terms of public corruption, or not moving the ball forward on illegal immigration, that’s fair game.

“We need to have the death penalty, at least to protect our public safety officers. Our police officers, our EMTs, our firemen, deserve that level of protection. Martha Coakley doesn’t believe in the death penalty, even the death penalty for terrorists.’’

Coakley, 57, a Medford resident and a Boston University School of Law graduate who served two four-year terms as district attorney of Middlesex County before being elected attorney general in 2006, said in her interview with the Globe that her positions should be clear to voters.

“I have 25 years in public service, and I’m proud of my record,’’ she said. “I think I have a very strong record.’’

She said her accomplishments as attorney general include helping investors and homeowners recover more than $440 million from Wall Street firms, helping 15,000 homeowners to stay in their homes.

She also points to challenging proposed gas and utility price increases, saving rate payers more than $100 million, and negotiating a 10 percent reduction in proposed electricity rates for the Cape Wind project.

She also cites her work with MySpace to make the social networking website safer for children and prodding Craigslist to remove its adult services section to reduce prostitution.

If reelected, she plans to focus more on keeping the online world safe for children and free from human trafficking, she said. “We can do more in educating the public, providing more resources to children, and holding perpetrators more accountable.’’

When asked about failures or regrets from the past four years, she declined to specify any.

“I’m not going to name any failures,’’ she said. “There are things that we could have done better, but to be honest, I’ve taken a focused look, and I’m proud of what we have done.

“The one regret,’’ Coakley said, “is that we don’t have enough resources or time to do everything we would like to do.’’

In a Boston Globe poll released Sunday, Coakley led McKenna 56 percent to 35 percent.

She has a distinct financial advantage. By the end of last month, McKenna’s campaign had $13,000 on hand, compared with nearly $400,000 in Coakley’s campaign accounts.

Coakley qualified for more than $72,000 in public campaign funds, while McKenna received nothing, because the deadline for choosing to take part in the state’s public financing system passed in June, before McKenna was a candidate.

But Coakley said she is not taking anything for granted, especially after losing the special US Senate election in January to Republican Scott Brown. Some said she ran a lackluster campaign. “No one will outwork me in this race,’’ she said. “I’m very focused.’’

Globe correspondent Vivian Ho contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.