In Governor’s Race, Coakley Seeks Another First

Martha Coakley, the state attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor, met me at a coffee shop on the main street of this western Massachusetts city, where she was born 61 years ago.

She grew up some 20 miles north in another factory town: North Adams. That’s where her parents settled after her father, who served in the Navy, returned from World War II.

“My dad bought part of an insurance agency up there, and we basically grew up there,” Coakley said. “I talk a little bit about it mirroring the kind of TV shows we saw in the ’50s and ’60s: ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriet.’ My dad walked to work often. My mom stayed home. We had five children. We had family vacations together. We were involved in our church. And we, of course, were in a city where there were lots of big families, and my brother and sisters all had friends from the families, too, so I loved it.”

If Coakley is elected governor, she’ll be the first woman to be elected to the position in Massachusetts history. Jane Swift became acting governor when Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned in 2001, but was never elected on her own.

Coakley has often been a pioneer. In the fall of 1971, she was part of the first class to include women at Williams College.

“I enjoyed most of it,” she said. “We were still in a minority, so we were spread around the campus, but it’s a great school, just a great opportunity.”

Coakley remembers working with other women to put together the college’s first guide to health and sex.

“It was a different time period,” she said. “In the ’70s, Roe v. Wade had been decided, and I think we were all making sure that women had the right health information. Williams hadn’t been really equipped to deal with gynecologists and women’s health issues.”

After Williams and then Boston University Law School, Coakley served as assistant district attorney in Middlesex County. As an assistant DA, she worked with colleges and universities as they began to address sexual assault on campus.

“And we saw through the ’80s and ’90s the need to do more education with the colleges around making sure that young women had a way to report it, to go to the local authorities, not to just have it all done in-house,” she said.

“She worked hard,” said Scott Harshbarger, who was the Middlesex County DA who hired Coakley in 1986. “She earned credibility with police and her colleagues.”

Coakley worked for many years in the DA’s child abuse unit. With Gerry Leone, she prosecuted English au pair Louise Woodward for the killing of an infant in her care, 8-month-old Matthew Eappen of Newton.

“She’s very intelligent and very good on her feet and she’s a good strategist,” Leone said of his former colleague.

Coakley says her work on child abuse led her to start an adult sexual assault unit.

“Because many of the issues we saw with children who wouldn’t come forward, or weren’t believed, were true also for young women on college campuses, in marriages, who had been physically or sexually assaulted,” she said.

In 1997, Coakley became the first women elected Middlesex district attorney.

In that role, she reached an agreement with one of the defendants in the Fells Acres Day Care sexual assault case. Cheryl Amirault had been convicted of assaulting four children, but the conviction had been controversial because a judge had concluded that the children’s interrogations had been so tainted by errors in the investigation that they could not be used at trial.

But the Supreme Judicial Court sent Amirault back to prison. Coakley then agreed to push for a reduction in Amirault’s sentence to time served, in exchange for a promise from Amirault not to grant television interviews and not to profit in any way from telling her story. Coakley was criticized at the time for imposing that restriction on Amirault. She defends the agreement.

“And one of the issues for the families involved, the children particularly, many of whom were now teenagers or adults, was they were not averse to her getting parole or getting out as long as they didn’t feel that were now going to be the targets of her on television,” Coakley told me. “I believed and still believe that those children were telling the truth about what had happened at Fells Acres.”

Coakley went on to become the first woman elected as Massachusetts attorney general. She says she’s proudest of two accomplishments. One of them is prosecuting lenders for violating the state’s foreclosure laws.

“We’ve kept over 30,000 people in their homes,” she said.

Then, she added: “The second thing that I’m really proud of is our challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Coakley sued the federal government, contending that DOMA was unconstitutional because it forced Massachusetts to treat same-sex married residents differently from heterosexual married couples, and because it impeded on states’ rights under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court struck down DOMA.

Recently, Coakley negotiated an agreement with Partners HealthCare. If approved, it would allow Partners to take over three more hospitals and sign up hundreds of doctors on condition that Partners cap its price increases for most of the next 10 years. But a report from the Health Policy Commission predicts that the agreement will drive costs up.

And the Republican front-runner in the governor’s race, Charlie Baker, the former head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, criticized the settlement in a recent WBUR debate. “The agreement that the attorney general negotiated with Partners is so complicated, I’m not sure it’s enforceable,” Baker said.

“Totally disagree with that,” Coakley said in response. “It is comprehensive, but it’s all clear what it means. It really levels the playing field, not only for consumers, but for the next five to 10 years, cuts the cost curve.”

Coakley lives in Medford with her husband, retired Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Thomas O’Connor Jr.

If she is elected governor, she says she hopes to finish the South Coast rail project that would link Boston with New Bedford and Fall River. She supports allowing the gasoline tax to rise at the inflation rate.

“We need a predictable source of income, particularly for roads and bridges that are crucial,” she said.

She also said she would like to make pre-kindergarten available to all parents and longer school days available to districts that want them. She added that it’s time to reevaluate the Patrick administration’s decision to join the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which replaced Massachusetts education standards with national standards.

“It’s a good time now to look at where we’ve gone, what we’re accomplishing and really, what the demands of the next 20, 30 years are going to be on our teachers and on our students,” she said. “We should at least rethink it.”

Coakley said she’s concerned about placing too much emphasis on testing. She said she would like to give teachers more autonomy in the classroom.

When Coakley ran for the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2010, she won the Democratic nomination but lost the general election by five points to Republican Scott Brown. For Democrats, it was a devastating loss of the seat held by Ted Kennedy for 47 years. Many Democrats blamed Coakley of taking the election for granted. She was criticized for taking a vacation over Christmas and for scoffing at shaking hands with voters at Fenway Park in the cold.

It’s not clear if anyone could have beaten Brown. He enjoyed the support of seniors fearful that they would lose their Medicare benefits with the implementation of Obamacare, and he received $1 million a day in the final days of the campaign from Tea Party members and others across the country.

This gubernatorial election is Martha Coakley’s chance to reshape the perceptions of her formed, fairly or not, by that loss.