Martha’s quick start

In her first four months as attorney general, Martha Coakley has shown political deftness — and a desire to play a major role in state policy
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 16, 2007

HIGH-PROFILE: Coakley wasted no time getting involved with student loans, subprime mortgages, and same-sex marriage.

When Martha Coakley told opponents of same-sex marriage this past week she would use the full force of her new office to fight their efforts, she took an impressive step outside the attorney general’s two primary roles: enforcing state’s laws and defending state’s agencies.

It was one of a series of recent high-profile actions that has provided a glimpse into how Coakley — a fast-rising but untested political star — will use her office. Defying observers’ caricatures of her as a Tom Reilly clone, a calculating political climber, or a hard-nosed prosecutor, Coakley has thus far deftly maneuvered through the civil matters she rarely dealt with as Middlesex County District Attorney, and used the broad range of tools now at her disposal to protect citizens against greed, fraud, and discrimination.

Case in point: she’s already followed the New York AG’s lead and begun exposing deceptive student-loan practices. With the threat of prosecution, many hope that Coakley may even force the state’s colleges to come clean about their relationships with banks that get “preferred lender” status in exchange for kickbacks.

Coakley likewise wasted no time jumping into the subprime-loan fiasco, opening prosecutions, stopping foreclosures, and recommending legislation. Her advocacy to help people keep their homes — and protect tomorrow’s homebuyers from predatory loan companies — seems to contrast sharply with the enabling federal government, and former Ameriquest director Deval Patrick.

And, on one of the issues that will inevitably define her success as an attorney general, Coakley shrewdly maneuvered around Reilly’s mishandling of the investigation into the Big Dig collapse, by backing away from claims that criminal actions had taken place and shifting the investigation to an attorney outside her office. In the process, she landed a settlement of nearly $60 million from the workers-compensation insurer accused of bilking the state.

“I think it’s a very strong beginning to this tenure,” says Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat who held the office from 1991 to 1999. “She has seen the opportunities presented by consumer-protection matters, and taken advantage of them.”

“She has got a real good handle on the office,” says Republican Tim Cruz, district attorney for Plymouth County. “She’s been aggressive about looking into things that you wouldn’t assume the office would play a role in.” Which, arguably, is what Coakley set out to do in the first place.

That is to say, unlike her immediate predecessor, who is a lifelong prosecutor, Coakley came to the job with a history of broader interest, which shows through in the way she conducts herself on the job.

As to how she got to this point, Coakley, a western Massachusetts native who graduated from Williams College, says she followed her father into law. After graduating from BC Law School, Coakley went on to handle civil case work — including insurance and construction litigation — for two local law firms, before going into prosecution. Then, in 1997, she again switched gears, running for state representative in a Dorchester special election. She lost.

One year later, though, Coakley, who had gained notoriety by prosecuting Louise Woodward in the “shaken baby” case, used her newfound clout to replace Reilly as the Middlesex DA when he went on to become attorney general.

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