“I want to look at problem-solving in a big-picture way, as lawyers, not just as prosecutors,” says Coakley. And nearly everyone agrees that she does.

Yet the more Coakley explores the possibilities of her new position, it seems, the more some have begun to question whether she is using her role as attorney general as a springboard for the state’s highest office, as well.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if the option had been there — had Reilly not run — she would have made the run for governor” in 2006, says political consultant Michael Goldman.

Coakley isn’t the first to entertain such lofty goals. For nearly 40 years, those who have come before her — Reilly, Harshbarger, James Shannon, Francis X. Bellotti, Robert Quinn — have reached for the governor’s brass ring and failed.

Harshbarger, for one, used the office aggressively — bringing political-corruption cases against more than 100 officials, including former AG Eddie McCormack and state senator Henri Rauschenbach — which left him without support from Democratic Party insiders when he ran for governor. Whereas Reilly, who limited his targets to interests far from Beacon Hill — cigarette manufacturers, Microsoft, the Environmental Protection Agency — secured the support of the Democratic Party insiders and lost, in part, for being too entrenched with the establishment.

Undoubtedly, the pitfalls of the political game will weigh on Coakley’s mind, especially since she must also contend with female gubernatorial candidates’ losing track record in this state. Kerry Healey, Shannon O’Brien, Jane Swift, Patricia McGovern, and Evelyn Murphy — all have tried before her and lost.

Then again, Coakley has the advantage of her popularity in the political launching pad of Middlesex County: with nearly a quarter of the state’s population, its last three DAs have become AG, and its one-time first assistant DA, John Kerry, got to the US Senate and very nearly the White House.

A different approach
Although Coakley has frequently been called a Tom Reilly protégé, she doesn’t come across that way these days. “We disagree on a lot of things,” says Coakley, citing gay marriage as the most obvious difference. “Our approach to things is different.”

Her approach, she says, harkens back to the activist, broad-based styles of Harshbarger and Bellotti, more than those of the prosecutorial-minded Reilly. But Coakley goes even further in her apparent desire to play a major role in state policy.

She has beefed up the AG’s government-relations office from two lobbyists to at least five, for instance, and they are actively involving themselves in the lawmaking process. One member of that team recently went to a senator’s office to debate details of the identity-theft bill working its way to law. “Someone actually left Ashburton Place and walked over to the Senate,” says one legislator. “That never happened under Reilly.”

Coakley herself has already testified twice at legislative hearings. And in addition to the actions noted above, she has released statements on stem-cell research, national ID policy, and the use of state police for immigration enforcement.

To some, these are signs of an active advocate. But others see Coakley’s self-insertion into so many public issues as a sign of her political ambition — a trait that can lead an AG to overreach for public attention and, even more troubling, avoid actions that might make powerful enemies. Political caution ultimately de-fanged her predecessors’ use of the office, some say.

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