In her rise to AG, Coakley cultivated a tough-on-crime image, based on uncompromising prosecution of drug dealers and high-profile cases like that involving nanny Woodward, while also taking moderate or liberal positions in sync with the Massachusetts Democratic electorate.
Both parts can smack of political expediency. And after the Big Three of Deval Patrick, new senate president Therese Murray, and Sal DiMasi endorsed a reform of the state’s minimum-mandatory sentencing laws, Coakley came out in favor of the changes — even though she had repeatedly joined her fellow DAs in opposition to such reforms, killing attempts as recently as last year. “It’s purely a political turnaround,” says one criminal-justice advocate. Earlier, as DA, Coakley reversed her support of the death penalty.
As Middlesex DA, Coakley was frequently accused by defenders-rights activists of overcharging, of blocking defense attorneys’ access to materials, and leaning too much toward victims’ rights. She headed up the “Justice Initiative” for Reilly and the state’s DAs, which purported to investigate the problems of wrongful convictions, but in fact swept the issue under the rug and found no fault in the criminal-justice system.
She also looked the other way, some allege, at accusations of corruption or abuse in local police departments, courts, and jails in her county. One prisoners’-rights advocate even says Middlesex jails had the worst “revolving door” the state in terms of inmates being sent to Bridgewater with mental-health emergencies.
All told, says one observer, Coakley has shown a willingness to get tough only with drug dealers and rapists — those with the least political constituencies.
“Martha Coakley has gotten great name recognition without having done much,” says a Beacon Hill detractor.
Meanwhile, Coakley has been able to make a great many political friends, and surprisingly few enemies. She has a good relationship with Murray, with whom she worked to get Reilly elected AG a decade ago. And after Reilly lost in last year’s primary, Coakley made herself an ally of Deval Patrick, campaigning for him when he faced soft-on-crime charges.
Coakley even gained the respect of the only person who ever beat her in an election: state representative Martin Walsh, who won his seat over Coakley in Dorchester’s 1997 special election. “Everyone really liked her,” says Walsh. “My dad even committed to raising money for anything she later ran for.”
“She’s well respected by a lot of different people on both sides of the aisle,” says Republican Cruz. “She’s the kind of person who can bring people together.”
An absence of enemies is great politically, but potentially troubling for the state’s top law enforcer, who needs to be willing to step on toes and make powerful enemies. Since taking office, Coakley has not only forged relationships with the legislature and Deval Patrick’s administration, but with the state’s business leaders. Case in point: at a January 30 address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Coakley stressed her desire to avoid adversarial relationships with business, adding that “often little progress is made by just the high-profile enforcement.” Speaking to the Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts in March, Coakley again stressed problem-solving, in the form of pragmatism and negotiation, over strict enforcement.