The AG curse

Can Martha Coakley rise above her current office?

T.S. Eliot wrote that “time future [is] contained in time past.” That observation may haunt the Martha Coakley campaign as it enters the general election having led in the polls nearly all year, but knowing that now the margin for error is narrow for an incumbent attorney general seeking to become governor. Facing her every day is the stubborn fact that attorneys general have historically not been able to transition to the corner office.

Ed Brooke avoided the plunge into gubernatorial politics by successfully seeking a US Senate seat. But every attorney general since Paul Dever who has run for governor has met with defeat (or in one case death). Dever was the last former AG to successfully make the leap, becoming governor nearly a decade after leaving office as attorney general. Dever is perhaps best remembered as the fellow who “sweated and stumbled” through the keynote address at the 1952 Democratic National Convention, the cherubic state leader James Michael Curley dismissed as “that little piss pot.” If he could become governor . . .

The list of AGs since then who aspired and failed to reach the corner office is a long one: Tom Reilly, Scott Harshbarger, Frank Bellotti, Bob Quinn, Ed McCormack. One AG, Republican George Fingold, died in the middle of his campaign against Governor Foster Furcolo in 1958. Many of these men – notably Bellotti, Quinn, and McCormack – were seasoned politicians who had proven themselves on many occasions on the political battlefield. Yet not one of them would reach the corner office.

Coincidence? Curse? I do not believe in coincidences, and I only put faith in curses on dark and stormy nights when the floorboards creak and cats hide under beds. No, I think there is a substantive answer to the question: why is it so hard for attorneys general to win gubernatorial elections?

The answer is not, as some hold, embedded in the very nature of being attorney general – it’s a prosecutor’s job, so they say, and voters don’t reward tough-skinned and tough-minded prosecutors. I don’t buy it – I think people respect someone who is good at doing their job. Moreover, not every attorney general builds a reputation as a hard-as-nails prosecutor. Bellotti was perhaps most known as a champion of the consumer, famously bringing to his staff strong consumer advocates like Paula Gold, Scott Harshbarger, and Judy Meredith. Martha Coakley has earned a reputation for protecting civil rights by defending the state’s abortion clinic buffer zone and promoting equal rights for the LGBT community. She has developed her own reputation as a consumer advocate, notably targeting predatory lending practices. I don’t believe that the label “tough prosecutor” is one that sticks in most people’s minds when they think of this attorney general.

What does seem to happen is that attorneys general appear and behave as embodiments of the State House status quo, almost always a voter turn-off. People generally are drawn to candidates who represent change. Perceptions, fair or not, become reality. Take Frank Bellotti in 1990. The then-former AG left office in January 1987, and he began his third and final race for governor in early 1990 with the slogan “It’s Worth the Fight.” In his first public appearances that year, Frank fired up crowds with the message: let’s take back our state government.” It was a message with strong appeal in an election year when voters were restless for change. The polls showed that it was working. I remember a friend, a colleague in the outgoing Dukakis administration, who complained loudly to me, “What does Frank mean ‘take back the government?’ Take back from whom? We are the government!” What she didn’t understand was that for Bellotti to win, he needed to distance himself from Dukakis. It wasn’t that he was any less a Democrat, or even that he didn’t personally like Michael. It was just smart politics.

As the campaign wore on, two things happened that changed the tone of Frank’s campaign and led to his defeat. First, John Silber ran a disruptive insurgent campaign that completely outflanked Frank’s “let’s take back government” message. Coming from Silber, the message of change was more compelling and convincing. Next, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy dropped out of the campaign as it entered its final weeks. Up to that point, Murphy clearly represented the status quo of the Dukakis administration. Once she left the race, Frank inherited that mantle, for better or worse. He also began to moderate his tone, taking on a stance that appeared more reasonable, less hot, than Silber. The contrast was strategic, and it failed. Silber won the primary, only to lose to Bill Weld in a close-fought general election. The Weld/Silber battle was a contest of two men who both epitomized change. Silber may have been too hot – offering too much change – and thus the election of Weld, a milestone that inaugurated 16 years of unbroken Republican rule.

The status quo mantle also hung heavily on the backs of Quinn and McCormack who were each State House fixtures, quintessential insiders. Facing both Deval Patrick and Chris Gabrieli in the 2006 primary, it was nearly impossible for Tom Reilly to appear like the fresh face or the embodiment of change. The only outlier in my theory is Scott Harshbarger. Harshbarger has never been an insider, and he won office as attorney general in an insurgent race against incumbent Jim Shannon in 1990. Harshbarger may simply have been overwhelmed by a more seasoned candidate in Paul Cellucci, who ran for election in 1998 with a passion so intense that at times it seemed he was literally willing himself toward an election victory.

Will 2014 be the year when the pattern of the past half century is finally broken? The next several weeks will answer that question. Martha Coakley has proven to be a durable candidate, someone who bounces back from defeat and rises again. Those are good qualities in a candidate, and a person. She has demonstrated a unique ability to attract some of the best and brightest to serve in the attorney general’s office. She has a solid record of progressive social policy advocacy. As a result, she should have the Democratic base firmly with her – but she needs more.

Now the question is: will voters see her election as the third term of Deval Patrick, a continuation of the status quo, or will she be able to differentiate herself in a way that attracts undecided and Independent voters? I don’t think that it matters whether Deval Patrick is liked or not – people may like Patrick, but they might not want to install him for a third term. Enough people generally are attracted to change to make a difference in a close election. The lesson is there, writ large. Will it be a lesson taken and mastered, or ignored?

Meet the Author

Coakley has one strong differentiator that may influence the outcome of this race, and that is her potential to be the first person to break the glass ceiling that has prevented a woman from being elected governor in her own right. This is long overdue, and could be a powerful antidote to the 60-year-old curse of the attorneys general. After all, the Red Sox were able to put the curse of the Bambino to rest. In politics, as in baseball, anything can happen.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group.