PAC child abuse ad galvanizes Coakley
Baker dislikes ad’s tone but welcomes discussion
Martha Coakley stood in her Somerville campaign headquarters Thursday, ringed by a dozen stone-faced supporters, throwing the heaviest punches yet in the current race for governor. “If he stands on the sidelines now,” Coakley said of her Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, “I suggest he’s not a suitable governor for Massachusetts.”
There was little joy in Coakley’s appearance. Coakley, the current attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, was lashing out at Baker over a television ad run by an outside group that depicts Coakley as an enabler of child abuse. The charge is especially loaded, given Coakley’s history prosecuting abusers as the former chief of the Middlesex district attorney’s child abuse unit. So Coakley surrounded herself with child social workers, prosecutors, and the mother of a slain infant. She showed flashes of anger, and choked up briefly. And she laid the charges she was answering at Baker’s feet and not the outside group.
Baker had no involvement with the ad, which was produced by an outside super PAC that’s controlled by the Republican Governors Association. It’s illegal for Baker to talk to the PAC’s leaders right now. But the PAC is run by Baker’s political allies, and it exists to advance Baker’s candidacy.
In attacking Coakley’s handling of a child foster care lawsuit, the pro-Baker PAC has ignited the first full-blown conflagration of the gubernatorial campaign. The Baker PAC’s ad has the potential to change the course of a race that’s neck-and-neck – but perhaps not in the way the ad’s backers intended. The child abuse ad appears to have sparked something inside Coakley. And it has the potential to give Democrats, who have spent the fall bemoaning Coakley’s listless campaign, something to rally around.
The RGA PAC has been attacking Coakley on the gas tax and welfare reform, and accusing the attorney general of being out of touch with voters, since before Coakley won the Democratic primary. An ad the PAC released this week ratchets things up several notches. It seizes on Coakley’s defense, as attorney general, of the state’s Department of Children and Families in a class action foster care case. The ad argues that, in defending DCF, Coakley “opposed reform” and “silenced children’s advocates.” The words “abused” and “neglected” hover ominously over footage of an empty playground.
On Thursday, Coakley was lashing out at Baker, not the faceless super PAC that created the ad. “The ad is meritless, it’s intentionally misleading, it’s deceitful, and it’s outrageous,” Coakley said. “I would be embarrassed, if I were he, to see that ad up. If he doesn’t pull it, it means he accepts it, and that he endorses it. He needs to disavow it.”
Coakley argued that the RGA was “using the abuse of children as a political football,” while Baker was “cheering them on.” “Come forth,” she challenged Baker. “Don’t stand on the sidelines behind an anonymous super PAC and make allegations that are untrue, that are absolutely unsupportable, and suggest that I have put kids at risk, that I have done something to make life for kids and families in Massachusetts more dangerous? That is absolutely over the top, it’s outrageous, and I am disgusted by it.”
The attorney general also got choked up when she relayed a story of a 30-year old woman stopping her at a Cape Cod campaign appearance earlier this year. The woman had been sexually abused by a family member two decades before, and Coakley had handled her case in the Middlesex DA’s office. The woman, Coakley said, still had nightmares about her abuse; she’d sought out Coakley at the campaign stop to thank her for how she handled her case. “That’s why I do this work,” Coakley said. “That’s why I went into public service.”
On Wednesday evening, the Baker campaign released a statement saying that Baker was “focused on his positive campaign and detailed plan for the commonwealth,” and expressing confidence that “voters will be able to see through the noise on both sides.” Thursday afternoon, after Coakley’s broadside, Baker called a press conference in South Boston, where he said that although he didn’t approve of the tone of the ad, he felt the ad raised issues that were ripe for discussion. He said the case in question “raised very significant systemic problems” with DCF and the decision by Coakley to fight it and not settle is a “decision worth discussing.”
Asked if he would disavow the ad, he repeated that he didn’t like the ad’s tone, but seemed to say Coakley’s defense of DCF was worthy of discussion. “I don’t like the tone of the ad, the same way I didn’t like the tone of the ads against me,” he said. Baker appeared to get emotional when discussing the foster care lawsuit, telling reporters, “Read the briefs. Read the briefs before you make a decision.” He added, “As a father of three kids, that brief is really something.”
The back-and-forth over the RGA ad found Baker in a position he’s rarely been in this campaign – back on his heels, defending an advance from his Democratic opponent.
The episode is reminiscent of a similar incident eight years ago, when the Republican candidate for governor, Kerry Healey, woke up a groggy Deval Patrick with a nasty, overreaching attack. Her attack ad, featuring a woman walking through a darkened garage, galvanized the Democratic base, while attacks on Patrick’s family pushed him to finish the campaign with an enormous chip on his shoulder. Eight years later, Patrick still nurses a grudge over those attacks, so it’s clear that they hit their mark. But they also backfired, politically. Thursday’s press conference felt familiar – a previously rudderless Democrat, personally stung, and pressing the attack.