By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; 9:55 PM
One of the puzzling aspects of Martha Coakley's stunning defeat in her bid for the U.S. Senate was this: She was the charismatic candidate when she won her first elected office in Massachusetts more than a decade ago. She was funny and smart. Voters rushed to shake her hand. The hard-charging lawyer had become a local celebrity respected for the way she prosecuted the sensational baby-shaking trial of Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair who was convicted of killing an 8-month-old boy in her care. She coasted to victory as the first female district attorney for Middlesex County, the most populous county in the state.
By 2010, running to become her state's first female U.S. senator, Coakley, a Democrat, was a decidedly different campaigner. The state's attorney general for the past three years, she made her case to voters the way she made her closing arguments to countless juries: She was measured and dispassionate. Instead of offering catchy slogans, she gave long, calibrated messages highlighting her track record and credentials. Her caution stood in stark contrast to the approach of her Republican opponent, Scott Brown. His life was an open book, and his charisma and hard work on the trail fueled an upstart campaign.
A prosecutor since 1986, Coakley served for eight years as Middlesex's district attorney, successfully prosecuting child abusers, including several Catholic priests. Elected as attorney general in 2006, Coakley won settlements from Wall Street firms and from contractors on Boston's "Big Dig" highway project after the tunnel ceiling collapsed.
After Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) died late last summer, Coakley was the first candidate to announce a bid for the Senate seat. She easily won the Democratic nomination, capturing 47 percent of the vote in a field of four candidates in the primary Dec. 9. On the trail, when critics accused her of running a sleepy campaign while Brown crisscrossed the state in his old pickup truck, she dismissed them. "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" she said, referring to a Brown campaign video of him doing just that.
Coakley is known for her witty poems and roasts at staff parties and is said to enjoy Broadway musicals and skiing. But she avoided talking about her personal life while campaigning. When a Boston Herald reporter asked what kind of candy she gave to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, she would not say.
"I just know when I'm addressing a jury what I have to do and what I have to communicate is different from when I'm talking to my husband," Coakley told the Boston Globe. "My job is to make sure that I communicate my message. . . . It may not be the best way to be the average candidate, but I'm not an average candidate."
Coakley has said she would vote to overhaul the nation's health-care system and supports a public option. On Democratic bedrock issues, she is reliably progressive, and she has said she disagrees with President Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Coakley is one of five children born in North Adams to an insurance salesman father and a homemaker mother, who kept a Catholic household and encouraged their children to pursue careers. Even as a child, Coakley was a serious woman. She was elected governor of Massachusetts Girls State, a civics program, and was a standout on her high school debate team. She graduated from Williams College and Boston University Law School, where she was the class speaker at graduation.
Coakley's father once gave her a plaque that read: "Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman." And she has been a trailblazer in law and politics, fields dominated by men. She remained single until late in life, marrying retired police officer Thomas F. O'Connor Jr. in 1999. The couple has no children.