07.10.10

The Most Hated Democrat Strikes Back

After losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, Martha Coakley was blamed for imperiling the Obama agenda. Samuel P. Jacobs talks to her about her big gay-marriage win—and life after purgatory.

Remember Martha Coakley?

That scourge of the Democratic Party, whose loss to Scott Brown in the special Massachusetts Senate election sent the political world into a tailspin? By snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Coakley allowed the once-unknown Republican state senator to drive his truck down to Washington, cracking the Democrats’ filibuster-proof hold on the Senate. For more than a moment, Coakley was labeled the killer of the Obama agenda.

“I’m running hard for reelection in November,” Coakley says.

But six months later, Coakley, who stayed with her job as Massachusetts’ attorney general, is emerging from her time in the political wilderness—and scoring some major progressive victories. Liberals frustrated with Obama’s administration may find some inspiration in the woman who broke their hearts this January.

This week, a Boston-based federal judge ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the recognition of same-sex marriage by the federal government, is unconstitutional. Coakley brought one of the two cases which led to the judge’s decision. While many expect the ruling to be knocked down by a higher court on appeal, the ruling by Judge Joseph L. Tauro could give same-sex marriage constitutional protection. If upheld by the Supreme Court, the decision would grant same-sex couples the same federal benefits now reserved for heterosexual couples.

Coakley said she brought the suit because state residents were forced to live by two sets of rules—the state’s and the federal government’s—following the approval of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004.

“We looked closer at what DOMA purported to do,” Coakley said Friday, “and determined that its only purpose was a discriminatory one.”

Coakley has also emerged as a leading voice defending consumers’ rights in the financial reform fight. Recently, the attorney general negotiated a settlement with Morgan Stanley, securing $102 million for her state. Coakley challenged the bank for loaning money to New Century, which created loans for unqualified buyers in Massachusetts. The Wall Street giant admitted no wrongdoing, but the payment put a spotlight on the shady loan practices which precipitated the financial crisis. The settlement could pave the way for similar actions in other states.

“This is the opening of another chapter on what happened. I firmly believe that unless you look at what happened in the crisis, you can’t pass significant financial reform, which I think Washington is in the process of doing. Without it, you cannot regulate properly,” Coakley said.

Her effort to hold banks accountable has landed her in the circle of contenders to lead the future Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which will be a new federal voice for consumers once new financial-regulatory measures are put in place. The leading candidate for the position is Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor and vocal Wall Street critic.

Coakley says she backs Warren, who might just be too outspoken to pass muster with the Senate.

“I believe it is the perfect job for Elizabeth Warren,” Coakley said.

Coakley has even stepped up on health-care reform—the very issue that her defeat in the special election was supposed to doom. She issued a report intended to highlight the parties responsible for driving up costs.

Whether Coakley will ever be forgiven by state Democrats or the national party remains to be seen. The fact that she’s being mentioned alongside Elizabeth Warren suggests that her political rehabilitation is slowly underway. Democratic leaders in Massachusetts were devastated by her loss to Brown, who they thought was a political lightweight getting in a practice round of campaigning before running for a statewide office in 2010. That campaign is gone but not forgotten. The publication of Jonathan Alter’s White House chronicle, “The Promise,” this spring revived false rumors that Coakley jetted off to the Caribbean for the 6-day vacation weeks before Election Day—one of the allegations contributing to an image of a cocky front-runner coasting while her challenger was outhustling her.

With every public victory, the attorney general emerges a little more from the political witness protection program. She’s taking it easy on Brown so far. They marched together in a July Fourth parade last week. All smiles, she told Fox Business this week that Brown is still figuring his way around the Senate. “You know, he’s dealing with what happens in Washington and trying to decide how you vote,” she said.

Coakley will be back on the campaign trail this fall. She’s up for re-election as attorney general. And she’s not taking any chances. The woman who was widely criticized for appearing aloof and out of touch during her Senate race is focused and energized for the vote in November—despite the fact that the GOP was not able to turn up a challenger.

“We’ve had great success,” Coakley said. “I’ve gotten my signatures. I am on the ballot, and I’m running hard for reelection in November.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.