Poor Martha Coakley. Oceans of ink have now been spilled on why outgoing Massachusetts Attorney-General Martha Coakley lost her bid for Governor. Arguments have included that she’s a poor campaigner, that many Democrats resented bitterly her loss to Scott Brown back in 2010, that she was a female candidate facing a somewhat sexist electorate.
I’m not going to argue that surveillance issues alone swung the race against Coakley. However, I would like to draw attention to a broader reason, to which her support for expanding wiretapping contributed, that fueled Democratic base disaffection with her.
The Democratic base itself has become, over the last few years, more skeptical towards law enforcement claims, more concerned about police abuses, more concerned about racial and other inequities in prosecutorial choices, more inclined towards drug legalization. In this sense, Ferguson was the worst possible thing to happen to the Coakley campaign.
Once upon a time, that wasn’t so. Back when Coakley started pursuing public office in the mid-1980s, candidates who refused to participate in or fuel moral panic about crime, or to back law enforcement perspectives whenever they could, would have found it hard to be elected. So Coakley pursued a rational path for a 1980s candidate with a prosecutorial background.
She strongly opposed marijuana legalization. She participated in, and helped to fuel, social hysteria regarding murderous nannies and satanic child-molesting daycare workers, which resulted in the unjust imprisonment of innocent people, sometimes for decades. On the other hand, when confronted as DA with a police officer who was later convicted of the abuse of a 23-month-old girl, she had to be pushed into indicting him and argued for his release on personal recognizance. She backed law enforcement to the hilt during the Aqua Teen Hunger Force bomb scare of 2007, and, in the midst of a massive scandal relating to tainted drug lab evidence, argued unsuccessfully against accused drug offenders being allowed to confront drug lab technicians in court. She helped to draft an anti-Internet-obscenity law in 2010 that was quickly struck down by the courts for inhibiting free speech. Taking all these matters in context, the unflattering picture emerges of a censorious authoritarian who often had trouble recognizing situations where law enforcement personnel got out of hand, and for whom, in the context of child abuse accusations in particular, any means justified the end of securing convictions. How could she retool to address the new Democratic electorate, without undermining much of what she felt were her own professional achievements?
The contrast with Maura Healey is instructive. Healey, who is much younger (43 to Coakley’s 61), focused her campaign on ending mandatory minimums for drug crimes, stricter gun restrictions, and promotion of comprehensive sex education. She headed up the Civil Rights Division under Martha Coakley, attracting credit for challenging the Defense Of Marriage Act. She won with 62.5% of the vote, and Coakley lost the governor’s race with 46.6% of the vote, meaning that (a) there must have been a heap of Baker/Healey crossover voters, and (b) that the 2014 electorate was in fact very willing to vote for a woman.
Is the policy comparison between Coakley and Healey fair? Not entirely. Coakley hired Healey, and was as anti-DOMA as Healey was. Coakley fought hard to limit greenhouse gas emissions. She tried genuinely to help women access the full range of reproductive healthcare. Only time will truly tell whether Healey chooses civil liberties over police protection. It would be optimistic to assume that most voters based their vote on a sober analysis of policy differences. But at the same time, it would be a mistake not to recognize Coakley’s reflexive favoring of law enforcement perspectives as a factor in her second failure to attain higher office.
As for Baker? Who knows. Baker didn’t make an issue of Coakley’s vehement support for expanding electronic wiretapping, and may indeed hold the same views – we just don’t know. Project Vote Smart states, “No Civil Liberties and Civil Rights records are available for Charles ‘Charlie’ D. Baker”, which is about right. He’s not disclosing his positions, and we’re not going to speculate on what they are. It would have been very difficult for Baker to get too specific about positions to appeal to a majority of Massachusetts voters while leaving space for pursuing higher office on the national stage as part of the Republican Party, so his vagueness was wholly rational.
There are two other aspects of the Massachusetts elections that I would like briefly to highlight. Third-party candidate Evan Falchuk was the most pro-civil-liberties of the candidates for Governor, and garnered 3.3% of the vote. The result of that is that his self-fashioned “United Independent Party” will now have official designation as a party in Massachusetts. To maintain that designation after 2016, they will need to enroll over 40,000 Massachusetts voters in the UIP, which ought to be an achievable goal. So, official ballots will now be available for a party other than Democratic or Republican for the first time since the Greens lost that access in 2012. Further downballot, Noelani Kamelamela, a Pirate Party candidate, polled unexpectedly well in a state assembly race in Somerville, gaining 12% of the vote; under a proportional multi-candidate system, that would be easily enough to get elected. There is a hunger out there for new policy mixes and new solutions; a perception, grounded in reality, that the system is rigged; and a party that capitalizes on such feelings could really shake up the cosy Democratic monopoly on Beacon Hill. To that end, it would make sense for the UIP, Greens, Libertarians, Pirates and other third parties to make common cause around a common platform and set of candidates for 2016, focusing on political corruption, elite impunity, corporate accountability, and civil liberties.