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The Curse Of The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office

Why is it that a Massachusetts attorney general seeking higher office hasn't won in nearly half a century? Pictured: Former Massachusetts Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, who conceded defeat to her Republican rival Charlie Baker, Wednesday, November 5, 2014. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Why is it that a Massachusetts attorney general seeking higher office hasn't won in nearly half a century? Pictured: Former Massachusetts Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, who conceded defeat to her Republican rival Charlie Baker, Wednesday, November 5, 2014. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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On Nov. 4, Massachusetts voters forced a party switch in the corner office, and in doing so kept alive the famous curse of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office — namely, anyone holding it can forget about running for governor or any other higher office.

Case-by-case, the curse seems less a mystical impediment and more a decades-long mash-up of timing, job description, self-immolation and political sabotage.

The last person to move beyond the seat was Edward Brooke, who became the Bay State’s — and the nation’s — first popularly-elected African-American U.S. senator when he crushed Endicott Peabody in 1966. Higher office has eluded every Massachusetts attorney general since: Robert Quinn (gubernatorial primary, 1974: lost); Elliot Richardson (U.S. Senate primary, 1984: lost); Frank Bellotti (gubernatorial primary, 1990: lost); Scott Harshbarger (gubernatorial race, 1998: lost); Thomas Reilly (gubernatorial primary, 2006: lost); and, of course, Martha Coakley.

The curse even bubbled up, in a somewhat inverted form, during the 2014 primary. Attorney general hopeful Warren Tolman boasted many endorsements — among them Frank Bellotti, Scott Harshbarger and Tom Reilly. Attorney General-elect Maura Healey clobbered Tolman, who, to close the spooky circle, was Harshbarger’s running mate in the doomed 1998 governor’s race.

So what’s at the root of the curse? And, if Maura Healey harbors ambitions beyond Ashburton Place, how can she break it?

Case-by-case, the curse seems less a mystical impediment and more a decades-long mash-up of timing, job description, self-immolation and political sabotage. Bellotti launched his 1990 bid amid an economic plunge and an electorate weary of familiar faces. Harshbarger ran when the economy was hot and voters were content, and nearly won — ultimately undone by campaign infighting and the infamous “loony left” tag by fellow Democrat Tom Finneran (a Brutus maneuver reprised this year by former Inspector General Greg Sullivan). Reilly started out as the front-runner and slid quickly via a disastrous running mate pick and a bizarre episode involving the tragic deaths of a donor’s daughters.

A grand irony is embedded in the job itself. Doing it as it should be done — dispassionately, carefully, single-mindedly and systematically — constructs a tight, impassive public image unlikely to blossom into the broader inspirational persona required in a governor’s race. Harshbarger, Reilly and Coakley, all career prosecutors, struggled to transcend the rules-and-evidence focus that made them so effective in the courtroom. What moves jurors falls short with voters.

The responsibility to prosecute public officials, sometimes of the same political party, creates additional landmines blasting in the form of mayoral shuns, lingering institutional resentment and untold other umbrages.

So what is an aspirational attorney general to do?

Harshbarger, Reilly and Coakley, all career prosecutors, struggled to transcend the rules-and-evidence focus that made them so effective in the courtroom. What moves jurors falls short with voters.

Maura Healey might take a hint from her vanquished primary opponent. During their contest, Healey and Warren Tolman sparred less over issues and more over job perception, with Tolman declaring his intent to be the “people’s advocate” and Healey projecting herself as the “people’s attorney.” Jabbing Tolman as wanting to be the “legislator in chief, public policymaker in chief,” Healey constructed for herself a narrower job framework, as “head of a 500-person public law firm.”

If past is prologue, Healey may discover that this conventional approach to the post will hem her in when the time comes — if it comes — for pursuit of higher office. Healey’s campaign-trail view of the job helped secure it for her, but she may do well now to crib from Tolman and widen her vision and scope. Performing well in the job while simultaneously transcending it shouldn’t be out of the reach of someone with Healey’s appealing image and obvious political talents. If she pushes into territory untraditional for a sitting attorney general, what’s the damage? Criticism from a Republican governor? That would only boost her profile. Backlash from voters? Unlikely, if she picks her issues wisely. Sticking to the script ensured re-election for her predecessors, but little else. If higher office is a goal, Healey needs a new formula.


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Jim Borghesani Cognoscenti contributor
Jim Borghesani is president of Primepoint Strategic Media. He began his career as a reporter at the Patriot Ledger and the Boston Business Journal.

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