Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined Jim and Margery for another interview about her run for governor.

Credit: Meredith Nierman / WGBH

Coakley Rebuts Grossman, Reaffirms Frontrunner Status And More

March 17, 2014

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan in Studio Three. Coakley talked about Gov. Patrick's handling of problems at the Department of Children and Families. Coakley discussed the field of candidates she's running against in the Democratic primary. She finished by offering up the joke she couldn't tell at the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston.

Questions have been edited and condensed. AG Coakley's responses have been edited for clarity where indicated: (…).

It can’t be much fun to do the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, right?

I have a whole new attitude about these: They’re there, you do them, you may as well have a good time. Yesterday’s breakfast was fabulous, actually. I thought Sen. Dorcena-Forry just rocked the whole way through. It moved quickly, it was on time, it was actually a lot more fun than I had in the past at them – I was up in Lowell this morning, I had a good time at the breakfast – because I’m just sitting back and enjoying myself.

Scientists until yesterday thought that the microsecond was the shortest measurable unit of time. I would say it was the time it took Gov. Patrick to leave after he spoke at the breakfast. Would you agree?

He certainly was eager, after his funny bit, to exit. He had a big smile on his face as he left, actually. (…)

Every poll we’ve seen you’re crushing your Democratic opponents. But, come June, conventional wisdom holds that Treas. Steve Grossman will win at the convention. What does that say about the grassroots effort of your campaign?

We’re focused on the grassroots. Whatever the conventional wisdom is — it changes day by day. I don’t think anyone is quite sure what will or won’t happen at the convention, but our focus has been on getting our 15 percent, which we have. We’re more than happy where we are with our caucus delegates – there are a ton of uncommitted delegates, and every one of the five Democratic primary candidates are focused on getting out there, telling our jokes. (…) And so, it’s a long time until June. I’m just focused on making sure we touch base with folks who are activists, who are delegates, and more importantly what’s going to happen in September. It’s the primary we’re focused on, also.

Treasurer Steve Grossman has accused you of flip-flopping on giving licenses to illegal immigrants.

My current position — and it has been a position well before the Treasurer wrote us a letter about it – was that, since I have heard in the last two years probably, and moreso on the campaign trail, obviously from folks in the community but also from police chiefs and other elected officials – that their focus on public safety, making sure who people are and they’re prepared to be on the roads – indicates that since the federal government hasn’t done what it should do. I support the DREAM Act, I think Washington should’ve done something a long, long time ago on this. I still hope they will. They haven’t. Many states as you’ve seen are moving in many directions to accommodate the reality here of people who are working hard, paying their taxes, not getting into trouble. So I said, Look, I’ll consider this. I’m open to it. I haven’t totally changed my mind, but I think as every candidate should do, we should listen to what are constituents want, what’s going to be in the best interests of public safety.

What do you need to know to support it fully, if your position is evolving?

I was up in Lowell this morning. I started up there in 1980. We had a lot of people, most of the people were driving unlicensed, unregistered I think were perfectly good citizens, who just didn’t bother to do it. So, there is that issue I know. I don’t think there’s a greater percentage of folks who are taken off the road, or who are driving without having the appropriate backup. But there are a lot of people who don’t do it anyway. My point is this: the discussion is an appropriate one to have now since we haven’t passed the federal legislation. I know there’s a discussion even in the communities about what do these licenses look like? Are they designating you as someone who’s different from everyone else? Are they not?

If they did, if they had those provisions, would you sign the law as governor?

I think that if it gets there, and I have done the appropriate homework that I’m doing now, I said I will consider that if that’s what makes sense in all our communities to keep people safe, particularly on the roads, but in other ways.

Treas. Grossman accused you of changing your mind about “Three Strikes and You’re In,” but you in fact support “Melissa’s Bill” which focuses on violent offenders, rather than just committing three times.

(…) [Melissa’s Bill] is what I support. I think that is what most people support. Surprised the Treasurer doesn’t support that bill. That is to me something very different than what other states have, or what was a prior version of Melissa’s Bill that would have misdemeanors or any kind of crime saying, if you get in trouble three times then you’re not eligible for parole. That’s not what we have in Massachusetts. That’s not what this bill is, and what I support is something that I think most people support for public safety.

I’m stunned by the pathetic record of Massachusetts in terms of electing women to executive offices. What’s the possible explanation, and — don’t you worry about that?

I think it’s getting better, and I am encouraged with the progress even recently. Look, we have a terrific St. Patrick’s Day breakfast hosted in a marvelous way by Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. I was up in Lowell this morning. Sen. Eileen Donaghue was the head of that breakfast. I see on this campaign trail support not just from women but from men. I got a call today from someone who said, ‘I’m supporting you because I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I want her to see the future that it should be – that we have women as governor, we have women business leaders, we have women on the bench. It’s taken a while, I think. I see a big change from four years ago when I ran.

I don’t know why I keep bringing this up.

Jim, this is the definition of insanity. You keep asking the same question and hoping to get a different answer.

But it seems to me, every time a woman loses a race where she had a serious chance, there’s always an excuse why that woman wasn’t the right candidate, but another woman might be. We have a horrible history.

It’s been a tough history. (…) Look, we’ve got [Gov.] Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire now. We have women governors in other states. Wyoming had a woman governor in the 19th century. We are an old-fashioned state in a lot of ways (…), one foot in the 21st [century], one in the 18th. Politics is very tough here. It’s our sport. We love it. Because we often have incumbents who stay for a long time, when there’s an open seat there’s a lot of people in that queue. Women, and frankly other people, have been at the back of that line, but I think that’s changing. I’m hopeful that it’s changing. I worry less now about why it’s been that way, but taking encouragement from the fact that (...) when women run, when they get elected, they do a good job. It’s important to have women at the table. And Margery agrees with that.

I do agree with that. I’m at this table as we speak. Many people are saying that two women will split the vote, although Juliette Kayyem doesn’t agree with that.

Well, you know, that has not been an issue in this primary. We’ve got five great candidates. We bring different things to it. We’ve got two doctors, we’ve got a treasurer, we’ve got an attorney general. We’ve got a homeland security expert, and people are focused on ideas in this. We had two great women in the race where [US Rep.] Katherine Clark was successful. Nobody said, oh, that’s going to hurt, Katherine Clark won that race. (…) I think people care about what you stand for, what you’ve done, what you’re going to do going forward. I see that in my race. I think I’m getting support. As my Dad said, Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman. And, we hope in this case that’ll be true. I think voters are seeing that. They’re judging people on their merits — what is their background?

Your new ad is about your brother, his mental health issues and his suicide. Was it a hard decision to make that ad?

About two years ago my sister Mary and I started to do a little talking about it. (...) She’s a neuropsychologist, she says, one of the reasons she followed that career is because she was a little closer in age to Edward. She said, I started to research what was going on with him, and it made me more interested in the field. The more we’ve talked about it, not that it gets easier, but (...) everybody has a spouse, a child, a family member, a colleague – someone who suffers from bipolar, depression, schizophrenia. And, (...) we’ve started to say, We have to reduce the stigma, we don’t want families to go through what our family went through, we’d like to get more help. People come up to say, I have a child who committed suicide. But more frequently (…), My daughter was able to get help and she’s doing quite well right now. We can do this if we get the message out. So, as tough as it is sometimes – making that video was hard, it still catches me and I choke up once in a while talking about it – it was tough for Edward, it was tough for my family, my parents – and it’s tough for people living with it right now. But in 2014, we should be treating mental illness the way we treat diabetes or heart disease. We have the psychiatry for it, the medicines – and we don’t. (…)

You want to succeed Gov. Patrick. Patrick told us he rejected DCF chief Olga Roche’s resignation. He admitted the medical marijuana process was fraught, and the Health Connector site has been, too. Which part has he not handled well?

Let me start with DCF, because that is an agency that I’ve worked with for a long time, both in our child abuse unit, and as Attorney General. They have a tough, tough job. Former commissioners have said (...), We make two mistakes: we leave kids in, and we take them out. And so, I’ve thought for a long time, and I’ve said this, [we should have] a DCF that looked at keeping families together, but a separate division within that whose responsibility was to keep track of the kids, to advocate for the kids. Are they safer at home? Is there a better place to have them? And if they are removed from the home, when, if ever, can they go back? We don’t do that, and the result of which, we have a mixed message for that agency. So that is a management issue, how you structure that and how you give people a mission. Obviously, [when] the preliminary reports come in, it says, we need more money, that’s not a surprise, we need more training, not a surprise. Those budgets have been cut, we’ve been through a tough time. I believe when I’m governor, as budgets turn around [and] we have more resources, there’s nothing more important than doing this right, and making sure that our staffs are trained, they had the supports they need, but we also have a system that will maximize the way we keep track of and do well for a very tough population.

Has the Governor failed on that front?

I’m not going to judge whether he succeeded or failed. All I know is that we need to do better.

We have an email from Edward who asks whether you’re office-shopping – first you were after a US Senate seat, and now the governor’s office. Is that what you’re doing?

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done in public service. I’ve served as a district attorney. I’ve served as attorney general. In fact, people said, Run for attorney general, I said, I have to do utility rate-regulation. Why would I want to do that? I’ve loved being Attorney General because we have gotten to do so much great work. One of the things with an open seat for the Senate, I felt pretty strongly back then that, given what we’d done around the mortgage-foreclosure issues, what we had done in standing up to big banks and Wall Street, (...) immigration and better financial regulation – that I could do a good job in the Senate. The voters felt otherwise. In fact, I said, Twice the voters made a decision that year to keep me as Attorney General. I respect that. And I went right back to work to focus on those problems that Massachusetts has faced: keeping energy costs down, keeping our healthcare costs down.

So now there is an open seat for governor. I’m not job-shopping. I’ve run for jobs that I think I can do well. We need a new governor, it’s a critical time. I’m asking voters – I’m happy to stand up to all the independents, the Republican Charlie Baker, and all my Democratic colleagues – and ask the voters to vote for me.

Are you giving mixed messages on this DCF thing? As candidate you’re saying one thing, and as Attorney General you’re defending the same system you’re critiquing. Is that fair?

It’s pretty simplistic about what the job of any office is. I wear a particular hat as Attorney General – I wear many hats as AG. One of them is, when the state is sued we take a look at that suit. We evaluate it legally on the merits, and we determine whether that case should be settled, for instance, because the plaintiffs are right. Or whether the case should go to trial, or whether or what amount it should be settled in. So, we act as lawyers in that respect, and I’m proud of what our office does, by and large, on those scores. In that instance [of DCF problems] (…) we understand this was about foster care. It was an outside group of attorneys that had gone to many other states and said, We have a one-size-fits-all solution and this is what you should do — and by the way, we want a lot of attorneys’ fees for it. We said we believe this case represents a chance to say, Sure, we should do some things better. And I know the Governor has, from the judge’s decision, some things we should do better around foster care. But in this instance, the judge threw the case out on the facts and the law, and people have left that out of the calculus. I don’t see those things as contradictory at all. In fact, we’ve learned some things, both from what we’ve seen in what came out of that suit. The Governor has a responsibility and the ability to make that better, and so does the next governor, and I will do that.

The judge’s reason was that it didn’t rise to the level of “shocking the conscience.” He did blast the DCF on any number of fronts, though.

He’s not the only one, right? Because, we know, and I’ve acknowledged that this agency can and should do better. But it can and should do better under the Governor the way that Massachusetts feels that we should do it, not because some outside group comes in and says, We want a federal consent order to do this thing. We know we have to improve on what we do for our foster kids. (…)

Before you go, my belief is that you got cut short at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. Any jokes you can share with us that you didn’t use yesterday?

I can’t.

Why not?

Well, I had two.

We’ll give you a couple extra seconds.

One was, Mother Superior is on her deathbed (...) and so all the sisters come around and say, Sister, do you have any last wishes? And she says, Oh, I wanted some cookies and milk. Girl Scout cookies if you have them. They go out to the kitchen, and the two nuns – Sister Mary and Sister Evelyn – they look around, they find some milk, they say, You know what, there’s a little bit of whiskey left. Can we give this to Mother Superior? She’s on her deathbed. They put the whiskey in. They bring it into her, cookies and milk. Mother Superior sits up, she drinks the milk to the bottom of the glass. She eats all the cookies. And then (…) all the nuns, they ask her, Now that we’ve given you your last wish, can you give us some last words of wisdom? She says, Don’t kill that cow! >> Hear the entire BPR conversation with Attorney General Martha Coakley.

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