In a post below about the struggles of Massachusetts attorneys general to attain higher office, a commenter noted that the state also seems averse to women candidates. I do wonder if there’s something to this. If Martha Coakley loses tomorrow – and let’s face it, that’s where it looks like we’re headed – it will mark the fifth straight time that a female candidate for governor or U.S. senator has come up short.
Let’s consider the history of women running for significant office in the Bay State (by this, I mean the congressional or statewide level):
* Margaret Heckler, an old school Rockefeller Republican from Wellesley who parlayed her spot on the Governor’s Council into a successful bid for Congress from the old 10th District in 1966. She kept the seat until 1982, when it was merged with freshman Democratic Rep. Barney Frank’s 4th District. Thanks to double-digit unemployment (sound familiar?), the ’82 tide was decidedly anti-Reagan, and Heckler was trounced by Frank by 20 points. She went on to serve as Reagan’s HHS secretary, and later his ambassador to Ireland.
* Louise Day Hicks, a culturally conservative South Boston Democrat, exploited white resentment of court-ordered busing to win a congressional seat in 1970. (She had previously run a surprisingly strong mayoral campaign against Kevin White in 1967.) She won the Democratic nomination again in 1972, but was defeated in the fall when Joe Moakley ran as an independent and knocked her off. Moakley then switched back to the Democratic Party and held the seat until his death in 2001.
* Evelyn Murphy was a former state environmental affairs secretary when she won the Democratic Party’s endorsement for lieutenant governor in 1982. She lost the primary to John Kerry (who then won an open Senate seat in 1984), but staged a comeback in 1986, winning election on Michael Dukakis’ ticket.
When in the summer of 1988 Dukakis was running 17 points ahead of George H.W. Bush in the presidential race, it looked like Murphy would soon be elevated to the state’s top job. Instead Dukakis lost in November and announced a few months later that he wouldn’t run for governor again in 1990. Murphy immediately jumped in the race and was initially the favorite, but her close association with Dukakis (whose popularity waned after the presidential race) cost her, and a last-ditch stunt intended to revive her campaign – making controversial executive decisions when Dukakis was out of the state – backfired. A week before the September ’90 primary, she dropped out and endorsed rival Frank Bellotti – a move that may have contributed to winning candidate John Silber’s last-minute surge.
* Jane Swift was a former three-term state senator who had given up her Western Massachusetts seat for an ill-fated congressional bid when, in 1998, Acting Governor A. Paul Cellucci tapped her to run with him in the GOP primary. They defeated Joe Malone and Janet Jeghelian in the primary and were elected in November, making Swift the state’s second female lieutenant governor. When Cellucci left office in early 2001 to become ambassador to Canada, Swift was elevated to the governorship, the first women ever to occupy the office.
But her tenure proved disastrous, with one tone-deaf misstep after another costing Swift the support of voters and the confidence of her party. She vowed through early 2002 to seek re-election, but was easily pushed aside in March of that year by Mitt Romney, who triumphantly returned from the Winter Olympics with a poll showing him 63 points ahead of Swift in a GOP primary.
* Shannon P. O’Brien: A state legislator (and the daughter of a longtime governor’s councilor), O’Brien unsuccessfully challenged Joe Malone for state Treasurer in 1994, but returned four years later and won the job easily. She then sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination for 2002, topping a four-way field in the primary. By mid-October, she had built a significant lead over Republican Mitt Romney, but her candidacy dissolved down the stretch as Romney linked her to the state’s unpopular Democratic legislative leaders. He also referred to her conduct during one debate as “unbecoming,” a controversial remark that may have been sexist – but that also may have moved blue collar white voters against O’Brien in the closing days. (Romney ended up carrying 17 small and mid-size cities.)
* Patricia McGovern: the former state Senator from Lawrence may have waited too long to take a shot at statewide office. She entered the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary hoping to capitalize on the hesitancy of some party establishment leaders to get behind reformer Scott Harshbarger. But McGovern lagged behind Harshbarger all summer and lost to him by 20 points in the primary.
* Kerry Healey (a.k.a "Murph"): Panicked about running in the fall with another rich white businessman (Jim Rappaport), Mitt Romney recruited Healey, a failed state House candidate who had briefly served as state GOP chairwoman, to run as his lieutenant governor. She crushed Rappaport in the primary and was elected with Romney in November. When Romney declined to seek a second term in 2006, Healey won the gubernatorial nomination without opposition. But her candidacy was doomed by the start; her association with Romney (who had alienated moderate voters with his Massachusetts-bashing national road show) and the mighty anti-GOP national tide of ’06. She lost by 20 points.
* Kathleen Sullivan Alioto: A 34-year-old member of Boston’s then-elected School Committee (and the wife of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto), Sullivan sought the Democratic nomination for US Senate in 1978, but finished third in the primary, behind then-Rep. Paul Tsongas and Secretary of State Paul Guzzi.
* Elaine Noble: An openly gay state representative from Boston’s Bay Back, Noble also ran for the ’78 Democratic Senate nod, but finished with just 5 percent of the vote.
* Marjorie Clapprood: A state legislator from Sharon, Clapprood cruised to the Democrats’ 1990 nomination for lieutenant governor – which gave her the unenviable task of running with the reactionary John Silber (an upset winner in the gubernatorial primary) in the fall, one of the most awkward pairings in state political history. Thanks to Silber’s erratic temperament and defections by liberal voters, the Silber-Clapprood ticket was defeated by three points. She lost a comeback bid in 1998, finishing fourth in the ten-way primary for Joe Kennedy’s 8th District House seat. (Susan Tracy, a former state representative from Allston-Brighton, also ran in that congressional primary and was defeated.)
* Niki Tsongas: The wife of the late Paul Tsongas, she moved back to Lowell from Charlestown in 2007 when Marty Meehan abruptly left his US House seat. After starting out as the overwhelming favorite, she nearly lost the Democratic primary to Eileen Donoghue, a former Lowell councilwoman. She struggled in the general election, too, holding off Republican Jim Ogonowski by just five points. Her election marked the first time since Heckler left office that a woman had been part of the state’s congressional delegation.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it does seem that there’s a glass ceiling in Massachusetts politics. Women have been elected attorney general, state treasurer, lieutenant governor and to the US House. But when it comes to the two biggies – the governorship or a Senate seat – they’ve struck out. Barring a surprise, it looks like that pattern will hold on Tuesday.