Senate Candidate Martha Coakley

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley speaks to supporters in Boston on Dec. 8, 2009

Updated: Jan. 19, 2010

As Massachusetts voters head to the polls on Jan. 19 in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, some GOP analysts are painting the race as a referendum on one of the most divisive political issues around. The fact that Republican candidate Scott Brown has pulled into a virtual dead heat with Democratic nominee Martha Coakley — prompting President Obama to stump with her this week — is, they say, an indictment of the pending congressional health care overhaul. Much is at stake in the balloting. Coakley would provide Democrats with a critical 60th aye vote, preserving the party's filibuster-proof majority — a fact that Brown (who began the race perhaps best known for the good looks that landed him a 1982 "America's Sexiest Man" centerfold in Cosmopolitan) has emphasized throughout the campaign. Though Massachusetts has not sent a Republican to the Senate in nearly four decades, animus over the proposed bill has helped Brown erase the double-digit lead Coakley enjoyed as recently as earlier this month. The state attorney general, Coakley, 56 — who would be Massachusetts' first female U.S. Senator — is known as a fierce prosecutor, social progressive and shrewd politician, but she has drawn criticism for running a lackluster campaign.

Fast Facts:
• Born July 14, 1953, in Pittsfield, Mass., the third of five children.

• Grew up in North Adams, Mass., in the Berkshires. Was on the debate team at St. Joseph's School before transferring to Drury High School, from which she graduated in 1971.

• Was among the first women admitted to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Graduated cum laude in 1975 and earned a J.D. from the Boston University School of Law in 1979.

• After working in private practice at the Boston law firms Parker, Coulter, Daley & White and Goodwin Procter LLP, became an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County in 1986.

• In 1987, joined the U.S. Justice Department's Boston Organized Crime Strike Force as a special attorney.

• Returned to the Middlesex DA's office in 1989 and took over the Middlesex child-abuse unit in 1991, where she prosecuted hundreds of cases of child abuse.

• Endured a series of personal tragedies in the 1990s: her father died in 1993, her mother in 1995; the next year, Coakley's brother, who had bipolar disorder, hanged himself.

• Fresh off her successful prosecution in the murder trial of 19-year-old British nanny Louise Woodward, was elected Middlesex district attorney in 1998. (Woodward's conviction would be reduced to involuntary manslaughter.) Oversaw the prosecution of Catholic priests charged with child sexual abuse and the establishment of the adult-sexual-assault division in 2002.

• In 2000, married Thomas O'Connor, then a Cambridge police deputy superintendent. They live in Medford, Mass.

• In 2006, with 73% of the vote, was elected Massachusetts' first female attorney general.

• In November 2008, appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time, arguing in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that crime-lab technicians should not have to testify in court to defend their findings in drug cases. The Justices ruled 5-4 against the state.

• In January, joined six other state attorneys general in suing the Bush Administration to block the "conscience clause," which allows health care providers to refuse to take part in medical procedures they object to on moral or religious grounds. (The Obama Administration is expected to lift or revise the Bush policy.)

• In July, filed a lawsuit contending that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Coakley supports same-sex marriage.

• Supports the inclusion of a public care insurance option in the health care overhaul.

• Opposes the controversial "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forbids gays from serving openly in the military.

• Opposes Obama's plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

• Interests include reading, downhill skiing, walking her Labrador retrievers, Jackson and Beauregard, and kayaking with her husband.

Quotes By:
"No one can fill his shoes, but we must strive to follow in his footsteps."
— Announcing her candidacy for Kennedy's seat (Sept. 3, 2009)

"No matter how many Democrats there are in Massachusetts, no matter how many independents there are, we know and I know that you never take anything for granted."
— On her general-election chances (Associated Press, Dec. 9, 2009)

Quotes About:
"I can easily say she was one of the best trial lawyers I've ever seen. Certainly one of the top 5%."
— Retired superior court judge Robert Barton, who during his 21 years on the bench presided over Coakley in court (Lowell Sun, Jan. 2, 2007)

"She set up a committee six months before my uncle died. There were people on the corner with a huge 'Coakley for Senate' sign two days after his funeral."
— Stephen E. Smith Jr., a son of Ted Kennedy's sister Jean (Boston Herald, Sept. 29, 2009)

"Martha Coakley will go to Washington to fight every day to create good jobs with good benefits and to get health reform with a strong public option. You can trust her to get results in the Senate just as she has as your attorney general."
— Former President Bill Clinton, in a robocall sent to more than 500,000 Massachusetts voters shortly before the primary (Dec. 7, 2009)