NEW BEDFORD — After a tight campaign, could the race for Massachusetts governor come down to a fish story?
Democrat Martha Coakley, trailing Republican Charlie Baker in recent polls, called on her opponent Friday to answer "legitimate questions" about a story he tearfully told during the campaign's final televised debate about a struggling fisherman who regretted pressuring his football-playing sons into a hard life at sea.
Baker later acknowledged that the conversation with the New Bedford fisherman — who has not been identified or located — occurred not during the current campaign but sometime during his unsuccessful run against Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010.
On Friday, Baker insisted that the story was true but that he likely got some of the details wrong.
Coakley visited the state pier in New Bedford, one of the nation's busiest fishing ports, and said Baker needed to clarify the story.
"Now we are hearing, as he walks the story back, well, maybe it wasn't New Bedford, maybe they weren't football players, so we are really left wondering what this story was about," said Coakley, the state's attorney general.
While not accusing her opponent of lying or crying crocodile tears, she suggested the story could have been an "amalgam," adding: "I think he should answer those questions."
The controversy erupted from a seemingly innocuous question near the end of Tuesday's debate.
Asked when they last cried, Coakley answered that it was earlier that day at the funeral of a friend who died of leukemia, the same illness that killed her mother. When it was Baker's turn, he choked up while recounting the story of the fisherman whose two sons had been offered football scholarships to college.
Baker quoted the man as saying: "I told them no. I said you're going to be fishermen. I was a fisherman. My brothers were fishermen. My father was a fisherman. You're going to be fishermen. And I ruined their lives."
On Friday, Baker said he hoped to focus attention on the fishing industry as it grapples with declining fishing stocks and federal catch limits.
"That industry has not had the attention and support that it deserves," Baker said. "And that's a shame."
He also quipped: "I don't plan to cry ever again."
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, a Democrat, said he knows a lot of people who have played and coached football in the area, along with many fishermen, and knows no one resembling Baker's description.
"From our perspective here in New Bedford, the comments perpetuate a stereotype that folks in greater New Bedford don't value higher education," Mitchell said. "That's where I have a problem with it."
Mike Calnan, 52, a New Bedford fishing boat skipper, also said he doesn't know if Baker's fisherman existed. But Calnan, whose father was a fisherman, said the story could well be true because of the pressure to stay in the family business.
"You've grown up saying, 'You're going to be the next fisherman in the family,'" said Calnan.
Coakley was upset by Republican Scott Brown in the 2010 special election to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. She led Baker in polling early in the race for governor, but recent surveys have shown the Republican pulling slightly ahead.
Fishy or not, the story hasn't riled Joseph Griffiths of Boston, a lifelong Democrat who said he'll probably vote for Coakley next Tuesday.
Griffiths thinks the controversy is overblown and Baker's emotion seemed genuine to him.
"Plus, I always perk up when I hear a candidate talk about fishing," he said. "If a candidate for governor can get so emotional about that issue, I guess he's a good guy."
Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this story.