HELENA – Former Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek, known by friends and adversaries alike as a dedicated public servant who could find common ground where others couldn’t, died Tuesday in Helena from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 64.
Mazurek, a Democrat who also ran for governor and served 12 years as a state senator from Helena, had been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s in 2007. His family went public about his condition earlier this year, in a news story distributed by the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, whose scientists are researching Alzheimer’s.
As Mazurek’s death became known Tuesday, accolades poured in from colleagues and friends of all political stripes, including U.S. senators, congressional and gubernatorial candidates, former governors, state Supreme Court justices and legislators.
“He was just such a nice guy,” said Dennis Taylor, a longtime friend who was Mazurek’s chief of staff at the state Justice Department. “I truly believe that he appealed to people from both sides of the aisle in an old-fashioned way that you don’t see any more.”
Mazurek served as attorney general from 1993 to 2000, winning election to a second term in 1996. He ran for governor in 2000 but lost in the Democratic primary to then state-Auditor Mark O’Keefe. After his electoral defeat in 2000, Mazurek joined the law firm of Crowley and Fleck in Helena.
Born in San Diego, Mazurek moved to Montana as an infant and grew up in Helena, graduating from Helena High School. He is survived by his wife Patty and three sons, Jeff, Tom and Dan.
A public vigil service for Mazurek will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Carroll College P.E. Center in Helena. A funeral Mass will be Friday at noon at the Cathedral of St. Helena, followed by a luncheon at the Gateway Center in Helena.
Mazurek’s political career stretched back to his college days, when he was student body president at the University of Montana in the late 1960s. After earning a law degree from UM in 1970, he worked as a private attorney in Helena, where he ran for the state Senate in 1980, winning the first of three terms. He was president of the Montana Senate during the 1991 Legislature.
Former state Sen. Bob Brown of Whitefish, who met Mazurek when Brown was student body president at Montana State University and Mazurek was the same at UM, said Mazurek was a classic “bridge-builder” at the Legislature who often brought disparate sides together in compromise, because they trusted him completely.
“He was as honorable as anyone I’ve ever known, and always in a low-key way,” Brown said. “He was the person who quietly, behind the scenes, helped bring people together and made the system work.”
“Of all the Democrats on that side, I looked up to Joe as a guy you wanted to follow and emulate,” added former state Sen. Bruce Crippen of Billings, the Republican leader when Mazurek was Senate president. “He was honest, he had integrity. His word was his word. … That was the type of guy he was.”
Taylor said Mazurek also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the content of bills before the Legislature, and seemed to know just about everyone in Helena, as well as many more people around the state. He said those skills made it all the more difficult to watch Mazurek slowly lose his memory with Alzheimer’s.
“The irony of the scourge of Alzheimer’s is that when Joe was a legislator, he could tell you what was in every bill, section by section, and who was for what, and who was against it, and how they were going to work their way through it,” Taylor said.
As a testament to Mazurek’s nonpartisan arc of friendships and influence, he had close relationships with the two leading candidates for governor this year – Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill.
Hill said Mazurek sometimes represented him in business transactions, that they worked together to establish a successful fraud-investigation unit at the state Workers Compensation Fund, and played together on golf teams at tournaments at Green Meadow Country Club.
“We worked together on political and policy issues, going back 25 years,” Hill said. “There was a time when Republicans and Democrats actually could work together and got along well with each other.”
Bullock, the current attorney general, ran Mazurek’s successful 1992 campaign for attorney general, and said he considered him a “mentor and a friend.”
“He’s been a model for me, and in more than just how to be a public servant,” Bullock said. “Joe truly loved serving, and it wasn’t about political gain, or things like that.”
As attorney general, Mazurek joined the national lawsuit against tobacco companies, winning Montana a $1 billion settlement.
His office also laid the groundwork for the first computer monitoring of electronic gambling machine receipts, took part in the peaceful surrender of the anti-government Freemen protesters in Montana, and oversaw the final legal arguments that led to the execution of Duncan McKenzie in 1995, the first Montana execution in 52 years.
Mazurek’s predecessor as attorney general was Republican Marc Racicot, who was elected governor the year that Mazurek became attorney general. The two met as students, when Mazurek was at UM and Racicot was student body president at Carroll College.
Racicot said he and Mazurek, whose birthdays were days apart, used to kid each other about who was getting older faster – and also talked about how each had a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, and whether it might affect themselves one day.
“It all seemed so remote when we were going through those experiences,” he said. “I never would have imagined that any of us would have seen this happen.”
Racicot said Mazurek “was just one of the most decent and special human beings that God ever put on the planet,” and that he couldn’t recall one time when the two of them couldn’t find common ground on a policy issue.
Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, who became chief deputy attorney general under Mazurek, said what made Mazurek stand out was his “infectious enthusiasm for public service and what that really meant.”
“It was always real for him: That we had a job to do to serve the public, and that it was the greatest job in the world,” she said. “He inspired many people to careers in public service.”
But most of all, friends and colleagues recalled Mazurek as a good man who never had a bad word to say about anyone.
“He was a year ahead of me in school,” said former state Rep. Hal Harper of Helena. “He was always kind to younger classmen. He didn’t allow abuse of younger, weaker or different people in his presence.
“He lived his life that way, he ran his legal business that way and he served his state that way. … Joe Mazurek is one politician the state of Montana will miss.”
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at email@example.com.