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Cooney has deep ties to Montana politics
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Cooney has deep ties to Montana politics

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Candidate trying to follow in grandfather's footsteps

HELENA - Mike Cooney has politics in his blood, but he's risen to a statewide elected office through shoe leather rather than heredity.

Cooney, a Democrat, is trying to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Frank Cooney, Montana's eighth governor from 1933 until his death in 1935.

"If my family wants to stay here and call Montana home, I want them to have the same opportunities I have and my parents and my grandparents have had," Cooney says. "We really have something at stake."

Mike Cooney is asking voters to elect him governor for three reasons. He wants to use the governor's office to push for long-term, meaningful economic development; to make education a much higher priority at all levels; and to protect the state's natural heritage by making economic development compatible with environmental stewardship.

Cooney, 45, has racked up plenty of political experience along the way, from working on Max Baucus' first congressional campaign to getting elected to the state Legislature. Then Cooney won the secretary of state's post three straight times but can't run again because of term limits.

"I grew up knowing my grandfather was governor and thinking every kid's grandfather became governor," Cooney says.

Yet Cooney says it turned out to be less his grandfather's legacy, but more his parents' interest in public affairs that pricked his interest. In 1964, Cooney remembers how his father, Rod, a New Deal Democrat, slapped a Lyndon Johnson bumper sticker on his side of the headboard of his parents' bed, while his mother, Ruth, a conservative who has since moved more to the left politically, affixed a Barry Goldwater sticker on her side.

"My political upbringing and involvement began around the family dinner table, something I'm grateful for today," he says.

Like many American families during the turbulent late 1960s and early '70s, the Cooneys gathered around the television to watch the Vietnam war and the riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"We were a family that always had dinner together," Mike's older brother, Pat, recalls. "It was always time for discussions. We always took on the topics everyone said you were not to supposed to talk about - religion and politics - and we had some pretty lively discussions. That's really where Mike developed his love for debating."

Although his parents resided in Butte after living in Washington, D.C., Mike Cooney was born in Washington, where his mother wanted to deliver him because her family lived there. They returned to Montana a few days later on the train, making him "a coast-to-coast baby," says Cooney, youngest of three children.

His father ran the Cooney Food Brokerage, started by the late governor and his brother in 1894. Mike swept up the place and did other odd jobs there as a youth.

He attended Butte schools and spent a typical childhood enjoying playground sports, building cabins on vacant lots and hiking in the foothills. An excellent drummer, Cooney later played in such bands as "The Rock Foundation," "Bad Day at Black Rock" and then "Buffaloes," making quite a bit of money, his brother says.

He graduated from Butte High in 1972 and enrolled in journalism at the University of Montana, planning to be a TV newsman. He enjoyed a summer job at KXLF-TV in Butte before returning to school in Missoula. There, Cooney was impressed by a political newcomer named Max Baucus, who stopped by dorm rooms to campaign for the Legislature.

When Baucus decided to run for the western district congressional seat held by Republican Dick Shoup in 1974, Cooney volunteered to be the Baucus campaign's advance man without knowing what it entailed. He dropped out of school and traveled by car a town or two ahead of Baucus, who was on his now-legendary campaign walk from Gardiner to Yaak. Cooney lined up meetings for Baucus, who ultimately won.

Cooney, who enjoyed the campaign and made a lot of friends, says: "I decided right then and there that's what I wanted to do."

Baucus, neutral in the three-man Democratic primary this year, praises Cooney, saying: "He's a real people guy with Montana common sense. He loves people. He's a very good guy, with positive, constructive energy."

Inspired, Cooney returned to UM and changed his major to political science. Professor Jim Lopach remembers him as one of a handful of students showing interest in electoral politics then.

"Mike's always been a person of energy and optimism," says Lopach. "He has a fresh take on things. He was never cynical about politics but has a healthy and realistic view of politics in democracy."

Cooney was hired to help an insurance group lobby during the 1975 Legislature. He loved it, finding the legislative process interesting, important and open to people from all walks of life. He thought he might like to run someday.

"Dad was very encouraging but thought maybe I was a bit young and maybe I should earn my spurs," Cooney says.

Cooney returned to UM that spring, but learned a House seat was open in Butte. He admits being "scared to death" as he filed the papers in the secretary of state's office he would later head. Cooney, 21 at the time, won a three-way primary and faced no Republican opposition.

"I looked at Max Baucus' campaign literature and fashioned my own after his," he recalls. "I went door to door. It was fairly new then."

He candidly admits a big reason he won that first time was because of his parents' last name. The door-to-door campaigning also surprised people, with some thinking the boyish-looking Cooney was the paper boy collecting the monthly bill.

Cooney, one of the youngest Montana lawmakers ever elected, immediately wound up in a controversy when he and another Butte legislator backed Rep. John Driscoll of Hamilton for House speaker over fellow Butte lawmaker J.D. Lynch, costing him the job. While Cooney says he has always respected Lynch, he felt Driscoll might offer "a little more diplomacy" with the evenly divided Senate.

Cooney says he got roasted in a couple of critical newspaper stories in Butte, but when he ran for re-election, people said they admired his independence, even if they disagreed with his vote.

As a legislator, Cooney is most proud of a successful resolution he sponsored in 1977 declaring Montana would dispose of any nuclear waste it produced but wouldn't be a dumping ground for other states' waste. He believes it helped convince the federal government to look elsewhere.

Cooney found a job in Baucus' Senate field office in Butte. In December 1979, he married Dee Ann Gribble, whom he'd met when she worked part time at a movie theater in Butte and had dated for five years. Baucus didn't encourage his employees to run for office, and Cooney felt the need to settle down after being a part-time legislator, so he didn't seek re-election.

In 1982, the Cooneys moved to Washington, D.C., so she could attend Antioch law school and he was able to transfer to Baucus' staff there and became executive assistant. Cooney said he enjoyed living in Washington, and the couple met some new friends, Julie and Doug Mitchell, who also worked for congressional staffs. Doug later was Cooney's chief of staff in the secretary of state's office for years and now is managing his campaign for governor.

Doug Mitchell says Cooney was not very Washingtonlike, explaining: "He wasn't part of the internal intrigue. Nothing was held back. No favors exchanged." Rather, Cooney was "just happy and ebullient and just kind of full of energy and that kind of pervaded Max's office," he says.

After Dee Ann graduated from law school, they decided to return to Montana, where she passed the bar exam and joined a Helena law firm. Cooney went to work for Baucus' Helena office.

He began getting encouragement from friends to run for secretary of state in 1988 but had made no decision. An old friend, Earl Reilly, sent Cooney a $100 campaign check after grilling him skeptically at a meeting of seniors about why Baucus had supported the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget bill.

Cooney decided to enter the race and got what he calls "lukewarm" permission from Baucus to run, provided he campaigned only nights and weekends.

Unopposed in the primary, Cooney narrowly defeated state Sen. Pete Story, R-Emigrant, by 49.3 percent to 46.2 percent of the vote, with Libertarian Larry Dodge winning the rest. His victory was one of the rare times when the candidate who spent the least wins.

He and volunteers drove a black, oxidized 1972 Buick Skylark, which belonged to Mitchell's father-in-law, around the state, Cooney says. Although it lacked a working heater and radio, the clunker was good enough to transport Cooney throughout Montana.

Cooney became secretary of state in January 1989 and says he walked into what had been "a fairly political office" under the late Republican Secretary of State Jim Waltermire, who was killed in a plane crash while running for governor in 1988. Cooney said a number of employees asked him how much they were expected to donate to his campaign fund to keep their jobs.

"Having just come from working for a U.S. senator where that's illegal, I was stunned," Cooney says. "I assured everybody that they were not expected to pony up any money for my political activities and I expected them to just do their jobs"

Cooney was handily re-elected in 1992, defeating Republican Robert Werner, 64 to 36 percent, and in 1996 swamped a little-known third-party candidate by 84 to 16 percent.

Werner, who had worked for Waltermire, is running for the same office this year.

Although Cooney is one of the most personable statewide officials, Werner says the Democrat also is someone "who's using it as a steppingstone" at the expense of being secretary of state.

Cooney disagrees, saying he runs an office "that has never been viewed as being deeply involved in partisan politics," giving all people, regardless of their political party, a fair shake. The office oversees the filing of thousands of business documents annually, publishes the register of state regulations and operates as the state's chief election officer.

Among his top accomplishments, Cooney says, is convincing the Legislature to make the secretary of state's office run more like a business by having it totally funded by fees paid for its services rather than from taxpayers' money from the state general fund. That makes it more responsive to customers, he says

Cooney is also proud of advancing his office's technology so it's responsive to Main Street businesses that file documents.

He also cites efforts to boost voter turnout, saying a combined effort between his office and businesses helped boost Montana's 1998 voter turnout to second in the country, trailing only Minnesota's.

He is proud of his role on the state Land Board by helping provide greater access to state lands. Cooney also has been one of the leading promoters of the effort to update and historically restore Montana's Capitol to its one-time splendor, despite being warned: "You're riding a dead horse."

A major frustration for Cooney has been the Legislature's failure to pass any of the campaign-finance revision bills he has put forward the past six or eight years.

State Republican Party Chairman Matt Denny, a former Missoula legislator, criticized Cooney's campaign-finance proposals, saying "they seem to have been more aimed at dictating how campaigns should be run rather than encouraging a free and open debate."

The candidate

Name: Mike Cooney.

Office sought: Governor.

Political party: Democrat.

Age: 45.

Birthdate: Sept. 3, 1954, in Washington, D.C. Moved to Montana a few days later.

Home: Helena.

Occupation: Secretary of state.

Family: Wife, Dee Ann, and children, Ryan, Adan and Colin.

Education: 1972 graduate of Butte High School; bachelor's degree in political science from University of Montana, 1979.

Past employment: Worked in his family's business, Cooney Food Brokerage, in Butte, 1970-77; Montana Energy Research Development Institute, 1977-79; member of the staff of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Butte, Washington, D.C., and Helena, 1979-88.

Military: None.

Political experience: Worked on the staff of Max Baucus' successful campaign in 1974; elected as a state representative from Butte in 1976 and 1978; elected Montana secretary of state in 1988 and re-elected in 1992 and 1996.

Next week: Democrat Joe Mazurek, Montana's attorney general.

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