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2020 Candidate Profile: Mike Cooney For Governor

This week we’re publishing profiles on both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor. MTPR's Shaylee Ragar brings us this look at Democrat Mike Cooney and his bid for Montana’s executive office.
On a recent fall morning, before the sun was even up, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney met with a gaggle of reporters at the base of Mt. Helena.

Cooney used the walk up the city park to release a plan he says will win him the governor’s office in November.

The plan focuses on reiterating the campaign’s main platforms; protecting public lands, subsidized health care and public education.

Cooney has presented new policy proposals over the last couple of months, but also many that are holdovers from the administration of current governor Steve Bullock, who after two terms in the office is running for the U.S. Senate.

Cooney says getting his message out to Montanans has been more difficult this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic because, he says, meeting people in person and retail politics are important in Montana.

"Mike Mansfield was always known as Mike. Max Baucus was Max. Jon Tester is Jon, you know, Brian Switzer is Brian. Steve Bullock is Steve. That’s how Montanans view the people they elect to elected office. It’s a very personal thing.”

Cooney has worked in government for most of his career. He was also the director of the nonprofit Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies from 2001 to 2006. He’s been a state representative, state senator, and then was elected to the Secretary of State’s office before becoming lieutenant governor in 2016. He was the third person Bullock appointed to that job.

Politics run in Cooney’s family. His grandfather was former Gov. Frank Cooney, who was in office from 1933 to 1935.

Cooney says his years in state government are an asset that can help him govern and he rejects attacks from his opponent, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, calling him a career politician.

"That just shows he doesn’t understand how important public service is."

This fall, Cooney’s campaign released an ad saying he’s proud of his years of work in state government. In the ad he’s sitting at a drum kit in what looks to be a bar or coffee shop and talks about dedicating his life to public service.

Cooney Ad: “But boy I dreamt of doing this instead ... Anyway, as governor, I've got the track record to deliver affordable health care, protect our public lands, create jobs and opportunity ..."

Democrats have held the Governor’s Office in Montana for 16 years. Voters will decide this year if Cooney adds that count to two-decades or if Republican Gianforte breaks the trend.

Cooney and I sat down for an interview after a campaign rally in uptown Butte in the historic Finlen Hotel. It’s where former President John F. Kennedy stayed on a visit to the mining city in 1959.

I asked Cooney how Montana’s executive office would look different if he were in the governor’s seat instead of Bullock. What new ideas would he bring to the job?

“There will be a lot on our platter. First and foremost, I mean, COVID is going to be the first thing that we have to deal with, you know making sure we keep Montanans healthy, make sure that we are continuing to open up the economy in a safe way and getting people back to work and reinvigorating our economy.”

Cooney says the Montana economy has done pretty well under the Bullock administration - with the seventh fastest wage growth in the country. While wages in Montana have grown faster than those in most other states, wages here still rank some of the lowest in the country.

Cooney is also making support for public schools a calling card of his campaign. He wants to create a state public preschool program, which has been pushed by Bullock but so far failed to cross the finish line in the legislature.

He also talks about the importance of pushing against school policies that increase state money going to private or charter schools at the expense of funding for public schools. That’s a stance Bullock has also taken. Gianforte has supported school choice policies.

Cooney said Montana needs to prepare to transition its energy sector to cleaner sources, like solar, wind and geothermal. He said the next administration will have to be a leader on this issue. He’s released a plan calling for renewable energy development, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change impacts.

A spotlight has been on governors across the country during the pandemic, including Montana’s.

Cooney said he’s proud of the way the state responded, but there’s still work to be done.

Shaylee Ragar: Looking back at the last six months, is there anything you would change about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?

"Well, you know, when the federal government passed the buck to the states, I have to say I really think that Gov. Bullock and I hit the ground running, we really showed up. And you know we were working day and night every hour trying to make sure we had PPE, the appropriate PPE, and the testing supplies to keep Montanans healthy and safe. We knew that in order to open up the economy and get it going again and getting people back to work, we had to have healthy folks in the state.”

Montana shut down in March with far fewer cases than most states, and still has comparatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths. The state was successful in flattening the curve in cases in early spring. Since then, a surge in cases has grown in the state. In recent weeks, Montana has broken it’s record for most cases confirmed in a single day multiple times and seen some of the fastest increases of new cases per capita in the nation.

Cooney says there is one thing he’d change about the Bullock administration's COVID-19 response.

Bullock instituted a mask mandate in July for counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19 that’s still in place. Cooney said he would have applied a mandate to all counties, regardless of case count.

"Because, you know, quite frankly, the virus does not look for county lines. People are not mindful about crossing county lines. And I just think what we have seen, when you look at the science, when you talk to the medical experts throughout the state, masks are a major defense against the virus."

Cooney said the economy won’t recover until the workforce and consumers are healthy, and health care has to be the top priority.

Cooney, like Gianforte and other political candidates, has continued to campaign across the state during the pandemic. He asks people to wear masks and socially-distance during those events.

I joined Cooney’s campaign on two stops: in Dillon and Butte.

His stump speeches hit hard on the main platforms of his campaign – health care, public education and public lands.

"Our public lands are not for sale. And we’re going to make sure we protect our public lands. And we’re going to be able to pass those public lands onto future generations."

After Cooney’s speech in Dillon, I spoke with George Johnston, a dentist in the area who attended the event. He’s originally from Cut Bank, and tells me he’s a lifelong hunter and fisherman and he supports Cooney for his stance and work on access to public lands.

"The other thing is the Affordable Care Act. For the last 10 years of my career, I worked for the Community Health Center and that was a huge benefit to the Community Health Center. The money that came into there made a huge difference."

Johnston says the ACA kept the local health center afloat, and brought in more patients who could finally afford care.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is the national health care law that subsidizes Montana’s Medicaid expansion program. Nearly 90,000 low income adults are enrolled in that health coverage.

The national law will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in November. Republican state attorneys general have brought a lawsuit to strike it down.

Cooney says if elected he’ll fight for the program and its health policies to stay in place.

When Cooney talks about this election, he says there’s a lot at stake. His pitch is that he’ll improve and protect policies that have been ushered in by 16 years of Democrats in executive office. He’s proud of the work the Bullock administration has done and wants to build on it.

The Cook Political Report has dubbed Montana’s governor's race the most competitive in the country — a toss-up — meaning either party has a good chance of winning.

Election Day is November 3.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.