Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series profiling the personal and professional background of the two major-party candidates running for governor of Montana.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is no stranger to politics, having first run for office 44 years ago, as a 21-year-old college student in his hometown of Butte.
“Honestly, I looked about 15 years old when I first ran for the Legislature,” he told MTN News. “People used to mistake me for the paperboy when I was out knocking on doors. But, the bottom line is, they trusted me, they elected me.”
Since then, Cooney has also been elected Montana secretary of state, to the state Senate and lieutenant governor – and spent the better part of a decade as a staffer for then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, the longest-serving Democratic senator in Montana history.
But Cooney’s family history is not all politics. In fact, his great-grandfather, Philip Poindexter, was a prominent rancher in the Beaverhead Valley, near Dillon, and had the first registered cattle brand in Montana.
One of the original Poindexter branding irons – with its square-and-compass Masonic logo – is in a wooden display case at the state Livestock Department, across the street from the state Capitol.
Poindexter also donated the original 10 acres of what became the University of Montana-Western at Dillon, and Cooney’s grandfather started a food brokerage in Butte that remained in the family for eight decades.
Cooney himself worked there as a teen-ager and young adult.
“The business went through all of my uncles and then my father was eventually involved with it,” Cooney said. “I learned how to stack pallets and I worked with the warehouse guys and learned how to unload train cars, box cars and so forth.”
The grandfather who started the food brokerage – Frank Cooney – also was a lieutenant governor of Montana and became the state’s ninth governor in 1933 when the current governor resigned. Frank Cooney died in office two years later.
Mike Cooney, appointed lieutenant governor in early 2016 and elected along with Gov. Steve Bullock later that year, is locked in a multimillion-dollar battle with Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte to become Montana’s next governor. The contest, which also includes Libertarian Lyman Bishop of Kalispell, is considered the most closely competitive governor’s race in the nation.
Most polls have shown Gianforte with a single-digit lead, but Cooney has raised $2.5 million in campaign funds since May, drawing donors from across Montana and the country.
Cooney’s opponents have labeled him a “career politician” or bureaucrat and said that he’s never had a real job.
Cooney, 66, said he’s proud of his career in public service, and that it should be considered a plus, rather than a negative.
“As an elected official and as a candidate, you have to have your ear to the ground and know what’s important to people,” he said. “That’s what’s guided me throughout my career in government, and it’s served me very well.”
Cooney also said he feels privileged to have grown up in a Montana where people could hunt and fish, hike and camp on public lands, afford to go to a state college and have access to affordable health care – and that his campaign is about maintaining that Montana.
“I feel very lucky to have grown up in Butte and being able to raise my three kids, with my wife Dee Ann, in Montana,” he said.
Cooney was a journalism major at the University of Montana but decided to switch to political science after working on Baucus’ first campaign for Congress, in 1974. Two years later, after an internship at the Legislature, Cooney ran for a seat in the Montana House.
He won the first of two terms, sworn in at age 22. After graduating from UM, he worked for Baucus, in Washington, D.C., and later in the senator’s field office in Helena.
In 1988, Cooney won election as Montana’s secretary of state and was re-elected twice. But Montana’s new term limits forced him to look for another job in 2000 – and he decided to run for governor, which was an open seat.
Yet he was up against two other Democratic statewide officeholders who were termed out of their current offices as well: Attorney General Joe Mazurek and state Auditor Mark O’Keefe. Cooney came in third in the three-way primary and later became the head of a group advocating for maternal and children’s health.
But he got back into politics two years later, running for and winning two four-year terms in the state Senate representing Helena, in 2002 and 2006. By then, he had become the head of the Workforce Services Division at the state Department of Labor, where he remained until being tapped by Bullock to become lieutenant governor in early 2016.
When asked why his resume warrants a promotion to be the state’s 25th governor, Cooney says he’s had a lifetime of fighting for programs and principles that have improved the lives of Montanans – and that he’d like to continue doing it as governor.
“Those are the things that I can bring, and I think they have a connection with the people of Montana,” he said. “And I think it’s really important for the leaders of Montana to have that experience, to have that connection with the people of Montana.”
Tomorrow: A closer look at Republican Greg Gianforte's path to Montana, and his career in the Big Sky State.