Interview with Gubernatorial Candidate Mike Cooney: The Experience and Temperament to Get Things Done

Photo provided by campaign.

It’s easy to forget just how much experience Mike Cooney has serving the people of Montana. In addition to his term as Lieutenant Governor, Cooney served as Montana’s Secretary of State for twelve years, in the Montana House for two terms, and in the Senate for eight years, including a term as President of the Senate. It’s that depth of experience, working with people within the Democratic caucus and across the aisle—along with a fundamental sense of decency that’s not always apparent in politics—that dominated my interview with Cooney Tuesday afternoon in Helena.

I started the interview on that point, about the occasional criticism that Cooney is just too nice for what is almost certain to be an ugly race this fall. His response was to embrace the idea because that’s what he believes Montanans want from their leaders:

I’ve heard throughout my life basically that I’m a nice guy and I really don’t think it’s something I need to apologize for, because I think inherently Montanans are pretty nice people….I think frankly people are sick and tired of that kind of activity in government. You don’t have to be a bully. And I just think, Montanans are good people and they understand to get things done you develop relationships, you develop friendships, and you end up having to compromise. So, I’ve tried to apply those principles with everything I’ve done in government and it’s served me well.

When we talked about his top priorities if elected, Cooney named four: protecting our “world-class public education system,” ensuring access to “quality health care affordable health care,” reducing the cost of prescription drugs, and protecting Montana’s public lands, all of which he argued were essential to developing Montana’s economy:

All basically deal with the economy and our livelihoods here in Montana and when you go out and you listen to Montanans you hear these all the time. Regardless of what corner of the state you’re in, these issues are the ones that keep coming up front and center.

When it came to public education, Cooney noted that districts were incurring costs that were perhaps not considered when the state’s funding formula was developed, like school resource officers and additional requirements for special education. He called for additional investment in pre-K education, noting that Montanans needed to sit down to develop a model for pre-K education:

I think we need to sit down and we need to work with all the parties involved to try to figure out what the best way to get a quality voluntary public school, pre-k program in in our system, we all know that the science demonstrates why that is so important: kids are more likely, when they go through a quality, pre-k program, to complete high school, they’re more less likely to engage in criminal activities, and they’re more successful.

And then and then there’s the economic side of it. It’s good for local communities because it helps increase the workforce in those communities because parents have a little bit more flexibility knowing that their kids are attending a quality educational program and not just sitting in front of a TV someplace being entertained and that’s and that’s important to parents.

Cooney also criticized those who would divert public money to private schools:

Why would we want to take money away from public education and give it to anybody? All that’s going to do is hurt public education. I believe we need to be making investment in public education to make it the best opportunity for our students, so I’m absolutely opposed to taking any money from public education and diverting it to anything other than public education.

When asked about the 2003 tax cuts Governor Martz passed over the objection of Democrats in the Legislature who called it then a “Leave No Millionaires Behind” bill, Cooney argued that “in 2017, we started to see the chickens come to roost frankly as a result of those tax cuts.”

He then argued for a system that would be fairer to a “single working” than someone making $500,000 a year, calling for a modest increase in tax rates for those making that much, changes to the capital gains credit that benefit the wealthiest Montanans, and exploring an expansion of the new Earned Income Tax Credit program.

Noting that they could not fund the state’s budget, Cooney rejected the sales taxes that Greg Gianforte called “an ideal solution” in 2003.

I brought up an op-ed Cooney wrote in 2008, calling for changes in Montana’s anti-discrimination laws to protect members of the LGBTQ community at a time when Montana Democrats were not always forceful in these fights:

You know, it boils down to we’re human beings. We’re Montanans. We want people to love each other. And if we all were to live by that on a daily basis, we might be a much better world in a lot of ways. I believe people should be treated with respect, people should be treated with equality, and I just thought that it was something that needed to be done.

In the close of our conversation, Cooney noted that, while D.C. style partisanship seems to have spread to Montana, he believes that “the governor does have the capacity to provide that leadership to try and bring people together,” and promised that he’d make that a priority if elected, before noting that the last session, with a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature was able to compromise on increased education funding, the long-delayed infrastructure bill, and Medicaid expansion.

Cooney sees himself as the best candidate to face the Republican nominee because of his experience in the Legislature, the Executive, and his work on health care in between, and argues that he’s “got a record that shows [he’s]prepared to hit the ground running from day one and won’t stop until we’re done.”

Experience unmatched by any candidate in the race, passion for bipartisan policy that protects progressive values, and yes, a fundamental sense that being nice, not being a bully, is the real measure of leadership will be at the center of Mike Cooney’s bid for election. And our politics might just be better for all three.

To get involved, visit Cooney’s web page here.

And don’t forget to listen to the whole interview below.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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