HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday named a former secretary of state as his third lieutenant governor in three years as Democrats sought to shore up the party’s gubernatorial ticket ahead of the 2016 elections.
Bullock announced the appointment of Mike Cooney, 61, of Helena to replace Angela McLean, who announced her resignation last month amid tensions with the governor and his staff as revealed in their emails.
Cooney told The Associated Press that he knows the role of a lieutenant governor and will undertake whatever duties Bullock assigns him.
“You’re there to do things assigned by the governor and I accept that,” he said. “I’ve got a great relationship with him. He and I both share the same values for Montana and for where we want to see the future of the state go.”
The appointment is effective Jan. 4.
Cooney got his start in state politics as a representative from Butte in the 1970s. After working as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus for six years, Cooney was elected Montana secretary of state in 1989, serving three terms.
In the late 1990s, Cooney said he hired Bullock — then a recent law school graduate — to serve as chief legal counsel of the secretary of state.
Cooney later served as a state senator from Helena between 2003 and 2010, including a short stint as Senate president in 2007.
Bullock described Cooney as a proven leader with a four-decade political track record.
“I’m impressed by Mike’s hard work and his commitment to public service,” Bullock said in a statement from his office.
Republican Party spokesman Shane Scanlon criticized Cooney as “a Helena insider and career bureaucrat” who was picked without public input.
Republicans have sought to capitalize on McLean’s resignation, saying it complicates Bullock’s re-election hopes, and that there was more to her resignation than has been publicly revealed.
Emails released by the governor’s office in response to public records requests from the AP and other news outlets showed long-running discord between McLean, Bullock and members of his staff. That included threats by one Bullock aide to sideline McLean by taking away her policy initiatives.
Within weeks of that exchange, McLean applied for a job with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, where she begins work next month.
Carroll College political analyst Jeremy Johnson said Cooney was well-credentialed to be lieutenant governor because of his dual experiences as a legislator and member of the executive branch.
Bullock’s office said the governor and his staff reached out to dozens of civic leaders, elected officials and others for their input before settling on Cooney.
During the 2002 election, when Cooney was running for state Senate, he and his staff were accused of improperly placing campaign-related documents into the secretary of state’s computer system when Cooney held that office.
An investigation by the state commissioner of political practices concluded Cooney and his staff used poor judgment in the matter but did not violate campaign laws because there was no evidence the documents were used in campaign activities.
“There was never any attempt to hide it or cover it up,” Cooney said Wednesday. “I wish I could say I did not make a mistake. I’ve made many.”
Cooney was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Butte. His grandfather, Frank Cooney, served as Montana’s eighth governor from 1933 to 1935. That was also the last time a Montana governor went through three lieutenant governors during a single term.
Bullock appointed his first lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to fill a U.S. senate seat left vacant when Baucus was named Ambassador to China in 2014.
Walsh was seeking election to the post when he was forced to drop out following revelations that he plagiarized a research paper while attending the U.S. Army War College.
Republicans planning to challenge Bullock’s bid for a second term include Bozeman businessman Greg Gianforte and state Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson.
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