BUTTE — Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney on Wednesday became the most prominent Democrat vying for Montana’s open governor’s seat in 2020, announcing in his hometown that he’ll be a champion for public schools, access to health care and economic chances for the average worker.
He also said that, as a Democrat, he would create a healthy balance in state government, standing in the way of Republican proposals that he said would turn the state “in the wrong direction.”
“We’ve stopped attacks on our public-education system, making sure public dollars don’t go to private education, and we’ve stopped every attempt to take Montanans’ public lands out of public hands,” he said. “Folks, Montana is not for sale.”
Democrats have controlled the governor’s office for 16 years, and in all but four of those years, the GOP has held majorities in the Montana Legislature.
Cooney, 64, had long been thought to be running for governor to succeed his boss, Gov. Steve Bullock, who can’t run in 2020 because of term limits. Instead, Bullock is running for president.
Cooney made his candidacy official Wednesday with a rally in Stodden Park in Butte, where he grew up and where his family set down roots in the late 1800s. Cooney first ran for the state Legislature at age 22, and won.
He also was Montana’s secretary of state from 1989-2000 and a state senator from Helena from 2003-2010. Bullock appointed him as lieutenant governor in late 2015, after then-Lt. Gov. Angela McLean resigned, and the Bullock-Cooney ticket won re-election in 2016.
They defeated Republican Greg Gianforte, who is now Montana’s U.S. representative and is one of three prominent Republicans running for governor in 2020.
Cooney on Wednesday alluded to a possible matchup against Gianforte, a wealthy entrepreneur from Bozeman who moved to the state in the mid-1990s.
“Montanans want a fair shake,” he said. “We want to make a good living and be paid a living wage for a hard day’s work. What we don’t want is some wealthy out-of-stater who doesn’t understand our values because they don’t understand, or live, our values.”
Cooney may be the most prominent Democrat in the governor’s race, but he’s not the only one.
Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls entered the race last month, and so did former state lawmaker Reilly Neill of Livingston.
Montana Republicans are eager to win back the governorship, and in addition to Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell are competing for the GOP nomination.
It’s also not the first time Cooney has run for governor. He tried in 2000, but came in last in a three-way Democratic primary won by Mark O’Keefe, who went on to lose against Republican Judy Martz.
Cooney on Wednesday echoed familiar Democratic Party themes, but said he’ll be rolling out more detailed plans of what he’d like to do as governor, such as lower prescription-drug costs and enhance worker training and apprenticeships.
“We’re going to be talking about things that I don’t think the Republicans are really going to want to address,” he told MTN News in an interview. “I talked about health care, and prescription drug costs. …
“We’re going to be talking about how to continue to protect our public-education money … We’re going to be talking about how to create jobs and making sure that workers here are getting paid good wages. Those are a lot of things that the opposition doesn’t really want to talk about, and if they do, they don’t have a plan. We have a plan.”