April 01, 2020

State House radio fixture Leary quits

AUGUSTA – A quarter-century of State House institutional memory walked out the door Monday night with Mal Leary, 50, bureau chief of Maine Public Radio. Leary has covered State House politics since 1975, when he was hired as a part-time reporter for United Press International. “I had no idea I would stay this long,” he said Monday.

His decision to quit the job came after a dispute with station administration over the promise of an additional editor. On Monday, Leary said the decision was final and he was looking for other work.

The Veazie native went through Orono High School and Georgetown University, unsure of his career aims. He started college as a biology major, then considered pre-law, before he decided against “defending guilty people. I couldn’t do that.”

Finally, journalism struck Leary as a challenging opportunity and he graduated with a degree in psychology and political science – a perfect recipe for State House coverage, many would say.

He landed the UPI job and found himself in the battleground between independent Gov. James Longley, a Democratic House dominated by John Martin, and a Republican senate dominated by Republican Joseph Sewall.

“That was great fun. It was the start of the 1976 election and Jimmy Carter was up here for the caucuses. Helen Thomas was up from UPI,” he said. It was a great time to be a reporter.

Leary described State House coverage as his own special “graduate school in economics, public utilities, politics. You would cover floor debate on highway use one day, then on funding the next. I never expected to have such fun. I got hooked,” he said.

Leary never minded working.

He started stringing for radio stations with budgets too small for a full-time reporter. Then he got recruited for weekly appearances on a Channel 10 public television show which featured reporters. In 1979, Bath businessman Frank Gibbs started a statewide news network based on AM radio station WMER and hired Leary as news director. “It was an idea ahead of its time. It was the first real talk radio in Maine. But the economy went south in 1982 and we went with it,” Leary said.

He started the Capitol News Service and sold stories to newspapers and radio stations, making “a reasonably good living” until the fall of 1994 when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated radio stations and dissolved the requirement for local news. That decision eliminated the majority of his business. While he was rejecting overtures for a public relations slot, Maine Public Radio, one of his old clients, called and offered a full-time position covering the State House.

He has become a fixture around the State House, a ready source for newcomers who need a name, a date, a political tale.

In a professorial tone, Leary will calmly, succinctly and carefully provide the needed details. Now he has packed his bags and 25 years of memories.

One of the high points of his Augusta career was watching Gov. Longley – called a “wild man” by some of his enemies – down on his hands and knees playing with Head Start kids at their Christmas party. One of his low points was the mistaken prediction that Joe Brennan would beat Susan Collins in the 1996 U.S. Senate race

The worst point was the government shutdown in 1991, only a few months after the death of Peter McKernan, the son of Gov. John McKernan. Peter McKernan and Leary’s son, Pat, had developed a casual friendship, unaware of their fathers’ professional relationship. The death cast a pall over the State House, Leary said. Leary blamed the shutdown on an unforgivable breakdown in communication between Speaker Martin, Senate President Charles Pray and an “unfocused” McKernan,” he said. “There was plenty of blame to go around.”

McKernan rarely scheduled press conferences and forced reporters to organize noontime “ambushes” to get a comment on the issue of the day. But Leary said McKernan retained a more professional relationship than Gov. Brennan who always took criticism very personally. “You were either with him or against him. There was no in between,” he said.

Leary and Gov. Angus King are such good friends that the governor called MPR offices Monday in a vain attempt to save the reporter’s job.

The two first met in 1972 when King was changing his son’s diaper while working for Sen. Bill Hathaway. Leary used to be the substitute host when King had a scheduling or political conflict for his WCBB television interview show. The friendship has not stood in the way of sharp questions, Leary said. “I have asked him some pointed questions and kept him accountable for the promises he made in his book.”

Overall, political coverage has dropped off since Leary started in 1975, as radio, television and newspaper staffs have been trimmed. No commercial television station has a full-time reporter assigned to the State House, he said.

Leary has no plans other than to collect a check for vacations he never took and to look for his next job. “It might be in Maine, it might not be. I don’t know yet,” he said Monday night.

If he planned a one-week canoe trip on the Allagash and had to pick his crew from State House pals and pols, he would choose former Reps. Pat McGowan from Canaan and Jack Cashman from Old Town, Pat Eltman, who served as Martin’s chief of staff, Tony Payne, executive director of the Republican Party and, of course, Angus King.

That would be a trip.

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