Mal Leary, the dean of Maine’s political press corps, dies at 72

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(BDN) – AUGUSTA, Maine – Mal Leary, the dean of the Maine State House press corps with more than 45 years of chronicling state politics, died Saturday at age 72.

He reported across the media in a career that began in 1975 during the tenure of independent Gov. James Longley. For most of his career, he ran a new kind of one-man cable service that sold his press and radio stories about politics to the media.

Leary was one of the most trusted people in the Statehouse and was well liked by politicians and aides for his old-school approach. For them and the younger journalists, the door of their press corps was always open for history lessons with a mixture of kindness and uneasiness. He lamented the direction of the policy in an interview with the Bangor Daily News ahead of his retirement in 2021.

“Politics is fun when it’s really about issues. When the shock is over, do we do this and do that, invest in this or invest in that?” he said in a 2021 interview. “But a lot of it is picayune stuff, personality-driven stuff.”

Leary’s death was confirmed by his wife, Susan McAvoy Leary, in a post on Facebook on Sunday. He had been in declining health due, in part, to heart problems since his retirement and was placed in a hospice in January. He was admitted last week to the intensive care unit at MaineGeneral Medical Center in his hometown of Augusta.

A native of Veazie, Leary attended Orono High School and the University of Maine before beginning his news career at WABI in Bangor in the early 1970s as director of the 6 o’clock news. He had to make big decisions about what to broadcast in real time, which he would later say taught him the power of the medium at a time when network news had no competition.

His career as a reporter began in Augusta for the United Press International television service. Longley, the first governor he covered, was a bombastic figure who battled bipartisanship in the Legislature and has often been compared to former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who had a famously rocky relationship with the media.

Leary was one of the few reporters who was able to get LePage to sit down with him regularly, and the reporter told a public access program in 2018 that the two “actually get along pretty well.”

“Sometimes he’ll want me and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this,'” Leary said. “And other times, he’ll stop and go on for 15 or 20 minutes about a particular topic. So he blows hot and cold, completely.”

Leary started his cable service in 1983 and operated it for 15 years before leaving in 1995 to become State House bureau chief for Maine Public. He left again to run the cable service before returning to public broadcasting to run a short-lived channel focused on state politics. After that ended, he remained as a senior political reporter until his retirement.

His service intersected with major events in Maine history, including the 1992 ballot-tampering scandal involving aides to then-House Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and helping ending his 20-year tenure in that position. That institutional memory boosted its coverage.

He demonstrated “unmatched understanding of the issues” in interviews over the years, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement Sunday.

“Mal’s dedication to his profession really made a difference, and he will be sorely missed,” she said.

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