Veteran political reporter Mike Dennison is in Kalispell this week to talk about and sign copies of his new book, “Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.”
“Inside Montana Politics” is a lively, historical look at major political figures and events Dennison has covered during his years as a political reporter in Montana. It has chapters on Sens. Jon Tester, Max Baucus and Conrad Burns; Govs. Brian Schweitzer, Marc Racicot and Judy Martz; the rise and fall of the Montana Power Co., and a couple of other compelling subjects.
Dennison, who has been a full-time political reporter in Montana since 1992, talked to the Daily Inter Lake recently about some of the most interesting times on his beat in the last 30 years.
DIL: What do you see as the most influential political event and elections since you began covering Montana?
Dennison: I’d say the fall of the Montana Power Co. That’s the first chapter of my book. It was a momentous event and had a dramatic political and economic impact on the state at an extraordinary cost. In the long run, I think it hurt the Republicans.
The fulcrum elections were in 2006 with the election of Tester to the Senate, along with 2008, and 2010 when the Republicans wiped out the Democrats —resulting, I think, in the emergence of the moderate Republican Party. In 2010 Montana had a Democrat governor with a Democrat minority.
I think the 2020 election is going to be interesting and could swing (the state) in a completely new direction.
DIL: What was the most divisive moment in your history as a reporter?
Dennison: As a political reporter what I think you remember most is when you take someone down. Show someone they’ve made a big mistake. I don’t enjoy it. It’s not fun. Really, it’s the worst part of the job. Those are the toughest moments.
DIL: What has been the most inspiring moment on the job?
Dennison: I have a chapter in the book devoted to the case of Cody Marble. It’s the only non-political chapter in the book. In 2002, Cody was accused by fellow inmates of raping another inmate at the Missoula Juvenile Detention Center. I believed the accusation was faulty. He was sentence to 10 years in prison. I wrote my first big story on his case in 2008 and probably two dozen stories altogether. I think that initial story was the catalyst for what happened after that with the case and one of the highlights of my career. He was eventually exonerated in 2016. The Montana Innocence Project was also front and center during that time.
(Dennison mentioned that he still stays in touch with Cody and his father, and had, in fact, talked to them the day before this interview.)
DIL: What, if anything, has remained a constant in Montana politics?
Dennison: There a couple of things that make Montana unique. I think our openness. We have incredible access to our public officials, thanks to a strong open government as dictated in our State Constitution.
I also see a politeness that I don’t see anywhere else, probably because we’re a small state.
I once covered a debate for a Senate race in Colorado and they were at each other’s throats. It was open warfare. Here, we maintain a degree of civility because we still see each other face to face.
I believe there is some danger in the emergence of social media. It has made it easier for politicians to avoid talking directly to the press and to their voters. It enables them to circumvent the public.
DIL: What’s the best thing about your job?
Dennison: I get to meet so many people I never would have met otherwise. You know, I don’t really like small talk. I like to get right to talking about politics and the issues. I think it’s fascinating.
Dennison said his book has been a decade in the making, but he has no plans for retirement. As chief political reporter for the Montana News Network for the last four years, he’s looking forward to covering the governor’s race and feels it will be one of Montana’s biggest elections in the last 20, even 50 years.
Entertainment Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.