AUGUSTA, Maine — Mal Leary, the longtime dean of the Maine State House press corps with more than 45 years chronicling state politics, died on Saturday at age 72.
He reported across all mediums in a career that started in 1975 during the tenure of independent Gov. James Longley. Over the majority of his career, he ran a novel kind of one-man wire service that sold his print and radio stories on politics to news outlets.
Leary was one of the most trusted people in the State House and was well-liked by politicians and aides for his old-school approach. For them and younger reporters, his press corps door was always open for history lessons with a mix of kindness and crankiness. He lamented the direction of politics in an interview with the Bangor Daily News before he retired in 2021.
“Politics is fun when you’re actually dealing with issues. When the clash is over, do we do this and we do that, do we invest in this or invest in that?” he said in a 2021 interview. “But so much of it is picayune stuff, personality-driven stuff.”
Leary’s death was confirmed by his wife, Susan McAvoy Leary, in a Sunday post on Facebook. He had been in declining health due in part to heart issues since his retirement and was placed in hospice care in January. He entered the intensive care unit at MaineGeneral Medical Center in his home city of Augusta last week.
A Veazie native, Leary attended Orono High School and the University of Maine before starting his news career at WABI in Bangor in the early 1970s as director of the 6 p.m. news. He had to make major decisions about what to air in real time, something that he would later say taught him the power of the medium at a time when network news had no competition.
His reporting career began in Augusta for the wire service United Press International. Longley, the first governor he covered, was an bombastic figure who warred with both parties in the Legislature and has often been compared with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who had a famously rough relationship with the media.
Leary was one of the few reporters who could get LePage to sit with him regularly, with the reporter telling a public-access show in 2018 that the two “actually get along pretty well.”
“Sometimes he will blow me off and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that,’” Leary said. “And other times, he will stop and go on for 15 or 20 minutes on a particular issue. So he blows hot and cold, entirely.”
Leary began his wire service in 1983 and operated it for 15 years before leaving in 1995 to be the State House bureau chief for Maine Public. He left again to run the wire service before returning to the public broadcaster to run a short-lived channel that focused on state politics. After it ended, he stayed on as the senior political reporter there until his retirement.
His service intersected with major events in Maine history, including the 1992 ballot-tampering scandal that implicated aides to the then-House Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and helped lead to the end of his 20-year tenure in that position.
That institutional memory boosted his coverage. In Sunday statements, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Janet Mills praised his unparalleled knowledge of Maine issues and service to the state. Collins said his work “truly made a difference.”
“But beyond the halls of the Capitol, Mal was also just a good person who cared about people and who loved his state,” Mills said.