In 2018, MPR News senior editor Mike Mulcahy was moderating a contentious debate between GOP gubernatorial candidates Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson.
Mulcahy tried to keep the discourse civil, as the two candidates traded barbs over who supported then-President Donald Trump and whether Johnson had called him a “jackass.”
“Mike very humorously interjected, ‘Not to be a jackass, but we’re going to change the subject,’” recalled MPR News political reporter Brian Bakst. “And he changed it to something that was more serious, that would matter to voters as to which one of these guys could potentially be the next governor.”
For Bakst, the moment was an example of Mulcahy’s skill at using dry wit and a level-headed style to help listeners push through the political chaff. It’s a rare skill, and one that Minnesotans will miss.
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Mulcahy is retiring after nearly four decades covering news and politics in Minnesota for radio and TV. The longtime host of “Politics Friday” will step down Sept. 29 after 38 years with MPR.
Current and former colleagues describe Mulcahy, 62, as a fair-minded and dedicated journalist, who remained a steady presence during the chaos of breaking news and the rough-and-tumble of politics.
A St. Paul native, Mulcahy never strayed far from home. He attended Cretin High School and later Macalester College, where he first became enamored with radio while working at the college station.
After working as an engineer at a commercial radio station, Mulcahy applied for a job at Minnesota Public Radio, and was hired as a reporter at the Rochester bureau. Although he lacked much formal journalism training, he learned quickly on the job.
Self-described as shy by nature, Mulcahy said being a reporter forced him to talk to people and ask questions. He soon found he enjoyed it.
“The more I did it, the more I realized that people would actually answer my stupid questions,” he said. “Sometimes they'd answer and tell me how stupid I was. But sometimes, we’d get to talking, and it'd be really, really interesting.”
His first big story was the Hormel labor strike in Austin in 1985-86. Mulcahy covered the story “like a blanket,” filing stories nearly every day for more than a year, said Rich Dietman, former MPR news director and general manager of its southeast Minnesota stations.
It was a dramatic story, with then-Gov. Rudy Perpich sending in the National Guard to protect non-union workers and police using tear gas on strikers, Dietman said.
“It really tore up the town of 20,000 people or so,” he said. “And Mike was there, and really distinguished himself.”
Mulcahy’s reporting on the strike got him noticed. He thought about quitting to go to law school, but instead, MPR News leaders tapped him for a reporter job in St. Paul.
He spent the next decade at the state Capitol, covering legislative sessions, political conventions, elections and scandals, and “thrived at it,” said Bill Wareham, a former MPR News editor who worked with Mulcahy in the Capitol bureau.
“He understood the dynamics as well as anybody I know,” Wareham said. “He was one of those guys who had a sort of photographic memory for everything that happened, and he still does. He can recall details of semi-obscure pieces of legislation passing, or campaigns or whatever. He’s an encyclopedia of Minnesota political knowledge.”
In the mid 1990s, Mulcahy left for a stint at Twin Cities Public Television, but returned to MPR as an editor in 1998. He prefers radio to TV, disliking its relentless need to find visual images.
“The thing that’s good about radio is you’re basically driving in the car with somebody and talking to them, and telling them a story,” he said. “It’s very intimate. It’s almost like the listener’s participating with you.”
Mulcahy covered some of the biggest political stories of those decades, including Jon Grunseth’s last-minute withdrawal from the 1990 Minnesota governor’s race after a sex scandal, leading to Arne Carlson’s surprise upset win.
He got to know Paul Wellstone while covering his 1990 campaign for U.S. Senate. When the senator died in a plane crash in 2002 along with his wife, daughter and five others, Mulcahy was live on the radio almost immediately, sharing the shocking news with listeners as it unfolded. The same was true with the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“Whenever something like that happens, you just want to go on and do the best you can to pass along the information you have,” he said. “It's only later that you stop and think about it.”
After “Midday” host Gary Eichten retired in 2012, Mulcahy began hosting “Politics Friday.” The hour-long program gives political figures a chance to debate issues at length, without interruptions or arguing.
Mulcahy said he tried to make the show interesting, even for people who aren’t enmeshed in politics.
“I feel like if people are yelling at each other on that program, I've failed,” he said. “I'm trying to just talk and let people get their ideas out, and try to give some perspective.”
He frequently moderated political debates, and was known for asking tough but fair questions.
“He never let himself get caught up in the charged rhetoric,” said Bakst, who’s worked for Mulcahy since 2016. “He was very careful to let the guests have room to explain things. But also, when he needed to press them on things, he did that.”
Despite his seemingly gruff exterior, colleagues describe Mulcahy as a kind-hearted and thoughtful editor with a witty sense of humor, who would frequently entertain colleagues with spot-on impersonations of political figures. An accomplished musician, he played bass guitar in a band called “The Ernies,” made up mostly of MPR News staff.
Laura McCallum, politics and government editor at the Star Tribune, spent eight years as a reporter in the MPR News Capitol bureau. She said Mulcahy was especially supportive when she returned from maternity leave after having her first child, and was worried about juggling the demands of work and an infant.
“I'm thinking, ‘Oh my god, I don't know if I can do this,’” McCallum said. “And he just said, ‘You can do this.’”
He even bought her a book titled, “You Already Know What to Do,” which she kept in front of her computer for inspiration.
More recently, Mulcahy led the MPR newsroom as interim managing editor during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd, providing calm and steady leadership during a tumultuous time.
“I think people really respected the decisions he made, and the guidance he delivered,” Bakst said. “I don't think people realize what kind of hole he's going to leave … When he speaks up, people listen to him.”
Mulcahy said he doesn’t have any big plans for retirement, other than cleaning his house. He’ll have more time to pursue hobbies, including riding and repairing bicycles, and spending time with his wife and their three adult daughters.
He expects to continue to follow news and politics — “I don't think I can stop at this point” —and may return to MPR News for election-night analysis.
Mulcahy’s type of public service journalism benefits the audience and Minnesota as a whole, Dietman said.
“People like Mike perform a key critical service in a democratic society,” he said. “They're exploring those nooks and crannies of politics that sometimes reveal an awful lot about where our system is going.”