Steve Bullock '94: Montana's Attorney General Finds You Can Go Home Again


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New York, July 22, 2009Steve Bullock ’94 really is the hometown boy who made good.
As Montana’s Attorney General, Bullock can look out from his office in the state capital of Helena and see one of the streets where he delivered newspapers as a kid.
“I grew up in an idyllic place in some respects,” he said during a June visit to the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, a legal research, education and policy center.
Even though he went to college in California, attended law school in New York and spent a good chunk of his legal career on the East Coast, it seems, you can go home again. However, more than once Bullock came close to proving Thomas Wolfe was right.
Bullock, 43, initially found himself at the Law School suffering from a bad case of culture shock. “You’re in a world of overachievers, and they’re all overachievers,” he said of his fellow students.
He gradually found his comfort zone in Morningside Heights. But soon he felt the tug of home. During his second year, a friend, Joe Mazurek, ran for Montana attorney general and asked Bullock to run his ultimately successful campaign. During that time, he studied one semester at the University of Montana Law School, and found it helped him appreciate what he had left behind.
“For me, New York is a city that can take away so much energy and give me so much energy. And by the time I had finished my first year, New York had taken so much energy,” Bullock said. “When I got back I found it gives a lot more. It was a great sort of respite.”
After graduating, Bullock practiced for big firms first in Washington, then New York, with the idea of making enough money to pay off his loans and go home. A family emergency pulled him back to Montana sooner, though, and Bullock spent five years in various positions at the Montana Department of State and Department of Justice, which is run by the Attorney General.
The experience was humbling, or at least the trappings were. While working for the attorney general, Bullock was given the same cubicle where a Columbia Law School intern now sits this summer.
“And the only way I got out of that cubicle was I was so loud and the secretaries said you’ve got to get this guy an office,” Bullock said.
Bullock said his time working under Mazurek was an “amazing experience,” so much so that he ran for the job in 2000, when Mazurek ran up against term limits. He ignored party elders who discouraged him from running and got trounced in the Democratic primary. Soon, it was back to being a lawyer in Washington for the next three years to pay bills.
By 2004, the student loans were a memory. Bullock enjoyed working at Steptoe & Johnson and being an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School. However, he said there was a “nagging piece of me” that led him to conclude he wanted to go home – one more time.
Back in Helena, Bullock started his own firm, specializing in labor-side employment law. There the story could have ended. But the term for the current attorney general was ending in 2008. Bullock remembered how fulfilling his time in that office was and wanted back in.
Once again, Bullock put out feelers to Democratic leaders. Once again, he was told “you’re crazy, you can’t do this.” Once again, he ignored the naysayers who wanted him to apprentice in a lower office.
Bullock spent the better part of a year discovering just how big Montana really is, crisscrossing its 146,000 square miles to visit all 56 counties in the state. All that hustle paid off in a Democratic primary win. He then had to battle a Republican opponent who went negative with ads that claimed Bullock had been out of state too long to be considered a real Montanan and was soft on gun rights and sexual predators.
Voters felt otherwise, and last November Bullock won the most expensive race for a Montana state office – Mazurek was his treasurer -- by a four-point margin. Now he was really home.
“I can say that it’s everything I’ve hoped for,” Bullock said of his job.
Nonetheless, he relished his trip back to the Law School in June. He was the speaker for the Class of 1994 Reunion and to also visit the National State Attorneys General Program, which is active in the development of legal information state prosecutors can use to carry out their responsibilities.
“I’m so glad [the program] exists because hopefully it will give me more excuses to come back to Columbia,” Bullock said.
A video of Bullock's appearance at Columbia Law School can be viewed here.
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