Mike Johnston, a former Democratic state senator representing northeast Denver, has announced he’s running for mayor.
Johnston acknowledged that the field is crowded.
“I like and respect a lot of the folks that are in this race,” said Johnston. “The issues that I care the most about which are homelessness, housing, crime. I think the question was who is the person that’s best positioned to be able to set some really ambitious goals to be able to build a broad coalition and then to be able to deliver really historic results on our hardest problems. And I feel like I’m the only one in the field who has had a long track record of doing that.
Johnston wants Denver to fast track affordable housing development, expand housing programs like tiny homes.
“Denver has been one of the places where it’s been toughest to get affordable housing permitted,” Johnston said.
He also wants to encourage people to come back downtown, by incentivising businesses to offer childcare at their downtown locations.
Johnston first made his name in education. He wrote a book about teaching high school in Mississippi, he was an education advisor on former President Barack Obama’s first campaign, and principal of a middle school in Colorado. As a state senator from Denver he passed a landmark teacher evaluation reform.
It was a meteoric rise.
Then came a string of political defeats.
First, a major education tax, Amendment 66, failed miserably. Then, Johnston finished third in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor. He later dropped out of the state’s 2020 U.S. Senate primary when John Hickenlooper entered the race.
Johnston has since worked as head of Gary Community Ventures, with money seeded decades ago by Sam Gary, who made a fortune in oil.
The foundation is focused on student readiness and family economic mobility. Johnston took over the foundation in 2020. He left Gary to run for mayor.
That recent experience, he said, has prepared him to run a massive city government.
Under his leadership, Gary ran COVID Check, “that was 1,500 employees, it was 50 sites around the state,” said Johnston. “I think people universally saw it as the best customer service experience they had during COVID, because we tested and vaccinated more than a million Coloradans and did it in a way that was easy to use, easy to access, and incredibly user friendly.”
Johnston was born and raised in Vail and attended Yale University.
He joined Teach for America in 1997 during his senior year, and took a position teaching at Greenville High School in Mississippi. He wrote about the experience in a book, In The Deep Heart’s Core. He later graduated from Yale Law School.
In 2009, his political career started when he was appointed to a state senate seat, representing northeast Denver.
Johnston became nationally recognized for sweeping education policies. The New York Times included him in their “14 Young Democrats to Watch” in 2016, writing: “He has a national profile much larger than state lawmakers usually have, emerging as one of the most authoritative and impassioned advocates of such education reforms as less binding tenure protections.”
Early the next year he announced a run for governor, but it ended in disappointment. He finished third in the Democratic primary behind Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy, despite raising $8.3 million between his campaign committee and an independent expenditure committee. Millions of dollars in contributions came from Michael Bloomberg and Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, both supporters of the education reform movement.
At Gary Community Ventures, Johnston has opened the foundation’s pocketbooks and scored some victories.
In his first year, in 2020, Gary directed $3 million into state campaigns, double the total combined contributions in four previous elections before Johnston took over. Gary Community Ventures was a major backer of successful initiatives to tax cigarettes for social programs, and repeal the Gallagher Amendment in the state constitution.
Gary Community Ventures money has flowed to Denver elections as well. Under Johnston, the organization’s political contributions in the city doubled.
Last year, the foundation was the largest financial backer in successful opposition to referred question 2F, which sought to ban group living. This year, Gary Community Ventures contributed $270,000 to the My Spark ballot initiative, which would have raised the marijuana sales tax by another 4.5 percent for extracurricular programs.
Johnston abruptly pulled the initiative from the Nov. ballot at the deadline, after reaching a compromise with the city and marijuana industry.
Mayor is an all encompassing job, and Johnston said he discussed this with his wife and three daughters at length. Ultimately, the job of mayor is enticing because it offers a unique opportunity to solve tough issues.
“And so I’ve tried to raise my kids to believe that if there are big hard problems out there in the world, you should do your best to try to throw everything you have against solving them.”
This article has been updated with comments from Johnston.