Mike Johnston gets former Denver Mayor Federico Peña’s coveted endorsement

Peña dreamed up the development of Denver International Airport and helped recruit the Colorado Rockies to town during his time in office.
6 min. read
Mayoral candidate Mike Johnston (left) and former Denver mayor Federico Peña at César Chávez Park on April 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Few mayoral endorsements are as valuable as that of former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. Today, at a campaign event at César Chávez Park, former State Sen. Mike Johnston -- one of two candidates in the runoff to be Denver's next CEO -- secured it.

Peña's endorsement of Johnston comes about a week after the former state senator wrapped up a spot in the June 6 runoff against former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough.

At the event Wednesday morning, Peña said Johnston has the ability to get things done, pointing to the former state senator's work on Proposition 123, which allocates $300 million state dollars to affordable housing, and COVIDCheck Colorado, a statewide effort that offered free testing during the peak of the pandemic.

"He's a man of action," Peña said to the gathered crowd and press. "He gets things done."

Former mayor Federico Peña announces his endorsement for mayoral candidate Mike Johnston. April 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Peña said he spoke to eight candidates who were in the race before deciding to back Johnston.

Peña said he also sat down with Brough twice. Of the differences between the two candidates, Peña said that Johnston has been much more specific about his ideas and strategies.

"He's the only candidate that explains what it's going to cost to implement his programs and where the money's going to come from." Peña said. "People want to know how is this going to be paid for if we're going to go into a recession and we're going to have budgetary challenges. Mike talks about that, and he's the only one who does."

The plans Johnston has released so far have been detailed enough to be picked apart and soberly evaluated beyond the platitudes and gaseous ideas so many candidates offered. And they've also been ambitious. Just look at his commitment to ending homelessness in his first term -- a promise driven by what he described as a "moral obligation."

Brough, who helped lead the city during Hickenlooper's failed attempt to end homelessness, has argued such promises are unrealistic. Multiple housing advocates say Johnston's numbers are off and his strategy is out of touch with the needs of unhoused people (and they say the same about Brough's plans) -- but at least there are numbers to discuss and a desire to tackle the problem boldly.

Peña also said he felt that Johnston's vision will resonate with the city's Latino residents and with other low-income communities across the city, adding that Johnston has an opportunity to reach people by going to door to door and sharing his ideas directly with them.

"We need to get people involved. They need to understand that there's a crisis facing our city," Peña said. "And Mike, I think, has the ability to excite people and get people out to vote."

Mayoral candidate Mike Johnston announces an endorsement from former mayor Federico Peña. April 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In 1983, Peña shook up the Denver establishment with an underdog campaign fueled by an energetic slogan: "Imagine a Great City." Johnston said he sees parallels between their two campaigns.

Peña was the first Chicano -- and first person of color -- voters elected as Denver's CEO. His cabinet was young, diverse and vital. The projects launched in his administration have driven every Denver mayor's agenda since.

His two terms saw massive projects: the launch of the Denver International Airport, which naysayers called "Peña's folly" -- an airport that went on to be the third busiest in the world; the revitalization of Larimer Square; and a recruitment effort that eventually brought the Colorado Rockies to town. He saw the city through the economic tumult of the 1980s and was able to craft plans that would shape Denver for decades to come.

When Peña ran for his first term 40 years ago, he released a series of position papers on the big issues. He laid out what he planned to do, how much it would cost, and where the money would come from. Some were ambitious and didn't pan out. Others worked.

"The reason that was so unique and important was I believe that voters were very intelligent, and they wanted specific solutions," Peña said. "The old days where someone ran for mayor and said, 'I'm going to fight crime, end-of-story' -- are gone. You now need to be very specific."

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña in the Colorado Impact Fund's downtown offices, where he's a senior advisor. Dec. 14, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Johnston said Denver's current challenges differ from what Peña faced in 1983 but that they have a similar sentiment in that people feel that they love the city and feel that something better is possible.

Right now, he said, Denver needs more housing to make sure the city's residents feel that Denver is a place where they can have families and make a life here.

"You can't just drop 50,000 units in one day and say 'We're done' the way you can an airport or a convention center," Johnston said. "And then you have to figure out how you work with neighborhoods to preserve the identities that they love about their communities and still grow that. But I do think it's a similar crisis, which is that if the city can't afford to support the people that live and work here, it eventually becomes undesirable and those people who came leave."

Denver's living mayors haven't done much in the way of endorsements in the runoff.

Wellington Webb endorsed State Rep. Leslie Herod, an early frontrunner who only managed to secure 10.7% of the vote and came in fifth place.

Webb initially expressed enthusiasm for Brough and a few other old friends before endorsing Herod. He said it was time for a woman to rule the city.

That enthusiasm for Brough was short-lived. At a No on 2O event, opposing Westside Investment Partners' attempt to lift a Webb-era conservation easement and redevelop the Park Hill Golf Course, the former mayor blasted both Johnston and Brough, describing them as "corporate candidates."

The former mayor actively encouraged people not to vote for either candidate. Whether he will walk that back and make an endorsement has yet to be seen.

Deputy Mayor Bill Vidal, who briefly served as mayor after John Hickenlooper left the role to be governor, endorsed his old colleague Brough. While he was a respected member of Hickenlooper's cabinet, his endorsement carries nowhere near the weight of Peña's.

Hickenlooper himself has yet to make a pick, nor has current Mayor Michael Hancock.

This article has been updated with reactions from Johnston and Peña from the Wednesday morning campaign event.

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