Progressive champion Lisa Calderón endorses Mike Johnston for mayor

While a prized endorsement, it doesn’t guarantee her voters will back Johnston.
6 min. read
Former mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón announces her endorsement for Mike Johnston at La Alma-Lincoln Park. May 16, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Lisa Calderón has endorsed Mike Johnston in his run for mayor of Denver, saying the decision was not an easy one, given what she called his centrist position on many issues.

"I am endorsing today Mike Johnston for the next Denver mayor because it's not just about what we oppose, it's about what is possible," said Calderón, standing in front of a giant mural at the La Alma Recreation Center. "I hope progressives will understand that this is a harm-reduction strategy. This is about the future versus the past, and that our ideas actually can potentially take root and flourish in a Johnston administration."

Johnston, she said, listened to concerns Calderón and her coalition had about his past support of education reform issues, and Johnston committed to not taking over the school board, which is separate from the mayor's office.

Drawing a contrast with Brough, Calderón said Johnston was open to a public safety transformation. "Where Kelly equivocated and has the endorsement of the police union that actually has been very antagonistic to the Latino community," said Calderón.

In announcing her endorsement, Calderón understood many progressives might be skeptical that Johnston would follow through on tacking issues they hold dear.

"He's going to need a lot of help, no doubt," said Calderón. "He doesn't always know what he doesn't know. But we also look at that as an opportunity, as a blank slate in which he's not bound by the past, by those relationships, those moneyed interests that have been running this city for the past 12 years"

Unlike many other endorsements so far, Johnston wasn't invited to the announcement.

There were no campaign materials anywhere nearby, which Calderon said was by design. Johnston said he wasn't bothered by the somewhat arms-length endorsement.

"I'm very honored by the fact that she sees an overlap in the issues that she cares about and the issues that we care about," said Johnston, in an interview later. "And that we could have different ways of getting there on some of the issues, but we share the same values."

Calderón narrowly missed the runoff with 31,493 votes -- about 3,100 votes short of Kelly Brough, who won the second spot in the runoff. The vote was so close that for days after the April election, it wasn't clear who would face Johnston in the June 6 election.

Her endorsement was coveted by both campaigns.

Calderón said that both candidates met with a large group of Latino and labor leaders last week and were graded after answering dozens of questions on racial and economic justice, housing and education.

Johnston, in the end, scored slightly higher than Brough, but was far more open to working with the coalition, according to Calderón. The scorecard she released said he agreed to support collective bargaining for all city employees and Denver Health workers, explore a public banking system for low-cost small business loans, and supports "restructuring the public safety department to be more accountable to the public."

Calderón is a staunch progressive who appealed to a coalition of younger and more diverse voters.

Calderón's votes were strong in large sections of the city, she won 93 precincts in the first round of voting, in heavily Latino parts of southwest and north Denver. She also won precincts in Capitol Hill and Baker, home to many progressive younger voters. All despite being outspent by millions of dollars by the Johnston and Brough campaigns and super PACs.

A Denverite analysis found she performed better in neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color, better in neighborhoods with more registered Democrats and worse in neighborhoods with higher turnout.

For perspective, Johnston won 131 precincts, and Brough only won 37 precincts. Brough made the runoff, though, because turnout was much higher in the predominantly white precincts where she finished second to Johnston.

Precincts where mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón won votes in the 2023 general election.
Data Source: Denver Elections Division

The challenge for Johnston, beyond making inroads with Calderón voters, is getting them to turnout. 

It will require a lot of knocking on doors, Johnston said.

"That's exactly what we're planning to do, is to get a really strong ground game into those neighborhoods to help turn them out to vote," said Johnston, who also noted his endorsement from Leslie Herod, who won 20 precincts, in northeast Denver. "Like now to get that whole coalition together to both knock doors get on social, spread the word, to do everything we can to increase voter turnout in those districts is a top priority for us."

Still, an endorsement from Calderón, while politically valuable, is no guarantee that Johnston can count on all of them to back him. Johnston took positions on issues, like homelessness, saying he would enforce the camping ban, that many in the progressive community don't agree with.

Johnston, however, has a history championing some progressive issues. Most recently, he helped lead passage of Proposition 123 last November, which will direct hundreds of millions of state dollars to affordable housing construction.

Calderón's pick of Johnston caps an intense endorsement race, where Johnston and Brough traded announcements about their latest backers for weeks. Johnston got former mayor Federico Peña. Brough got former mayor Wellington Webb. Johnston got service worker unions and former mayoral candidates Leslie Herod and Ean Thomas Tafoya. Brough got police and firefighter unions and former mayoral candidate Chris Hansen.

Former mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón announces her endorsement for Mike Johnston. May 16, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The race for Denver mayor could decide who runs the city for the next four, eight, or even 12 years. This is a particularly powerful political position -- Denver's is among the strongest mayor systems in the country. The mayor largely writes the city budget, and has vast power over city business and the city owned airport.

Now the election moves into its most visible phase, as ballots are landing in voter's mailboxes, with just weeks until election day. Brough began running ads on TV on Sunday, spending more than $100,000 on a first round of ad buys. Meanwhile, a super PAC supporting Mike Johnston, backed by ultra wealthy donors, reported $527,000 in media ad buys.

Calderón said she looked forward to the partnership between her, the Latino community, and Johnston, and she would hold him accountable for his promises.

"So not only do we have receipts from the signatures of the things that he agreed to sign," said Calderón. "We have his agreement to be on his transition team and have that voice in appointee processes. We will be issuing regular report cards on his progress. He made some pretty tall promises, including ending homelessness pretty quickly, and we plan to hold him to that."

This article has been updated with comments from Mike Johnston.

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