Denver’s mayoral runoff takes a negative turn with a new super PAC ad

It was subject to a now-dismissed complaint from Mike Johnston’s camp.
6 min. read
Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston are the finalists in the 2023 Denver mayor’s race.
Credit: Kevin J. Beaty

With about two weeks until Election Day, the mayor's race has taken a negative turn.

It revolves around an ad from a super PAC supporting Kelly Brough for mayor, claiming that "Mike Johnston is lying about his leadership," when it comes to the COVID testing program COVIDCheck that he started, and his involvement in a pair of 2013 gun bills when he was a state senator.

Johnston's campaign said the ad is false, and should be removed, even going as far as sending cease and desist letters to the major TV stations.

"You can call someone all kinds of things, but to call someone a liar, when you know that in fact your ad is incorrect, is outrageous," said former mayor Federico Peña, who has endorsed Johnston, and has called for Brough to denounce the ad.

Senate leaders involved in the 2013 gun bills, including former Senate President John Morse and former Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll have said Johnston was closely involved in the legislation, which expanded background checks and banned high capacity ammunition magazines. Both Carroll and Morse have endorsed Johnston.

"After my son Alex was murdered in the Aurora Movie Theater, Coloradans stood together to pass the most significant gun safety legislation in decades. Helping to lead that charge was Mike Johnston," said State Sen. Tom Sullivan in a statement. "It's shameful his opponent would try to downplay his role in that victory against the gun lobby."

Over the weekend, State Sen. Rhonda Fields, a sponsor on the 2013 gun bills when she was in the State House, tweeted: "Truth: In 2013, Mike Johnston was serving in the Senate, me in the House. He was directly engaged with Senate members on Gun bills. He voted 'Yes' for a safer Colorado!

"Ending gun violence is too serious to become a political football in Denver's 2023 Mayoral race," the tweet read.

The post appeared to have been deleted by Monday morning. Fields, whose daughter, Maisha Fields, has endorsed Brough, did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnston said he was struck by the ad's message. 

"It was the most gaslighting thing that I've seen," said Johnston in an interview. "Because it seemed totally bizarre even folks like Rhonda Fields, who haven't endorsed me, but came out to say this is just inappropriate and wrong. And it felt particularly crazy given my opponent did not do anything on this issue."

Johnston's campaign filed a cease and desist letter on May 19 with the TV stations demanding the removal of the ad by the super PAC. "The ad makes several false claims about Mike that are clearly and objectively disprovable," reads the letter.

"The stations forwarded it to us, and asked us for the backup material that we use to create the ad," said Lynea Hansen in a Monday morning interview. Hansen is the treasurer and spokesperson for A Better Denver, which created the ad. "We just provided that this morning and then it is up to the station to make a ruling as to whether they will pull the ad or not."

Hansen said that they have changed the ad once already. "We tweaked the ad in the morning after it ran for the first time on TV ... we clarified the words 'COVIDCheck' to 'built Colorado's testing program.'"

The ad, as it first ran, said: "Johnston says he built COVIDCheck ..." before cutting to a former Polis administration official in a 9News report saying Johnston was taking credit for something her team did.

The problem with the original claim in the ad is that Johnston actually did start COVIDCheck when he ran the non-profit Gary Community Ventures, according to the CEO of COVIDCheck, Eric Parrie, who is listed as a "co-founder" of the organization with Johnston. A representative for Gary said COVIDCheck provided 1.9 million tests during the pandemic.

Hansen stands by the new version of the ad, which says Johnston is lying about creating Colorado's COVID testing program. 

Johnston, she said, often brings up COVIDCheck in debates that makes it sound like he built the whole system, like during a 9News debate held March 14: "During the pandemic, if you ever got a COVID test or COVID vaccine, I built the organization called COVIDCheck, which provided COVID testing around the state. Grew it from one person to 1,500 employees. We did more than 15,000 tests a day, helped vaccinate and test more than one million Coloradans."

Johnston disputes that he implied he built the whole system. "I built COVIDCheck, and I never said that I built Colorado's state testing system," Johnston said in an interview. "The state of Colorado did amazing work. We were delighted to partner with them."

Gov. Jared Polis, at the time, praised Johnston and COVIDCheck. On Nov. 13, 2020, months after COVIDCheck had started supplying tests to a number of school districts around the metro area, Polis announced that the state had contracted with COVIDCheck to expand testing.

"And I want to thank Mike Johnston and Gary Community Foundation for their leadership on this initiative and making it a reality," said Polis. "Really taking that vision and making it happen on the ground to augment and supplement all the testing sites that county health authorities in the state are also running."

At a campaign event on Sunday, Brough said she has nothing to do with the ad, since it's produced by a super PAC that must remain independent of her campaign.

"I actually haven't even seen the ad, it was produced by an independent group, and by law you have no association with it," said Brough. "I do think my understanding in that ad are things I've seen on TV too, where people are raising questions about if he's taken credit for work they did. And that seems like a legitimate thing to answer to."

Johnston's supporters, though, didn't buy that she hadn't seen the ad.

"Everybody else has seen it, and it would be negligence on her part if she hasn't seen an ad on her behalf," said Peña. "There's nothing wrong with her making a public statement denouncing the ad. She can do that and she hasn't done that."

On Monday morning, Johnston's campaign filed a campaign finance complaint against A Better Denver for allegedly not reporting the expenditure for the ad.

The Clerk quickly dismissed the complaint, though, saying that it was due to an error on their website.

"On May 22, 2023, the Clerk and Recorder's office worked with our software vendor to identify and correct this issue," reads a letter from Clerk Paul Lopez. "Both reports showing A Better Denver's independent expenditures of May 15, 2023, are now published and viewable by the public. Our office regrets the confusion caused by this error in our system."

Read Denverite's runoff voter guide here.

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