Mike Johnston last held political office in 2017 when his second term in the Colorado Senate ended. But he has made his presence known both in politics and the daily lives of many Coloradans since then.
After unsuccessful primary bids for the governor’s office and U.S. Senate, Johnston took over as the president and CEO of one of the state’s most influential philanthropic organizations, Gary Community Ventures, in January 2020. Then COVID-19 turned life on its ear.
Gary, through its COVIDCheck Colorado initiative, was at the center of the state’s response to the public health crisis, distributing nearly 2 million COVID tests and hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses across the state.
Also on Johnston’s watch, the organization worked to get Proposition EE which voters passed in 2020. That statewide ballot measure increased taxes on nicotine products with a chunk of the proceeds going to funding universal preschool in the state.
Now, Johnston has stepped out of the nonprofit realm and back into the political spotlight to run for Denver mayor. He says he has something none of the other 16 candidates on the April 4 ballot can match and it’s demonstrated by his track record.
“Who has the experience of taking on the city and the state’s toughest problems, of building really broad coalitions to support them and then being able to actually execute to deliver transformational results?” Johnston said. “I’ve been doing that all the way back from when I was a principal … ”
Johnston grew up in Vail where his family ran (and continues to run) bed and breakfast, the Christiania Lodge. He jokes that the housekeeping skills he learned through the family business are his wife’s favorite part of being married to him. The couple has three children.
Before he served at the Colorado Capitol, Johnston was an educator.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Yale, he taught high school in Greenville, Mississippi, at the time one of the poorest counties in America. From there, he decided he wanted to run schools as a principal.
He went back to school and got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale before returning to Colorado. He then led a handful of high schools along the Front Range including a school that served students living in residential treatment centers and another housed inside a juvenile prison.
Johnston first sought political office after he learned that many of his graduating seniors at the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Adams County were undocumented immigrants and therefore did not qualify for in-state tuition at Colorado colleges. One of his proudest moments was getting a bill passed with bipartisan support that granted undocumented students like his graduating seniors in-state tuition, he said.
Johnston also carries some baggage from his time in the legislature. Though he has worked closely with educators in the state on COVID response and other things in recent years, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary showed that some educators still hold a grudge against Johnston for his teacher accountability bill from when he was in the state Senate. Johnston says he regrets how the system that bill created was implemented but being in the executive branch of government gives a leader much more say in how policy is carried out and fine-tuned.
He points to his experience and proposals like creating “micro-communities” to end street homelessness as evidence he is more prepared than anyone to lead Denver through the challenges it faces today.
“Those things that people have given into believing are unfixable are deeply fixable with the right leader and the right vision,” Johnston said.
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