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Johnston, a reasonable voice on gun safety, steps away from U.S. Senate race

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September 3, 2019, 5:44 pm
Mike Johnston hosting July’s Star Dancing Gala in Gypsum.

It’s unfortunate that one of the leading Colorado voices for gun safety, Vail’s own Mike Johnston, is getting out of the Democratic race to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020.

A gun owner, father and former state senator who helped pass several commonsense state gun-safety laws that went into effect in 2013, Johnston caught the attention of national groups fighting to end the epidemic of mass shootings currently terrorizing the United States.

Charitably, Gardner has failed to stand up to the National Rifle Association and other powerful gun-rights groups that have prevented Republicans in Congress from heeding the will of the vast majority of Americans (including many in the GOP) who support universal background checks for gun purchases. Johnston’s state senate passed a Colorado version of that law in 2012.

Less charitably, it can be argued that Gardner has stood blindly by while a white nationalist sympathizer in the White House has stoked fear of minorities and immigrants that has unleashed a wave of extremist violence and hatred that threatens the very fabric of our democracy.

But Johnston, whose late father Paul was the mayor of Vail when I first moved to town, didn’t just issue blanket support for gun laws; he actually reached out to gun owners to hear their concerns. In 2018, I joined his unsuccessful campaign for governor as he attended an NRA meeting in Summit County, and my account of that event wound up in the Vail Daily.

He got roughed up a bit for that outreach in the progressive Denver blogosphere, and ultimately that kind of western independent, gun-owning liberal sensibility clearly did not resonate with Front Range voters who want to take a fairly purple state just a few years ago and turn it robin’s egg blue.

That loathing of moderates may even cost a pragmatist like former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed those 2013 gun bills into law. Hick’s entry into the Senate race, which seemed like an obvious plan B when his presidential bid predictably crashed spectacularly on the rocky shores of east and west coast progressivism, appears to be what got Johnston out of the race.

No one else among the 10 or so other Dem challengers seems to be as squeamish about the negativity and expense of battering Hick in a bloody primary that will no doubt feature quite a few ads with the former Denver mayor and two-term governor swishing fracking fluid around in his mouth.

One of my first questions to Johnston back in January when he first jumped into the Senate race was if he had a backroom agreement with Hick and some sort of promise that the former guv would not run. Johnston had a quip about breweries in Iowa, but at the time it seemed clear to me that Hick was seeking the prez nod to raise his national profile and maybe catch a wave.

That wave passed Hick by early on, and now Johnston has run twice for statewide office (finishing third in the governor’s race and bowing out early in the Senate chase) and has not caught fire statewide. You have to wonder what’s next for him, but it’s very clear that he has a passion and a vision for solving the mass shooting epidemic. And he also is quite adept at raising money.

A national gun safety and gun violence prevention organization should hire him to serve as a liaison with business interests that need to take a much more active role in ending the epidemic before they suffer the consequences of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma in the twin public health scourges of the smoking and opioid epidemics.

I have gone nearly a month without stepping foot in our local Walmart after their inadequate response to last month’s El Paso massacre, but my one-man boycott will continue even beyond the company’s announcement on Tuesday that it’s limiting ammunition and some gun sales.

That’s because Walmart will still remain one of the nation’s top gun retailers, and because its executives must lead in pushing back against violence aimed at the Latinos who make up such a large percentage of the company’s customers and workers. And that also means publicly opposing the man in the White House who has done so much to promote gun violence and hatred in his two-plus years of overflowing the swamp in Washington.

Here’s a re-post of my Vail Daily story on Johnston pulling out of the Senate race:

Johnston bows out of U.S. Senate chase

Despite massive fundraising success and polls showing him in the upper tiers of a crowded field, Vail native and former Denver state Sen. Mike Johnston bowed out of Colorado’s 2020 U.S. Senate race on Tuesday, citing what he predicts will be a negative and expensive bid for the Democratic nod to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

“To win this Democratic primary would now require an expensive and negative campaign,” Johnston said in a lengthy statement. “That is not who I am, and no race is worth conceding victory to a brand of broken politics that I have spent my life trying to change.”

Johnston raised a non-incumbent record $1.8 million in the first quarter of the year and reportedly had more than $2.6 million to spend, but then came the announcement last month by former Gov. John Hickenlooper that he was bowing out of the presidential race. A week later, Hickenlooper jumped into the Senate race and became the immediate favorite.

“Mike Johnston is a friend, a tremendous public servant and a great Coloradan,” Hickenlooper tweeted Tuesday. “He’s always put the good of the state and indeed country first. I know he will continue to help Colorado do great things going forward.”

In January, when he first announced his Senate campaign, Johnston told the Vail Daily that Hickenlooper was clearly focused on a White-House-or-bust strategy and was not particularly interested in the upper chamber of Congress.

“[Hickenlooper] seems pretty busy in Iowa and New Hampshire right now, which makes me strongly believe he’s got bigger plans than running for the U.S. Senate, so unless he’s opening a Wynkoop Brewery in Des Moines, I think he’s probably on the route to do something big,” Johnston said of Hickenlooper, the former Denver brewpub owner turned mayor and governor.

A long string of statements from Hickenlooper seemed to indicate he would not run for Senate, but something clearly changed in mid-August as a growing chorus of political analysists and Democratic Party insiders urged a culling of the presidential herd in order to also recapture the Senate. Politico recently predicted the Dem field would not just clear out for Hickenlooper.

Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who was dueling Johnston in the polls and plans to stay in the Senate chase, had this to say on Twitter:

“I’ve gotten to know Mike, to meet his family & to admire his extraordinary gifts—especially over the last 7 months. While we found ourselves on different sides of this race, we share not just a Democratic Party but a deep commitment to democracy. Both are stronger because of him.”

Former U.S. attorney for Colorado John Walsh, who’s also seeking the Democratic nod, emailed this statement on Johnston: “Mike Johnston ran a great race. He was a gracious candidate and presence on the campaign trail. Lisa and I wish him and his family all the best in their future endeavors.”

Current Gov. Jared Polis, who beat Johnston in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, offered this statement: “Mike Johnston is an inspirational, smart, and effective leader and I know that our state and nation will continue to benefit from his desire to create real change.”

A spokesman for Gardner declined to comment.

Here’s Johnston’s full statement:

MIKE JOHNSTON SUSPENDS U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN

Johnston: “No Race Is Worth Conceding Victory To A Brand Of Broken Politics That I Have Spent My Life Trying To Change.”

Denver, CO — Mike Johnston is today suspending his campaign for U.S. Senate and released the following statement: 

“The most rewarding parts of my life have come when I was part of a team: a team of teachers building a school; a team of legislators passing laws to fight the climate crisis or stop gun violence; a team of citizens helping elect a president.

“Over the last eight months, we have built an incredible team of people bound by a shared mission: to defeat Cory Gardner and take back the U.S. Senate; to deliver progressive solutions on the climate crisis, democracy reform, immigration and guns; and to restore people’s faith in politics and each other.

“Over the last few weeks we have reached a place where those goals are at odds. The campaign we would need to run to win this race would violate my basic values in politics and could risk us losing this Senate seat.

“To win this Democratic primary would now require an expensive and negative campaign. That is not who I am, and no race is worth conceding victory to a brand of broken politics that I have spent my life trying to change. 

“That divisive process would break long-standing relationships in this state and would only increase the chances that a battered Democratic nominee would help Gardner win and help McConnell keep control of the Senate. With the climate crisis, the future of the Supreme Court, and the core tenets of our democracy on the line, the stakes are too high for me to take that risk. I cannot be true to my values and lead a campaign that abandons the politics of what is possible in favor of a politics of attack, or a campaign that puts at risk the very goal my family entered this race to accomplish. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the U.S. Senate.


“I am not walking away from the work of building our democracy, but running towards it. I believe in this work more deeply than ever, and believe we need leaders of courage and conviction in a time of crisis. I am deeply committed to advancing the work we have started and will remain dedicated to fighting the climate crisis and fixing our broken democracy.

“I know there will be other moments to serve in other ways, but when you’re part of a team, it does not matter what role you play, it matters what result you deliver. When you remember that the team is bigger than you, you find your place not according to what serves you best, but what serves us best.” 

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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