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Vail native Johnston elected Denver mayor

June 7, 2023, 8:58 am
Mike Johnston, a graduate of Vail Mountain School and son of the late Vail Mayor Paul Johnston, was elected mayor of Denver on Tuesday (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline).

Seven years after he departed the Colorado Senate, Mike Johnston’s third time seeking higher office proved to be the charm.

After placing third in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor and stepping aside for U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper in the 2020 Senate race, Johnston was on track to be elected Denver mayor in Tuesday’s runoff contest against Kelly Brough, unofficial results showed.

“This race was about a big vision of what’s possible for Denver,” Johnston told cheering supporters at an election-night party at Denver Union Station. “We can build a city that is big enough to keep all of us safe, to house all of us, to support all of us.”

Brough, the longtime head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, told a crowd of supporters shortly after 10 p.m. that she had called Johnston to concede.

“I wished him godspeed,” Brough said in a short speech. “Because our city is challenged, and it needs a lot of work.”

Johnston will be sworn in next month to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock, who is term-limited.

Though he was one of the last major candidates to enter the race late last year, Johnston placed first in a 16-candidate first-round election on April 4 with 24.5% of the vote, and maintained a dominant position throughout the runoff thanks in large part to the backing of a long list of wealthy supporters. An independent expenditure committee, Advancing Denver, spent nearly $5 million on his behalf, giving him a 2-to-1 financial advantage over Brough in the closing weeks of the election.

Much of the group’s funding came from the same network of out-of-state billionaires that backed Johnston’s 2018 bid for governor, including LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, and hedge fund managers Steve Mandel and John Arnold. Kent Thiry, the former CEO of Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita and a frequent benefactor of centrist political causes in Colorado, is the group’s largest local donor.

A deluge of ads and mailers from Advancing Denver portrayed Johnston as an experienced policy wonk with “the plans we can count on”; the “blueprints for Denver’s future”; a “winning game plan”; and “the detailed, comprehensive, and fully-funded plans we need to tackle Denver’s most pressing issues.”

Johnston has promised to “end unsheltered homelessness in my first term,” laying out a plan centered on “micro communities” made up of tiny homes and converted hotels. His housing plan also targets the creation of 25,000 “permanently affordable,” income-restricted housing units over the next eight years.

“Let’s now go to work to build this into America’s best city,” Johnston said. Denver mayoral candidate Kelly Brough speaks during a debate at Regis University in Denver, Feb. 9, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Progressive support

Head-to-head debates featured few sharp policy disagreements between Johnston and Brough, both of whom are veterans of Colorado’s centrist political establishment.

In an election defined in large part by concerns over crime and homelessness, both candidates endorsed greater investments in policing and anti-homelessness tactics like enforcement of the city’s camping ban and continued “sweeps” of encampments.

Brough, who served as chief of staff to Hickenlooper during his time in the mayor’s office, touted herself as the only candidate with experience running the city. During her time at the helm of the Denver Chamber, she helped lead the opposition of conservative business interests to Democrats’ agenda at the Capitol, fighting legislation to strengthen environmental regulations, enact paid family leave and much more.

Johnston, who led Denver-based philanthropic organization Gary Community Ventures from 2020 to 2022, defied many in his party to lead major education reform efforts during his legislative career, and many progressives have eyed his long list of wealthy donors with suspicion.

But he won endorsements from a range of former progressive rivals in the mayor’s race, starting with Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod, who placed fifth in the first round.

Third-place finisher Lisa Calderón, a progressive activist and criminal justice professor, gave Johnston her tepid support in a speech last month, calling her endorsement a “harm reduction strategy.”

‘Hancock’s legacy’

Elected in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Hancock oversaw a period of economic recovery and ballooning city budgets but faced criticism from progressives over policies like the camping ban, passed at Hancock’s urging in 2012.

Environmental advocates, too, charged Hancock’s administration with failing to move forward with ambitious clean-energy policies, and resorted to a series of ballot measures, like a 2017 “green roofs” initiative, to spur the city to action. Efforts to boost public transportation, like a city-led plan for bus rapid transit on Colfax Avenue, have remained stalled for years even as it has pressed ahead with car-centric projects like the $93 million widening of Peña Boulevard near Denver International Airport.

Johnston and Brough rarely criticized Hancock by name, or on specific policy grounds, throughout the mayoral election, even as both tended to paint a dire picture of the state of the city after 12 years of his leadership. Both received donations and support from a wide range of lobbyists and insiders with close ties to Hancock’s administration.

‘A new chapter’

In his victory speech, Johnston thanked Hancock for his years of service on City Council and in the mayor’s office, saying that his family was “lucky to grow up in a city that he shaped.”

“I offer my heartfelt congratulations to Mayor-elect Mike Johnston on his hard-fought victory in becoming the 46th Mayor of Denver,” Hancock said in a statement issued late Tuesday night. “I’m confident the city will be in good hands and my team stands ready to support the incoming administration.”

Tuesday’s result represents a political comeback for Johnston after a string of disappointments. After eight years in the state Senate and a failed gubernatorial bid, Johnston announced a challenge to former Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2019, but later withdrew from the race after Hickenlooper, a onetime presidential candidate, heeded calls to run for Senate instead.

Brough repeatedly sought to draw a contrast with Johnston over his political ambitions, promising that she would not treat the mayor’s office as a “stepping stone.” In response to a question from debate moderators last month, Johnston committed to serving out a full term as mayor — though his speech Tuesday night signaled he would bring the soaring rhetoric of a seasoned politician to the halls of the City and County Building.

“This election comes at a moment where there are many folks who worry that the country has lost its way. That maybe those bonds that used to bind us have frayed or even broken,” Johnston said. “But the biggest catastrophe of those moments is giving into the little voice inside your head that says, ‘We can’t.’

“Denver has always been a city that dreamed that we can — that found a way when no one else believed that we could,” he continued. “So tonight, we write a new chapter.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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