Former State Sen. Mike Johnston is on the ballot for Denver’s top job. He was formerly the CEO of Gary Community Ventures, an organization that focuses on improving education and helping families reach financial independence. Johnston holds a handful of degrees, including his master’s and law degree from Yale.
He served in office from 2009 to 2017. Additionally, Johnston was a governor candidate in 2018. He also made a run at U.S. Senate in 2020 but dropped out of the race.
According to city data, the candidate qualified for the Denver Fair Elections Fund. At the start of February, he received $446,375.52 in campaign funding. Less than one-third of that is from the Fair Election Fund.
March 22 update |Response to the shooting of two deans at East High School in Denver:
“As a former school principal and parent of school-aged children, today’s shooting at East High School is particularly heartbreaking. Two educators had to search a student who was at risk of having a weapon — and they both got shot with that weapon because they didn’t have a metal detector or school resource officers to do that search. Today’s tragedy, the third shooting on or around a DPS campus in the last month, makes clear the Denver School Board needs to reverse its policy and allow schools, parents, and students decide if they want SROs, and they need to do it tonight. As we move forward to make our schools safer for everyone, the city also needs to do more to restrict access to guns by enforcing red flag rules, raising the age limit and requiring a 10-day waiting period to purchase a gun, and strongly investing in prevention and mental health resources, especially in high schools.”
Denver7's Chief Investigative Reporter asked Johnston about his plans if elected as Denver's next mayor. Watch their conversation or read a transcript below.
Tony Kovaleski: Introduce yourself. Tell us your story.
Mike Johnston: You bet. Hello, everybody. My name is Mike Johnston. I've been serving this city for three decades in different capacities. I started my 20s as a school principal. I ran a school in the juvenile prison and one that served kids in state custody and turned around a high school up in Thornton that became the first high school where 100% of seniors graduated and got admitted to a four-year college. I got to serve the city for two terms in the state Senate at Colorado. And I spent a lot of my 40s as a CEO of a foundation here focused on affordable housing, homelessness, establishing universal preschool and providing COVID testing and vaccinating. So, I've had a chance to serve the city in many ways, and really inspired by what we can do in Denver to make this America's best city.
Tony Kovaleski: So, insiders tell us the four key issues in this campaign are crime, homelessness, housing, and transportation. Rank them from most important to least important and explain why.
Mike Johnston: You bet. I think the most important one right now is homelessness. I think second would be affordable housing. I think third would be crime, and fourth would be transit. And the reason why I think homelessness is first is right now it is the overlapping issue that has spilled over into so many other issues. Right now it is — the issue is driving increases in crime. It is a result of the challenges around affordable housing. And it is making it tougher for people to live and work and play in all the neighborhoods in Denver, but certainly downtown. Obviously, we know once we get people off the streets and into housing, we also need to make sure that teachers and nurses and firefighters can get access to housing in the city. And so that's why affordable housing is second. And incredibly important. And I think third is people still want to feel safe in every neighborhood they go in Denver, and we've seen incredible increases in crime over the last three years. And people don't want this to be a place where they're worried that their car will get stolen when they go to bed each night. And so I think crime is critically important. And then transit because it has a link both to our impact on climate and convenience and how we get around. It's still gonna be very important. But I think on the top of people's minds, right now we're really homelessness, affordability and crime.
Tony Kovaleski: A follow-up question based upon your No. 1: homelessness. What is your pledge to voters on how you will address it, if elected, and how that might be different from your opponents?
Mike Johnston: Yeah, I've made addressing homelessness the most important issue in my race. You know, I've said we are going to be the first big city in America to end chronic homelessness, and I've committed to doing that in my first term. And we know that we can do that because we know what it takes to fix that. I've spent the last two years working on this issue. I led the statewide ballot measure on Proposition 123, which was our first statewide ballot to take on housing and homelessness. And what I'll do are three things: One is we know we can actually support these folks who have needs, the needs they have are for permanent supportive housing. So we'll build 1,400 units of permanent supportive housing. There will be tiny homes that are in micro communities of 40 to 60 units where people can go and get mental health support and addiction treatment and workforce training and housing support. We know that's possible. And we know when we move people, by preserving a sense of community, you're kind of living in an encampment together and bring 30 or 40 of them together to a new micro community that is safe and stable and permanent, you can actually see much better outcomes. We've done this before. It's worked, we know we can make it work at scale in Denver. And that's what I'll do.
Tony Kovaleski: Like many cities, we know Denver has a lot of financial needs. If elected, what would you prioritize? And where would you trim?
Mike Johnston: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things I've done — the only candidate who has done this — on my website, MikeJohnstonForMayor.com, you can see every one of my proposals, exactly how much they cost and exactly how they're paid for and where the money comes from. And so, on homelessness, on housing and crime, I put out detailed policies with budgets that don't require us to increase taxes or add more revenue. We do have the resources we need; we have to use it differently and spend it more efficiently to get the results that we need on those three big topics. And so, I think that's for me — we got to prioritize spending on homelessness. Prop 123 is gonna put $50 million more that Denver can use for affordable housing, we'll do that also. And on crime, we know we can redirect dollars, we have to put more first responders onto the streets, including mental health workers, EMTs and officers.
Tony Kovaleski: We know Denver is a wonderfully diverse city. Again, if elected, would you make a commitment to ensure your administration reflects the diversity of the city? And if yes, how?
Mike Johnston: I absolutely will, and I'm proud of having done that at every role of my leadership. I've been a CEO, I've led large organizations, I've been a school leader, I've run nonprofits. And in every one of those you find the strength of your team is the diversity of your team. You have to have different voices around the table who can talk to their lived experience, and I will make sure that my team will be both the most diverse and the most exceptional connection of talent we've seen to lead this city because that's what it takes to be able to deliver the results that Denver voters want.
Tony Kovaleski: In this election, city council has the potential for a significant change. How are you planning to work with the new council? And what would that relationship look like?
Mike Johnston: Yeah, I always found that — I think one of the things I've loved the most is bringing together unusual coalitions to get hard things done. I did that when we passed universal preschool and got the tobacco companies to work together with the universal preschool advocates to get free preschool done statewide. I always say, get started with relationships. You got to sit down with people, get to know them as people, like we're doing now. Get to know what their issues are, what their concerns are, what their priorities are. Then you find areas for common ground. And so I think that's really working across the aisle. It's working with your own city council as you got to build relationships, and then use those relationships to understand where we have shared interests.
Tony Kovaleski: Sixteen other names on the ballot with you? If you could ask any one candidate one question, which candidate would it be? And what is the question?
Mike Johnston: Oh, you know, I think most — I spend most — I actually don't know that I have a direct question. I actually — I've got — my question I'd probably ask for all the candidates is —
Tony Kovaleski: Come on. One candidate, one question.
Mike Johnston: One candidate, one question. I think my question would probably be for Leslie Herod: What is your plan to reduce crime in the city when we've seen dramatic increases in crime over the last three years? That would be my question.
Tony Kovaleski: Now, personality question for you. What's the last book you read? And why? And what do you do for fun?
Mike Johnston: I've been reading right now, Nicole Hannah Jones' "1619." It's what's on my nightstand, so I'm about halfway through it. It's a big one and a great read. I just think it's a really important narrative about how we think about the history of race in this country and what this country has done intentionally to both deprive Black and African American families of access to resources and opportunity and how that's permeated every part of what our culture does. So, I think, for me, it's been a really important read. So that's what I'm reading right now. What I do for fun — I have three kids that I raise and chase around. And I also play soccer still for fun. And I ski.
Tony Kovaleski: So now, you have a couple minutes for a closing statement to talk to voters. What do you want them to know about you as we're getting ready to make this decision?
Mike Johnston: I think one of the things voters are looking for is: Who is a candidate who first knows that the problems we're facing are solvable? I think the first challenge Denver faces is about believing that these problems can't be solved. We know that they can. And we know that we need a leader who has been able to take on what have seemed like unfixable problems in the past and fix them. I did that as a school principal, getting kids into college. I did it in the state Senate, taking on the NRA and winning on gun safety or fixing immigration to help undocumented kids get access to college. I've done it as a CEO, building coalitions to pass the state's first affordable housing and homelessness measure or taking on closing the Black wealth gap by getting families access to down payment assistance to buy homes through our Deerfield fund. We know these problems are solvable. And we know if we get the right mayor, we can actually become the best city in America. We can be the place that both you'd love to go out to a restaurant or to see your friends and also the place where no one sleeps on the street at night, where teachers and nurses and firefighters can still afford to live in this city. And where you can go to bed at night and not worry about looking out your window to see if your car is gonna get stolen before the morning. We can be the city that is both safe, that is vibrant and that is affordable. These are problems we can solve with the right mayor and I'm putting to be that mayor who will work relentlessly until we can bring all the coalitions in the city together to get that done. And I'd love your support.