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After months of speculation and uncertainty, Denver knows who its next mayor will be. Mike Johnston defeated Kelly Brough in the runoff election, with Brough’s campaign announcing her concession around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. Following a ballot drop at 11:30 p.m., Johnston led by roughly 8 percent or 11,468 votes—a gap that had widened following the initial count at 7 p.m.
The 48-year-old Johnston, a Democrat, will succeed Michael Hancock, who has held the post since 2011 but is term-limited. He will take office on July 17.
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“This race was about a big vision of what’s possible for Denver—about a big dream for Denver,” Johnston said in a victory speech Tuesday evening at 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. That is our dream of Denver.”
(Read more: Is This Finally Mike Johnston’s Political Moment?)
Johnston and Brough were two of the more moderate candidates in a crowded first election in April that initially featured 17 candidates. Johnston led with 24.5 percent of the vote; Brough was just behind at 20.1 percent. Because nobody garnered at least 50 percent of the vote, the election advanced to a runoff.
Though both candidates were extremely well-funded in the April race, far more money poured in to Johnston’s campaign for the head-to-head face-off. According to the most recent data from the Office of the Denver Clerk and Recorder, Johnston had raised $6.93 million to Brough’s $3.42 million. Johnston also received significant contributions from out-of-state donors like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—a fact that was regularly criticized by the Brough camp as the race progressed.
In the final stretch of a close race, both campaigns grew increasingly negative, primarily through the super PACs. For instance, an ad from A Better Denver, a pro-Brough super PAC, called Johnston a “liar” and accused him of embellishing his role in passing gun control measures and setting up the state’s COVID-19 testing system.
Super PAC Advancing Denver, affiliated with Johnston, sent out mailers attacking Brough for “a history of helping corporate polluters” and her work as CEO of the conservative Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Johnston’s campaign also made it a point to mention how A Better Denver received large contributions from Republican donors like Pete Coors.
Prior to his mayoral run, Johnston was, most notably, a state senator representing northeast Denver from 2009 through 2017. The Vail native got into politics via a career in education, where he began as a high school English teacher in Mississippi before returning to his home state and serving as a principal at Joan Farley Academy and Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. He served as an adviser on education issues for Barack Obama during his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Most recently, Johnston was the CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a local nonprofit that works to “ensure school readiness, youth success, and family economic mobility.”
Johnston’s post-state senate career included a pair of setbacks. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, finishing third in the Democratic primary with 23.5 percent of the vote. In 2019, he dropped out of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate—fewer than two weeks after John Hickenlooper entered the race.
Now the mayor-elect, Johnston will be tasked with addressing the three issues that came to define the campaign: housing affordability and availability, homelessness, and public safety. He has stated his commitment to building or converting 25,000 affordable housing units (doubling the current crop) over the next eight years, an initiative funded through Proposition 123. He has also suggested increased down payment assistance to help local residents buy homes. To address homelessness, he has proposed building 10 to 20 micro-communities that can provide 1,400 housing units and mental health and addiction care. Among other public safety measures, Johnston has said he wants to add an auto theft unit to the Denver Police Department and wants 200 more first responders on the streets, including mental health professionals, EMTs, and police officers.
Brough, who would have been Denver’s first-ever female mayor, said that she wished Johnston “godspeed” in his new role “because our city is challenged and it needs a lot of work.”
“We set out to restore the promise of Denver,” Brough said to a crowd of supporters Tuesday night. “I still believe in this campaign and the work we did…creating a sense of optimism and possibility for our city. I’m so proud to have been a part of it.”