Mike Johnston can’t help but smile as he stands amid a group of nearly 100 people at his campaign office just off Tennyson Street in northwest Denver. His excitement has a great deal to do with the support of the crowd that gathers on the late April day to help him celebrate the opening of the new space, which will serve as one of the main headquarters for the final stretch of his Denver mayoral campaign. But it also a product of a song that Antonio Esquibel, a retired Metropolitan State University of Denver professor, croons to the attendees.

“From the top of Ruby Hill to the valley below
From Peña’s DIA to downtown and LoDo,
Mike fights for the homeless, Mike fights for the poor,
Mike fights for education, Mike fights forever more…
“Mike is very smart, having gone to Harvard and Yale.
Mike habla español, though he comes to us from Vail.
Mike wants to make Denver safe to walk with your kids—
Safe in any neighborhood without closing your eyelids…”

Earlier in the afternoon, Johnston stood at the same podium. Clad in a white button-down shirt with blue stripes, khaki pants, and cowboy boots (his preferred footwear), he took a moment to reflect on the campaign’s success so far. He told the crowd that there was more work to be done in the final days of the election. “We don’t want to wake up on June 7 with any regrets,” he said. “We have a chance now to really make Denver America’s best city.”

The air of possibility was buoyed by Johnston’s first-place finish in the initial round of voting a few weeks earlier. He collected 24 percent of the vote among a field of 17 candidates, setting up a runoff with second-place finisher and former CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Kelly Brough on June 6.

In some ways, Johnston’s performance is a long time coming; he has been thought of as a rising star in Colorado politics for more than a decade now. But after serving as the principal for multiple local schools in the early 2000s and a state senator for northeast Denver from 2009 to 2017, during which time he was considered a leader on education policy and named to multiple lists of influential people, including Forbes’ “7 Most Powerful Educators” and Time’s “40 Under 40,” he had multiple unsuccessful bids for higher office.

Johnston’s top finish on the initial balloting, however, has his campaign for Denver mayor feeling different, like this may finally be his moment. “The consensus wisdom is that Johnston has a nominal advantage,” says independent political commentator Eric Sondermann. Ultimately, a victory this June might just hinge on a question that has been central to his previous campaigns: Do the most progressive members of the Democratic party find him palatable enough?

Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston autographs yard signs for the children of his supporters before entering an election eve watch party in a hotel late Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in lower downtown Denver.
Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston autographs yard signs for the children of his supporters before entering an election eve watch party in a hotel late Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in lower downtown Denver. AP Photo

Just weeks before the end of the school year in 2008, a senior at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton approached his principal, Mike Johnston, in the cafeteria crying. “Why did you make me do all of this?” the student asked Johnston.

“What do you mean?” the young educator, then 33 years old, replied. “You’re living the dream. You are about to graduate. You are about to go to college.” The student went on to inform Johnston that he was undocumented and that a bill had just failed in the Colorado state senate that would have granted in-state tuition to undocumented residents. The kid had no way of paying some $40,000 a year to attend college. He felt all his hard work had been for nothing, he said.

Johnston soon discovered that nearly a third of the graduating class at Mapleton faced similar circumstances. He was mad at himself for failing his students. He was also upset that there was little he could do in his current role to fix the situation. “That was the moment,” Johnston, now 48, says. “I committed to him and all the other kids in the class that I would do whatever it took to try to change that law. I ultimately decided to run for state senate.”

Johnston succeeded in his goal to become a state senator, but he took a somewhat untraditional route to achieve it. After Peter Groff resigned from Colorado’s 33rd District to serve in the Department of Education under President Barack Obama, Johnston was chosen to fill the state senator’s seat during a hotly contested vacancy committee meeting in May 2009.

Brother Jeff Fard, a longtime Denver resident and community organizer, says Johnston’s appointment to the seat, which has historically been held by Black members of the community, was seen by some as controversial. “To have a white guy who grew up in Vail come in there with no connection to the community really,” Fard says, “it was certainly something that was discussed and divisive.”

Despite initial misgivings from some community members, Johnston would go on to be elected to the seat in 2010, as well as win a reelection bid in 2012, both times by wide margins. Fard attributes that success to Johnston’s hands-on approach, which included setting up an office in the Holly shopping center, an important community hub in Northeast Park Hill. “He didn’t just win the seat and go away,” Fard says. “He actually became immersed in the community and truly represented the community.”

During his nearly eight years in office, Johnston spearheaded a number of important pieces of legislation, many of which were related to education. Making good on his promise to his former students, the legislator co-sponsored the successful ASSET bill, which allows undocumented students to receive in-state tuition at Colorado universities and colleges if they attend a local high school for at least three years and graduate or earn a GED. He also worked on the READ Act, which provides extra resources to school districts to help kids in kindergarten through third grade who struggle to read.

The most controversial piece of legislation Johnston co-sponsored, though, was what has become known as the educator effectiveness bill. The law, passed in 2010, revamped how Centennial State teachers were evaluated, including placing more emphasis on measuring student performance via standardized tests. “It was really counter to the status quo of how Democrats viewed education,” says Terrance Carroll, a Democrat who served as Colorado Speaker of the House from 2009 to 2011. “But he wasn’t afraid to take on that tough fight.”

Johnston’s ability to bring people together during the creation of that law impressed even legislators who disagreed with him. “For me, it wasn’t the right policy,” says Morgan Carroll, a former state senator and chair of the Colorado Democratic Party from 2017 to 2023. “Treating public education like a corporate model isn’t the right thing to do for kids or teachers—but for him, he really believed it. He’s not a transactional person in his heart of hearts. It was also a real test of how to negotiate, both across the aisle with Democrats and Republicans, as well as within a caucus.”

Johnston’s efforts during his time as a state senator also caught the eye of the national media. In 2016, the New York Times included Johnston in a list of 14 young Democrats to watch, along with current House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. That level of praise and attention led him to be considered one of the favorites when he opted to run for Colorado governor in 2018, a campaign that ultimately ended with him finishing third in the Democratic primary behind former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and eventual winner Jared Polis.

Sondermann, the independent political commentator, attributes Johnston’s poor showing in that gubernatorial race, in large part, to Polis’ ability to outspend his opponents. But he also notes that aspects of Johnston’s legislative record hurt him with some voters. “His courage on some education issues played well with the general public,” Sondermann says, “but they had not played well with some specific Democratic constituency groups, particularly teachers unions. That limited his appeal in a Democratic primary.”

Following the disappointing finish in the governor’s race, Johnston decided to run for statewide office again just a few years later when he entered the U.S. Senate race. The campaign, however, was short-lived. He backed out before the Democratic primary in deference to former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “The most important thing was that we had to beat [Republican] Cory Gardner,” Johnston says about his decision. “It was not important that it had to be me.” An opportunity for higher office would have to wait.

Mike Johnston
Photo courtesy of Mike Johnston

During the celebration for the new campaign office on Tennyson Street, Nita Gonzales, a longtime Denver educator and activist, spoke to the crowd about why she is backing Johnston. “We are related to each other in this fight for equity and justice in this city,” she said. “And with that, there’s no better person to voice those values and principles than Mike Johnston.”

Toward the end of her speech, though, she offered a caveat, saying she’d wished voters would’ve elected a progressive woman to serve as mayor. “And since I didn’t have that after Leslie [Herod] left,” she said, referring to state representative Leslie Herod, who finished fifth in the first round of voting, “I am going to walk with—with, not for—Mike Johnston to become the next mayor of this city.”

Gonzales’ proviso is representative of how many left-wing voters feel about the choice between Johnston and Kelly Brough, both of whom are considered more moderate Democrats. Such voters would prefer the opportunity to select a more progressive candidate like Herod or Dr. Lisa Calderón, who finished third in the original vote tally, but tend to find Johnston more agreeable than Brough.

“Now, one of the big questions is: Are those [young, progressive] voters going to turn out?” says Curtis Hubbard, a political consultant and former politics editor for the Denver Post. Recent endorsements from Herod and Calderón will likely help Johnston get more people to the polls (also, perhaps, the Denver Republican Party’s endorsement of Brough). “I hope progressives will understand that this is a harm-reduction strategy,” Calderón said in her endorsement announcement. “This is about the future versus the past, and that our ideas can potentially take root and flourish in a Johnston administration.”

Johnston also has a fundraising advantage on Brough, with significant donations coming from big-money, out-of-state contributors. Advancing Denver, a Super PAC that has received donations from the likes of Steve Mandel, a hedge fund manager from Connecticut, and Ken Thiry, the former CEO of DaVita, reported spending more than a half a million dollars on ad buys for Johnston in early May.

Sondermann says all the money pouring in certainly helps Johnston get his message out. The amount is also unprecedented for a local election. “That degree of national money coming into a Denver mayoral race is unheard of,” he says. “I do think there is an element of people investing in Johnston, not because they care that much about who the Denver mayor is, but because they care about the next office he might seek.”

Johnston says the funding is evidence people are interested in his vision for the Mile High City. “This is a moment where people are really pessimistic about politics and the capacity to solve really hard problems,” he says. “People are looking for models around the country that show it can be done. Denver could be one.”

If the next week goes well, he’ll get the opportunity to put that model to the test, from Ruby Hill to the valley below and from Peña’s DIA to downtown and LoDo.

Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston will face off in a runoff election for the office of Denver mayor next Tuesday, June 6, 2023. To vote, submit your mailed ballot or visit a voting center by 7 p.m. on June 6.

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.