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Mike Johnston is a name Denverites are likely familiar with.
The current Denver mayoral candidate represented northeast Denver for two terms in the state senate where, buoyed by his previous experience as a principal at various area schools, he became one of the leading voices for education reform. He went on to finish third in the Democratic primary for the 2018 Colorado gubernatorial election and briefly ran for U.S. Senate in 2019 before dropping out to support former Governor John Hickenlooper. Most recently, the Democrat served as the CEO of Gary Community Ventures, helping organize support for local ballot initiatives and supporting efforts to provide Coloradans with more testing and vaccination resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Denver needs a mayor that can take on our toughest problems and solve them,” Johnston says. “Denverites can trust me to do it, because they’ve seen me do it over and over again for the last 20 years.”
With the June 6 runoff election for Denver mayor looming, Johnston—who finished first in the initial round of voting, roughly four percentage points ahead of his opponent and second-place finisher, former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough—spoke with 5280 about his vision for the city.
Read our conversation with mayoral candidate Kelly Brough here.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: You spent a significant amount of time representing the northeast part of Denver in the state Senate. How are issues facing Denverites today different? And also, possibly, similar in ways?
Mike Johnston: I think the main difference is that then there were a set of major civil rights and personal rights issues we knew we wanted to take on to give people access to a full, inclusive life. That included things like undocumented kids getting access to college, marriage equality, major gun-safety legislation. Those were all threshold issues that people thought we needed to deal with to have an inclusive society. Now, there is a different set of questions because, in some ways, we are the victims of our own success. What happens when cities grow? If they grow too fast, how do you make sure that they are affordable? And that they can provide services to people that are struggling the most to stay safe? That is a new wave of questions that the city faces today.
Your most recent job was as CEO of Gary Community Ventures. In that role, you worked on a number of local ballot initiatives. What was the most surprising thing those campaigns and efforts revealed to you about how Denverites want the city to change?
What stuck out to me is that there is real interest for people of all political backgrounds, all ages, all demographics to come together to take on some of the hardest problems we’re facing. We certainly found that with the coalition we built around Proposition 123 [which allowed the state to set aside 0.1 percent of state income tax revenue to fund affordable housing programs; it passed]. Organizations came together for the first time, from across the state, to ask for a comprehensive approach to homelessness and affordable housing. Same with universal preschool. There was a real desire to say, “Let’s figure this out,” and bring unlikely partners like big tobacco and the health industry all to the same table. I also think people are willing to be called to service to take on those problems. When we ran COVID Check Colorado, we recruited 1,500 Coloradans who left other jobs to say, “I want to serve my community.” Many of these things—like affordability, like public safety—do come down to the city level. If we are actually going to deliver results, it requires a mayor to bring those coalitions together to implement those policies.
The lack of affordable housing has been a major topic in Denver the past few years. What does a successful affordable housing plan look like for the city?
I am committed to building or converting 25,000 permanently affordable units over the next eight years. That means that anyone who makes about $100,000 or less can live in one. And the commitment is that you would never pay more than 30 percent of what you earn in rent. So if you’re a first-year teacher making $40,000 a year, you don’t pay more than $1,000 a month. And the requirement is your rent doesn’t increase unless your income increases. So you don’t have to live in fear that some new landlord comes and buys the building and jacks up the rent. These buildings are deed-restricted to stay affordable forever. That’s what we need to do to be able to create a city where teachers, nurses, firefighters, and social workers can afford to live and serve the city. There is a way to do that with the financing made possible through Proposition 123.
What is the biggest impediment to making that vision happen?
In the past, the impediment has been a lack of resources, but Proposition 123 helped solve that. There have also been regulatory hurdles, where it has taken too long to get it done and there weren’t aggressive enough targets to get it done. I think we sometimes don’t realize that all the delays in permitting and zoning are not just difficult to manage, they actually drive up the cost of housing. I think we also need to work with communities to find the right way to cite these projects. People often say to me that they are not opposed to the idea of development—rather, they’re opposed to the idea of development that builds a bunch of luxury units in their neighborhood that they can’t move into. So we are talking about really putting those developments that include affordable units at the front of the line.
On the issue of homelessness, you’ve been pretty bold in saying you hope to outright end it in your first term. Denverites have heard similar claims from candidates that went on to be mayor (John Hickenlooper had a 10-year plan to end homelessness). What makes your plan different?
What makes it different is that I have lessons from the last 20 years about what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s not that I am any smarter than anyone else. It’s just that I’ve had the chance to learn from the things the city has tried. There is now clear evidence for what does work, which is getting people access to housing—housing we can build affordably and quickly. That’s why I’ve said you build these micro-communities where you take these vacant lots around the city and you put tiny homes on those sites. You can build those in five to seven days. They have a bed. They have a place to store stuff. They have access to bathrooms and showers and kitchens. And more importantly, you have the wraparound services on site that people need: mental health support, addiction treatment, workforce training, and long-term housing support.
Those are the component parts we know that work. We’ve seen that right here in Denver with some pilots we’ve done with Colorado Coalition of the Homeless, where there is both dramatic demand from people who are unhoused to want to take those units and breakthrough success when they go to them. A year later, more than 86 percent of people in these structures are still housed.
What about sweeps of encampments? It sounds like something you would want to use as a last resort, right?
What we’ve found is that the reason why these sweeps aren’t working is because if you move someone off of a block, they just move to the next block. That’s why the problem often isn’t solved. What we want to do is actually create safe and dignified housing for people to go to. But yes, in the small number of situations where there can be health and safety issues, we have to be mindful.
In a number of polls, Denver voters have indicated that public safety is a top issue for them. What is the greatest public safety concern at the moment, and what would you do about it as mayor?
I think there is a pervasive feeling that Denver isn’t safe anymore. The good news is we know a little bit about how we got here and we know how to get out of here. We know we need an all-of-the-above approach. Yes, we need to focus on prevention, giving young people access to positive after-school and summer-school programming. Yes, we need to focus on intervention. The first time someone gets into the criminal-justice system, how are we giving them wraparound services and support to keep them from further crime? Yes, we need more support for public safety. That means 200 more first responders on the street.
We need to restore the population of officers so that we can get them to respond when we do have a shooting or we do have a car crash. When we restore the full capacity it allows us to do a different kind of policing called “community-based policing,” where officers are actually out in neighborhoods, walking beats, talking to business owners and residents, answering questions, preventing crime from happening in the first place. That’s what neighborhoods want back. That’s what officers want back.
Both you and your opponent have indicated change is needed for Denver Public Schools to succeed. The mayor’s ability to do much on that front is limited given the influence of the school board. What would you envision your relationship with that group being like in order to affect change?
There are four parts. First, we want a tighter relationship with Denver Public Schools. That means reestablishing the city district coordinating committee that included city councilmembers, school board members, the superintendent, and the mayor having conversations about all sorts of things like new school sites, school closings, and the impacts of transportations routes. Second, we can work on immediate things like after-school and summer-school programming. We know that a lot of low-income kids don’t have access to those, and their inability to access those puts them at greater risk for negative peer groups. Third is mental health. There is a huge crisis for access to mental health care for students, and the city of Denver is not carrying out a fair share of the weight to provide funding to get those services into schools. We need to fund Denver Health to position it to provide more school-based health clinics.
Finally, when there are areas of disagreement, I do think it is partly the mayor’s job to advocate for common-sense policies that parents and teachers and principals want—and to oppose those that don’t make sense. For me, that includes people who are very frustrated with the current school board and finding leadership that is going to be up to the task. I think part of the mayor’s job is to mobilize support and raise visibility of candidates that can do that job in a thoughtful, professional way.
We’re still in the first decade of legal cannabis in Denver. How do you think that has gone for the city? And what do you hope to accomplish on that front moving forward as we reach different phases like rolling out hospitality licenses?
I am representative of the majority of the city that was worried 10 years ago when it first started. I told people I didn’t vote for it originally because I had concerns. Would it increase adolescent use? Would it increase the number of people doing more hard drugs? Would we have more safety issues around those centers? And then after it passed I got to work in the State Senate as chair of the finance committee to provide regulations. [Supporters have] been really thoughtful and proactive in making sure we address all those issues. And the result is we haven’t really seen any of those three indicators come through. So, I think it has been successful.
There is an opportunity for us to support it still being successful. We originally said we’d regulate it like alcohol. And then we regulated it far more aggressively than alcohol. That was probably right at first. I think in the next decade, though, we can we make sure we are supporting small businesses so their efforts are easier. That includes protections to keep it out of the hands of kids and also treating it more like the other mainstream businesses we have in the city.
You have a voter standing in front of you and they tell you they can’t decide who to vote for between you and Kelly Brough. What is your final pitch to that person on why they should choose you?
I have the ability to build a big vision for the city. I’ve spent a lot of my career building really unusual coalitions to take on incredibly hard problems and deliver historic results. I’ve done it on gun violence prevention. I’ve done it on immigration. I’ve done it on housing and homelessness. I’ve even done it on COVID response. I think also, most importantly, I have the most detailed, clear plans for exactly how we are going to get that done, including full budgets for how we pay for them and where those resources come from without increasing taxes. These are not campaign promises. These are business plans. And you can trust me to do it.