Where the Presidential Race Is Playing Out in Miniature

Where the Presidential Race Is Playing Out in Miniature

Mike Johnston at the Women's March in 2019.

Why you should care

Because he’s challenging progressive orthodoxy.

OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.

When Mike Johnston was appointed to a state Senate seat in one of Colorado’s most diverse districts in 2009, the high school principal knew he had some questions to answer. He was White, the son of a mayor and grew up in the ritzy ski town of Vail, and he graduated from Harvard and Yale; his northeast Denver constituents were roughly a third Hispanic, a fifth Black and nearly all poor. To make the contrast even starker, Johnston was replacing Peter Groff, the first African-American ever elected president of Colorado’s Senate, who was leaving to work for President Barack Obama’s administration.

Aware of the optics, Johnston planted his new office in the heart of the troubled district, across from the charred remains of a shopping center recently burned down in a gang turf war. The ribbon-cutting barbecue attracted a few hundred locals — and a skirmish when a member of the Bloods gang was jumped by four Crips during his opening speech. Johnston chose to keep speaking, wanting to show he wasn’t afraid to confront the district’s problems (while a security team broke up the fistfight). The next morning, police called to say there had been a drive-by shooting in front of the campaign office. “You can still see the bullet holes,” Johnston says, pointing to three round grooves in the building’s metal siding.

A decade later, Johnston, 44, is at that same campaign office. The surroundings are much quieter, with grade schoolers playing outside the charter school he helped open across the street. He points out that there were no murders in this neighborhood all last summer, a first in more than a decade. The candidate has changed too. This is now the campaign headquarters for his U.S. Senate bid, a race to unseat Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner — considered the most vulnerable Senate GOP incumbent in 2020 — that offers many of the same questions Johnston has faced his entire political career.

In many ways, Colorado mirrors the debate playing out in the presidential primary, where Vice President Joe Biden has drawn loud criticism as he runs as the relative moderate — yet has claimed a strong early polling lead. A White male preaching about working across the aisle finds the atmosphere far more challenging than he once did.

Despite Johnston’s high-minded rhetoric and seemingly genuine attempts to connect, the cynicism chasing him is bipartisan.

Faded exit signs dangle next to holes in the ceiling where squirrels have been known to nest, even though Johnston insists the building has recently gone through “renovations.” After outpacing his rivals to raise $1.8 million in the first quarter of the year, he can surely afford better digs. That haul, plus endorsements from dozens of key Coloradans including former presidential candidate Gary Hart, cements his status as the front-runner in the nine-person Democratic primary, even if the drywall sitting by the sink suggests his office could use more concrete itself. “He has a lot of authenticity,” says Amber McReynolds, the former Denver elections director who has worked with Johnston to pass voting reform laws in the past. “He is a good listener, and he is not a wing nut,” George Brauchler, a friend and former Republican candidate for attorney general in Colorado, adds bluntly.

Johnston, who speaks eye-to-eye and slides between metaphor and policy with ease, is keenly aware of his narrative as he downplays his own political heritage as the son of Vail’s onetime mayor Paul Johnston. “It’s funny, people ask a lot about that, but him being mayor is never on the top 10 list of things I remember,” he says, recounting annual childhood trips to a Denver soup kitchen instead. Growing up in “a small town,” Johnston played hockey and soccer, worked at the student newspaper and was Baby John in the school rendition of West Side Story. His interest in social justice influenced his decision to attend Yale, where he lived by a housing project and mentored at-risk New Haven teenagers: “I loved the fact [the university] was in the middle of a struggling city.”

After graduating with a philosophy degree, Johnston spent two years working for Teach for America in rural Greenville, Mississippi, an experience he wrote about in his book, In the Deep Heart’s Core. “The students taught me about tragedy and resilience, while I taught them what I could about Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger. The literature revealed that we were bound much closer by our humanity than we might have imagined,” he wrote. He then earned a Harvard master’s degree and Yale law degree, served as an education adviser to Obama and worked as a principal of two challenging Colorado schools. One was a juvenile prison, the other a heavily immigrant community, which under Johnston’s leadership saw 100 percent of its seniors graduate and get accepted to college.

The rhetoric of his Teach for America days — soaring and unifying, achingly moderate and a tad tropey — manifested itself most in his time as state senator. As a freshman lawmaker, the charter school supporter led the charge for a 2010 law that tied at least half of teachers’ annual evaluations to their students’ test scores. Modeled in part after Obama’s “Race to the Top” agenda but favorable to conservative playbooks too, the legislation earned him plaudits in the pages of Time and Forbes, but was criticized by teachers’ unions as forcing them to “teach to the test.”

“Mike gets a lot of hits … because they want to keep things the same way. He is willing to have the hard conversations about change for the better,” says McReynolds, a political independent who agrees with Johnston’s education stances. “I find parents don’t care about what the organizational structure of the school is they send their kids to,” Johnston says.

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Mike Johnston with his family.

His aisle-crossing, ambitious policies led Democratic colleagues to give him such cutting nicknames as “from Vail to Yale” and “blond Jesus,” as one former state senator told reporters during his governor run in 2018. In that race, he was actively opposed by the teachers’ unions, despite being the only educator running, and he finished third in the Democratic primary with 24 percent of the vote. “It was all just to get his name ID up,” says Denver Republicans secretary Garrett Flicker. Despite Johnston’s high-minded rhetoric and seemingly genuine attempts to connect, the cynicism chasing him is as bipartisan as the line he tries to walk politically.

That could present problems for Johnston in the Senate primary, considering liberal policies and more diverse candidates are driving the Democratic base these days.

Johnston has successfully won over diverse coalitions before. “I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make sure every community in Colorado and the country has a voice,” he says, pointing to everything from his gun legislation to his Spanish-language campaign ads. Now he’s counting on those voices to help write his next chapter.

Read more: Insider or outsider? Colorado’s progressive son of refugees crashes Congress.

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