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Mike Johnston at Smiley Middle School before the March caucus.
Mike Johnston at Smiley Middle School before the March caucus.
John Herrick

Mike Johnston Is Trying to Build Bridges in a Bridge-Burning Time

Still wondering who to vote for in the June 26 primary? To help you decide, we're reprinting the Colorado Independent's profiles of the eight remaining Colorado gubernatorial candidates.

In a wide-open Democratic primary for governor, it might be surprising that Colorado’s teachers unions oppose the only educator in the race.

That’s Mike Johnston, a former teacher, principal and state senator. On a day this April, he arrived outside the State Capitol, where thousands of teachers were demanding better pay as part of a nationwide protest. Wearing a sport coat and dress shirt, wavy blond hair combed back from his forehead, Johnston posed for photos with the protesters at the rally’s edge. “I stand with teachers because as a fourth-generation public school teacher, this is personal,” he tweeted that day.

Around the same time, one of Johnston’s Democratic primary rivals, Cary Kennedy, worked her way through a sea of red T-shirted protesters toward the West Steps and grabbed a microphone, to cheers. “Thank you educators for being here. Your voice matters. Your union matters,” said the former state treasurer who has the endorsement of the state’s two largest teachers unions, the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Like Kennedy, Johnston wants to pay teachers more and says public schools deserve better. He keeps reminders of his time as an educator in his campaign headquarters in North Park Hill, a single-story brick building that used to be a barbecue joint. The building has three bullet holes in its metal siding from a shootout shortly after Johnston moved there in 2009. Mementos include framed scripts of two plays by August Wilson, Fences and The Piano Lesson, that Johnston helped students direct, and a poster signed by his students at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA) leaning against the wall near the entrance.

But if Johnston had taken the microphone at that April rally, he likely would have been booed. The education reformer drew the ire of powerful teachers unions during his six years in the Senate.

In 2010, as a fresh-faced backbencher in his first year in office, Johnston pushed legislation that held teachers accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests. The legislation, signed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, earned him national recognition that year. Forbes named him as a key ed reformer on a short list next to Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education. Time magazine listed him as one of 40 civic leaders under 40. The law aligns with the Race to the Top agenda of former President Barack Obama, whom Johnston advised on his 2008 presidential campaign.

But the unions and many Democrats fought bitterly to stop the bill. They still complain that it forces teachers to “teach to the test.” They remain critical of Johnston’s support for charter schools, standardized curricula and other policies they say have threatened the vitality of public education.

Johnston does not mention those stances on his website, nor in his commercials. Though his work on education reform may be a plus in a general election, it’s a minus in this year’s four-way Democratic primary. In April, party faithful booed the head of Democrats for Education Reform at the state assembly, an organization Johnston advises.

Johnston’s sharp-elbowed ambition on education reform in the state legislature made him a closely watched up-and-comer, but also put a target on his back. Eight years later, he’s now up against the state’s teachers unions, and the voters they’re able to mobilize against him.

In this primary, what many consider his strong suit is Johnston’s greatest vulnerability.

‘I could have been a Freedom Rider’

Johnston says his education reform efforts stem from his belief that education is the “civil rights challenge of our generation.”

The 43-year-old Vail native’s mother, aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather were all teachers. Johnston’s education career began after Yale, when he went to Greenville, Miss. to teach English for Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities (and a program that also has upset teachers unions). As he says in a book he wrote about the experience, “In The Deep Heart’s Core,” he was placed in an African-American community surrounded by cotton fields. After he returned to Colorado, he became principal at Joan Farley Academy in Denver and the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center, a youth detention center in Englewood. He then helped found MESA, a public school in Thornton, where he also worked as a principal.

In 2008, he told Westword that when he was younger he sometimes regretted that he missed a chance to make history. “If only I was born in the ’60s, I could have done something really important. I could have been a Freedom Rider. I could have marched to Selma,” he said.

Johnston says his political ambitions formed around a desire to create a more level playing field, especially around education. In 2008, when working as a principal at MESA, all 44 seniors graduated and were accepted to four-year colleges. But that achievement was bittersweet because, Johnston says, about a third of those seniors were undocumented, which meant college — at out-of-state tuition rates — would be unaffordable. That barrier, he says, prompted him to vie the following year for the state Senate seat vacated by outgoing Sen. Peter Groff — the first African-American to serve as president of the Senate. In 2009, Johnston was appointed by a vacancy committee to the seat and was later elected in 2010.

It was there in the Senate that Johnston championed Colorado ASSET, a law allowing certain undocumented students to receive the same in-state tuition as other Colorado students. In 2012, Johnston also helped pass the READ Act, which required schools to create special plans for kindergarten-through-third-grade students who were struggling to read. In 2013, he pushed Amendment 66, a $1 billion school funding ballot initiative that voters later rejected.

‘Not a team player’

As Johnson tells it, those efforts aim to close achievement gaps among students of different races and incomes. He says that ethos also motivated his writing of the teacher effectiveness bill, also known as Senate Bill 191 — the most controversial measure he pushed at the legislature. His work on the bill — which is now law — made him plenty of enemies.

The law ties 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to a student’s growth on standardized tests. It effectively did away with teacher tenure by requiring a teacher to show student progress three years in a row to earn “non-probationary status.” Another provision did away with so-called forced placement of teachers, a longstanding practice in which a teacher who lost his or her position because of budget cuts, enrollment drops or school restructuring could be placed in any school with an opening without the agreement of the teacher or the principal.

Some critics slam what they consider the law’s over-reliance on high-stakes testing to judge a teacher’s performance, without factoring in student background, including whether they’re English language learners, or relationships with a teacher. Others say the standardized scores are an inaccurate gauge of teacher performance because many students opt out of the tests or simply do not take them seriously.

The bill faced hard pushback from many Democrats. Eight of the 21 Democratic senators and 29 of 37 Democratic representatives voted no. Chief among them was former Sen. Michael Merrifield, who served on the House Education Committee in 2010 and tried to work with Johnston on a compromise. He described those efforts as frustrating.

“He has a very high opinion of himself. In some ways rightfully so. He’s very eloquent, very smart,” Merrifield said of Johnston. But, he added, “He’s not a team player. I accused him face to face after SB 191 of being arrogant. He’s self-assured and he thinks he’s in the right and he’ll let you know.”

Johnston’s role in the legislation is now dogging his campaign. Kennedy and her union-backed allies are trying to use Johnston’s record on education reform against him.

Teachers for Kennedy — a PAC supported by the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, whose postal address is the same as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union — recently put out a TV ad attacking Johnston for pushing “conservative anti-teacher laws that experts say hurt students.”

“We’ve created a test-and-punish atmosphere for teachers,” said Kallie Leyba, treasurer for the local branch of American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Kennedy.

‘They don’t get a chance to get an education’

Through his education reform work, Johnston managed to build an unlikely coalition between communities of color and conservative Republicans.

The law was one step toward eliminating the disparity between quality teachers in schools with wealthy, white students and low-performing teachers in schools with black, Latino and low-income students, says Ricardo Martinez of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a group advocating for educational equity that supported the law.

“Outcomes still reflect that disparity,” Martinez said.

According to the most recent data available, nearly 90 percent of Colorado teachers in 2015 were rated as effective or higher. Yet, according to a 2017 Chalkbeat story, that rate drops in schools with more minority students.

Among Republicans, Johnston found allies who wanted to hold teachers accountable.

“What we were trying to do was eliminate the ability to sit in front of a desk in front of the classroom and not care about kids,” said former Sen. Keith King, a Republican from Colorado Springs who supported the bill. “These kids want to make something out of their lives. They want to do something that is big and bold. But they don’t get a chance. They don’t get a chance to get an education.”

Eight years after the law’s passage, Johnson believes more time is needed to know for sure if it has been a success. He said he’s willing to listen to concerns and, if elected governor, make improvements. He noted that districts have been given a lot of flexibility in implementation. And, he said, he wants to change a provision that allows a single student’s test score to affect the evaluation of multiple teachers.

He still supports its intention. The disparity the law attempts to address, he said in a recent interview, “is a civil rights issue,” and “we should expect that every kid is going to improve every year that they are in school in Colorado. That basic principle is still powerful and still true.”

Aurora Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields backs Johnston, who she says showed “bold leadership” on education reform and specifically the teacher effectiveness bill.

“Some of it has been popular and some of it has not,” she said.

Later, in 2014, a New York Times opinion piece said he was one of 14 young Democrats to watch — and someone who could succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Johnston’s career in education and deep networking ties have drawn the support of many education reform heavyweights, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave Frontier Fairness, a PAC supporting Johnston, $1 million. Texas philanthropist Laura Arnold, of the Arnold Foundation, donated $250,000 to the PAC. Other big spenders include pro-school choice reformers Zachary Neumeyer of Denver, Michael T. Fries of Denver, Stephen Mandel Jr., and Mandel’s wife, Susan, of Connecticut. Frontier Fairness reported spending more than $2.1 million on TV ads since June 3. Of the money that has gone directly to Johnston’s campaign, 45 percent comes from in-state donors — the least of all the Democratic candidates, even though Polis is mostly self-funded.

Still, Johnston is not speaking on the campaign trail of the education reform work upon which he built his political brand.

Political consultant Eric Sondermann said Johnston’s campaign may believe ed reform is not a winning issue in this year’s crowded primary race, saying, “It was only an issue where he would have to play defense with the party.”

Mike Johnston's campaign office in the Holly.
Mike Johnston's campaign office in the Holly.
John Herrick

'The hornet’s nest’

Kennedy has carved out education as her big issue in the 2018 race for governor. Polis has made promoting renewable energy over oil and gas development his (Johnston wants the state to be powered entirely on renewables like wind and solar by 2040, a goal that makes no mention of mandates for the state’s electric utilities). And Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne has grabbed health care. (Johnston wants a public option to buy into Medicaid only in areas of the state where it is unaffordable and without competition among providers.)

Rather than focusing on his chief area of expertise, education, Johnston has spent much of his campaign talking about an issue on which most Democrats agree: regulating firearms. He wants to show he’s the candidate who can find common ground on the politically divisive issue. Specifically, he believes he can build a coalition around a “red-flag law” that would allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from a person suspected of being a threat to themselves or others. This sort of law was sent to the buzzsaw upon arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate this past legislative session.

The weekend following the May 18 Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas, Johnston drove up to Silverthorne for a sold-out private Central Rockies Friends of the NRA gun raffle to talk gun policy with gun owners. The event was closed to the press, and political campaigning wasn’t allowed. So he and a campaign volunteer say they sat at a bar inside the venue and spoke with four gun raffle-goers. Three, Johnston said, were generally supportive of a red-flag law.

As Johnston spoke with the gun owners, a TV in a separate, nearby bar aired a commercial showing Johnston advocating for a ban on the very assault rifles on display inside the pavilion. In other ads, Johnston is shown saying that he took on the NRA when he was in the state legislature.

Steve Welchert, a Democratic strategist, credits Johnston for not taking an arm’s-length approach with gun owners. “I think jumping into the hornet’s nest is a very gutsy move,” he said. “I had a kind of flashback to that kind of panache that [former governor Roy Romer] showed as well.”

The year after the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, the legislature passed a high-capacity magazine ban and universal background checks — both of which Johnston supported. And this year, on the debate stage, he has reminded audiences that Jared Polis, now his rival in the gubernatorial primary, opposed an assault-rifle ban in Congress.

“There is a real difference on where we stood when this question was called,” Johnston said during a 9NEWS debate in early June. All candidates in the race, including Polis, now support an assault-rifle ban. And Polis has said he would not seek to repeal the magazine limit.

Johnson’s efforts on the campaign trail have earned him some support from some gun owners. His campaign organized a dinner in downtown Denver last month, inviting 18 people with varying views on gun policy to talk about red-flag laws. There, a Columbine High School shooting survivor, Senator Fields, whose son was shot and killed, a veteran, and an NRA member sat around the table eating salad and pizza, talking about due process protections for gun owners. They also debated the pros and cons of arming teachers.

At the end of the dinner, Johnston used the “thumbometer,” a survey tool he said worked for him in the classroom, to see if everyone would be willing to continue the conversation about a red-flag law. All thumbs went up.

“I think that he listened to the comments,” said Danney McReynolds, an Army veteran and NRA member. “He’s a good listener. He didn’t really come out and shut you down on anything.”

‘He has followers’

Johnston is charismatic and telegenic. He puts his hand on your shoulder when he speaks to you. He makes direct eye contact. He’s an impulsive storyteller who has a way with words and a knack for detail. On Father’s Day, he described how he still sees his father, Paul, who died three years ago of Alzheimer’s, in himself: “In the bow of my arm on the window as I’m driving, in the way I put my hand on someone’s shoulder to laugh with them, in the way I scramble eggs or sing too loud with my kids in the car.”

In the legislature, Johnston was known for his ability to attract and inspire young people. This earned him the nickname “blonde Jesus,” says Evie Hudak, a former Democratic senator from Westminster.

“To some people, he’s like the shining light,” said Hudak, who is supporting Kennedy. “He has followers.”

Elections are about message. They’re about charisma and a candidate’s ability to connect. But they are also about timing. And Johnston, first to declare his run for governor in the Democratic primary, first to make the ballot, first to hit the airwaves with an ad, has struggled to gain traction.

Part of that might be his centrist message, said Sondermann, the Denver political consultant. “I’m not sure Democratic voters are really looking to build bridges on a lot of issues right now. I think they’re looking to burn bridges. The whole bridge-builder message seems quite 2010 — quite Hickenlooper-esque.”

Part of it no doubt is that Johnston is also running against two women in a state that has never had a woman governor — or a female U.S. senator, for that matter — and in a time when the #MeToo movement has exposed power inequities between genders. Rival Polis is uber rich with high name recognition and would also be the first openly gay governor of Colorado. Johnston speaks Spanish and has championed civil rights issues, but he’s also a straight white guy in a year when identity politics matter.

In a June 5 poll by the Republican consulting group Magellan Strategies, only nine percent of those surveyed said they would vote for him versus 31 percent for Polis and 18 percent for Kennedy. That poll also showed that four in 10 respondents said they were still undecided.

Johnston has said he sees a path, among the unaffiliated, among young voters, and among those voters looking past the primary to the general election. He says every chance he gets that it is he whom Republicans find the biggest threat precisely because of his centrism, his record and his past leadership.

“If I didn’t have a Republican ballot, because that’s what I am, I would vote for him,” said Nancy Spence, a Republican from Centennial and a former lawmaker who served with Johnston in the Senate.

But Johnston still has to get through the primary. Talking to him on the campaign trail, he seems anxious to get to work.

“I’m much more interested in governing than I am in campaigning,” Johnston said. “It’s a matter of how you actually solve the problems, not just what you say you’re gonna do about them.”

Read the Independent's profile of Cary Kennedy here, the profile of Donna Lynne here, and the profile of Jared Polis here. For more coverage of the gubernatorial campaign, go to the Independent's Colorado Governor's Race 2018 page.

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