Vail native Mike Johnston leads a new generation of Colorado Democrats
VAIL — Mike Johnston is so Coloradan his SUV is orange and blue.
Johnston, a Democrat, is running for governor. Among his many attributes, he says he’s “cheap.” Eventually, some messaging professional might convince him to describe himself as “enthusiastically thrifty.” But until that happens, he’s sticking with “cheap.”
He walked onto a used car lot in Denver and asked confidently, “What do you have for less than $3,000 that’s fuel efficient and can fit five people?” He drove off with his orange and blue Ford Escape for $1,500.
Like lots of husbands, his wife’s daily driver is the nice car in the family.
Right after he announced his candidacy Tuesday in Denver, Johnston and a couple of campaign staffers jumped into that five-passenger Ford Escape and hit the campaign trail — Pueblo, Costilla County, Durango, Grand Junction and back to Vail. Cars are mechanical and electrical, and sometimes stuff happens. On Thursday around Silt, headed east from Grand Junction to Vail, stuff happened and stuff stopped him and his car. But his campaign didn’t break stride.
Here’s why this anecdote matters.
It was the first thing in his young campaign to go really wrong. Johnston was imperturbable, calmly working his phone. His sister, Michelle Maloney, hot-footed to Silt to fetch her kid brother, delivering him and a couple of his campaign staff to the Christiania Lodge in Vail, the family business, for a campaign event. Brother Paul loaned him a car for a couple of days and he’s back on the campaign trail.
Johnston grew up in Vail when it was still a fledgling ski resort.
More than a dozen Vail Club 50 members were in the Christiania lounge Thursday, enjoying a libation after a day of skiing. Many of them watched Mike grow up in this hotel.
“Vail was a town full of entrepreneurs. It was like growing up in a frontier town,” Johnston said. “People found a problem and fixed it.”
Local business owner Michael Slevin was in Thursday’s Christiania crowd.
When they were in the same Vail Mountain School class, Slevin was dubbed Michael, and Johnston became Mike, to make it a little less confusing for their teachers.
Slevin said what several at Thursday’s gathering said, that he has never been involved in politics, but he’ll be fighting for his friend.
“I still don’t know the party affiliation of most the people I grew up with,” Johnston said. “We didn’t ask each others’ party affiliation.”
Mike’s dad, Paul Johnston, wagered his mayoral campaign on supporting Vail’s proposed convention center, a controversial issue at the time. He lost.
Johnston still works two jobs, helping out around the Christiania and running a nonprofit in Denver that arranges fellowships for other community-based nonprofits.
All sides of the divide
During his two terms as a state senator, Johnston passed 130 pieces of legislation; 95 had Republican co-sponsors.
It was not his first time reaching out to opponents.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale and his masters from Harvard. A few years ago he was scheduled to deliver the keynote commencement for the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Several Harvard faculty and students had their political knickers in a twist because Johnston, a former teacher and principal, helped rewrite Colorado’s teacher evaluation policy to restrict tenure. Those Harvard folks gave Johnston the same protest treatment they gave Condoleezza Rice and so many others who disagree with them.
Johnston traveled to campus a day early solely to meet with the protesters. He convinced them they were all pursuing excellence in education — a worthy goal.
In the meantime, the Boston police were put on alert that there could be trouble around Johnston and his speech.
“They had all these alternative versions of what would happen if the speech got protested, but I got a standing ovation,” Johnston said, which was not one of the scenarios for which the police had prepared.
“It’s probably the only time I’ll be mentioned in a New York Times article with Christine Lagarde (International Monetary Fund chief) and Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State). I’m not sure I’m in that category, but I was glad to be in that paragraph,” Johnston said.
Last summer, The New York Times also named Johnston as one of 14 young Democrats to watch.
Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018, is still more than 650 days away. Running for governor is a long-term proposition that meant lots of kitchen table conversations with his family. His wife is a prosecutor with the Denver District Attorney’s office. They have three children: 9-year-old twin boys and a 5-year-old girl. He calls his children “a force for good,” and says they’re all in.
“Kids are like toys that get better every year,” he said, quoting a friend.
Adults have all sorts of complex ways they make decisions. Kids don’t, Johnston said. As they discussed it, his kids cut to the chase.
“Dad, do you think you can make a difference?” they asked.
“Yes, I do,” Johnston answered.
“Then why wouldn’t you do it?”
And so he is.
“There is a tremendous amount of energy and interest right now. There’s optimism and people are looking for places to channel it, especially compared to what we saw at the national level last year,” he said.
Next generation Dems
Johnston, 41, is part of what some are saying is the Democrats’ answer to last November’s dismal showing on the national stage. He said he was encouraged to run by many, many people, including some party stalwarts.
“There are a lot of people who say it’s time for a new generation of leadership. There are many, many people who have served Colorado well for 20 and 30 years. But people looked around and said, ‘It’s time to think about what leadership is going to look like in the state and the country,’ and who said this is the time,” Johnston said.
State Democratic leaders agree.
“Colorado is lucky to have many great leaders like Mike to propel the ideas and ideals of our state forward. As the next Democratic primary approaches, we look forward to having many conversations about the vision that each of our candidates have for the people of Colorado,” said Rick Palacio, Colorado Democratic Party chair.
With that, he rolled seamlessly into his three campaign platform pillars: economic development, education, and transportation and infrastructure.
“We have to change the way we think about education from something you finished when you were 18 and were prepared for the rest of your life, to something people can upgrade and re-skill as they move through their lives,” Johnston said.
Two pieces of data Johnston wants you to know:
High school and college graduates will have 10 to 12 different careers during the course of their lifetimes. Not different jobs, but different careers. That means they have to have the skills to do that.
University studies indicate that 3 million middle class jobs will be created over the next decade. Of those, 2.9 million will require training beyond high school.
To help people working in shrinking industries, he’s proposing up to two years of free education or training to help them adapt to the changing job market.
He has 650 days to convince Colorado voters that his time his now.
And his truck is running just fine now.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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