Vail native wins state Senate seat |

Vail native wins state Senate seat

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Vail Daily file photoMichael Johnston, then an education adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, spoke at the Vail Mountain School in Vail, Colorado in October.

VAIL, Colorado ” Vail, Colorado native Mike Johnston, 34, was appointed Monday night to take a Colorado Senate seat vacated by former state Senate President Peter Groff, who took an education post in the Obama administration.

Johnston, a current Stapleton resident and high school principal, grew up in Vail and attended Vail Mountain School. He was chosen by a Democratic Party vacancy committee to fill the spot, and will serve until at least the next general election in 2010.

The district is mainly east and northeast of Denver.

“It was a tremendous honor to earn the seat (Monday) night,” he said. “We had an amazing coalition of supporters ” strong supporters from every community and of different racial groups.”

He said all the support he has received makes him optimistic that he will be able to work effectively with other Senate members on his top issues. His priorities include working to pull Colorado out of the recession, developing education as an engine for long-term economic growth, resolving problems with Colorado’s cash-strapped budget, and covering the 800,000-plus Colorado residents who are currently uninsured or underinsured, he said.

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Johnston is the founder and principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts in Thornton, a public high school lauded by President Barack Obama last year after all of its 44 graduates were admitted to four-year colleges.

He said he wants to increase high school graduation rates and see students graduate with skills in critical thinking, working collaboratively and using technology to aid their studies and work.

“I want them to be college-ready, so we know we’re not just graduating kids, but that they’re ready with the 21st century skills they need,” said Johnston.

The close-knit community in Vail and at Vail Mountain School provided him with a sense of support, accountability and safety growing up, he said.

“We are all part of the same family there, and we had an obligation to look after one another,” Johnston said. “That experience has given me a sensitive ear to places in our state and country where that’s not happening right now.”

Other legislators, state leaders and those back home were backing Johnston for the seat, who has already worked with several educational reform programs and advised Obama on educational policy during his campaign last year.

“We were really excited that Mike got the seat,” said his father, Paul Johnston, owner of the Christiana Lodge in Vail Village. “He’s been involved in several national campaigns and educational policy programs that he’s organized and co-founded. He’s serious about education beyond just being a teacher or principal.”

Four others were in the running for Groff’s position, including former state Rep. Rosemary Marshall. The others were Anthony Graves, a member of the Democratic National Committee; and Renee Blanchard, a community activist and retired airline employee.

Groff was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2000 and appointed to the Senate in 2003.

He became Colorado’s first black Senate president last year and was a strong supporter of charter schools and education reform. He stepped down at the end of this year’s session to become director of faith-based community initiatives for the U.S. Department of Education.

He said that he didn’t have too much advice for Johnston.

“He is one of the foremost thinkers in our country on education issues in our country; he’s someone who doesn’t need my advice on that issue,” Groff told The Denver Post. “I would advise him to work across the aisle with the other party to be able to get things done.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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