Vail’s Mike Johnston is itching to take on Cory Gardner for Senate seat |

Vail’s Mike Johnston is itching to take on Cory Gardner for Senate seat

U.S. Senate hopeful talks immigration reform, workforce housing and fighting the gun lobby in a sitdown with the Vail Daily

Mike Johnston talks to a supporter at the women's march in Denver.
Special to the Daily

EAGLEVAIL — Mike Johnston is a Vail native, a fluent Spanish speaker, a gun owner, a former teacher and principal, a father of three, and a graduate of both Harvard and Yale.

He’s also a good bet to be Colorado’s next U.S. Senator — if he can win a crowded Democratic primary for the right to take on embattled Republican Cory Gardner.

Johnston likes to say that he’s always running toward the hardest problems, but when it comes getting results on big issues, the 44-year-old former state Senator said it’s because he tends to think small. 

That’s what growing up in tiny Vail taught him. 

“I didn’t know the party affiliation of most of the people I grew up with,” said Johnston, a Vail Mountain School graduate whose father was active in local Vail politics. “I didn’t know if they were Republicans or Democrats, but they worked together to solve problems and get things done. They built the town. That, to me, seemed like the way things oughta work all the time.”

Support Local Journalism

To make his point, Johnston tells the story of a Republican colleague, Sen. Greg Brophy, who was an outspoken critic of the ASSET bill, a stalled piece of legislation designed to provide in-state tuition for students born in another country. It’s one of the issues that Johnston, a champion of education reform, claims led him into politics. 

 “I felt like growing up in a town like this, where it’s a very bipartisan place, and you’ve got family on both sides, I figured you’ve just got to talk to people one on one,” Johnston said. 

So, he started traveling the state, visiting conservative counties, which led him to the small agricultural community of Wray on the Eastern Plains where Brophy lived.  

“It was a community, like Vail, that also relies on a lot of immigrant labor,” Johnston said. “And he coached his kid’s little league baseball team. And, I thought, wait a sec, you coach little league baseball in a tiny farming and ranching community full of immigrant labor? I bet you’ve got kids on your team just like the kids in my school.

“Turns out, after I talked to him, his third basemen was undocumented.”

It also turns out that Brophy was the first to break ranks from his party and vote for a version of the ASSET Bill, which finally passed with bipartisan support from three GOP Senators and was signed into law in May 2013.

It’s a lesson that Johnston said applies to the current immigration debate in which Democrats and Republicans are entrenched on either side and immigrants who want a path to citizenship are stuck in the middle. 

“I think there are still places where there are coalitions of people who want a solution to this,” Johnston said. “Whether you’re an immigrant who feels persecuted, whether you’re a business owner who’s trying to hire labor or whether you’re just a customer who likes to buy or patronize places that rely on that, I think more and more people, whether you’re a farmer or a rancher or an outdoor rec owner or a tourist, people are starting to see this is a real need in this country and how to do this the right way.”

Sizing up Gardner

Johnston calls Gardner “Trump’s getaway driver.” Instead of tackling real problems like immigration reform, Johnston claims Gardner runs from them, and creates “all sorts of new ones like the tax bill that’s going to burden kids with debt for generations or voting to cut pre-existing conditions from 800,000 Coloradans.”

To make his point that Gardner is out of touch with Colorado, Johnston brought up the Denver Post’s about-face calling its 2016 endorsement of Garder a mistake.

“You’ve got to be pretty far out to be the first elected official in the history of Colorado that gets an endorsement rescinded from the flagship newspaper,” Johnston said. “I think he has been, in every one of these situations, he’s been the getaway driver for Donald Trump. And if you don’t know enough to ask why a guy’s getting in the back of car with a gun or a bagful of money or you’re not courageous to get out and say, I’m not going to be a part of this, either one of those is not a good answer.”

Sen. Cory Gardner is expected to face a serious challenge in the 2020 election.
AP Photo

When reached for a response, Jerrod Dobkin, a Gardner spokesman, said: 

“While one of the 14 candidates running in a race to the far left is spreading misinformation to distort Sen. Gardner’s bipartisan record of results, Sen. Gardner continues to get things done for Colorado. He is the fifth-most bipartisan Senator and has been ranked as the most effective member of the Colorado delegation because he is a leader on a variety of issues important to Coloradans, including immigration reform and public lands. To say otherwise is just another partisan attempt to mislead Colorado voters.”

Dobkin added that Gardner, in addition to being a part of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group that formed to find a solution on immigration, also joined with Sen. Michael Bennet to introduce their own bipartisan immigration reform plan.

Despite Gardner’s vulnerability, Johnston said he doesn’t believe that unseating him will be a cakewalk for whoever emerges from the field of 11 Democratic candidates who’ve already entered the race. That field includes Andrew Romanoff, the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and Alice Madden, the former House majority leader. 

“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination,” Johnston said. “I think that Cory Gardner will probably spend $50 million on this race in Colorado, which is unprecedented. He’ll get tons of outside money. He’s already got the Koch brothers and everybody else who’ll come in and spend tons of money because they know Mitch McConnell has got to keep Cory Gardner’s seat if he wants to keep control of the gavel. So they’re going to do everything they can to fight in Colorado.”

On the issues

On immigration, Johnston said he’ll fight for a system that honors the values of the United States and serves the economy. When asked about the uproar over the awful conditions at a migrant detention center in Clint, Texas, where children were reportedly getting inadequate food, lack of medical care, soap, and even toothbrushes, Johnston brought up his wife, who once was a social worker. 

“If you ever walked into a home and saw someone treating children the way our government is treating children at the border, they’d be removed from their care and put in social services,” he said. “They’d be charged for that kind of treatment in any neighborhood in Colorado. I think that there are so many Americans who look at it and feel like it’s an absolute abomination to American values.”

Mike Johnston emcees the Star Dancing Gala in June of last year.
Daily file photo

Johnston also pointed out that three of Colorado’s most important economies — agriculture, tourism and construction — don’t work without an immigrant labor force.

“Our business community is saying please, we need as many laborers as possible. And we have an administration that’s saying, no one can come in the door,” Johnston said. “That is the basic dishonesty in the American economy right now, is we know we need that labor to grow economies like ours and then to deny people at the border who want to come be a part of that, I think that’s the wrong solution.”

On gun reform, Johnston said he’s been a gun owner since he was 12, and learned how to shoot behind the old Turntable in Minturn. He even challenged the rest of the candidates in the 2018 governor’s race to a shooting contest.

That said, he fought the gun lobby as a state Senator to pass legislation banning high-capacity magazines and to mandate universal background checks. And he’s a proponent of a national red-flag law like the one that Colorado passed in April.

Under Colorado’s new law, which will come online in January, a family member or law enforcement official can petition the court to temporarily seize firearms from an individual who the petitioner claims is unsafe to be around guns and if a judge agrees, the court would issue an Extreme Risk Protection Order and police would go to the home and remove the guns and hold them for 14 days. 

“I think Colorado has led on a lot of common-sense gun safety,” Johnston said. “I believe in the Second Amendment, I support it, and I think most Coloradans do, but I also found that I never knew someone who needed a hundred-round magazine to hunt an elk. Or someone who was afraid to get a background check if they wanted to defend their own home.”

When it comes to a Green New Deal, Johnston said he laid out his own plans on transitioning to a clean-energy economy before the proposed economic stimulus package sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Johnston said his plan is both aggressive and practical to get to a carbon-free economy by 2040. 

“We’ve got to look at battery, wind storage, solar, but it also says, we’re agnostic about what the energy sources are,” Johnston said. “They just have to be carbon free. So if that means over the next 20 years, if you are BP and you want research and development to get oil and gas exploration where you have carbon capture and carbon sequestration technology so there are zero carbon emissions on an oil rig, great, then that would meet our standard.”

Lastly, on workforce housing, a huge issue in the valley where he was raised, Johnston said he’s a proponent of private-public partnerships. He also said municipalities need to get creative when it comes to using publicly-owned land.

“I’m not talking about federal public lands or Forest Service lands but you take things like, you look at a high school like Battle Mountain High School, you know it’s laid out on 15-20 acres of land. You’ve got a lot of space there … Some of that is utilized space, but it’d be easy to say, let’s take an acre of land on this high school and be able to give a 99-year lease to a developer that’s going to build housing there at 60 percent of the market rate and then be able to make it available to teachers and social workers and firefighters.”

Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at

Support Local Journalism