I LIKE MIKE
by Duane Raleigh
Mike Johnston stood in a banquet room in northeast Denver flanked by flags. Outside, dark clouds roiled the sky that Friday evening; a block south of the Embassy Suites weekend traffic clawed along I-70.
Before Johnston, a crowd of about 100, mostly African American, sat waiting for him to speak. Some attendees clutched the evening program, others sipped ice tea. On the wall behind Johnston hung an array of “I Like Mike.” A long table out in the hall offered merch—T-shirts, signs—available for purchase to support Johnston’s bid as a Democratic candidate for governor.
Johnston’s face was familiar here, in Senate District 33, where he was twice elected by landslides to represent the largely minority population in the state senate.
Johnston “might not be representing us in terms of his race,” a woman said, “but we have a vote and we need to use it to choose the person who is going to understand the problems we have in front of us.”
If the back slaps and first-name basis that had welcomed Johnston when he had arrived were an indication, District 33 would have elected Johnston a third time if state law had allowed it.
Johnston, the father of three and husband to a Denver deputy district attorney, wore a navy shirt and a tie with the pattern of Christmas wrap. Usually, he dresses less formal, no tie. Always, he is so affable he could sit down with any family for Thanksgiving and pick up the conversation. Johnston’s ability to connect explains why as a senator he reached across the senate isle and passed some 100 bills with support from Colorado’s Republican congressmen.
After a group singing of the national anthem, Johnston lowered his hand from his heart, thanked his host and began his stump speech. The race for governor was tight with Johnston running third behind billionaire Jared Polis and former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, and ahead of lieutenant governor Donna Lynne. But with ballots recently mailed and unaffiliated voters who account for a third of Colorado’s voters able to vote to the primaries, the Democratic nomination is unpredictable.
I’d heard the speech before at mostly white gatherings on the Western Slope, but tonight the message and the questions Johnston fielded were different, less middle to upper income white issues and more wrapped around issues that families making $33,000 face.
Prisons: Business as Usual?
“What would you do about private prisons?” one person asked, noting the high incarceration rate for African Americans. “It doesn’t seem like keeping people in prison should be a business.”
Johnston agreed and that he’d strive to close Colorado’s private prisons.
Another asked candidate Johnston how he’d fix healthcare insurance.
“No one should pay more than 10 percent of their wages for insurance,” said Johnston, then he laid out a plan to provide a public Medicade option.
Johnston noted that while as a state senator he’d passed a bill limiting magazine capacity to 15 rounds and another that required all gun buyers to have universal background checks. Johnston said that he’d been a gun owner all his life—his father taught him to shoot when he was 10—and he had “never met a hunter who needed a 100-round magazine to shoot an elk.”
Affordable housing was a hot topic as it had been one evening in the Third Street Center back in Carbondale where residents also face sharp spikes in rent and where purchasing a home is out of reach for many middle-income families.
“We’re getting priced out of our own homes,” someone said. “What would you do about that?”
Johnston said that Colorado has an abundance of state-owned land, and that he’d use that to build housing Coloradians could afford. Many heads nodded after that one.
A son of innkeepers, Johnston grew up down the road, working at the family hotel, the Christiana in Vail, attended Harvard, then Yale Law School. Before politics, he was a school teacher in one of the poorest counties in America, Greenville, Mississippi. After that, he taught and worked as a principal at various high schools, including the Marvin Foote Detention Center, a 62-bed secure facility in Englewood. As the high-school principal for Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts in Thornton, Johnston took over when only 50 percent of the students in the community of largely immigrants were graduating.
By the time he left, all seniors graduated and 100 were accepted to a college.
That turnaround was so remarkable that then Democratic presidential candidate and senator Barack Obama visited.
“I’m here,” said Obama, “to hold up this school and these students as an example of what’s possible in education if we’re willing to try new ideas and new reforms based not on ideology, but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life.”
One of Johnston’s most-telling moments came later when a former student told him that graduating had been for nothing because, as an undocumented student he had to pay out-of-state tuition despite having lived in Colorado his entire live.
Lacking the Republican votes to get a bill though the state senate that would give undocumented students in-state status, Johnston met with a Republican senator, who volunteered as a kids’ baseball coach, to find out why he had voted no.
“Are all the kids on your team documented?” asked Johnston.
The senator said he was sure they were.
Johnston put the bill to the senate once again, and this time it passed by one vote.
Johnston asked his fellow senator why he had changed his mind and supported the bill.
“You were right,” said the Republican senator. “My second baseman is undocumented.”
Johnston says that it is easy today to lose hope, to think that the rift between conservatives and liberals is so wide nothing can get done. But, he says “I find it is still possible to solve the big problems. It requires a bold vision and building coalitions with folks who may be on the opposite side of an issue.”
A vote for Mike Johnston is a vote for getting things done.
Duane Raleigh is the Publisher and Editor in Chief for Big Stone Publishing, publisher of Rock and Ice, Trail Runner, Ascent, Dirt and Gym Climber magazines, in Carbondale, Colorado.