Mike Johnston kicked off the 2018 Democratic primary for governor. Here’s what that means.
This week, Colorado’s 2018 Democratic primary race for the governor’s seat officially took off.
Mike Johnston, a 42-year-old recently-departed senator who represented northeast Denver, launched his campaign with all the bells and whistles: A splashy speech, a message of “Frontier Fairness,” a slick video, top-notch consultant, and a bold proposal complete with echoes of Bernie Sanders and FDR.
Johnston is the second name to announce, following the more muted entrance of Denver entrepreneur and Intertech Plastics CEO Noel Ginsburg early this month. They are just two in what could be a sprawling field for the first really open Democratic primary for governor in a long time.
What’s his background?
Johnston, who grew up in Vail, is a nationally known figure in the education reform movement.
He is a Teach For America alum who wrote a book about his time teaching in rural Mississippi, and later served as a high school principal for six years. He went to Harvard. He went to Yale. He’s a big fan of the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” He advised President Barack Obama on education policy. The New York Times might have predicted his run last year by calling him one of 14 young Democrats to watch. He and his brother operate the Christiania lodge at Vail.
Where does he fit along the spectrum of the Democratic Party in Colorado?
As a former state senator, he might not have the high statewide profile of former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, or former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, or current Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Golden, three other names swirling around in Democratic circles as potential successors to the term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Johnston said he reached out to others he respects who might be thinking of running and told them he was doing it. “No one has tried to persuade me not to run,” he said.
Other Democrats looking at a possible run are El Paso County Sen. Mike Merrifield and Thornton Rep. Joe Salazar.
Last March, Colorado’s Democratic base turned out heavily for Bernie Sanders, and the Vermont democratic socialist crushed Hillary Clinton in our caucuses, beating her by about 20 points. The state’s political elite was firmly behind Clinton while the activist base clearly was not. Clinton supporters dismissed the caucus loss by saying caucus-goers make up a slim margin of Democrats statewide; Clinton rallied the base and beat Donald Trump in November in Colorado.
“I supported Hillary in the caucus,” Johnston told The Colorado Independent. But he frames himself as someone “with big and bold ideas who is able to bridge those divides to actually get results and build the coalitions it takes to get things done.”
For instance, he says that in the legislature he worked on criminal justice reform with activists from the progressive left and with Republicans on immigration issues. He talks about the ASSET bill, which allowed undocumented students to get in-state tuition, and the CLEAR Act to limit racial disparities in the criminal justice system and help those released from jail back into the workforce and into housing.
In a nod to Sanders, he promised not to take any money from political action committees in his campaign.
Johnston will have to navigate with dexterity the valley between Democrats who think the party should move more to the left and those who think that because Clinton won here it should stay the course. If Sanders supporters Merrifield or Joe Salazar enter the race, each will come at him from the left. If Ken Salazar, who would have led Hillary Clinton’s White House transition team, jumps in, he will be hard to out-flank on the Clintonian side.
Johnston will have great help along the way since he hired Craig Hughes, a top Democratic political consultant who handled the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and the Colorado efforts for Obama.
Where might he draw his support?
“I think that’s a really interesting issue about where his base comes from,” says Jim Carpenter, a Democratic operative who managed Ken Salazar’s successful 2004 campaign and was chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Ritter. “I think that all of these candidates have to figure out and do some pretty cold hard calculations about where they go, particularly if there’s a primary.”
One constituency Johnston might connect with is young professionals and millennials, says Curtis Hubbard, a partner at OnSite public affairs.
Following Johnston’s Tuesday announcement, he planned a two-day tour of Colorado. As a former state senator, he has a geographical base around Denver, and being from Vail will get him attention out there. He has ties to the national education reform movement, which could potentially help tap into big money and networks. Like Ken Salazar, he has ties to Obama.
But if Salazar gets in the race, it would be hard for anyone to overcome his statewide name recognition and donor network that comes with running multiple successful Colorado-wide campaigns over so many years. Johnston would have to do something to stand out.
So what’s this big, bold proposal?
It is big. And it is bold. And this is it: “The Lifetime Opportunity Promise,” a plan to subsidize education for workers pushed out of jobs by automation and globalization that has hints of a free-college-tuition Sanders idea and the Civilian Conservation Corps from FDR’s New Deal.
The Colorado Independent asked Johnston to describe how the plan would work by imagining someone for whom his proposal would benefit. So he did:
Think of a 35-year-old man whose only job since high school was driving a truck, he said. As more driverless big rigs come on the market, het gets laid off. He always liked computers but he never had any training in how to use them in a career. The laid-off truck driver would enroll in a state program that would help him pick from options in a handful of growth industries involving computers. Maybe a tech company in his home county needs coders. He could attend a community college in Denver, enroll in a coding boot camp at a nonprofit like Galvanize, or an online program at CSU to get the training and certification he needs. Maybe it would cost $6,000. Maybe the truck driver could only afford $2,000 and would have to load up on $4,000 in debt. Well, the state would cover the $4,000. But in return, the truck-driver-turned-coder would commit to do service work for the state of Colorado for the next few years. That could include five or six weekends a year doing anything from helping with disaster relief to anything else he could handle. That would save the state money from having to pay for workers.
“It’s almost like a merger of a job-training program and a national service program at the state level with the focus on long-term investment of workers and long-term investment in the state,” Johnston says. He says he doesn’t know of another state-based program like it elsewhere in the country.
How might a new primary system we just passed affect a Johnston candidacy?
No one knows yet but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far left wing of the party more than one who does.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Democratic Party nominates for governor. Democrats will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote.
This would mean (if the law ends up going into place as planned without a lawsuit) that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can chose one party or the other to participate in.
One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate to include more voters in party primaries. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to lessen the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Any potential buzzsaws for Johnston?
Education reform can be extremely controversial and Johnston hasn’t been immune. When he was asked to give the 2014 commencement address at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, dozens protested his selection as speaker. According to The Washington Post at the time, protesters said Johnston “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers.”
But Johnston met with the protesters for two hours the day before his speech, and “received a standing ovation after his remarks the next day.”
In the Colorado legislature he pushed laws to require that half of teacher evaluations come from standardized testing. “It also remade the state’s teacher tenure law — a controversial form of job protection that a California court just struck down — making it easier to fire veteran teachers and changing how teachers are reassigned to new positions, prompting a lawsuit from the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union,” reported the digital news magazine Ozy in 2014.
If Perlmutter does not run, then Sen. Merrifield will get in the primary, says a source close to the progressive Democrat. Merrifield has butted heads with Johnston on education bills in the legislature, so those two in a statewide race could get scrappy.
Tyler Sandberg, a Colorado political operative who works in conservative and Republican circles, had this take about Johnston’s gubernatorial announcement.
— Tyler Sandberg (@wtylersandberg) January 16, 2017
For now, the Colorado Education Association, the state’s teachers union, is staying out of it.
“Our next governor will play an enormous role in school funding, state assessment, educator evaluations and many other areas critical to educators and the success of our students,” CEA President Kerrie Dallman said in a written statement. “We need to hear from all of the candidates on their ideas to provide our students with the schools they deserve and look forward to having these conversations with every person running for our state’s highest office.”
Johnston says he expects strong support from teachers across the state.
In 2013, Johnston lost a statewide ballot measure fight when voters shot down a school-finance proposal he championed, called Amendment 66, because it would have raised taxes by a billion dollars. It’s that last part that’s a ready-made sound byte for his opposition.
Photo by Allen Tian
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