Vacancy group picks Obama education advisor Johnston to replace Groff

High school principal Michael Johnston, who advised Barack Obama on education policy during his presidential campaign last year, won election at a vacancy committee meeting Monday night in northeast Denver to take the place of Democratic Senate President Peter Groff representing Senate District 33 in northeast Denver.

Johnston squeaked out a victory by a single vote on a crowded first ballot, dashing the hopes of former state Rep. Rosemary Marshall, Democratic National Committee member Anthony Graves and community activist Renee Blanchard.

Groff announced on April 10 he was resigning at the end of the legislative session to take a job with the Obama administration heading the Department of Education’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Center.

“I got involved in education because I believed education was the civil rights question of our generation,” Johnston said again and again while campaigning for the appointment, pointing to the remarkable turnaround he achieved as principal of Thornton’s Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, or MESA, high school. Last year, every member of MESA’s senior class won admission to a four-year college, Johnston said, compared with only a 50 percent graduation rate in the district three years earlier.

“We need a Mike Johnston in every school,” Obama said during a campaign stop at MESA a year ago, and then Obama highlighted the school’s achievements in the 30-minute prime-time campaign commercial aired the week before the election. Johnston, like Obama a graduate of Yale Law School, was one of the Obama campaign’s three key education-policy advisors and reportedly turned down a post in the new administration earlier this year.

Johnston is a co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, an organization that recruits and trains teachers for underprivileged schools across the country. He is the author of the widely praised “In the Deep Heart’s Core,” a memoir of his year teaching in Greenville, Miss.

Take a look at the closing remarks from last week’s candidate forum for the vacancy, posted by DenverDirect. Johnston speaks last:

All four candidates discuss topics ranging from gay marriage to health care in videos posted on the DenverDirect page.

Johnston received 64 votes out of 126 ballots cast Monday night at Smiley Middle School, just enough to claim a winning majority on the first ballot. Marshall, who served four terms as a state representative before being term-limited from her seat last year, came in second with 41 votes. Graves got 18 votes and Blanchard didn’t get any. Three ballots were spoiled so weren’t counted.

The vacancy committee was made up of Democratic officials residing in the district, from precinct committee members to elected officials.

With Groff’s departure and Johnston’s selection over Marshall, Graves and Blanchard, all three African Americans, the Colorado Senate won’t have a single black member next session. House Speaker Terrance Carroll, who lives in SD 33 but declined to seek appointment to Groff’s seat, is the sole African-American remaining in the General Assembly.

Johnston, 34, grew up in Vail and lives with his wife, an assistant Denver district attorney, and twin toddlers in the Stapleton neighborhood. His appointment is for the remainder of Groff’s term, through 2010, when he will have to seek re-election in the heavily Democratic district.