DENVER — The question came toward the end of a town hall on gun violence in a high school cafeteria Wednesday: In such a polarized country, on such a polarizing issue, how would Mike Johnston, if he becomes Colorado’s next Democratic governor, bridge the state’s political divide?
On a day when students across the country walked out in protest of the nation’s gun laws, Johnston responded with a story.
In 2013, when he was then a state senator in his 30s, he helped the Democratically controlled state legislature pass a package of gun laws, the most controversial of which limited to 15 the number of bullets a gun magazine could hold. The measures came in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. On the night the new laws passed, Johnston’s fellow Democrats were heading out for celebratory beers. Some of his Republican friends, who had led the fight against the measures, were furious.
“One of them came up to me and said, ‘This for me is like watching the entire Civil Rights Act being repealed,’” Johnston said Wednesday. “I honestly don’t feel that way. I don’t know what it’s like to feel that way. So what I said was, the more important thing for me to do tonight, rather than go out and have beers with a bunch of my side who are celebrating, is to go out and have beers with these guys who just lost. So I spent the next two hours sitting with them talking about why they felt the way they did, what they thought was possible, what they were worried about. Because I think in those moments relationships matter and some common sense of shared values matter.”
The anecdote capped an hour-long town hall at North High School where Johnston, his voice trembling at times, outlined what he has done and what more he would do to curb future bloodshed.
One of five candidates in a star-studded primary running for a chance to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, Johnston is merging two themes of his campaign in the months before ballots go out. He styles himself as a consensus-builder who can bridge political divides at the same time he’s tackling the guns issue, which can be a third rail in American politics. And while he’s running in a Democratic primary, this year the state’s million-plus unaffiliated voters will be able to participate for the first time.
For Johnston on Wednesday, he meshed that message of overcoming political divides with his stance against the gun lobby and the promise of even tougher firearms legislation in Colorado. He reminded those in the crowd of the days at the Capitol in 2013 when trucks would circle the statehouse honking horns in protest of the gun bills as an intimidation tactic and those who worked in the building would walk to their cars in the evening flanked by security. Johnston told a crowd of about 150, many of whom wiped at their eyes throughout the event, that he was not afraid of the NRA then, and he isn’t now.
Last month, Johnston released the first TV ad of the governor’s race in which he focused on banning “military-style weapons.” He went on conservative talk radio shows to defend his position.
If elected governor, Johnston says he will also push to ban accessories called bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns. He says he would also enact so-called Gun Violence Restraining Orders that could separate someone from their firearms if they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a wealthy gun-violence advocate, has pledged to put $1 million into a Super PAC that is supporting Johnston’s candidacy. A Bloomberg spokesperson noted Johnston’s leadership on gun-safety issues.
The fallout of another mass shooting and Johnston’s outsized message on gun safety comes as one of his rivals, Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, changes his position on banning assault weapons. While he is the current sponsor of a bill to do so in Congress, five years ago he dismissed a proposal that would have done the same.
Johnston hasn’t publicly made an issue out of that, but he said in an interview that he brings up Polis’s past gun positions when voters ask him what differentiates him from the likely more well-known Democrat.
Other Democrats in the primary, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and Noel Ginsburg have said they would ban assault weapons and bump stocks.
Meanwhile, a recent CNN poll found 70 percent of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws— the highest number since the early 1990s. Across the country, a narrative is forming about whether stricter laws on guns will be a major issue for voters in the midterm elections this November and which way moderates might swing.
For his town hall event, Johnston brought with him Tom Sullivan*, an outspoken gun control activist in Colorado whose son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, as well as the former Democratic Senate President, John Morse, who was ousted in a recall election for leading the charge on the 2013 gun bills.
Morse, who called Johnston the smartest person he’s ever met, urged the crowd to continue the walkouts and marches that have roiled the nation in the wake of the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead.
“We have got to keep this up through November,” Morse said.
While making gun laws an issue in the Democratic primary right now makes sense, it’s a riskier move in a general election. In 2014, when Hickenlooper was running for his second term, he consistently had to defend passing the strictest gun laws Colorado had seen in a decade. Stories about 11 rural counties drawing national headlines for their efforts to try and secede from Colorado because of the laws were no gift to the Hickenlooper re-election campaign. He also tried to charm a group of sheriffs to win their votes, but his comments to the group backfired big-time when they became public. The governor told the sheriffs he had been unaware they wanted to meet with him before he signed the gun laws into effect. Hickenlooper also said he hadn’t spoken to gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, but a conservative website obtained cell phone records that indicated otherwise. He also told the sheriffs, “If we’d known that it was going to divide the state so intensely, we probably would have thought about it twice.”
Currently, the Republicans running for governor say they would repeal the 2013 law banning high-capacity gun magazines.
Bobbet Hines, a former sergeant at the Denver Police Department, says she’s known about Johnston for about a year— as long as he’s been running for governor, and likes his educational background. For her, gun control is a big factor in her decision making in the Democratic primary, she said, although she hasn’t yet looked into where others stand. “I think Mike is a good, honest, caring politician,” she said at Wednesday’s town hall. “And I think that’s what we need right now is someone who will stand up for all the people, and especially on this gun violence issue.”
Bill Amass, an unaffiliated voter in Denver who also showed up, said he isn’t paying much attention to the large gubernatorial primary, but his mind is made up about voting for Johnston. “He works hard, and now, you know, with this gun control it’s good,” he said.
For Gail Feeney-Coyle, 65, and an East Coast transplant whose millennial children volunteer on Johnston’s campaign, the candidate’s messaging on the subject had an impact. “When he had that really short ad on TV, that really sealed the deal for me,” she said. Since then she says she’s been calling the office of Colorado’s Republican U.S. Senator, Cory Gardner, and name-dropping Johnston as an example to emulate.
“I am so against guns,” she said, “and I’m very cautious about who I talk to about that in Colorado.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Tom Sullivan as a Johnston supporter. He has not endorsed his candidacy.