By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
In a rapid-fire delivery laced with anecdotes and humor, Mike Johnston, the 42-year-old former Colorado state senator who in January was the first state Democrat to announce his run for governor’s seat, spent about an hour with Carbondale constituents on April 4.
He told more than 100 voters about his background in education, his determination to help immigrants get a better deal in everything from school to jobs, and his campaign plan to create “local leadership teams” around the state who can help him learn more about what the voters want from their government. He noted that the likely Democratic primary election, next June, already is shaping up as a crowded ticket, with such political heavyweights as U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter reportedly poised to enter the race.
“This one will be unusually full,” he predicted, with as many as five candidates in each party’s primary contest.
In recounting his background, Johnston said he was raised in Vail, where his father ran a lodging business, and pointed out numerous friends seated in the Calaway Room on Tuesday night as a way of establishing his longstanding connection to the Roaring Fork Valley.
He also reportedly was an advisor on education to then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, and a Hillary Clinton supporter in the Colorado primary caucuses in 2016, when upstart candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders pulled off a surprising win over Clinton.
In a nod to the ongoing bitter split between Clinton and Sanders supporters in this state, Johnston told the Denver Post in January, “I think the Bernie folks will find a lot of the values that they share will be evidenced in our campaign.”
Lisa Raleigh, development director for Colorado Rocky Mountain School and the organizer of Johnston’s campaign stop at Carbondale’s Third Street Center, said in her introductory remarks, “Mike aligns with my moral compass, my belief in humanity,” in what she termed his desire to live in a diverse, fair and compassionate state and nation.
Johnston, who got in a minor traffic accident on Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray on Tuesday that made him a little late in arriving in Carbondale, told his audience that he was a fourth-generation teacher and educator who, among other jobs, was once principal at a school where 60 percent of the students were Latino immigrants.
And, he continued, that school was the first in the state from which an entire senior class of mixed-heritage students graduated and went on to attend college — an example of how he would like the state’s education system to work overall.
Toward that goal, Johnston told his listeners, during his seven years in the state senate (he left the senate last year, after representing District 33 in northeast Denver) he was one of the movers of a bill, known as the Colorado Dream Act, which in 2013 gave undocumented immigrants the right to in-state tuition at Colorado’s public colleges.
A college graduate with a law degree, Johnston has been reported to favor such Sanders-esque policy initiatives as debt-free college and career training opportunities, although the details of those proposals have not been publicly fleshed out.
Turning to the divisiveness of politics in the U.S. today, Johnston maintained that the current political climate is such that “we turn on each other, and we become our worst selves,” he expressed the hope that his campaign will move beyond the schism between conservatives and liberals and will result in a different kind of political climate that will offer help to all sectors of the population in an economy that is rapidly changing.
“The question is, how do we prepare people to be ready” for the expected, continuing changes in the economy, he declared.
For example, he said, the state should be leading the charge to help coal miners in Routt County to be retrained as workers in the state’s burgeoning renewable-energy industries.
In a robust question-and-answer exchange, Johnston dealt with a wide range of issues, including:
• How Colorado might best respond to expected federal health-care reforms (a questioner called it “TrumpCare 2.0) that might reduce federal support for Medicaid and significantly alter the current application of the Affordable Care Act (Johnston warned could lead to the closure of rural hospitals, unless the state can do something to prevent that from happening);
• What state government can do to alter the budget-strangling effects of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR (he suggested the state may have to seek tax hikes from voters to pay for critical government programs, or ask voters to make changes to the TABOR law itself).
Carbondale’s community access radio station, KDNK, will be posting an audio file on its website (www.kdnk.org) this week, for those who want to hear the raw recording of Johnston’s presentation.