Vail native Mike Johnston is running for governor of Colorado in the 2018 election

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily
Mike Johnston gives one of his 9 year old twin sons Emmet a hug. His twin brother Seamus, looking on, already had his hug. Johnston, a Vail native, announced he's running for governor.
George Lange|Lange Studio |

DENVER — Vail native Mike Johnston announced he’s running for governor, firing the first shot in the next round of political wars.

Johnston, a Democrat, made Tuesday’s announcement at Denver’s Holly Street Community Center in one of the city’s more downtrodden neighborhoods. He’s calling his agenda “Frontier Fairness.”

“Colorado was built on a sense of ‘frontier fairness,’” Johnston said. “That hard work under the right conditions leads to opportunity. That opportunity allows us to define our own future. It’s time to make real the sense of frontier fairness that will carry us through the next 150 years.”

No sooner had Johnston finished Tuesday’s event than he hit the campaign trail for Pueblo, Costilla County, Durango and Grand Junction. On Thursday he will be in Vail.

Election Day is Nov. 6, 2018. That is 657 days from Tuesday’s announcement.

Back in the crosshairs

Johnston is no stranger to the political crosshairs. He’s a two-term state senator representing northeast Denver.

He’s also part of a long list of people who were protested by Harvard faculty and students, where he earned his master’s degree in education. Despite their misgivings, he gave an inspiring keynote address for the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His speech came on the heels of a protest by a group of Harvard students, faculty and alumni who disagreed with some of Johnston’s education policies.

As a state senator, Johnston authored Amendment 66, an attempt to overhaul the way Colorado funds public education. Colorado voters rejected it soundly.

Dems to watch

Johnston was named last summer by The New York Times as one of “14 young Democrats to watch.” Among Colorado Democrats, he is generally high on the list of possible successors to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Johnston’s education roots run deep. His mother was a public school teacher, as were both of her parents.

After college, he headed south to Greenville, Mississippi, where he taught in a low-income high school during a stint with Teach for America. In 2002 he published a book about it, “In the Deep Heart’s Core.”

Johnston served six years as a principal in some of Denver’s more challenging public schools. He was founding principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School serving at-risk and high-needs kids. While he led that school, 100 percent of the seniors were admitted to four-year colleges.

That attracted enough positive attention that President Barack Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

“In generations past, education was our proxy for opportunity. If you got a degree at age 18 you were prepared for the economy of the next 50 years,” Johnston said. “Today, a high school degree alone will not equip you for an economy of the next 50 days. This means we must create a workforce that is as nimble as our rapidly changing world, where people can upgrade and change their skills as our industries change overnight.”

Part of his plan is what he calls the Lifetime Opportunity Promise. It would guarantee up to two years of debt-free college or career training to anyone willing to earn it by providing meaningful service to the state of Colorado.

Johnston cut his early political chops at his father’s side in Vail. Paul Johnston was one of Vail’s early mayors and served many years on the fledgling community’s Town Council. Paul Johnston owned and operated the Christiania hotel and the New Gnu.