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May 24, 2023 01:28 PM UTC

The Race for Denver Mayor is a Matter of "Responsibility"

  • by: Colorado Pols

The two finalists for Denver Mayor — Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough — are actually quite similar in how they would approach many of Denver’s most pressing problems in the months and years ahead. 

These similarities were again obvious in a recent debate hosted by Denver7, Denverite, and Colorado Public Radio. As Conrad Swanson wrote for The Denver Post:

They both agree that the city needs more affordable housing, additional child care options and an influx of people and businesses downtown. They differ only slightly on whether to use taxpayer funds to build the Denver Broncos a new stadium and disagree outright on whether the city should revise its snowplowing policy.

Only once during the debate did the pair verge on actually debating each other. And even in that case Brough reminded Johnston that they had both supported the same piece of legislation.

This isn’t to say that Brough and Johnston agree on every issue. Brough supports a potential ballot measure that would seek taxpayer dollars to build a new stadium for the Denver Broncos; Johnston does not. Brough supports “qualified immunity” for law enforcement – essentially removing some personal liabilities for police officers. Johnston does not.  

Where Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston diverge the most is in how they discuss their respective histories: One candidate takes no responsibility. The other takes too much responsibility. 



Public Policy Superhero?

Let’s start with the second part of that statement above, because it’s a little more complicated than the first. 

Johnston is a former State Senator who has since run statewide campaigns for Governor (he finished in third place in a Democratic Primary in 2018) and U.S. Senate (he withdrew his candidacy in 2019 when it was clear that he had no hope of beating John Hickenlooper in another Democratic Primary). In the meantime, Johnston worked as CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a nonprofit organization focused on assisting children and families in Colorado. 

Johnston has worked on a variety of different progressive policy issues in his career. As a candidate for Denver Mayor, he has talked about many of those efforts…with quite a bit of embellishment about his involvement.

As Kyle Clark of 9News recently commented:

“Ask [Mike] Johnston about most topics, and he will explain how he personally led on that issue.”

Johnston’s detractors say that he has particularly exaggerated his role on three big topics: 1) Gun violence prevention, 2) Universal preschool and full-day kindergarten, and 3) Testing and vaccination programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll tackle these in order.


Gun Violence Prevention

As Marshall Zelinger reported this month for 9News:

Johnston often talks about taking on the National Rifle Association.

“I did it in the state Senate, taking on the NRA and winning on gun safety,” Johnston said in a Denver7 interview on Feb. 20.

“Whether it was taking on the NRA when we knew that gun safety was a crisis, and no one believed we could defeat the NRA and we did. And we passed universal background checks, and we passed high-capacity magazine bans to keep communities safe,” he said during his April 4 election night speech…

…Johnston was not the prime sponsor of any of those gun bills. He spoke on the Senate floor on a couple of them, voted yes on the legislation and, on a few of the bills, added his name as a co-sponsor after they had already passed. [Pols emphasis]

Johnston did play a role in advancing gun violence prevention (GVP) legislation at the State Capitol, but it’s a stretch to say that he “took on the NRA.” Johnston did not lead the effort to pass a magazine limit ban in 2013 (though, fairness, Democrats purposely chose other sponsors for strategic reasons at the time).

Johnston’s claims that he helped to ban “weapons of war” are also more hyperbole than reality. He supported legislation to create background checks for gun purchases, but he didn’t do anything more than most other legislative Democrats. Johnston also says that he supports expanding “red flag” laws in Denver, but Democrats in the state legislature already did that in the 2023 session. 


Universal Preschool and Full-Day Kindergarten

Johnston’s claims to have led efforts for universal preschool and full-day kindergarten are simply not true. As 9News explains:

“I was very proud of the fact that when I was at Gary Ventures, two of the things we worked on was, both the effort to finally, after years and years, deliver full-day kindergarten statewide across Colorado, but more importantly, led a coalition in 2020 to say that’s not enough. You know, what we really need is to provide universal preschool. And so, I was able to bring together a broad coalition to pass a ballot measure in 2020,” Johnston said at a CBS Colorado forum on April 24.

That comment about full-day kindergarten is inaccurate. 

No tuition full-day kindergarten started in Colorado in the 2019-’20 school year. Johnston did not start as CEO of Gary Community Ventures until Jan. 2020.

In our interview, he corrected himself.

“When I arrived, we worked on universal preschool, that was the one I worked on directly, but Gary [Community Ventures] had worked on full-day kindergarten. I was not a part of a full-day kindergarten coalition,” Johnston said. [Pols emphasis]

Universal preschool passed the state legislature in 2022.

Johnston can be proud of assisting these efforts, but he should not take credit for making them happen. 

Legislation creating universal preschool passed through the State Capitol in 2022. Gary Community Ventures contributed $1.25 million to a ballot measure campaign in 2020 that helped provide funding for a universal preschool program with increased nicotine taxes. But providing universal preschool is well-known to have been one of the top priorities of Gov. Jared Polis, both when he was running for Governor in 2018 and during his first term in office. Johnston may have helped this effort as part of a coalition, but it was in a support role and NOT as a primary leader. 

Johnston was indeed part of a coalition of groups, both public and private, that helped achieve this goal. He could, and should, just say that instead. 


COVID-19 Response

Mike Johnston in the lead role of “Pinocchio.”

This is the issue that has perhaps gotten Johnston in the most trouble recently. Again, from 9News:

In his interview with 9NEWS, Johnston used the term “coalition” often. It’s the use of “I,” and not “coalition” that caught the attention of Sarah Tuneberg, former director of the state’s COVID-19 Innovation Response Team. [Pols emphasis]

“My team, together with me, created a playbook. We sought vendors to execute that playbook, and we paid them for that work, appropriately so,” Tuneberg said.

Johnston’s exaggerations here are more pronounced:

“During the pandemic, if you ever got a COVID test or COVID vaccine, I built the organization called COVIDCheck, which provided COVID testing around the state. Grew it from one person to 1,500 employees,” Johnston said during the 9NEWS mayoral debate on March 14.

Johnston said something similar at another candidate forum a week earlier. Johnston is clearly implying that he is largely responsible for making both COVID-19 tests and vaccines widely available, which is just simply untrue. Tuneberg gives Johnston and his organization credit for their assistance, but not to the extent that Johnston takes credit: 

“What COVIDCheck Colorado did is wonderful. They were a contractor, they did a relatively simple task that we gave them a playbook for. But he didn’t create something whole new, and manage it very well, and that does not give him the level of executive function, executive management that being the mayor of Denver requires.”

Tuneberg went into more detail about her concerns with Johnston taking credit in a long Facebook post published this week. Her comments to 9News have since been used in a commercial attacking Johnston, and Johnston allies have pushed back. Writes Tuneberg:

A few weeks ago I sat down with 9News to talk about my work on the COVID response. I wanted to share how dismayed and gaslit I felt watching Mayoral candidate Mike Johnston re-write history and exaggerate his role in the COVID response to take credit for the work of hundreds of hardworking folks from my team. By running on the record of work my team did he is erasing them from the history of the state’s response and claiming it for himself. [Pols emphasis]

Frustratingly, a clip of that interview is a part of a campaign ad and has confused the situation. I didn’t expect to be in your living room on an attack ad, especially one that doesn’t do a great job explaining what I said and why I spoke out. I understand now that ad is being attacked by Mike Johnston and I am in their cross fire…

Starting in late March 2020, I was asked by Governor Polis to lead Colorado’s COVID-19 testing effort. The mandate was clear– scale up, scale fast, and ensure all Coloradans have access to free, quick, and easy COVID-19 testing. My first day on the job we tested 50 people and just a few months later, over Thanksgiving weekend, we tested 67k in a single day. Together with my amazing kids, this is one of the things I am most proud of in my life. This test scaling wasn’t a solo effort, rather it is one made possible by the incredible efforts of hundreds of Colorado State Employees, the State Laboratory, and amazing vendors like Mako Medical, among others.

Eventually, in late November, COVIDCheck, an organization co-founded by Mike Johnston joined this effort as a vendor. But the work that enabled Colorado’s amazing testing progress was well underway before COVIDCheck was even a registered entity. On his website, in debates, in interviews, and in conversations I’ve observed, Mike Johnston overstates the dramatic embellishment of the role COVIDCheck played in the COVID response.

He said that if you got a covid test, you probably got it from COVIDCheck. Not true– they are responsible for about 10% of the tests over the whole of the pandemic – even less if you consider rapid tests. He said that he built the playbook for community testing. Not true– my team issued the first Community Testing Playbook on April 14…also before COVIDCheck even existed.

In a recent debate Mike said that “when it came time for the state to scale testing we came to him to learn how to do it.” Oof! Not true– before COVIDCheck joined as a vendor my team and I had opened more than 50 testing sites across the state. Mike Johnston had nothing to do with this work. Period.

The bottom line: Johnston and his COVIDCheck organization did help provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, but this work took place LONG after the Polis Administration had established protocols and infrastructure to fight the pandemic. 

Again…Johnston was indeed part of a coalition of groups, both public and private, that helped with testing and vaccines during the pandemic. He could, and should, just say that instead. 


The Multiverse Candidate

The Denver GOP’s endorsement of Kelly Brough is a textbook “Kiss of Death.”

The Kelly Brough who is running for Denver Mayor in 2023 has a very different public policy outlook than the one who served as President and CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce from 2009-2021. Which Kelly Brough would Denver voters be getting if she is elected on June 6?

As we wrote last week, Brough recently received the endorsement of the Denver Republican Party after speaking to the group earlier in the month (Johnston did not respond to the GOP speaking invitation). Though the race for Mayor is technically “nonpartisan,” Denver voters have always supported Democrats in overwhelming numbers; registered Republicans make up less than 10% of all voters in Denver. 

The smart strategic move for Brough would have been to immediately refuse the Denver Republican Party endorsement in a clear and unmistakable manner. She did not. This would have been a significant moment in the campaign no matter whose name was involved, simply because it is a questionable risk to associate your campaign with the Republican Party in a city as deep blue as Denver. 

The point here? You guessed it: Responsibility. If Brough does not share the ideals of the Denver Republican Party, then she should reject the endorsement. Silence, in this case, is acceptance.

This lack of responsibility has been a recurring theme for Brough. As Axios Denver reports:

As Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO, Kelly Brough defended oil and gas fracking and testified at the statehouse against greenhouse gas reduction targets because it would hurt the economy.

Her organization fought statewide efforts to provide paid family leave and raise the minimum wage because it would burden businesses.

That was then. Now a few years later, Brough is making a political about-face as a candidate for Denver mayor…

…She tells Axios Denver that she opposes oil and gas production near the city’s airport and supports efforts to boost renewable energy and cut carbon pollution.

Brough voiced “strong support” for paid family and sick leave for employees and vowed not to alter the city’s minimum wage increases.

How does Brough explain a complete 180-degree flip on these progressive policies, all of which are very popular in Denver? She ducks responsibility by saying it was her job as CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce to obey the wishes of her benefactors and fight against these policies. It’s an answer, but not a good one.

Brough could have refused to oppose these policy proposals if she truly felt conflicted about them personally. She could have resigned her position as CEO. But she didn’t, and she can’t hide behind the excuse that she was just following orders. 

During a debate hosted by CBS4 Denver, Brough demonstrated that refusal to accept responsibility for some of her prior positions. Johnston pressed Brough on her opposition to increasing the minimum wage in Denver, which she fought against on four separate occasions:

JOHNSTON: I don’t know why you think $26,000 a year would be too much to pay someone in Denver when we know that’s not enough to live in Denver.

BROUGH: Yeah, I don’t at all. As a matter of fact, we have automatic increases in our minimum wage today, and I think that is critically important and I support it.

I think what you’re referring to is my work at the Chamber of Commerce, where I represented 3,000 businesses. And those positions are part of what the Chamber takes as their positions, and my job was to represent those [positions], and I did. And what I’ll do for Denver residents is represent them as their Mayor, making sure they get the wages they need to be able to live and make a home in our city.

Brough says now that she DOES support an increased minimum wage. Does that support depend on whose counsel she receives at any given time, or is it a core belief for her personally? This is why her answer about “representing” another organization’s positions is a real concern for voters.

Brough might have been better off saying something to the effect that she was doing her job but that she was wrong in her approach. Passing the buck is a bad look for someone who wants to lead an entire city.

The choice of candidates for Denver Mayor is probably fairly opaque for many Denver voters. This is understandable given that both candidates have fairly similar policy views. In the final determination, voters might be best served by considering the one simple question we started with above:

Do you want the candidate who doesn’t seem to take responsibility…or the candidate who seems to take too much responsibility?  


3 thoughts on “The Race for Denver Mayor is a Matter of “Responsibility”

  1. Or another way of putting it, we have a choice between a Show Horse or a Work Horse.

    At least both say they support Ranked Choice Voting which in a large field as we had this year would, I believe, have given us a much different outcome.

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