Former state Sen. Mike Johnston will be Denver’s next mayor after winning a decisive victory Tuesday over Kelly Brough, the former CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, in the city’s runoff election.
Johnston had 54% of the vote to Brough’s 46% at 10:15 p.m. when Brough conceded. The pair were separated by about 10,500 votes.
“I called Mike and I wished him godspeed in the work ahead,” Brough said at her campaign’s election night watch party in downtown Denver.
Johnston will take the reins from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who has led the Mile High City for the past 12 years. The new mayor will be inaugurated July 17 and be paid nearly $206,000 annually to run the city, which has 11,000 employees and a budget of nearly $3.8 billion.
“This race was about a big vision of what’s possible for Denver — about a big dream for Denver,” Johnston told his supporters at his campaign watch party at Union Station downtown. “We can build a city that is big enough to keep all of us safe, to house all of us, to support all of us. That is our dream of Denver.”
A lot has changed in Denver since Hancock was elected in 2011. The city’s population has increased by about 100,000. Housing prices have skyrocketed. The economy has boomed.
Homelessness and crime were major focuses of candidates in the race. Affordable housing was a pivotal topic, too.
Voters ultimately chose Johnston, who was backed by millions of dollars from wealthy, out-of-state donors to shepherd Denver through its next chapter.
“Tonight, we write a new chapter,” Johnston said in his victory speech. “Tonight we start a chapter about a city that’s going to be big enough to care for all of us, to support all of us, to house all of us.”
Johnston, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020, has vowed to serve only two, four-year terms as mayor. (He’s limited to three.) In an interview with 9News this week he also promised to serve his entire first term even though there will be a gubernatorial race and U.S. Senate race in Colorado in 2026.
Most recently, Johnston was serving as CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a philanthropic organization focused on policies aimed at improving the lives of children and families across Colorado. Previously, Johnston worked as an education adviser for President Barack Obama and worked as a teacher and school principal.
Johnston and Brough emerged as the top two vote-getters among a 16-candidate field in Denver’s April municipal election. Because neither received more than 50% of the vote, they advanced to Tuesday’s runoff.
Coming out of the April race, Johnston was able to win key support from some of his former opponents including two progressives: state Rep. Leslie Herod and Lisa Calderón, executive director of Emerge Colorado, which trains women to run for office.
Brough’s supporters included former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, Wilma, a former state representative, as well as former Gov. Bill Ritter. She also won the support of the Denver Police Protective Association and the Denver Firefighters Local 858.
Brough’s only major endorser, however, among the 16 mayoral candidates who ran in the April contest was state Sen. Chris Hansen. She was also backed by Kwame Spearman, who dropped out of the race before the election was held, as well as Thomas Wolf and Renate Behrens, two candidates who didn’t garner much support.
Andrew Miller, a 32-year-old Denver voter who cast his ballot Tuesday at the Harvard Gulch Recreation Center in south Denver, said he wasn’t a fan of either Johnston or Brough. He was hoping that a woman of color would be Denver’s next mayor.
But Miller, who works in health care, decided to vote for Johnston based on his plans to help people experiencing homelessness.
“I think we are in a crisis around our unhoused community and the way we’re treating humans,” he said. “I don’t feel confident that Kelly would prioritize the civil rights and humanity of people over finances.”
Miller said he doesn’t support all of Johnston’s positions but saw him as the better option of the two candidates.
David Wysong, a retired state senator from Kansas, voted for Johnston on Tuesday at the recreation center.
“I know (Brough) was chief of staff — I know she probably knows the ins and outs better — but I’m ready for new blood,” the 74-year-old Republican said. “We need change and I see Mike as a change over her.”
Kate Havekost, 28, voted for Johnston because she heard her landlord supported Brough. She also liked Johnston’s plans to address homelessness.
“He wants people off the streets but it seemed as though he wasn’t as likely to do it through just arresting and incarcerating people,” she said.
Kristi Pohly, a 47-year-old conservative voter, cast a ballot for Brough because she was “the lesser of the two evils.”
“It’s crazy how much this city has changed and I don’t think it’s for the better,” Pohly said.
Brough, who would have been Denver’s first woman mayor, said she entered Election Day the underdog because of all the money spent supporting Johnston and opposing her. But she hoped her story — a woman who rose through political and business ranks — would resonate with Denver voters.
“I’m seriously not a politician,” Brough, who was then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, told reporters just before polls closed Tuesday.
That message, however, didn’t seem to break through.
Both mayoral candidates raised just over $2 million each, less than the $2.9 million Hancock raised for his 2019 mayoral bid. But outside spending by super PACs in this year’s race dwarfed the $560,000 spent by groups in the 2019 mayoral contest.
As of Election Day, Advancing Denver had spent nearly $4.9 million supporting Johnston, while A Better Denver spent $1.5 million supporting Brough.
Reid Hoffman, a venture capitalist and co-founder of LinkedIn, put nearly $2 million into Advancing Denver. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $500,000 to the group and Kent Thiry, former CEO of DaVita and current co-chair of Unite America, a nonprofit based in Denver that advocates for election reform, donated $450,000.
Hoffman, Advancing Denver’s top donor, also donated $500 — the maximum allowed — directly to Johnston and encouraged others to do so on LinkedIn.
“My friend Mike Johnston, who is running for mayor of Denver, is one of the most creative and courageous political entrepreneurs I’ve worked with,” Hoffman wrote. “He has piloted and tested major innovations on homelessness, affordable housing, and closing racial wealth gaps. He has a real chance to scale these solutions in Denver and build a model for cities across the country to consider and try.”
Thiry, who has been active in a range of statewide ballot measures in recent years, provided The Colorado Sun with a statement about why he supported Johnston.
“Denver is a great city at an inflection point as it faces many serious challenges,” he said. “It will take a positive, inclusive, and creative policy innovator like Mike to tackle these problems. Mike has proven he can take on tough issues with incredible political courage and is willing to work with everyone.”
Hancock congratulated Johnston on his victory. “I’m confident the city will be in good hands,” he said.
Gov. Jared Polis congratulated Johnston, too. “Our administration looks forward to partnering with you,” the Democrat said in a written statement.
Progressives trail in City Council races
Meanwhile, the three progressive candidates vying for three Denver City Council seats in Tuesday’s runoff election were trailing their opponents Tuesday night.
Here were the results as of 11:30 p.m.:
- In District 9 in north-central Denver, incumbent Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca had 38% of the vote, while Darrell Watson, a member of the Housing Stability Strategic Advisors board, had 62%
- In District 10 in central Denver, incumbent Councilman Chris Hinds had 57% of the vote while Shannon Hoffman, a political newcomer whose background is in activism and nonprofits, had 43%
- In the open District 8 in northeast Denver, Brad Revare, who leads Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit business coalition, and Shontel Lewis, a former member of the RTD board member were each at about 50%.
Watson said CdeBaca hadn’t conceded but he told The Sun “we feel confident at this point and we’re declaring” victory.
“The vote that you’re seeing there communicates clearly that the residents of District 9 want change — they want a positive change,” he said. “They want progress and we’re moving forward.”
CdeBaca, Lewis and Hoffman are all supported by the Colorado Working Families Party. The trio were also endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
There was supposed to be a runoff in District 7 in south Denver, but candidate Nick Campion dropped out of the contest, effectively handing a victory to Flor Alvidrez, a small business owner.
This is a developing story that will be updated.