And so, now that it’s finally done, now that the ballots have been (mostly) counted, now that 16 candidates have been whittled to only one, Mike Johnston is the last man standing in the Denver mayoral race.
With the emphasis, of course, on man. With Johnston’s victory over Kelly Brough in a runoff election, Denver’s mayor will once again be a man. Denver’s mayor, as I’m sure you know, has always been a man. Sing it with me: It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world. And city. And state.
It’s not just Denver. The state of Colorado has never elected either a female governor or U.S. senator. You can spot a trend here, and a disturbing one at that. Brough has broken more than a few glass ceilings in her time, but this one was apparently too high. Still, I don’t know how much of a role gender played in this race.
The fact is, you can point to any number of possible reasons for Johnston’s convincing victory, maybe starting with the fact that he was due. After running unsuccessfully for governor and then, briefly, for senator, this bid for mayor was probably his last shot.
His critics would say, not altogether unreasonably, that Johnston was a serial candidate in search of an office. Johnston, the former educator, likes to point out that he has been CEO of a successful nonprofit between runs for office. However you make the case, Johnston’s political narrative has been permanently changed. And Johnston, who can happily speak for hours on public policy, will now be tasked with actually putting those policies in place.
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If Johnston came into the race with multiple advantages, he ended it with at least two — big support from big money and big support from Denver’s sizable progressive community. It’s not the most likely combination, but it’s one that worked.
As a state senator and recently as a leading figure in passing Proposition 123, which provided public money to improve access to affordable housing, Johnston was certainly the better known candidate. If both candidates were well grounded in the issues and both obviously qualified for the job, Johnston might be a little more innovative. I mean, how appealing is Johnston’s idea for tiny houses, constructed with the help of 3-D printers, to play a central role in his plan to provide homeless people with stable communities? It will be even more appealing, I guess, if it works.
And then there are the aforementioned, more critical factors.
You can start with the significant outside money — especially the ungodly $1.7 million or so donated by billionaire LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman — that went to the Super PAC supporting Johnston, money that may well have been the difference in the outcome. It seems like it’s always the money, even in the year when Denver inaugurated its Fair Elections Fund, which was meant to make the system more equitable.
By the campaign’s end, Brough was charging that Johnston’s wealthy funders were trying to “buy the race.” There was a campaign ad saying that “maybe these guys think Denver is for sale.”
The accusations didn’t seem to hold, despite the huge advantage that Johnston’s Super PAC had over Brough’s in fundraising. Maybe voters have become inured to the big money in politics. Maybe there didn’t seem to be any obvious quid pro quo between Johnston and his funders, most of whom are associated with liberal causes. Maybe it’s that the race was not exactly enthralling and that many weren’t paying attention.
Or maybe it’s that Brough, who was Hickenlooper’s chief of staff when he was mayor, became the longtime CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce and was firmly supported by the local business establishment. I mean, she also drew support from Republican stalwarts like Pete Coors and Phil Anschutz and was even endorsed by the Denver Republican Party, none of which could have played well in predominantly blue Denver.
And then there was the matter of the progressive community. One of the enduring stories of the runoff campaign has been the notion that there were so few differences in policy separating Johnston and Brough, who are both seen as moderately progressive. But the lack of difference was almost certainly overstated.
For many progressives — especially those who had been eliminated in the first round of the mayor’s race — the distinctions seemed to be great enough that Johnston became the clear candidate of choice. He was backed by progressive candidates Lisa Calderon and Leslie Herod, who finished third and fifth respectively in the first round. Others in the progressive community also came aboard.
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Johnston has always seen himself as a progressive. Not everyone, especially teachers’ unions, would agree, however. And yet, suddenly there was progressive momentum at work for Johnston, which, by the way, didn’t necessarily seem to carry over to the city council races.
And although the influence of endorsements is often overrated, they may well have mattered in this race, especially given that many voters were apparently undecided until near the end. And Brough’s public clash with Herod probably didn’t help her cause either.
Now that the race is over, the issues that dominated the campaign — homelessness, affordable housing, crime and after the East High shootings, gun safety — are the issues that will dominate Johnston’s first term as mayor.
Denver’s rapid growth, fueled by the city’s growing popularity, has been problematic. There’s no argument there. The city has grown too fast for its own good, with wealthy newcomers making the city unaffordable for many who work here. Meanwhile, homelessness has grown from a problem into a crisis. And Denver, like so many other cities, was not sufficiently prepared. I mean, ask yourself which city Denver should model itself after.
The question now for Johnson is what comes next. In Johnston’s victory speech, which could just as well have been a campaign speech, he told us of his dream for Denver — a city, he said, where we “would be the authors of our own story.” And that story, as Johnston sees it, is of a “city that is going to be big enough to care for all of us, to support all of us, to house all of us. That is our dream of Denver.”
But the truth about governing is that running a campaign is a lot easier than running a city. And for Johnston, who hopes to serve two terms, to successfully run a city like Denver, he has to be able to make some of those dreams come true.
And as any other big-city mayor could gladly tell Johnston, he has to make at least a few of them come true in a hurry, starting when he’s inaugurated on July 17th. That’s when he takes the reins from Mayor Michael Hancock. That’s when he’ll find out exactly what it means to be the last man standing.
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