Former state Sen. Mike Johnston will become Denver’s first new mayor in a dozen years when he’s sworn into office Monday.
The Democrat joined The Colorado Sun for an extended discussion ahead of starting his new job. He talked about his preparations and priorities, as well as the city’s migrant crisis and his obligations to the rest of Colorado.
While Johnston wouldn’t provide a preview of what he will unveil in his inauguration speech — “I do not have any plans to play starting quarterback for the Broncos as part of my first-term plan,” he joked — he said he’ll share a 100-day plan, a year-one plan and a term-one plan.
Johnston, who was most recently serving as CEO and president of Gary Community Ventures, will be sworn in at 10 a.m. Monday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Admission is free, but tickets are required. A Denver Vibes Festival to celebrate the new mayor will be from 5 to 10 p.m. at Union Station, with music, food and local vendors. Tickets are needed to attend the festival, too.
The following has been edited for clarity and length. Listen to the full interview on The Daily Sun-Up podcast.
The Colorado Sun: Who are you meeting with as you prepare to become Denver’s mayor? How often are you talking with incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock? Have you shadowed Hancock for a day?
Mike Johnston: What I’m spending the most time doing right now is sitting down with every department and city agency and their leadership team. They’re each giving me an hour-long deep dive on what currently is happening, what’s working great, what the challenges are, what the top priorities are, where all the different services of the city government fit. I have met with Michael Hancock a number of times. He’s been very, very helpful on everything from where to park and how to get into the building to where the mayor’s office appointees go and what they do. He’s also helped me understand the big challenges that are coming and lessons learned on how to handle some of those difficult situations. He’s been a great resource.
The Sun: Do you anticipate holding over any members of the Hancock administration?
Johnston: We haven’t made any final decisions about that. We have open applications. We welcome any current incumbents in those roles to apply to stay if they want to. And we’ll interview them and have a good conversation about where the city can go, what that vision is. I think there are some great leaders currently in the city. I have asked many of the cabinet heads to stay over until Aug. 31, just because that gives us a chance to get on the ground and get up to speed on what’s happening
The Sun: Do you envision giving jobs to anyone who endorsed your campaign?
Johnston: We haven’t made any commitments or promises to any of those folks. We welcome everybody to apply who wants to. I find out about those applicants when the résumés come through the city portal.
The Sun: At the end of your campaign, you were endorsed by some progressive groups and figures, like Lisa Calderón, your former opponent in the race. She has said she’ll be watching closely to see if you align with her values. Are you feeling pressure from progressives as you take office?
Johnston: I think I feel pressure from everyone in the city to make sure we deliver results. I was at the Pride parade and people were coming up and giving me hugs and saying, ‘make sure you solve all these problems.’ But, no, I don’t feel any direct pressure from any specific group. I feel like people want the same set of things: They want us to deliver a city where we can get people who are unhoused access to housing, where we can make sure teachers and nurses and reporters can still afford to live in the city, and where we can make sure that people feel safe in every neighborhood. I know that we have different perspectives sometimes on how to get there.
The Sun: Are you expecting some of your wealthy campaign supporters — LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to use their deep pockets to help solve Denver’s issues?
Johnston: We’re going to need everybody and anybody to be a part of the solutions. That includes city employees, that includes nonprofits, that includes the business community, that includes philanthropy. That includes everyday residents.
The Sun: Thinking about the problems that are facing the city, do you have a list of goals you want to accomplish in your first 100 days? Maybe you’re planning to announce those in your inaugural speech, but can you give us a preview?
Johnston: I can’t give away all the secrets, but we certainly will be focusing on that for the inaugural. We’re focusing on a 100-day plan, a year-one plan and a term-one plan. I think all of those are really important. You won’t be surprised by the themes. They are the same ones we talked about over and over on the campaign. We know homelessness continues to be one of the most important issues the city is facing. We know that affordable housing continues to be one of the most important issues. We know that public safety across all neighborhoods continues to be important. And we know that the recovery and revitalization of downtown as a center of the city is critically important. Those were top priorities for us throughout the campaign and they will continue to be top priorities, for sure. We will be prepared to talk about some bold and exciting things we want to do.
The Sun: The big recent news in Denver is the Hancock administration’s decision to back off a $40 million contract with GardaWorld to manage the arrival of thousands of migrants from Central and South America. The contract was dropped after Denver faced backlash from community activists who complained about the company’s history and lack of experience. Were you consulted on that? Would you want to use a private firm, or do you think the city can do it on its own?
Johnston: The mayor and his team have been great about briefing us and keeping us up to speed. I’ve talked to City Council members about it. We’ve been in close contact. I think we will now focus on what we can do to provide these services. I do think there are a lot of local nonprofits and community organizations who think they can play a role in trying to provide some of these services. We want to use as much local talent and local partners as we can to take this on and think about creative ways we can approach this problem that may not require those same level of costs. We want to go through everything we can to provide services to get people up on their feet. I’m also meeting with the departments who are currently providing those services to figure out how we can help make sure they can get back to doing their regular day jobs.
The Sun: The migrant situation in Denver developed during the mayoral campaign and, as a result, wasn’t a big topic of conversation among candidates. It’s a reminder that being mayor means dealing with curveballs, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Right?
Johnston: It is certainly a reminder that there are some things that happen outside of your control and best laid plans change. As Mike Tyson said, “best laid plans change when you get punched in the face for the first time.” This was not something we were planning on. But the amazing part about the city is there are 13,000 incredible employees who are working every day to try to provide services. They are creative and flexible and innovative. And when these things happen, you find a way to move people, you find a way to move budgets, and you find a way to provide services. There will be more curveballs coming — we expect that — but our hope is if we have a great team of people who are committed to serving the city and we will always find a way to adjust to meet those needs.
The Sun: You were elected by Denverites, but being mayor is very much not just a Denver job. The city is a huge economic driver for the rest of Colorado. How do you balance your responsibility toward the citizens of the Mile High City with your responsibility toward the rest of the state?
Johnston: When I’ve talked to people from Aurora or Arvada or Colorado Springs or Fort Collins — even Grand Junction — they’ll say “we need you to succeed because we know Colorado doesn’t succeed if Denver doesn’t succeed.” I feel a real sense of partnership with the rest of the state and a sense of support from them. If the airport is not a place you want to fly in and out of, it hurts tourism on the Western Slope, it hurts commerce in Colorado Springs. If downtown Denver isn’t a place you want to host your convention, you’re less likely to get business and it’s going to affect the rest of the metro area. I do feel a real responsibility to the whole state. But the benefit is, I think, by doing well by our residents here in Denver, we will do well by the rest of the state.