DENVER — When you apply for a job, you submit a resume.
When the job you are applying for is the mayor of Denver, you create a website with a biography and talk about your experience in front of voters.
Part of the resume for Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston is laid out in the “Meet Mike” section of his website. The second paragraph includes this regarding gun legislation passed in 2013: “He took on the NRA twice – and won, passing laws to require universal background checks and banning weapons of war…”
NRA | Guns
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.
How did Johnston take on the NRA and win?
“It always takes 18 votes in the State Senate to pass any bill, it always takes  votes in the state legislature, so there's never any one person that does one thing. But there is always a coalition that's required to do it,” Johnston said in an interview with 9NEWS on Wednesday.
As a state Senator, Johnston voted yes on several gun control bills in 2013, including background checks for private gun sales and a ban on magazines that hold more than 15 bullets. However, a previous investigation by 9NEWS showed that law about magazines is rarely enforced.
A new political ad paid for by Advancing Denver, a political action committee that supports Johnston, also claims he took on the gun lobby.
“My role on the gun package was we were in a debate on the Senate floor, and we needed someone to make the case from our caucus for why we could be able to get that bill over the finish line,” Johnston said.
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.
“I think that being able to take a stand on passing universal background checks in the state that has never done it before, and being able to take a stand on banning high capacity magazines in a state that has never done it before, and being able to be a part of the coalition, a key vote, a co-sponsor, and a key spokesperson, I think that matters as part of the coalition,” Johnston said.
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.
“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.
COVIDCheck Colorado is another key part of Johnston’s resume.
“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.
“During COVID, one of the things we did was built and led (sic) an organization called COVIDCheck, which meant if you had a COVID test or a COVID vaccine, you may have come to one of our sites,” Johnston said at a Denverite forum on March 7.
COVIDCheck Colorado set up testing sites for school districts to test students and teachers at the start of the 2020-21 school year. In Nov. 2020, Johnston and COVIDCheck Colorado signed a contract with the state to have open-to-the-public testing sites paid for by the state.
“What COVIDCheck Colorado did is wonderful. They were a contractor, they did a relatively simple task that we gave them a playbook for," Tuneberg said. "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.”
She said that COVIDCheck Colorado set up locations without the permission of the state.
“A number of times COVIDCheck Colorado opened locations outside of the purview of our agreement,” Tuneberg said.
On Wednesday, we asked Johnston if that was true.
“Did you set up a location that the state came back to you and said, ‘Why did you set up a spot there?’” political reporter Marshall Zelinger asked.
“Yeah, we set up additional testing sites that we thought were important that we didn't necessarily have to partner with the state on, because there were places where we had schools or existing partnerships we had started before that state partnership we wanted to keep open. We weren't going to go to those places and tell them to shut down testing. So, we continued to offer them even if sometimes the state didn't choose to subsidize them,” Johnston said. “If the question is, were we continuing to provide more testing to people who wanted them even if they didn't want to provide them? Yes, we were and we were proud of that.”
Tuneberg said the state still paid for the locations that were not previously approved.
Through Jan. 2023, COVIDCheck Colorado accounted for 1,577,780 state-funded tests. Mako Medical is another example of a vendor with the state. That group provided 3.25 million tests.
“Do you believe Mike Johnston is taking credit for something you should be taking credit for?” Zelinger asked.
“I think Mike Johnston is taking credit for a thing that my team should be taking credit for,” Tuneberg said.
COVIDCheck Colorado sites existed outside of the agreement with the state.
“We were delighted to work with the state. There were places we did work on our own. There were places we did work with them, but that was an idea that we built and launched at Gary [Community Ventures] and then partnered with the state to scale,” Johnston said.
A Johnston campaign spokeswoman added, "After partnering with the state, who provided funding for testing sites, [COVIDCheck Colorado] continued to operate sites independently through a contract with Lockheed Martin and at K-12 schools. The state did not want to fund testing at several K-12 sites that COVIDCheck was already running. COVIDCheck refused to leave these communities hanging, and instead funded these sites themselves to follow through on their commitment to provide testing for these communities."
Universal Preschool & Kindergarten
One other part of Johnston’s resume is about universal preschool.
“We have solved hard problems and we can solve them again. Whether it was building the coalition to be able to pass universal preschool when no thought that was possible, so that now every family in the state can get access to free preschool,” Johnston said in his April 4 election night speech.
“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.
Universal preschool passed the state legislature in 2022.
In 2020, a ballot issue – Proposition EE – asked voters to fund universal preschool with higher nicotine taxes. That ballot issue passed.
With Johnston as CEO, Gary Community Ventures contributed $1.25 million to help get that ballot issue passed.
His resume on his website says he "led a campaign to pass universal preschool statewide."
Universal preschool was one of the promises made by Gov. Jared Polis (D) in his State of the State addresses since he was elected in 2019.
"I’m committed to achieving universal access to quality preschool for four-year-olds by the end of my first term,” Polis said in 2020.
“When you say you led on that, how did you lead versus the perception that perhaps the governor led on that?” Zelinger asked Johnston.
“Universal preschool was a broad coalition. There were a lot of people involved in it. The governor was involved, legislators were directly involved, the [House] Speaker was involved, and we were involved on universal preschool. We were involved in the early drafting of the legislation. We were involved in working on amendments for the legislation. We were involved in building coalitions for the legislation. And we were very involved in putting together the coalition to run the campaign to actually pass the ballot measure,” Johnston said.
The bottom line, is Johnston taking credit for other people’s work?
“My belief is leadership is always inclusive. So, when I say ‘led,’ I think there are 30 people that led on helping make sure that universal preschool got done. I think there were 30 people that led on helping make sure that we got gun safety done,” Johnston said. “It's never an exclusive title to say I'm the only one involved. Of course not. It's always a broad coalition.”
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story referenced McAuliffe International School as a location. A Denver Public Schools (DPS) spokesman confirms that McAuliffe never had a COVIDCheck Colorado site. The DPS sites were at George Washington High School, North High School, Montbello High School and Abraham Lincoln High School. There was also a COVIDCheck site at All City Stadium near South High School.
A quote from Tuneberg regarding paying for tests at sites not approved, so as to not have to bill individuals, has also been removed, as there is no proof individuals would have ever been charged for a COVID test at a state-funded site.
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