Former State Senator Mike Johnston is joining the race for Denver mayor, outlining specific plans to deal with homelessness and improve public safety.
Johnston worked as a school teacher and principal prior to serving in the State Senate from 2009 to 2017. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020. Most recently, Johnston has led Gary Community Investments, which focuses on non-profit and private sector methods of helping low-income children and families.
"I've spent my career shoulder to shoulder with people who feel like their voices are not heard in City Hall,” Johnston said. “I'm very proud of the fact that there's a real diverse coalition of people around the city who would say they feel like I've been their voice in a very effective way.”
Johnston, who announced his decision on Next with Kyle Clark on Wednesday ahead of filing official paperwork Thursday, will be the 17th declared candidate in a crowded race. Assuming no candidate receives a plurality of the vote in the April 4 election, two candidates will meet in a runoff.
This is Denver’s first open mayoral contest in 12 years.
Johnston pointed to his success with Gary Community Ventures in a Denver’s supportive housing program, which is a public-private partnership.
"What we're missing right now is we don't actually have the housing units to put people into so you can provide all the wraparound services you want, if you don't actually have a housing unit to place that person in, you can't solve that problem,” Johnston said.
He cited the tiny home village model as a way to combat chronic homelessness, where dozens of small homes are clustered together, and residents receive services ranging from mental health care to workforce development.
“Folks that are unhoused, that is often the only community they have, Johnston said. “So, if you're going to come and try to pull one person out of that community and move them, they're very unlikely to go, when you can come and move an entire block of 20 or 30 people to a new neighborhood... that is a real strategy.”
Denver’s much-criticized homeless sweeps could continue, Johnston said, if and only if each person asked to move from a public place has the opportunity for housing.
“I think that it is immoral to not have a place for everyone who lives in Denver to be able to sleep in a home,” Johnston said. “When you can do that, then I think it's a very fair ask.”
Johnston also proposed a “safety force” of 200 trained law enforcement officers to work the downtown area with concealed carry and vests, rather than visible firearms and standard uniforms.
Johnston said Denverites want to feel protected but not “policed.” He said the safety force would be fully-trained and certified officers who would specialize in deescalating conflicts and providing a greater sense of security downtown.
“What you have would be people who could intervene and solve a problem,” Johnston said. “We want this to feel like a place where you can take your kids downtown, and you're excited to let them run and play on the piano on the 16th Street Mall. I don't think people have that feeling right now.”
Johnston did not directly answer when asked if term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock was doing a good job.
"He has, I think, turned this into a world-class city in many ways,” Johnston said. “I think...we face a different set of challenges [now that] we are a world-class city, because you have world-class problems. And those include some of the things that are front and center right now like homelessness, like affordable housing, like crime."
The 17 contenders for Denver Mayor include several prominent women including City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver), and former Denver Mayor Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough.
Denver has never elected a female mayor.
"I think it's fantastic that we have such a diverse field,” Johnston said. “Now the voters get to choose who is the best person for the job in front of the city right now.”
Johnston described the task for voters as finding “a person who has a track record of taking on the biggest problems and being able to put together detailed plans.”
“I think I'm unique in this field as someone who's had a track record of doing that,” Johnston said.
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