Mike Johnston sworn in as Denver mayor
Former state lawmaker brings ambitious goals, lofty rhetoric to city’s top job
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston is sworn in during an inaugural ceremony at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on July 17, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
For the first time in 12 years and just the fifth time since 1968, Denver has a new elected mayor.
Former state lawmaker Mike Johnston was sworn in on Monday as the city’s 46th chief executive in an inauguration ceremony held at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, with many of Colorado’s top elected officials, including Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, looking on.
“Today, we dedicate ourselves to two essential American ideas: that every problem we face is solvable, and we are the ones to solve it,” Johnston told the crowd.
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Johnston’s election last month completed a political comeback for the Vail native, who was once seen as a rising star in Colorado Democratic politics but had launched unsuccessful bids for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020.
He brings to the office a list of highly ambitious goals, topped by a promise to end homelessness within his first four-year term — and soaring rhetoric to match them. In a short inaugural speech, he spoke of “the cycle of American hurt,” challenges that had been “tinder for the fires of division” and a belief that “at its essence, democracy is an act of love.”
“For us to succeed, every Denverite must take their own oath — an oath to dream, to serve and to deliver,” Johnston said. “To dream a Denver bold enough to include all of us, to serve our city above ourselves, and to march on, shoulder-to-shoulder, undeterred by failure, until we deliver results.”
Johnston succeeds former Mayor Michael Hancock, who oversaw the city’s economic rebound in the wake of the Great Recession but frequently embittered progressive-leaning activists who viewed him as too friendly with law enforcement and business interests.
“I couldn’t be more thankful to the people of this great city for putting their trust in me and my team to carry this community forward,” Hancock said in brief remarks before Johnston’s swearing-in. “It is my great honor and privilege to pass the baton.”
Billionaire donors and progressive endorsements
After placing first with 24.5% of the vote in a chaotic 16-way first-round election in April, Johnston won a 10-point victory over former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce head Kelly Brough in the June 6 runoff. His victory, in a relatively low-turnout off-year election, followed a flood of outside spending on his behalf and a series of endorsements from Democratic figures and progressive former rivals in the mayor’s race.
The runoff contest featured few sharp disagreements on policy between Johnston and Brough, both of whom boasted longstanding ties to Denver’s business-friendly political establishment and support from a host of insiders, lobbyists and veterans of the Hancock administration.
Brough, a former chief of staff to Hickenlooper during his own mayoral tenure in the 2000s, billed herself as an experienced candidate who could become Denver’s first woman mayor. But in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, her record as the leader of a conservative-leaning business group and a frequent foe of liberal and progressive lawmakers at the state Capitol pushed many advocates and community leaders into Johnston’s camp.
Though hardly a progressive stalwart himself, Johnston racked up runoff endorsements — some of them reluctant — from a range of figures on the left flank of Colorado Democratic politics, including state Rep. Leslie Herod, who placed fifth in the first-round mayoral election, and state Sen. Julie Gonzales. Progressive activist Lisa Calderón, who narrowly missed the runoff with a third-place finish, endorsed Johnston over Brough in a move she called a “harm reduction strategy.”
Every problem we face is solvable, and we are the ones to solve it.
– Denver Mayor Mike Johnston
Johnston also benefited from nearly $5 million in independent expenditures by Advancing Denver, a super PAC funded in large part by out-of-state billionaires, including LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, and hedge fund managers Steve Mandel and John Arnold. Kent Thiry, the former CEO of Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita and a frequent backer of centrist political causes in Colorado, is the group’s largest local donor.
In a speech light on policy commitments or other specific agenda items, Johnston spoke at length of the importance of civility, coalition-building and “steady small successes” in a country that he said had been waylaid by challenges and divisions in recent years.
“A country founded on the belief that good people can come together and solve hard problems saw our public discussion go from productive to combative, from optimistic to antagonistic, from hopeful to heartbroken,” Johnston said. “Instead of turning to each other, we turned on each other. Instead of reaching out a hand, we pointed a finger.”
New City Council sworn in
As mayor of Colorado’s capital and largest city, Johnston will have the power to shape its $3.76 billion budget and set policies that have impacts far beyond city limits. He now occupies a seat that has served more than one recent occupant as a springboard into national politics, including Hickenlooper and Federico Peña, also in attendance for Monday’s ceremony, who served in two different cabinet posts in former President Bill Clinton’s administration after two terms as Denver mayor in the 1980s.
At the city level, however, Johnston will have to work with the 13-seat Denver City Council, members of which were sworn in alongside him at Monday’s ceremony. City Auditor Tim O’Brien and Clerk and Recorder Paul López also took their oaths of office.
This year’s municipal elections offered mixed results for progressive activists who had hoped to shift the council’s balance of power decisively to the left. Former council member Candi CdeBaca, a community organizer and member of the Democratic Socialists of America who won a surprise victory in District 10 in 2019, was unseated by new City Council member Darrell Watson in the runoff.
But other progressive candidates backed by groups like the DSA and the Colorado Working Families Party, including new City Councilmember-at-Large Sarah Parady and District 8 Council member Shontel Lewis, won their races and were sworn in on Monday.
The new City Council was due to meet for the first time Monday afternoon. Johnston was set to host an inauguration party Monday evening at Denver Union Station.
At the swearing-in ceremony, City Council President Jamie Torres, who represents District 3, applauded the new council’s diversity. Among its 13 members are six Latina women, and nine women overall — “which, coincidentally,” Torres said, “is the number needed to override a mayoral veto.”
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