Mike Johnston discovered many of his pupils couldn’t use in-state tuition if they attended college after graduating because they were residing in the nation without the required immigration papers when he took over as principal of Thornton’s Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in 2005.
In an interview, he recounted how his distressed and disheartened students were wondering why they were putting so much effort into high school.
Denver’s recently elected mayor, 48-year-old Johnston, claims that this is what inspired him to pursue a career in public service and seek the government on numerous occasions.
Who Is Mike Johnston?
Mike Johnston served as an education advisor for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign before being chosen by a committee to fill a vacancy in the Northeast Denver state Senate. He collaborated with other legislators in the State Capitol to submit legislation that would let immigrant students who lacked the necessary paperwork be eligible for in-state tuition rates at public schools and universities.
Before finally passing with bipartisan support in 2013, the proposal known as the ASSET Bill—short for Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow—had struggled to gain traction over several sessions. As a result, Colorado became the 14th state to offer in-state tuition to students who aren’t in the country legally.
When arguing why he is qualified to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock, Johnston frequently mentions that collaborative approach to governing.
It’s about creating sizable coalitions that have tackled some of the city’s most difficult issues and produced unprecedented results, he said. “I believe I accomplished that as a state senator. As a startup executive and entrepreneur, I believe I’ve succeeded. As the head of a foundation, I’ve done that.
After serving two terms as the senator for Colorado’s Senate District 33, Johnston ran for governor in the Democratic primary in 2018, but he came in third behind then-U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Polis went on to win the general election and was reelected to a second term in the fall. In 2020, Johnston briefly sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate but withdrew after former governor John Hickenlooper entered the race.
Johnston most recently served as the director of Gary Community Ventures, a sizable local charity.
Mike Johnston Career
But Johnston got his start as a teacher and administrator before he entered the political and charity sectors. As part of the Teach for America programme, he taught English for two years at a high school in a rural town in Mississippi after receiving his undergraduate degree from Yale. He later wrote about this experience in his book, “In the Deep Heart’s Core.” Before returning to Colorado, he earned a law degree from Yale and a master’s degree from Harvard. He then obtained employment as a principal at numerous schools in the metro region.
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According to Johnston, he was the most qualified candidate for mayor of Denver due to his legislative background, work as an educator and nonprofit leader, ability to overcome obstacles, and capacity for coalition building.
Before Johnston was one, his family moved from Oklahoma City to Colorado and established the Christiana Lodge near Vail. Johnston grew up in the mountain resort town and began working at the hotel at a young age in practically every position imaginable. He claims that as a child, he thought of Denver as the “big city,” where his family would travel for Bruce Springsteen concerts or back-to-school shopping excursions. Johnston recalls spending numerous days working at Catholic Charities soup on the travels that also included volunteer activities.
He started his career as a fourth-generation educator after earning his college degree, taking a position in one of the nation’s poorest areas, Greenville, Mississippi. After completing his graduate studies, he returned to Colorado and was hired as the principal of the Joan Farley Academy, a nonprofit network for needy children.
Johnston claimed that “an amazing superintendent who had a vision for (taking a) struggling school and converting it to small high schools” had inspired him to help build Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts.
On the campaign road, Johnston related a story about his work at the MESA school, which he oversaw.
He attributes the success of Proposition 123, a statewide ballot proposal that distributes surplus state funds by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to several affordable housing initiatives, to the cooperative strategy used to pass the measure last year.
According to Johnston, he will be “very actively engaged in making sure on the front end that we’re getting legislation in place that supports Denver and our goals, and stopping legislation that could be adversely impacting Denver in our goals.” That will have an impact on how we develop relationships with those organizations and how we ensure that their unwanted effects are avoided.