Mike Johnston is leading Kelly Brough in the runoff race to be Denver’s first new mayor in a dozen years, according to early returns.
Johnston has received 53.4% of the vote to Brough’s 46.6%, in unofficial results released just after 7 p.m. He leads Brough by 8,043 votes with 116,965 ballots counted so far. The Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office is expected to release the next results update at 8:30 p.m.
After a crowded first-round election, the runoff featured two of the more moderate contenders — Johnston, a former state legislator and nonprofit leader, and Brough, a former top aide in the Denver mayor’s office and then leader of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Ballots were mailed out in the middle of May for the runoff election. Early results come predominantly from the more than 112,000 votes cast before Election Day. As demonstrated in the first phase of the race that concluded on April 4, later returns in Denver tend to come from ballots cast by younger voters and voters of color, who are more likely to turn in their ballots on Election Day.
In the general election, Lisa Calderón, a professor and criminal justice reform advocate who was endorsed by the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, had just 14.4% of the vote when first results were announced, but her share grew to 18.2%, within 3,200 votes and 2 percentage points of second-place Brough, as the counting continued.
Calderón, State Rep. Leslie Herod and other progressive candidates who lost in the first round have endorsed Johnston in the runoff.
If Johnston’s lead holds as the rest of the ballots cast in the runoff are counted, Denver will still have never elected a woman mayor.
“A woman lost in the runoff four years ago and a woman lost in the runoff in 1995 during (Mayor Wellington) Webb’s re-election,” Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann said. “In both of those cases, with Webb and (Mayor Michael) Hancock, you had entrenched incumbents — and this is very much an open seat.”
The city’s persistent glass ceiling was only a small part of a long runoff race, despite the Brough campaign’s efforts to emphasize that fact to voters.
The runoff period lasted more than twice as long as the second round in past Denver elections, owing to city voters approving a recent change that moved up the general election to early April from early May. The long inter-election period may have contributed to a muted campaign between the two moderate Democrats, who at times struggled to differentiate themselves from one another and from the administration of the outgoing Hancock.
The two have sparred over the potential conflicts of interests represented by donors feeding their outside spending groups — a river of cash that has benefited Johnston by $3.5 million over Brough. They have policy differences when it comes to homelessness. Both intend to keep enforcing the city’s urban camping ban, but Brough has said she would use arrests as a last resort to clear homeless encampments when Johnston said he would not incarcerate people.
“This has actually been, by election standards, a pretty boring election,” said Alton Dillard, a former spokeswoman for the Denver Clerk & Recorder’s office who is now a private consultant. “The two corporatist Democrats pointing fingers back and forth over who has local money vs. national money — but it all spends the same.”
Johnston, 48, is a former state senator, school principal and, most recently, the past CEO of the politically active philanthropic organization Gary Community Ventures. His work on education reform earned him dedicated supporters in the liberal donor class and an advisory position with President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. That work, particularly a 2010 bill he sponsored that tied teacher evaluations to student academic growth, has also brought plenty of criticism from people who view him as an adversary to public education.
In recent years, Johnston has been a serial candidate for higher office. He lost to Gov. Jared Polis in the Democratic primary in 2018 and dropped out of the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Colorado after eventual winner John Hickenlooper entered.
Johnston ran a campaign centered on ambitious plans to address the city’s more pressing challenges, including housing affordability and homelessness. His pledge to solve unsheltered homelessness in his first term in office hinges on his ability to deliver 10 to 20 “micro-communities” of tiny homes that would allow the city to relocate entire encampments of people living on the street to safer, more stable places with on-site services.
The Brough campaign sought to paint that idea as a pie-in-the-sky overpromise. Relying on a combination of one-time federal stimulus funding, dedicated sales tax revenue and money from Proposition 123, a statewide property tax redistribution measure Johnston championed while running Gary Community Ventures, he’s stood fast by that goal.
“It’s very reasonable you could do it in four years,” Johnston said of ending homelessness in Denver.
Brough, 59, ran a campaign anchored by her deep experience with city operations. Being ready to step into the mayor’s role with no learning curve was one of her central electoral sales pitches.
“What I know, with me, is I’ve done that before. I know how to do it. And so I think we can move faster to make progress on some of the critical issues we face today,” she told The Denver Post of her ability to manage the city.
Being the first woman chosen to do that job would also mean extra scrutiny and a higher threshold for what success looks like, she said.
Born and raised in Montana, Brough often said on the campaign trail that every good thing that came in her life was a result of her decision to move to Denver with her late husband in 1986. Her career included time spent as an analyst for the Denver City Council and as a director of the city’s human resources department.
She rose to the level of chief of staff in then-Mayor John Hickenlooper’s administration, working on delicate projects such as helping to plan for the 2008 Democratic National Convention and renegotiating contracts with the city’s police, fire and sheriff’s department unions amid the Great Recession. Fifteen years later, those unions endorsed her in the mayor’s race.
But Brough’s most recent high-profile job — a dozen years as president and CEO of the chamber of commerce — proved to be her most consistent political hurdle.
While she was in charge, the chamber opposed legislation and ballot measures that would require paid sick leave for workers, boost renter protections, specify greenhouse gas reduction targets and allow Colorado cities to set a minimum wage, among other issues.
She argued that the work she did at the chamber didn’t always match her personal beliefs — even confronting Johnston after a debate last month for what she viewed as repeated misrepresentations of her positions and background.
Many progressive political leaders and labor unions backed Johnston and opposed Brough in the race’s final stages.
Brough and Johnston made it into the runoff after advancing from a field of 16 candidates in the first round of the race.
It was the most mayoral candidates Denver has seen in at least 50 years. And with the recent adjustments to the election calendar, voters weighed in earlier than in prior municipal elections, shortening the campaign a bit. The June runoff date didn’t change.
The city’s Fair Election Fund program was a significant driver behind the crowded field. Making its maiden electoral voyage after Denver voters approved it in 2018, the fund provided participating candidates with matching taxpayer dollars on donations of up to $50 from Denver residents. It distributed more than $7.1 million to would-be mayors, City Council hopefuls and other candidates during the cycle.
With that public funding in the mix, the mayoral field was also more diverse than any in recent memory. Candidates included an IT professional and former boxer from Curtis Park, an anti-gang activist from Park Hill and a political science professor from the University of Colorado Denver.
In the end, the two best-funded candidates advanced to the runoff. Johnston, in particular, pulled in vast amounts of outside money, including nearly $2 million alone from Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn.
In terms of direct fundraising, Brough and Johnston each raised just over $2 million as of the end of May. Brough’s total included $937,500 in Fair Elections Fund dollars, the maximum amount a mayoral candidate could draw from the program, while Johnston’s matching funds reached $766,923.
By participating in the matching program, Brough and Johnston agreed to $500 contribution limits in the race. Those limits do not pertain to independent expenditure committees, the outside spending groups that can accept unlimited contributions but aren’t allowed to coordinate with the campaigns of the candidates they are working to elect.
Johnston benefitted from more than $4.9 million in outside spending backing his candidacy, including major payouts from Hoffman, former New York City Mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg and Kent Thiry, former head of Denver-based dialysis company DaVita.
Brough meanwhile was backed by $1.4 million in outside spending, led by more than $470,000 underwritten by the National Association of Realtors’ political fund.
In the 2019 mayor’s race in which Hancock won a third term by defeating Jamie Giellis in the runoff, his campaign raised just shy of $3 million and benefited from just $67,000 in outside spending.
The dark money disparity spurred the Brough campaign to host an event in Civic Center Park in the last week of the race in which supporters chanted, “Denver is not for sale.”
Sondermann noted there was just no way for Brough to keep up with Johnston when a single donor in Hoffman gave more than her independent expenditure committee was able to raise in the entire race. Johnston also had an edge in liberal Denver by being endorsed by labor unions and more progressive former challengers like Calderón and Herod.
“Having eliminated those two and being faced with a choice of two very Anglo, very establishment types, (voters) chose the one that was two degrees or three degrees to the left of the other one,” Sondermann said.
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