Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.

state of the union

Challengers claim victories in Denver teachers union elections, race for president heading for recount

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association

A slate of progressive, social justice-oriented candidates won a majority of seats up for grabs in the Denver teachers union election, and the race for president is headed for a recount, according to results released to union members Friday.

Denver Classroom Teachers Association president Henry Roman edged challenger Tommie Shimrock, the leader of the slate, 906 to 857, according to an email from the union obtained by Chalkbeat.

The margin is within the 3 percent threshold for an automatic recount, which will be held after Denver Public Schools returns from spring break April 3, the email said.

Christina Medina, a northwest Denver elementary school teacher, defeated incumbent vice president Lynne Valencia-Hernández, 922 to 809.

In all, members of the progressive slate — part of a new caucus within the union — took four of the seven seats in play. Along with the top two posts, the elections were for board of director seats representing southwest, northwest and northeast Denver.

Union representatives and the candidates did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While mixed, the results are a boost for members of the caucus, who view their efforts as part of a national movement to reinvigorate teachers unions, many of which have experienced flat or declining membership.

Roman, Valencia-Hernández and their allies ran on a platform that the union has been making progress in better engaging members, challenging Denver Public Schools in court and turning out large numbers for contract bargaining.

Shimrock, Medina and their peers portrayed the status quo as ineffective in battling a “corporatist” district agenda, unsuccessful in influencing school board elections and inadequate in addressing broader social justice issues facing the community.

Here are the full results, according to the union email. Members of the progressive slate are designated with an “s.”

PRESIDENT

Henry Roman: 906
Tommie Shimrock (s): 857

VICE PRESIDENT

Christina Medina (s): 922
Lynne Valencia-Hernandez: 809

SW BOARD OF DIRECTORS (one opening)
Jocelyn Palomino: 192
Marguerite Finnegan (s): 174
Janell Martinez: 66

NW BOARD OF DIRECTORS (three openings)

Hipolito (Polo) Garcia (s): 246
Kris Bethscheider: 177
Kate Tynan-Ridgeway (s): 170
Brianna Myers: 152
Terrilyn Hagerty: 135

NE BOARD OF DIRECTORS (one opening)

Tiffany Choi (s): 271
Bill Weisberger: 203

2018

Salazar won’t run in governor’s race featuring strong education storylines

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Ken Salazar’s decision not to run for Colorado governor takes one prominent Democrat out of a still-developing campaign that promises to prominently feature public education as an issue.

The former U.S. senator and interior secretary cited family reasons for his decision to sit out the 2018 Democratic primary. Salazar, who is closely involved in raising a granddaughter who has autism, could have been a voice on public education for children with disabilities.

In a Denver Post commentary explaining why isn’t running, Salazar took a broad view of the challenges in education.

“Colorado’s education crisis needs to be solved from pre-kindergarten to college,” Salazar wrote. “It is sad that Colorado has defunded higher education and abandoned the great tradition of leading the nation with our great colleges and universities.”

Salazar’s announcement could set other plans in motion quickly in the Democratic field.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a prominent education reformer, and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, have already announced they are running.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada told the Denver Post on Thursday the “chances are very good” he will run, and could declare his candidacy soon.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy said she is seriously considering running, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder said he has not ruled it out, according to the Post.

Among the Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.