Johnston channels Obama in SD 33

By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When the big announcement came, the crowd knew exactly what it meant.

As they absorbed the news that Mapleton Expeditionary School principal Michael Johnston, an early adviser to the Barack Obama campaign on education issues, would replace Peter Groff in the Colorado Senate, a wave of elation and hope swept through the auditorium at Smiley Middle School.

Senate District 33 vacancy committee credentials chair John Walsh had prepped the 400 or so committee members and other interested politicos.

“As of 7:54 p.m., the credentials committee reports that 126 members of the 146-member vacancy committee are present. That’s a darn good showing!” Walsh reported. “That means that if anyone gets 50 percent of the votes plus one, or 64 votes, that’s the end.”

So, when vacancy committee secretary Linda Drake announced the results about half an hour later, whoops and cheers immediately filled the room: community activist Renee Blanchard, 0; Democratic National Committee member Anthony Graves, 18; former House District 8 Rep. Rosemary Marshall, 41; political newbie, Michael Johnston, 64.

Blacks, whites and Hispanics wearing opposing campaign buttons kept the ovation going for more than a minute as they hugged and congratulated each other. The spontaneous celebration evoked the moment on Nov. 4 when gathered Democrats glued to TVs in similar rooms first heard that Obama had won the presidency.

It was an Obama moment in several ways — a somewhat topsy-turvy Obama moment, but an Obama moment nevertheless.

There was the color-blind aspect. American voters were able to make Obama their first black president only after they came to assess him on the basis of his qualifications rather than his race.

In electing Johnston, the vacancy committee of SD 33 — which includes northeastern Denver, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch and is nearly evenly split between black, white and Hispanic residents — overturned a tradition that has given the Colorado Senate its only black senator for as long as anyone can remember. They embraced Johnston, the only white in the contest, for his qualifications rather than his color.

There was the grassroots organizing aspect. A lot of party regulars were surprised by the result because during the speeches that led into the voting, it had looked like all the power people were backing either Marshall or Graves.

Graves, 32, a member of the Democratic National Committee, was nominated by Frank Sullivan, a white political veteran who currently chairs the Denver County Democrats’ rules and credentials committee.

Former SD 33 Sen. Penfield Tate, who is black, seconded the nomination, telling the audience that he admires Graves for his “commitment, passion and energy.”

But for star power, no one topped Marshall, 67, who was nominated by District 11 City Councilman Michael Hancock, who is black, and seconded by three other well-connected Democrats: Victoria Martinez-Salazar, the Hispanic daughter of RTD board member and vacancy committee chair Martinez; University of Colorado Regent Michael Carrigan, who is white, and House District 7 Rep. Terrance Carroll, Colorado’s first black speaker of the House — all of whom reminded the vacancy committee members that Marshall had served them long, well and loyally. Carrigan noted that Marshall had been named Democrat of the Year in 2008. Carroll praised her sponsorship of consumer anti-fraud legislation that reined in the mortgage industry before it could wreak as much havoc in Colorado as it wreaked in other states.

Johnston, on the other hand, was nominated by Michelle Wheeler, who is unfamiliar to members of the Denver Democratic leadership.

Wheeler introduced herself as someone who “is not a mayor, politician or fancy senator, but a woman who has been working in the community … as an advocate for the citizens right here in Park Hill. A woman whose grandchildren grew up here, and, most importantly, a woman who believes in Mike Johnston because he has guts, because he chose to go down to one of the poorest communities in Mississippi and work with children who were living under the most unbearable conditions ever.”

Brenda Bell Ennis, who seconded Johnston’s nomination, has served as diversity outreach chair for the Denver Democrats. Although she’s somewhat known in party circles, Ennis is virtually anonymous compared to Marshall’s team.

Johnston, however, took a page from Obama’s book and met face to face with nearly every member of the 146-member vacancy committee, including Denver party chair Cindy Lowery, who lives in SD 33.

“I’m very excited that he’s going to be my senator,” Lowery said. “His victory shows that talking and meeting with people can overcome the handicap of not being as well-known as the other candidates, and that even a vacancy committee is not about insider party politics.”

Which brings us to other aspects of Johnston’s campaign that evoke Obama — his keen mind, personal charisma and ability to articulate a hopeful vision for voters.

Johnston evoked Obama’s speaking style as he addressed to the crowd when the cheering finally stopped.

“The idea of the promise of equality was easy,” Johnston said. “What we knew was going to be hard was actually the courage and conviction to live out that promise every day. What we knew was going to be hard when we wrote (the Declaration of Independence) was the idea that Americans would have to walk arm-and-arm into battle to defend that promise, that Americans would have to walk arm-and-arm into fire hoses and onto picket lines to defend that promise.

“Today, Colorado faces a new challenge,” he said. “And the question is, ‘How will we answer that age-old promise of equality?’ If you believe — as I hope you do — that it’s actually possible for us to rise to that promise now, then I thank you so much for standing with me tonight.

“But — more importantly — I ask you to stand with me tomorrow, when the real work begins.”

The parallels don’t end there — let us not fail to note, for example, that both men wrote critically acclaimed books telling how their experiences shaped their political philosophy.

But the final connection might turn out to be the most important — Johnston’s warm relationship with Obama.

“If the president wants this man on his team, why shouldn’t we want him on ours?” asked Wheeler in her nomination speech.

In an interview the day after the election, Johnston recapped his experience with the presidential campaign. He acted as senior education adviser during the campaign. After the election and before the inauguration he worked full time on the transition team.

Johnston ended his role after the inauguration although, turning down an offer for a full-time senior leadership position in the Department of Education.

“I didn’t want to leave Colorado, and, as I worked with the transition team, I realized that the important work was going to be going on at the state level,” he said. “I became convinced that the most important place to be to have an impact was here. All the money in education — the race to the top fund, for example — was going to the state. And I decided that my primary goal was going to be to stay in Colorado and be part of the work here.”

Johnston said that he has “lots of very good friends” in the administration, “and, whatever my role, I’ll be willing and able to help when they call.”

In turn, he said, he hopes those relationships at the federal district will “help the district, especially with the stimulus funds. I hope to be a great advocate for my district on that.”

Janet@coloradostatesman.com