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Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston launches gubernatorial bid with proposal for debt-free college, career training

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston launched his gubernatorial bid Tuesday by saying Colorado’s future hinges on how the state meets the challenges of a changing economy, reimagines its schools and bridges cultural divides.

The Denver Democrat promised if he’s elected, Coloradans could earn up to two years of debt-free college or career training in exchange for community service.

“Today a high school degree won’t prepare you for the economy for the next 50 days,” Johnston said. “This means we must create a workforce that is as nimble as our rapidly changing world — where people can upgrade and change their skills over time to keep track of an economy that moves faster than ever.”

Johnston did not say how he planned to pay for the program, which he likened to the National Guard.

Johnston is a nationally recognized figure in the education reform movement.

During his time at the statehouse, he rewrote the state laws that govern how teachers are evaluated and fired. He pushed for and won in-state college tuition for students without legal status who graduated from a Colorado high schools. He also unsuccessfully campaigned for a $1 billion tax increase to fund the state’s schools.

Johnston is one of the state’s first Democrats to announce a bid to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited. The open seat in 2018 race is expected to attract all-stars from both political parties.

While Johnston has attracted national media attention in the past, his name recognition in Colorado is lower than that of other politicians considering a run, such as former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar or Congressman Ed Perlmutter.

His early announcement, less than three months after the last election, will allow him to get a leg up in fundraising. It will also give him time to reach Colorado voters who aren’t familiar with his track record — especially unaffiliated voters who in 2018 likely will be allowed to vote in the state’s first open primary.

Johnston is a Vail native. His family still owns a lodge in Eagle County where he worked during his childhood cleaning toilets and folding laundry.

In his speech, Johnston  spoke about bridging the gap between the state’s urban and rural communities, as well as Republicans and Democrats. But he criticized campaign themes of president-elect Donald Trump — whose campaign resonated with rural voters — including Trump’s call to deport undocumented immigrants and repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“We will refuse to stand by to watch hard-working chemistry majors be deported because of the country in which they were born,” he said. “We will refuse to stand by and watch teachers who lead children who need them more than ever be deported for the country in which they were born. We will refuse to stand by and watch 400,000 Coloradans lose their health care.”

Throughout his speech he said “bold leadership” was needed to create a new economy, school system and energy sector.

Johnston’s speech was peppered with references to his role in shaping the state’s education reform movement. But he also touted his work on a rural economic package and criminal justice reform.

His school reform efforts in the past have been met with mixed results, and are likely to be a large hurdle to Johnston in the primary.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston’s children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston’s children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid.

The state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, plays a large role in Democratic politics and has often opposed Johnston’s legislation. The union never endorsed Johnston during his state Senate campaigns.

“Our next governor will play an enormous role in school funding, state assessment, educator evaluations and many other areas critical to educators and the success of our students,” Kerrie Dallman, the union’s president, said in an email. “We need to hear from all of the candidates on their ideas to provide our students with the schools they deserve and look forward to having these conversations with every person running for our state’s highest office.”

Johnston’s campaign could be fueled in part by the deep pockets that have funded the nation’s education reform movement.

Whitney Tilson, a New York hedge fund manager and one of the founders of political nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform, in a December email newsletter called Johnston an “ed warrior and general star” and would need the support of education reform community to win.

Johnston’s bipartisan work on rural issues and criminal justice reform should bode well for him in the state’s new open primary system, said Curtis Hubbard, a political consultant for Onsight Public Affairs.

“My advice to anyone running would be ignore the unaffiliated votes at your peril,” Hubbard said.

After graduating from Yale, the Vail native got his start in education policy by joining Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s poorest schools. He went on to become a high school principal in the Mapleton School District in Adams County. And he was an education adviser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Johnston was first appointed to the state legislature to represent northeast Denver in 2009.

After Tuesday’s announcement, Johnston set off on a two-day tour of the state with stops in Pueblo, Durango and Costilla County.