It wasn’t a surprise to see former state senator Mike Johnston become the first major candidate to enter the 2018 Colorado governor’s race on Tuesday. His ambitions have been plain for a while now, he’s backed by a well-connected network of insiders and consultants, and he has everything to gain by getting a head start on what are expected to be crowded primary fields in both parties.
What was a bit of a surprise, though, was the central piece of spin his campaign clearly wants to advance in the early going, and the media’s willingness to run with it. Remarking on Johnston’s “Frontier Fairness” slogan, 9News anchor Kyle Clark tweeted that he “sounds like Bernie with a belt buckle.” And if Clark nibbled at the line the campaign had fed him, Denver Post reporter John Frank swallowed it whole: “Mike Johnston announces 2018 bid for governor with the flair of Bernie Sanders,” read the headline in today’s paper.
“Johnston emphasized that his campaign will attract Sanders supporters — specifically his focus on college affordability, protecting immigrants living in the country illegally and his record against accepting campaign contributions from political action committees.
‘I think the Bernie folks will find a lot of the values that they share will be evidenced in our campaign,’ Johnston said in an interview.”
Unfortunately for Johnston, his attempts to “position his campaign toward the left end of the Democratic spectrum,” as Frank puts it, are belied by his actual record. No matter how politically convenient it may be for him to suddenly become the “Sanders candidate” in what will be a hotly-contested primary race, he’s done absolutely nothing to earn that label in the past.
Most notably, of course, Johnston is an avid proponent of corporate education reform, having crafted a 2010 teacher accountability law that relies on an evaluation method that is highly controversial among assessment experts. Diane Ravitch has called it “the most punitive, anti-teacher law in the nation,” and when Johnston returned to his alma mater, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to give a commencement speech in 2014, more than 150 students and alumni signed a letter protesting his invitation.
As Frank himself is forced to note in today’s article, when Sanders cruised to a nearly 20-point victory in last year’s caucus, Johnston (like most other elected Democrats in the state) supported Hillary Clinton. His big campaign kick-off promise—a plan to “provide two years of debt-free college or job training to residents who serve the state”—is a far cry from Sanders’ (and much of the left’s) demand for tuition-free college for all, even accounting for the fact that no state can likely achieve that without federal funding. On many of Sanders’ signature issues—inequality, labor, consumer protection, financial reform—Johnston has little to no record to speak of. He failed to support Amendment 69, the Medicare-for-all-style universal health care measure that Sanders himself visited the state to campaign for.
Most damning of all, when it comes to issues of climate and the environment, on which Colorado progressives have repeatedly been betrayed by a state Democratic establishment in thrall to oil and gas interests, Johnston has been consistently, conspicuously absent—no doubt a canny political choice for a talented upstart being groomed for a statewide run, but a disqualifying abdication of responsibility for anyone who presumes to be the candidate of the left. And when the chips are down, there’s little doubt about who Johnston will side with: in 2015, he voted for HB 1057, a bill heavily lobbied for by the oil and gas industry that made it more difficult for Coloradans to restrict drilling operations in their communities. It passed by one vote.
Democrats are reeling not just from Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump but from a prolonged and devastating electoral collapse at the congressional, state, and local levels. With the party in shambles, no shortage of candidates will seek to declare themselves heirs to the movement energized by Sanders, who in a year that saw intense dissatisfaction with the elites of both parties managed to become the most popular politician in the country.
But taking up Sanders’ mantle doesn’t just mean a cosmetic co-opting of his appeal via empty platitudes and applause lines, it means a substantive embrace of his strident defense of the working class in opposition to ruinous, exploitative corporate interests. If Mike Johnston is serious about doing the latter, and not just dressing up the same old failed liberal centrism with a focus-tested slogan or two, he’s got a long way to go, and he needs to get started right now.