Denver mayor candidate Mike Johnston responds to ad calling him a liar

Amid a runoff race that has been largely collegial, Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston and his campaign are fuming over a TV ad paid for by an outside spending group backing Kelly Brough that accuses Johnston of lying about his accomplishments.

Claims that Johnston has oversold his record to boost his mayoral credentials have become one of the main points of attack on the candidate who finished first in the April 4 general election and has a fundraising advantage in the runoff.

The 30-second spot sponsored by the Brough-backing independent expenditure committee A Better Denver opens with the line “Mike Johnston is lying about his leadership.” It accuses Johnston of lying about his role in the state’s testing program for COVID-19 and for lying about his claims that he took on gun lobbyists to pass gun control when he was serving as a state senator.

The ad first aired on May 17 and drew a swift response from the Johnston camp. On Friday, May 19 former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who has endorsed Johnston in the race, was quoted in a news release calling on Brough to condemn that ad and accusing her and her supporters of dishonesty.

“When candidates are losing, they take desperate measures. The recent ad supporting Kelly Brough is a new low for campaigns in Denver because it is factually inaccurate,” Peña said in a statement.

A Johnston supporter also filed a campaign finance violation complaint against A Better Denver over the weekend accusing the group of failing to disclose its spending on the ad. The Johnston campaign’s lawyer, Sarah Mercer, sent a cease and desist letter to local television stations demanding they ” immediately stop running this intentionally misleading ad” and seeking to debunk its claims.

Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez has already dismissed the campaign finance complaint. A technical error within the clerk’s filing system prevented the spending on the ad — roughly $143,000— from showing up in a timely manner in accordance with campaign rules.

“Our office regrets the confusion caused by this error in our system,”  Lopez said in a statement.

After all that hubbub, does the attack ad hold any water?

It goes after Johnston on two main points. First, it accuses him of saying he built Colorado’s COVID testing program. Sarah Tuneberg, the former head of the state’s testing and containment effort for the virus, has spoken to several media outlets including The Denver Post about her feelings that Johsnton has taken undue credit for building out a testing network, something she said he actually hindered.

In a debate in the first stage of the race, Johnston referenced his experience in founding COVIDCheck Colorado, a coronavirus testing and eventual vaccine distribution company he launched while he was CEO of the philanthropic organization Gary Community Ventures. Someone tuning into that debate may have believed that COVIDCheck Colorado was the only testing organization in the state when in fact it was just one company the state eventually contracted with to do testing.

COVIDCheck Colorado was up and running and had distributed tens of thousands of tests in 2020 before ever getting a state contract but, in total, it only administered a fraction — less than 10% — of all tests tracked by the state.

Johnston has given the state credit in separate interviews and lamented that Tuneberg has taken offense to his statements when he views COVIDCheck’s work with the state as a partnership to be celebrated.

“They provided the funding that was critically important. And every public release we sent out, we mentioned and thanked and gave credit to the state for their funding of that effort,” Johnston told The Denver Post earlier this month “But it’s incredibly clear that we built the operation and the infrastructure to do this.”

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The ad also seeks to undermine Johnston’s claims he “took on the gun lobby” while in the legislature. It’s a claim Johnston has made in stump speeches and the independent expenditure committee backing him, Advancing Denver, has been trumpeting in recent mailers.

Johnston never introduced or served as a primary sponsor of any gun control bill during his seven years in the Colorado Legislature though he did sign on to some as a cosponsor when they were headed toward becoming law. That said, he voted in favor of stricter gun measures and gave a speech to support a ban on high-capacity magazines in the landmark 2013 legislative session.

“I made the closing argument that led to the final vote. I was not the prime sponsor. I did not carry the bill through the entire legislature. That was not my role,” Johnston said in response to claims he did not take on the gun lobby. “When you get called on as part of the coalition to step up and lead in the moment, that was my role and I was proud to play it.”

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