Out-of-state donations stand out in Michael Johnston’s first campaign finance report in governor’s race

The list of out-of-state donors includes several supporters of the national education reform movement.

Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Nearly 70 percent of the money donated to former state Sen. Michael Johnston’s gubernatorial bid in the first quarter of 2017 came from outside Colorado, records show.

The list of out-of-state donors includes several supporters of the national education reform movement.

They include Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; Howard Wolfson, director of education at Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York; and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the program that gave Johnston his start as an educator.

Johnston raised $632,834 between Jan. 1 and March 31, his campaign reported to the Secretary of State. Of that, $445,389 came from outside Colorado.

“The number is a big number,” said Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “I think that’s raised a lot of eyebrows.”

That Johnston would generate big support from out of state is not a surprise. He is considered a rising star in the Democratic party and his education reform bonafides are well known nationally. Johnston was the architect of Colorado’s landmark 2010 teacher evaluation law, which among other things ties teacher performance to the academic growth of their students.

Broadly, political races down to local school board races are increasingly attracting more out-of-state money.

Compared to the campaigns of the last two Democrats to win gubernatorial elections, Johnston brought in far more out-of-state money in the beginning stages.

About 10 percent of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s first-quarter campaign donations in 2010 came from outside Colorado, records show. Less than 1 percent of former Gov. Bill Ritter’s first quarter donations in 2005 were from out of state.

Johnston, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said his campaign is focused on building an in-state donor base, and he has spent the last four months traveling the state. He added that Colorado donors outnumbered out-of-state donors.

“We’re doing this $5 and $10 dollars at a time,” he said. “When people donate $2 or $3 or $4 dollars at a time, that’s as big of a deal to us as if someone puts in $1,000. It shows their commitment and investment to positive changes to the state.”

Campaign donations for gubernatorial candidates are capped at $1,150 per election cycle. Other political and issue-oriented organizations can raise an unlimited amount of money to influence elections but cannot coordinate with campaigns.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of the 7th Congressional District and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy are among the other Democrats seeking to succeed Hickenlooper, who is term-limited. Both Perlmutter and Kennedy recently announced their campaigns and did not file campaign finance reports.

Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, is also running for the Democratic nomination. He reported raising $152,372 during the first three months of the year.

Victor Mitchell, a former Republican state lawmaker, donated $3 million to his own gubernatorial campaign, records show. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who also recently announced his Republican candidacy, reported no contributions during the first quarter.

The 2018 gubernatorial race should feature several education storylines.

Johnston has a long education policy track record, Kennedy named education her No. 1 campaign issue and Brauchler also mentioned education as a priority. Perlmutter’s wife is a former teacher and former president of the Jefferson County teacher’s union.

Johnston’s connections to the education reform community — both locally and nationally — is evident in his first campaign finance report, which was filed Monday.

Locally, charter school leaders Chris Gibbons of STRIVE Preparatory Schools and Kimberlee Sia of KIPP Colorado both donated. Damion Leenatali, executive director of Teach for America-Colorado, and Tony Lewis, executive director of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, also donated.

Nationally, donors included an executive for New York City schools, a deputy director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a policy director for Education Reform Now, a nonprofit affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

(The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to Chalkbeat. Two Chalkbeat board members — Gideon Stein and Sue Lehmann — also donated to Johnston’s campaign).

Johnston’s national support could work both for and against him, political observers say.

On the positive side, it provides Johnson an early fundraising edge, positions him as a serious candidate and could lead others in the education reform crowd to donate, too. But opponents could paint Johnston’s national supporters as outsiders trying to influence Colorado politics while also criticizing their education policy positions.

Robert Preuhs, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, sees potential warning signs for Johnston and other candidates from a similar cloth. He cited recent school board election results and anti-testing backlash as setbacks for education reform.

“I do wonder about him placing all his marbles in an education reform bag,” Preuhs said.

While Johnston acknowledged that education will be a major part of this campaign — his first campaign promise was free in-state tuition — it will be about more than that.

“There are a lot of people across the state and nation that are looking for leaders who are building something that is proactive and positive — leaders who can bridge the divide,” he said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.