Denver's party chairs: 2 women, 2 directions, 2 very different roles
• John C. Ensslin, Colorado Politics •
Jul 31, 2019
They are two very different women who hold somewhat similar jobs.
One is a former information technology executive who has brought those skills to bear in her role as chair of the Denver Democratic Party.
The other is a former conservative radio talk show host who is trying to make the Denver Republican Party relevant in a deep blue Democratic city.
And while Melissa Johnsen and Kristina Cook are the chairs of their respective parties, their jobs also differ significantly.
Johnsen oversees a robust Democratic Party that has a wealth of candidates running to be the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate.
Cook oversees a party with voter registration of about 12% in a city where no Republican currently holds any elective office in Denver’s non-partisan government.
Oh, and they both love politics.
Melissa Johnsen, chair of the Denver Democratic Party. (Via Twitter)
Johnsen caught her passion for politics early when she was a student at the University of California at Davis.
“I ended up being an intern in the California legislature while Jerry Brown was governor the first time and was very enamored by it. It was exciting,” she recalled.
She eventually served as an intern for three different lawmakers while in college. Then “life got in the way,” Johnsen said.
She entered the corporate world, although she continued to volunteer for candidates and made campaign contributions.
Johnsen rose to become vice president for information technology at Express Scripts, a pharmacy management company, and Starbucks.
Like Cook, she knows what it’s like to be in the minority party. She lived in deep-red Missouri before moving to Denver in March 2013.
She started out in the most entry level job in Denver politics: precinct committee person, in which one represents about 250 people.
She rose through the party ranks and was elected chair in February.
Johnsen said her IT background has been helpful in her political work.
“Yes, because you think about politics a little bit differently. Technology really is about people, and you’re impacting people with changes in how they do things,” she said
“And so, you really do have to think about change” she added. “And we use a lot of technology in politics that helps us do outreach with activists and with people who are registered to vote.”
The party does not generally get involved in specific measures that come before the City Council. But it does take stands on ballot measures and initiatives, she said.
Much of what the party has been doing this summer centers on introducing the 10 candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate to the activists in the party at events like the annual picnic.
Johnsen sees the large field of contenders seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Cory Gardner as a good thing. “We believe he’s very vulnerable. And I’m very excited that we have a great group of candidates. Anyone of them, I believe, can beat Cory Gardner,” Johnsen said.
She does not think former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper should feel compelled to drop out of his presidential bid to join the Senate race.
“I’m a big believer that everyone should be a free agent and do what they believe is right for them,” Johnsen said.
“He definitely has said this is what he wants to do and if that’s his passion, if that’s what he’d like to do, that’s great,” she said.
“If he wants to come back and run for Senate, that’s great too,” she added. “But I believe in free agency.” If both Hickenlooper and Bennett are still in the presidential race when Colorado holds its primary in March, neither one of them will have favorite son status until the party holds its caucus and convention, Johnsen said. She said the party is firmly neutral in any contest in which one Democrat opposes another.
“We’re Switzerland,” she said.
“Generally, if there’s two Democrats running, we let them duke it out,” she added.
To listen to the interview with Melissa Johnsen click the following link: http://bit.ly/31g0TbV
Kristina Cook, chair of the Denver Republican Party, at the Denver Press Club on July 29, 2019
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Kristina Cook came late to politics.
A forensic certified public accountant, she marks her political awakening to Barack Obama becoming president in 2008.
“I’m thinking there’s a disconnect here between what I believe and what’s going on in our country,” she said. She started by taking some classes at The Independence Institute. After that, a friend asked her to take on the job of being the earned media director for the campaign against a ballot measure that would have raised income and sale taxes.
Cook said yes, but then she quickly Googled “earned media director” to see what she had just volunteered to do. (It involves getting free publicity through promotional efforts.) The measure was defeated by a 2-1 ratio.
From there Cook attended the Leadership Program of the Rockies, a training program for conservative activists in Colorado. Then she landed a job as the afternoon drive-time host on conservative radio station KLZ-560 AM.
“Just being able to formulate and have a platform to deliver commentary on whatever was going on during that time was very exciting to me,” she recalled. “And we really did – I think – move the needle in Colorado.”
Cook was elected in February to a two-year term as Denver GOP chair.
“It’s a tough position to be in for sure,” she said, noting that Denver ranks last among Colorado counties in terms of the percentage of registered Republicans.
“We are definitely in the minority within Denver,” Cook said. “And in Denver County, a lot of folks even within the Republican party have written off Denver as a place where we don’t have to put resources because we don’t need to put forward any effort.”
“And so, I’m really working in my administration to change that,” she added.
Recently, the party held an “anti-watch party” at a local tavern during one of the debates between Democratic presidential contenders. The evening included bingo cards with likely catch phrases from the candidates.
The GOP also played a role in Denver’s recently mayoral election, hosting candidate forum for candidates in the general and runoff races.
While Republicans are in the minority, they still have about 52,000 registered voters in Denver, which in a close city-wide election can be meaningful.
The party stayed neutral in the mayoral race, but Cook and other Republicans contributed to challenger Jamie Giellis’ unsuccessful campaign.
“She gave me the impression that she was somebody who would be willing to have another voice at the table,” Cook said. “As Republicans in Denver, I think our role really is, at this point in time, to provide that other voice.”
Cook also welcomes the large field of Democrats seeking to replace Cory Gardner.
“I think they’ll rip each other apart and they’re going to give us plenty of fodder,” she said.
Besides the Senate race, Cook said she is focused on the Denver GOP crafting a “Republican” solution to Denver’s homelessness problem.
Her model is an Austin, Texas program called "Community First!," a 27-acre master planned development of some 225 tiny homes for the disabled and chronically homeless in central Texas.
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The Austin program provides jobs, services and requires rent payments, Cook said. It does not accept any government funding.
Cook hopes to see a similar effort started in Colorado. She is encouraged at a zoning law proposed by at-large Councilwoman Robin Kniech that would make it easier for tiny home villages to win zoning approval.
“I hope that does make it through council,” Cook said. “Because that’s really the first step to really creating an effective response to what I think we all can see as a crisis.”
Editor's note: this story was updated to correct the time when Melissa Johnsen came to Denver.