Denver Clerk Debra Johnson: from spoof to serious

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams with the Bob Ross-style spoof on Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson. (SOS photo)

The biggest laugh at the Colorado County Clerks Association conference came when people spotted the parody of Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson in a Bob Ross-style pose.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams — known for a laugh that a former staffer once called a tracking beacon — was one of the first to see the altered picture of Johnson and her painting and let loose.

He couldn’t wait to point it out to others who were looking at items clerks had assembled for their silent auction. The value of the Johnson item was listed as “priceless.”

“I howled when I saw it,” Johnson said. “It was hilarious.”

Then a second prank unfolded — driving up the bid and putting down the name of Johnson’s election director, Amber McReynolds, as the winning bidder for $300. She threatened revenge.

The clerks conference was held last week in Colorado Springs. Johnson said she was so impressed with the quality of national election speakers Colorado is drawing because the state is now known for election innovation.

At each clerks conference, items are donated for a silent auction, with the money going to scholarships. The spoof on  Johnson was submitted by a vendor, Linda Vose with SKLD Title Service, who has known Johnson for years. Prior to being elected Denver’s clerk and recorder in 2011, Johnson served as the appointed city clerk in  Aurora.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams with vendor Linda Vose of SKLD Title Services at the Colorado County Clerks Association winter conference. (SOS photo)

“We go way back and I told Linda, ‘This is awesome,'” Johnson said.

Ross created and hosted “The Joy of Painting,” an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS in the United States. He died in 1995.

The painting in question has a circuitous history.  Johnson actually created the original painting during the 2017 winter conference when one of the activities was a painting night. After completing the work, she wondered what to do with it. So, she submitted it for the silent auction at that conference.  Two elections staffers with Arapahoe County, Jennifer Morrell and Todd Davidson, successfully bid $30 for Johnson’s original painting and put it in Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane’s office, where it remained for the next six months.

Arapahoe County put Johnson’s original painting up for bid at the silent auction during the 2017 summer conference in Snowmass.  That’s when SKLD obtained it, after submitting a winning bid of, again, $30. Vose then came up with the Bob Ross pose altered to look like Johnson and offered it and the original painting for the silent auction at the 2018 winter conference last week.

Johnson was the first to bid on the item, for $25. I  got the idea of asking clerks and their staffers and others to bid on the painting in $5 increments. Johnson rebid when the item hit $150. That’s when I wrote down McReynold’s name and $300.

Denver Count Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson and elections director Amber McReynolds at one of Denver’s 24 round-the-clock ballot boxes. (Photo by Alton Dillard/Denver Elections)

I wish I had been been there when she rushed over to the clerks’ association organizers in a panic, insisting she never bid on the item. She later jokingly threatened to have the DA go after me for forgery. “I never forged your signature, I merely wrote down your name,” I said.

Johnson had no idea about the faux bid until she saw my Twitter exchange with McReynolds. She got a kick out of that, too.

Johnson plans to offer the painting at the clerks’ summer conference this year.

Johnson announced last year she wouldn’t seek a third term in 2019, saying it was time to retire after 25 years in public service. She’s gone to seven years’ worth of clerks conferences, held every winter and every summer.

“The biggest thing is the credibility of Colorado’s elections has increased tremendously,” she said, rattling off the names of the national players attending recent conferences, including Dr. Kathleen Hale with Auburn University, Commissioner Matt Masterson with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and David Becker, founder and executive director the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

“When I went to my first conference in 2012 there were no outside speakers,” Johnson said. “It is gratifying that Colorado has made the mark nationally, and our election sessions are top notch.”

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, with Denver Clerk Debra Johnson to his left, and Peg Perl, in red to his right, and others listen to a workshop at the Colorado County Clerks Association conference last week. Perl is running for Johnson’s seat in 2019. (SOS photo)