Soon after news broke that legendary North Denver power broker Paul Sandoval had died, the tributes began to pour in from across the country, remembering the tamale proprietor’s influence on local, state and national politics over four decades.
Sandoval was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last February and died at his home on Tuesday afternoon, said his wife, Paula. He was 67.
Senators and statesmen were among those who honored the memory of Sandoval, who fostered the dreams and ambitions of the powerful and the powerless. The lifelong Democrat served in the Colorado Senate and on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, but it was his role as mentor and advisor to generations that set him apart from other politicians and activists.
“We have lost a friend, leader, and visionary today,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “In his life, Paul Sandoval gave voice to fellow citizens who wanted better schools, safer communities, and a chance to pursue the American dream. I will never forget his passion for public service, his heart, and the love he showed for his friends, neighbors, and family. He is a role model and a hero.”
In a storied conversation with Sandoval 15 years ago, Salazar’s political rise from attorney general to the U.S. Senate and on to the Cabinet was plotted on a napkin in a back room at Tamales by La Casita, the Denver restaurant where Sandoval and his wife, Paula, fed the aspirations of an ever-widening community.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock remembered Sandoval as “a champion and a voice for so many of Denver’s most vulnerable residents.”
“It is with profound sadness that we mourn the loss of one of Denver’s greatest sons,” said Hancock. “For over 50 years, Paul stood as a giant among leaders in both City Hall and under the gold dome of the state Capitol. He also offered so much more to his family and friends. He was a father, a brother and a mentor. He was a man I could always turn to for advice no matter the situation, a man that I’m honored to call my friend.”
Sandoval, he said, “worked tirelessly throughout his career to stand in the gap and eliminate inequalities for students of color. As a shining star of Denver’s business community, he turned tamales into a metaphor for business savvy and humble success.”
Recalling Sandoval’s many positions over the years, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet offered a tribute to his accomplishments as a family man.
“Our state has lost one of our greatest leaders for working families and communities,” Bennet said. “Colorado knew Paul Sandoval in many ways — Latino leader, community activist, political strategist, tamale maker, state senator, and relentless champion for children and their education. But to those who knew him best, Paul was, first and foremost, a fiercely loyal and devoted husband and father. All of us fortunate enough to call Paul our friend are determined to keep his irrepressible spirit alive.”
One recipient of Sandoval’s advice — including a suggestion to shave off a mustache — credited his friend and mentor for his “service and sacrifice to our community both on the front lines and behind the scenes—- leveraging power to those who do not have it.”
In an emotional Facebook post, Councilman Paul Lopez also thanked Sandoval for his guidance and inspiration.
“Thank you for teaching me how to keep focus amidst opposition and scrutiny; and to understand the nature of politics and other politicians,” Lopez wrote. “I will never forget the great times we had laughing over a cold beer and tamales about the politics of the day. As a young Chicano elected official, you always had my back and never asked me for a political favor — not once.”
Sandoval, he said, “will always live not just in our hearts but also in our actions.”
In addition to his wife, a former state senator and Denver councilwoman, Sandoval is survived by his daughters Kendra, Cris, Andrea and Amanda and his son Brett.