Guest Columns


Paul Sandoval earned the right to have people come to him and ‘kiss his ring’

Contributing Columnist

When I was elected to the Colorado Legislature in 1978, Paul Sandoval was elected to a Senate seat. He had already served several terms in the House, where he entered as its youngest member. Aside from Santa Claus, Paul is the only person I’ve known whose eyes genuinely twinkled. Coupled with an acerbic sense of humor, every conversation with him often became something of a laugh fest. Yet, as you chuckled at his barbs, you couldn’t help wondering what he was saying about you when the opportunity arose.

Paul finagled his way back onto the Joint Budget Committee, not so much for the extra pay although that didn’t hurt for a young father with kids, but primarily because that was precisely where real power resided in the Colorado Legislature. Paul was a politician who always planned four or five moves further ahead of most of his colleagues. In fact, whatever you suspected his motives were, you were usually wrong.

He arrived at the Capitol with an agenda — an agenda that wasn’t likely to succeed if he failed to win support from his Republican colleagues who served in a substantial majority. Paul proved Colorado’s most thoughtful and articulate advocate for bi-lingual education, which was viewed with considerable suspicion at the time as a stealth program intended to force regular, American kids into speaking Spanish. Paul was able to convince his colleagues that all he wished to accomplish was to provide kids who were arriving in Colorado schools, speaking only Spanish, just a little extra help learning English. He could point to his own experience. Otherwise, he was a school reformer and early supporter of teacher accountability.

In order to earn his stripes with Republicans, Paul sponsored a rewrite of the existing school accountability act, which had been swiftly subverted by administrators into what he labeled an “accountancy report” that neither changed nor improved classroom results. Paul recruited me as his House sponsor and we put some teeth back into the existing law. Shortly afterward, the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association published a newsletter with the headline, “SANDOVAL AND HUDSON: ANTI-TEACHER AND ANTI-KIDS,” which my son carried home from school. Between us, Paul and I had five children attending Denver Public Schools. We weren’t tourists attacking public education while we sent our own kids to private academies. I was furious, but Paul advised me to laugh it off, adding, “Sooner or later they’ll want something from us, and when they do, we can grin while we kick them in the teeth!”

In 1981 Paul got himself appointed to the state reapportionment and redistricting committee, as he would following each census count. Once again, Paul was focused on elbowing his way into the room where power was divvied up. A longtime friend of Sal Carpio, who later became his business partner, Paul must have been conflicted when Federico Peña decided to jump into the Mayor’s race in 1983. Many Denver Democrats expected Sal, who had proven an exceptionally effective Councilman, to be elected the city’s first Hispanic Mayor, but Sal opted to support the incumbent, Bill McNichols, for a final term. Instead of waiting four years for the Carpio campaign, Paul threw his support to the upstart Peña.

Then, he unexpectedly left the Legislature to create his own business. Paul explained to me that his Republican colleagues on the JBC had begun to encourage him to go out on his own. They verbally flogged him, repeating, “You’re a smart guy, you could earn real money, put away the dollars you’ll need for college tuition and retirement. We’ll even help you do it!” Whether they put up their own money, or simply provided Paul with the right contacts, guaranteeing a few crucial loans, they helped launch his tamale business. And they were right. He proved a natural. It’s hard to imagine this kind of ‘hands-across-the-aisle’ respect and affection today.

Before long Paul was running for the Denver School Board, largely because he was the only Hispanic candidate likely to win an at-large, citywide race. Once again he found himself in the role of spokesman and leader for the Hispanic community. I’ve always suspected Paul was initially uncomfortable in this role, yet, as time passed, it was fun to have aspirants trek to North Denver to ‘kiss his ring.’ While he proved a capable advocate for the causes he supported, Paul was no knee-jerk politician. His blessing might not prove enough to win an election, but he could assuredly poison the well for those he opposed. And some of them were Hispanics, as Don Mares can attest.

When Bill Daniels’ CableVision submitted its successful bid to wire Denver, they included a rainbow coalition of minority stockholders as token evidence of community ownership. Paul donated his stock to the Denver Public Schools foundation. He would later joke, “If I’d known the damned stuff would eventually be worth something, I would have hung on to it.” Paul shrewdly navigated the nasty schisms among North Denver Democrats during the 80s and 90s, while he expanded his tamale business into a wholesale operation that supplies a majority of Mexican restaurants throughout the region. He could be found at the La Casita tamale factory early most mornings, chain smoking and barking out orders in Spanish.

In 1991 Paul supported his childhood friend, Wellington Webb, for Mayor while most of the Peña staff was campaigning for District Attorney Norm Early. An architect of the walking tours that disguised Webb’s financial desperation, Paul walked with him serving as a translator in the Westside neighborhoods that Webb carried. He nearly lost everything a few years later when Sal Carpio’s substance abuse problems nearly wrecked their business. Yet Paul stuck with Sal through his rehab and engineered the fresh start that many believe saved Carpio’s life. When Joe Nacchio and the pirates at Qwest laid off his wife Paula, he plotted her campaign for a Northwest Denver Senate seat so skillfully that she was unopposed. And, contrary to expectations, he made no apparent effort to influence her actions as a legislator, telling everyone, “You need to talk to Paula. She’s her own woman.” Paul was often in the room when the Denver business community, the Chamber, the Archbishop, the Governor, the Mayor or citizen activists were considering a trip to the ballot box.

While he helped launch several political careers, most notably those of Ken Salazar and Lucia Guzman, Paul didn’t always get it right. There was the ill-fated Zavaras for Mayor campaign, where he had to deftly shift to John Hickenlooper’s juggernaut after his candidate failed to make the runoff. He enraged many Democrats by openly supporting Bill Owens’ re-election campaign, and, in at least one recent North Denver race, both candidates thought Paul was supporting them. And, in a way, he may have been, providing sage advice and pointing them in the right direction. When I ran the first time in 1978, Paul had his own race to run, but he discreetly recommended that I visit with Dolores Dickman, the Democratic Captain in District 4. Dolores was publicly supporting my opponent, but she saw no reason to make an enemy of someone who could become her State Representative. Much like Paul she carefully covered her bets, and I learned years later that she had asked Paul to encourage me to drop by.

I also recall a conversation with Paul at the North Denver Democratic breakfast in 2008, a sixty-year-old institution. He had supported Hillary Clinton, but it was clear that Obama would be our candidate. Paul asked me whether I believed there was any way Obama could be elected President. It was evident that he had a hard time imagining American voters sending an African-American to the White House. I replied by asking him who really believed we could elect Federico Peña Mayor in 1983? He laughed, and said, “Well, I hope you’re right, but I won’t believe it until I see it.”

In recent years Paul’s role as the “Godfather” or “Padron” of Democratic politics wore well on him. He could wink at himself, or at you, but he’d been a ‘big deal’ politico long enough to know the perception of his power afforded him real power. He generally used it well. For those of us who continue to make trips to purchase tamales from Paula, we will be reminded that he was the citizen leader our founding fathers imagined.

Miller Hudson, a public policy consultant, represented northwest Denver in the state Legislature for two terms from 1979-1983. He was also executive director of both the Denver Dept. of Excise and License for Mayor Federico Peña and the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority that studied the feasibility of a high speed monorail along I-70 from Denver to Eagle County.