The Tamale Maker of Tejon Street

For decades, Paul Sandoval has been a mentor, friend, and adviser to virtually every Denver Democrat (and more than a few Republicans). Here, an oral history of his rise from local activist to political kingmaker. 

September 30 2011, 12:33 PM

The Young Entrepreneur

In 1944, Paul Sandoval was born in northwest Denver to Camilla and Jerry Sandoval. The ninth of 11 children, Sandoval earned a reputation early on as a cunning deal-maker.

Joe Sandoval, Paul’s brother: Times were tough when we were growing up. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who’d clean houses to make extra money. My dad worked at the meatpacking house scalding hogs. They taught us about work ethic, and everyone pitched in. Paul and I started selling papers with our older brothers when we were six and seven. Paul was always outgoing and gregarious—always trying to make that extra nickel. If you didn’t sell all your newspapers in a day, when you turned them in they’d charge you for how many you didn’t sell. Every night, he’d say, “We have to sell every newspaper.” After people would leave downtown at 5:30 or 6, we would go hustle the bars until we sold out.

Ken Salazar, U.S. Secretary of the Interior: When you grow up on the streets selling newspapers to make a living, it gives you wisdom from the school of hard knocks.

Paul Sandoval: I had the New Customs House on my route. President Eisenhower had a heart attack and was recovering near Fitzsimons, so when he got better, he went to the Customs House to thank his Secret Service. I knew all the back entrances and found him there at the desk, so I asked him, “Would you like to buy a paper?” A staff member said, “What are you doing here? Do you know who this is?” I just said, “Do you want to buy a paper?” He said, “Sure, how much?” I said, “Five cents.” He said, “Well, I only have five dollars.” I said, “That’s OK, I’ll get you change.” He said, “No. Here, kid. Just keep it.” I asked him to sign the money, and he said sure, so he signed the five dollars. I took that five dollars and sold it for $10 and doubled my money.

Joe: He was always studying. Our parents were strict about us getting our homework done. Paul was always doing something extra, for the debate team or the clubs he belonged to. His interests were always in the political arena. He and my dad used to stay up late when television came out to watch election results.

Paul: My dad was the president of the meat-packers union, and they used to have rallies, fund-raisers, and campaigns, and they’d back candidates. I would go to the meetings and help them pass out literature for campaigns and listen to the candidates. I usually support Democrats, but I supported Richard Batterton in the ’50s when he ran for mayor and won. He used to buy my papers, and one day he says to me, “Do you know some friends who will help pass out some literature of mine?” I had a lot of friends. We took about 20 kids downtown one day. When he became mayor, he invited me into the office and showed me around.

I always thought I wanted to be a priest, and I got the opportunity to go to a seminary in California. I stayed half a semester. One Friday afternoon, there was a discussion in religion class about free will, and I raised my hand and said, “If we have a free will, then what makes us do things if God knows what we’re going to do?” The teacher says, “That’s your free will, and you have a right to do it and God basically lets you do it.” I said, “Well, God’s all-good, right?” And the teacher says, “Oh yeah, he’s all-knowing, all-forgiving.” I said, “If he’s all-loving, why did he let things happen in the Holocaust? Why would he let millions of people perish without helping them? If he gave you a free will, if he knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time, why would he put you here on Earth knowing that you might go to hell?” There was a vivid discussion that day. That Sunday, I was asked to leave.

The Activist

Sandoval attended college at Louisiana State University-New Orleans and studied Russian and international studies. He returned to Colorado in 1963, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, and finished his degree at the University of Colorado Denver.

Morgan Smith, former state representative: Paul was a wonderful guy to work with because he always had a sense of humor.

Dennis Gallagher, Denver auditor: Paul loves to play tricks. A senator was up at the microphone one day and said there were black helicopters flying around his house. He was convinced it was some form of conspiracy. So one day, Paul arranged for two little helicopters to go down on a wire from the ceiling while this guy was speaking.

Ruben Valdez, former speaker of the House: Paul established a good reputation almost immediately as someone who was skilled in negotiation, who was able to get a lot for programs he wanted and worked well with other people. He was very idealistic but very pragmatic about how to get things done.

Paul: Reapportionment emerged in the early 1970s. That’s when I met Ruben Valdez. There was a group of minorities back then who were very vocal and started questioning the system itself. I guess you could call me a young Turk—I would go down there and sit behind galleries and watch what was going on, and I made friends with these people. Mike Strang, a Republican, ran the committee to arrange reapportionment based on the Supreme Court rule of “one man, one vote.” And they asked me to get involved.

Valdez: When the Supreme Court decision came down, it gave us the chance to run for seats that were drawn to help minorities get elected. Strang was very fair with us and allowed us to draw districts in areas where he thought there was no way Republicans would get elected. So Paul and I drew the districts after ’71, in Denver in particular. We drew a Senate district that we thought could elect a Latino to the Senate. Four years later, when the election came up for that seat, Paul got elected.

Wellington Webb, former Denver mayor: We’d known each other since we were very young, and we’d both begun our public-service careers in grocery stores—his at 30th and Downing, mine at 34th and Williams. I was elected to the Colorado Legislature in ’72, and he came into the state Senate in ’74. We worked on a lot of issues together. He had the ability to get along well with Republicans and Democrats, and later, when we held a walkout during Governor Lamm’s inauguration—because he initially didn’t have any African-Americans in his cabinet—Paul was one of the first to step up and join us.

Smith: That term, starting in 1975, was the first time in years Democrats had a majority in the House. Paul got appointed to the Joint Budget Committee, which had three Republicans and three Democrats, so the potential for deadlock was always there. Joe Shoemaker, the Republican chair of the committee, asked for Paul’s support on a labor bill, and Paul said he would. The labor movement became concerned and went to Paul and said, “You’re a Democrat; you have to change your vote.” He said, “The only thing you have in Legislature is your word, and I gave my word to Joe. Maybe if we started afresh, I wouldn’t have done it. But that’s what I did, and I’m going to stick with it.” And it created a bond between Joe and Paul.

Joe Shoemaker, former state senator: He was a good man. He took budgeting just the way I liked to: study the presentations of the agency heads and determine whether they actually needed the money.

Maria Garcia Berry, lobbyist: They put ideology aside and got things done for the state. Paul has the unique ability to get to “yes” and convince people that there can be wins for everyone. He has an inherent knack for reading people, understanding what they want, and getting things done. He’s a great poker player.

John Salazar, Colorado agriculture commissioner and former U.S. congressman: The first big story I remembered about Paul was from Arnold Salazar, who is not a cousin of mine but has been a supporter. He was a student at Adams State College, and they staged a sit-in protesting Hispanic causes.

Arnold Salazar, executive director of Colorado Health Partnerships: It was a time of a lot of turmoil. The students had been expelled for organizing demonstrations. Someone told us to talk to Paul, who was on the JBC. He told the college they had a choice: reinstate the students or take a million-dollar cut in its budget. The students were back in college in a matter of days. As Paul says: “Why bother having political power if you’re not going to use it?”

Paul: The biggest bill I ever worked on was the Bilingual Bicultural Act in ’74 or ’75. It was a K-3 program for helping a child learn to read and write the English language, and at the same time be taught biculturally and bilingually.

Garcia Berry: So many kids were being left behind, growing up in a monolingual home and then going to a different monolingual school. They needed a bridge. The goal was to make a Latino child competent and fluent in English. Everyone got hung up on the cultural piece, but it was a language thing.

Smith: Paul was carefully building his relationship with Joe Shoemaker because his highest priority was getting the bilingual education bill passed. We passed it in the House immediately, but the Senate, being Republican, was tougher. He knew he had to have a strong relationship with Joe to have it pass.

Paul: Joe Shoemaker took a liking to me. Since I worked closely with him on many bills, he eventually says, “I’ll help you pass it.” We didn’t have all the Democrats, but a couple Republicans backed it, so we were able to get bipartisan support for a very controversial bill.

Tom Tancredo, former U.S. congressman: I was in the Legislature at the time and introduced legislation to eliminate bilingual education, and that started a big fight. Every Hispanic member in the Legislature was lined up to debate me on it. But I always thought Paul was the most gentlemanly. We could discuss issues. There was no personal agenda, no ad hominem attacks. We argued on the issues themselves.

Webb: You left the politics under the gold dome, and people became friends across the aisle. They weren’t quite as self-righteous as they seem to be now.

Paul: [There was an attempt to] repeal the bill some years later, and it’s still controversial. At the time, Governor Lamm said he would veto any attempt to repeal the bill. He promised it to us, and he broke his word.