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 Godfather

The back room at La Casita quickly became a destination for politicos and wannabes, where Sandoval helped aspiring politicians plan their careers and find common cause with their opponents.

Arnold Salazar: His shop has always been the place where people gather and talk. Often in politics, people hold things back or give a political answer. With Paul you’re going to get the truth.

Sewald: People go to Paul Sandoval two times: Early on when they want to run for office, or when they’re in trouble and need wisdom to get out of it.

Michael Bennet, U.S. senator and former chief of staff for Mayor Hickenlooper: When you visit him at La Casita, you sit in the back room back where all the refrigerators are.

Gallagher: There’s a picture on the wall of his mom, next to one of Pope John Paul II, to bless her.

Hansen: It’s the workroom for the employees, where they have lockers, and the USDA inspector’s office is back there. It’s just a table where the employees eat their meals, but I’ve seen amazing deals cut around that table. Several times, I’ve walked in and seen almost every high-profile Hispanic in Colorado sitting there—in mismatched chairs at a chipped linoleum table—discussing how to keep Latinos and Latinas active in politics.

John Hickenlooper, governor of Colorado and former Denver mayor: It’s got greaseboards with menu suggestions or the restaurant budget—it’s a working office. It’s small, it’s cramped, there are no windows, and there are too many boxes with folders stuffed in them. I can remember thinking to myself, this is where all the political decisions of Denver have been emanating out of? This is the intellectual vault of northwest Denver politics? And then I thought, This is what it should be. It’s not about a fancy office or a lot of money; it’s about people who love politics and are committed to raising up the community.

Hansen: If you want to cheer him up, just talk to him about politics. We have an election tradition where we’ll write on a piece of paper who we think will win each race and by what percentage. And darn it if he doesn’t always beat me, although I’ve gotten better in recent years.

Dino: He has a shrewdness, a very keen political sense of what it takes to get the voters’ nod. He talks to a lot of people and listens well. When he goes with his gut, he’s successful; when he goes with who the books say should be the winner, he doesn’t do as well.

Paul: How do I choose people to support? You go by who they are—their character, what they’re made of, what they stand for, how they present themselves, can they sell to the public what they believe in? If you’re lucky enough, which I have been, you back the right candidates and they win. So with that you get a reputation as being what they say: “The Godfather” or whatever.

Sewald: I took Michael Hancock up to meet with Paul, and Paul asked him all the hard questions: “Why are you doing this? Are you going to be good to Denver?” Just flat out, pulled no punches.

Lucia Guzman, Colorado state senator: The first thing he said when I told him I was running for office was, “Is there anything we need to know that might come up?” I said, “I’m concerned about my sexuality because I’m a lesbian.” He said, “Oh, that’s not a concern. One of my daughters is a lesbian. I meant, do you owe any taxes or anything like that?”

Bennet: When I was appointed to the [U.S. Senate] seat, one of the first people I went to see was Paul. He immediately got down to the brass tacks of how to run a statewide campaign. He was a constant source of advice throughout the race.

Garcia Berry: If you’re going to run for public office, you have to go up and check in. He’s not going to hurt you, but he has such a wealth of knowledge.

Gallagher: Everybody who was running for everything had to go to confession back there. He was in the seminary for a little while, and he wanted the ultimate power to send people to heaven or hell.

Paul: Ken Salazar came to the restaurant one time and said, “I want to run for something. What do you think we could do?” I said, “You could run for attorney general first, and then you could run for governor or the Senate, and after that you might be able to get into the Cabinet if we get another Democratic president.” He says, “Well, attorney general sounds good.” We mapped it all out on a napkin, which he still has.

Ken Salazar: We have several napkins. On one of those, we talked about my political future. We knew that attorney general was opening because Gale Norton was term-limited. We sketched out the timeline for the 1998 attorney general race on the back of it, and it went exactly as planned.

Sewald: One time we were there having breakfast when Paul got a phone call. It’s Marcy Benson, and she said, “Bruce is thinking about putting his hat in for chancellor of CU. What do you think?” He said, “I’m sitting here with my friend R.D. from Dennis Gallagher’s office; you’re probably going to need some Democratic support, aren’t you?” He hung up the phone, I went and told Gallagher, Paul rounded up some other Democrats, we told (then-mayor) Hickenlooper, and the next thing you know, Bruce Benson, because of his commitment to children in Colorado, is the chancellor of CU.

Hickenlooper: The best part is his old anecdotes. I’d bring him a problem: “I have this issue with these two City Council members. They’re kind of boxing me into this corner.” He’d go, “Well that reminds me of….” And he’d tell this story from 25 years before that was exactly applicable and would allow me to think of a different way of approaching it and making it a win-win for the City Council members. He’s very good at finding three-way victories or four-way victories, and he’s a very astute judge of what people’s true self-interest is, which lets you get to a compromise faster.

Ken Salazar: He’s a walking encyclopedia of Colorado and United States history. He can go back seven or eight generations and draw on that knowledge for his decisions and advice. But he combines that knowledge with the street-smart sense that comes from how he grew up, selling newspapers in front of the Brown Palace.

Hansen: Paul and his colleagues do have some creative ways of showing how they care. During the Ari Zavaras mayoral campaign in 2003, Paul helped as campaign chair to develop a negative piece on John Hickenlooper. All we had to do was let the rumor out that there was a negative piece. Everybody came running to look for it, and it was sitting in Paul’s tamale freezer. I don’t think he likes to cross the lines, but he definitely likes to play in the gray area sometimes.

Paul: John and I are good friends now. That campaign is over. Hell, that was eight years ago. He ran for re-election; we supported him. He ran for governor; we supported him.

Bennet: I think I was over at La Casita once every six weeks or so [as chief of staff] to hear Paul’s view of the lay of the land. He has a perspective that is based not on the conventional wisdom, but a sixth sense for what’s going on in the city. And he knows the state much better than most people realize.

Hickenlooper: Very rapidly I developed a high level of trust. Paul became someone I could tell “state secrets” to. If it was something that should not be discussed or repeated, it never got back to me. There are only four or five people I could say that about. But if you told him something that really shouldn’t be repeated and then you winked because you wanted to get it out there—no one could fan a flame like Paul Sandoval; his network of people who talked to a lot of people who talked to a lot of people was awesome. Paul was Facebook before it existed.