Feature

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. 

October 2011

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.

The Businessman

While in the state Senate, Sandoval started his first tamale restaurant, La Casa de Tamales, using the deal-making skills he’d honed in politics to grow his business.

Paul: I got into the tamale business with my ex-wife, Mary Helen, when I first got elected to the Legislature, because I wanted a job where I didn’t have to be working for the state or the city. After I got divorced, I kept the business for a while but finally sold it. After Paula and I married, we reopened in 1990 [as La Casita].

Gallagher: The final day of the session, we would always have a picnic lunch. Paul provided the tamales—it was his mom’s recipe.

John Salazar: I remember the great food he’d send over to the Capitol every now and then. I got to enjoy his tamales and his enchiladas. Every holiday, somehow or another, a box or two of his fresh tamales would end up on Salazar Ranch for our dinner.

Mike Dino, Democratic strategist: As a young campaign person, what I was excited about was that Paul always brought food—tamales and burritos. Or if I’d go to see him, I’d go home with a dozen tamales.

Paula Sandoval, former state senator and Paul’s wife: When we first started, he was the only employee. He cooked, waited on customers. The first year he got called to jury duty and got a two-week murder trial, and I had to take two weeks off to manage the shop.

Valdez: During one Democratic convention here, whenever the delegates took a break, Paul would go outside and sell them tamales from the back of his van.

Amanda Sandoval-Encinas, Paul’s daughter: I grew up going to the shop. On Christmas break, I had to wash the outside of the corn husks or sweep the parking lots. It’s been a staple in my life.

Lynea Hansen, Democratic political consultant: When it comes to business, he’s ruthless. I love guacamole, and they finally started serving it, but only on weekends. I said, “C’mon, serve it during the week,” and he said, “No, avocados are expensive.” But since I’ve known them, I don’t know that they’ve ever raised their prices.

Amanda: As a businessman, he does not mess around. If he sees something he doesn’t like at the restaurant, you will be the first to know.

Paula: We always want families to be able to have a nice meal. We don’t have as big as a profit margin as we could have because we want people to enjoy a night out.

Paul: Paula’s approach and mine are very similar: You try to keep offering good Mexican food at a decent price, you treat your employees well, and you’re honest with your customers and purveyors.

Hansen: In his office are these rings of corn husks. Paul told me he uses them to select the best corn husks for his tamales. The quality was incredibly important to him.

Amanda: He just has this knack for figuring out things in business. He’ll think this week is going to be busy, or this week is not, and he’s about 96 percent accurate.

Hansen: They now sell their tamales through Whole Foods. And the Department of Corrections is a client. The business has grown by leaps and bounds, and that’s probably one of the things he’s most proud of. If you ask him who he is or what he does, he’ll say, “I make tamales for a living.”

Webb: Once I wrangled an invitation for him to the White House. I didn’t know what to put down for his occupation. I was going to put businessman, but I called Paul and he said, “Put down tamale salesman.” The White House person called to ask me about it, and I said, “Well, he does sell millions of tamales.”

R.D. Sewald, deputy director of legislative services for Governor John Hickenlooper: Before Paul’s restaurants really started taking off, I took Michael Bennet up there when he was chief of staff for Mayor Hickenlooper. As only Bennet would do, he said, “So, you just sell tamales?” Paul said, “Well, I sell a little bit of tamales.” Michael said, “A little bit?” Paul said, “Well, I also do wholesale.” Bennet got up from his chair, went into the restaurant, looked at how much a dozen cost, and came back in. Paul told him roughly how many dozens of tamales he sold. Bennet, as quick and as smart as he is, did the math, sat back in his chair, and said, “That’s a lot of tamales.” Paul got the biggest grin and said, “I’m just a tamale maker, that’s all.”

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.

The Straight Shooter

Valuing honesty and loyalty above all, Sandoval never remained neutral and made it clear that betrayals would not be forgotten.

Dino: When Wellington Webb sought re-election in 1995, there were accusations against him for cronyism and favoritism, and that the airport had struggled to open. But Paul was always there, a close friend and confidant who gave Wellington confidence that he would get through it.

Webb: Why has he been so successful? Number one, he’s fiercely loyal. Number two, when he gives his word, he keeps it. Number three, if you’re a friend, he supports you and doesn’t care who’s against you. Number four, he’s always been a political power in the community because he’s always put his money where his mouth is and knows how to build coalitions. He was a valuable adviser and big supporter when I ran for mayor in ’91 and ’95 and ’99. He was instrumental in attending some of the debates to make sure that the points I was making were accurate and clear.

Bennet: He also manages to get his hands on everybody’s polling data. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.

John Salazar: He somehow just makes friends everywhere. He would pretty much tell me what my poll numbers were, and I don’t know where he found that information.

Hickenlooper: One of the remarkable things about him is that almost always he picks a side. He always has a point of view. So often you see—among people who have a lot of political influence—that they choose to stay neutral. Paul Sandoval’s not neutral about anything.

John Salazar: He has conviction. He says, “This has to be done, because it’s the right thing to do.” It’s not about politics. We both knew that voting for health-care reform would hurt me, and we talked about that for a long time. The morning before the vote, he said, “I’m not even going to try and talk you out of it, but you know it’s going to hurt you politically.” I said, “Yeah, but don’t you think it’s the right thing to do?” and he said, “You’re exactly right. It’s the right thing to do.”

Hansen: With Paul, your word is your Bible, and once you give it you can never take it back.

Paul: If you go into politics, you only have very few things, and one of them is your word. If you don’t keep your word, you’re not trusted, and eventually it catches up to you. Look at the recent mayoral race: Chris Romer asked me for my support, and I gave it to him. He made a promise to this gentleman in Washington that he’d be his campaign manager. And then Romer pulls the rug from under us. He said, “We wanted to go in a different direction” and this and that. I withdrew my support from him. The electorate is not stupid. Case in point: Chris Romer did not win mayor, for whatever reason, and he outspent the other guy by more than a million dollars.

The Family Man

Despite the demands his business and political clout place on him, Sandoval’s wife, children, and grandchildren have always come first.

Amanda: He was very busy because he was in the Senate when I was born. He was on the school board when I was young and very active in the community. He was pretty strict with me and my three sisters. He had firm rules and really watched the way we spoke. He didn’t like it when we used slang. After my parents divorced, they stayed really good friends. He would come over on Easter morning, or on Christmas, with rolls and coffee so he could see us and just hang out. They put aside their differences and put us four girls first.

Paula: I met him at a political fund-raiser. His brother Joe introduced us. A week later, Joe called me—we both worked for U S West, and he said his brother was looking for my phone number.

Paul: I called him and said, “Here’s this woman’s name. Could you give me her number?” He said, “Oh, well we can’t do that, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Paula: I’m a vegetarian, and our first date was real original—he took me to a vegetarian restaurant. We dated for eight years. Paul had five kids already: a son from his high school sweetheart and four kids from his first wife. They were pretty young when I met him. We were dating and not in any hurry. He was waiting for them to get older, and when his oldest daughter graduated high school, we got married.

Hansen: Theirs is like the great love story. When you see them together, there is nothing but complete adoration and love.

Amanda: Friends may come and go in life, but your family won’t—I’ve always appreciated that my father taught us that. My sisters and I are all really close.

Paula: He’s always been a very good father, and that’s another thing that was attractive. He really cared about his kids. Coming from a divorced family myself, with a father that wasn’t around, I was very impressed that he always stayed involved.

Amanda: He always talked about the importance of education. At a very young age, he instilled that in us: that education was the way for us to get places in life.

Paula: He’s always helped them do homework. Their research consisted of them calling him and asking for information instead of going to the library. He’s a history buff.

Hansen: When you walk into his house or office, you won’t see photos of anybody—no Clinton or Obama, or even a Ken Salazar photo. There are only photos of his grandkids and his daughters. Those grandkids are everything to him.

Amanda: He comes to my house every Saturday morning and brings my kids doughnuts. We don’t even say Saturday; we call it “doughnut day.” He asks about their week and checks in to see what’s going on. My son is the only boy in the whole family, and last semester, I had to drop him off at the shop before class, and he would feed him and walk him over to school. He’s the best grandpa ever.

The Diagnosis

Last February, Sandoval learned he had Stage III pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was given six months to live.

Paula: We initially thought he had indigestion. And he had an ulcer years ago, so we thought it might be flaring up. The doctors did a process of elimination. He wasn’t doing well, and I had been on the phone with Kaiser, asking for something like intravenous feeding. The nurse said they’d call back. Then Ken walked in the door and looked at Paul—Lucia Guzman also was there—and they started making calls.

Guzman: I had been concerned about him. I happened to go over to the house that day, and I knew he was trying to get checked out, and I said, “You’re losing more weight. They have to speed your exams up.” It just so happened that Ken Salazar walked in right after I got there, and I said, “Paul is in a lot of pain. Something’s not right. I think he has to go to the specialist at University.”

Ken Salazar: Colorado is my home, and whenever I’m back, I usually try to stop and see him for a few minutes. I stopped by that day because I knew he was very sick. He told me he was not feeling well. I could see how much pain he was in. They had put him on a waiting list for another week or so, but I told him he couldn’t wait—he had to see a doctor right away. So Lucia and I made a few calls. Then I put him in the truck and took him over to University Hospital and checked him in.

Paula: When he went into the hospital, they gave him five liters of fluid and decided to keep him in there. They did a test, and the surgeon came out and said, “We think it’s pancreatic cancer, but you’ll have to meet the oncologist.” And the oncologist said he had six months to live.

Amanda: When he first got diagnosed, it was really difficult. He was down and out, and he talked a lot about his death and how he wasn’t going to be here, and we had to be strong during this time. He didn’t have a lot of hope. He was real withdrawn.

Paula: Initially, we were both in shock. I had heard about pancreatic cancer before and knew it was one of the worst ones. When Paul was told that he had six months to live, we really started thinking, what does this mean? Where do we go from here? What treatments should we pursue?

Sewald: When he learned he was sick, he called me. [Paul’s childhood friend] Jim Rivas and I sat with him at the diner we always go to at Speer and Colfax. It was the most impressive damn thing I’ve ever seen from a man. He was so humble, and grateful he had time to put his finances in order, appreciate his loved ones, and reach out to his friends. He did not feel sorry for himself. Jim and I are crying like babies, and he’s the one holding it together.

Paula: Now we’re really focused on health. What can we do to increase his chances for survival? How can we improve his energy levels? What can we do for his diet?

Hansen: Every minute they’ve got left, Paula wants to be able to spend with him, and that’s why she resigned early. He also does better when she’s around. He actually eats and stays on a schedule and gets everything done that he’s supposed to.

Paula: I resigned from the City Council because I needed to be with him at the doctors’ appointments. We go like three times a week for hydration and chemo. It’s good to have a second set of ears.

Guzman: He is a real trooper. He has gone through this like a politician goes through a campaign. It has its highs and lows. When you look at the data and get a poll, and the poll says you are 15 to 25 points behind, there will be those moments. And then there are moments when you are dead even. In this political game of life and death, the numbers can go either way.

Joe Sandoval: When he first found out, I don’t think it sunk in that this was happening. He accepted it right away, more than anything else. He’s a warrior. He battles. I try to get over and see him every Sunday. But he’s still keeping up, watching Meet the Press. He says, “I can’t believe what the hell is going on with the Democrats and the Republicans! Both of these parties piss me off.”

Hansen: He’s taken this whole thing totally in stride. You know, “I’m gonna die sometime. At least now I know what’s gonna get me.”

Ken Salazar: I call him almost every day for just 60 seconds, a couple minutes, and he continues to maintain his positive attitude and optimism. He knows that he’s in a difficult time, but he is very much at peace with his life and what he’s done. He’s handling it the way he’s handled all of his life, with tremendous poise and dignity and continuing to inspire those around him.

Paula: He’s been responding very well to the chemo. That’s not to say that it’s not kicking the crap out of him, but the tumor has shrunk in half. The doctor is totally amazed by that. He said, “I’m very surprised to see that. You hardly ever see anyone get better.” All we can do is see if it continues to shrink.

John Salazar: If there’s anyone who can beat this disease, it’s Paul. He’s a fighter. He doesn’t give up easily.

Amanda: You hope the treatment continues to work, but at the same time, it’s advanced pancreatic cancer and you have to be realistic. There are days when I call and he sounds like my dad, cracking jokes. And there are days when he doesn’t have much to say. Everyone at work misses his quirkiness and his laughter. And I know he misses it, too.

Paula: The doctor hasn’t said one way or the other that Paul has more time to live, and we really haven’t asked him.

The Legacy

Sandoval’s reach and influence extend far beyond Denver, beyond Colorado, and beyond the Hispanic community.

John Salazar: When I’m talking to younger groups about when the door of opportunity has been opened for you, you hold it open for the next generation. A lot of people don’t do that; they’re given an opportunity, and then they just let that door slam shut. Paul held that door open. He helped usher us through.

Arnold Salazar: He’s an icon in Democratic politics but has also been a real mentor to those of us who came after him, to learn how the political process works and how to advance the causes of our community. He taught us that we can stay strong if we’re willing to unite and work hard. It doesn’t take a big budget; you organize block by block, community by community, and build from the grassroots up.

Garcia Berry: His legacy is that he (and Ruben Valdez) opened up so many opportunities to everyone else. Paul will go out of his way to spend time with anyone who wants to make a difference.

Valdez: He helped make the Hispanic community a powerful political force. Today, no statewide candidate can win without the support of the Latino community. It’s a powerful force, and not only in Colorado. Even presidential candidates court Latinos now—and if they don’t, they’ll lose. It’s that simple.

Ken Salazar: He’s had an impact on an incredible number of people. I think that many of us who have been elected to high office owe him so much because he was the giant whose shoulders I stood on to get to where I am today. He has been a lifelong friend and mentor. He is a godfather to me and my family. He inspired me to do everything I could in my own life. I see him as a cornerstone of my own political career.

John Salazar: Paul is more than a friend to the Salazars; he’s like our big brother. He’s not only our confidant, he’s our guiding light, politically.

Dino: He’s a Denver institution. His keen political presence has been behind some very important people who have done some very important things for our city and state. If he wasn’t around, there may not have been a Wellington Webb. There may not have been a Ken Salazar.

Gallagher: He’s a wonderful American success story who shows that with hard work and perseverance and faith, you can do great things.

Hansen: Politics has always been an interesting thing for him, but I think his legacy will always be that tamale shop. If you were to say his legacy had to do with politics, he would probably be disappointed, because he sees himself as a businessman first. But when you have a U.S. senator and a state senator call the hospital and drag him there, everybody’s like, “Who are you?” He says, “Everyone wants to know who I am, but I always tell them I’m a tamale maker.”

Sewald: I feel like I’m the closest one to him, but that’s because he treats all of us the same. When you meet with him for advice, he leaves you feeling alive. He leaves the folks he mentors feeling like they can do no wrong, and the world is open to them—the impression that, if you’ve gone after your dreams, even if you don’t win an election, you still win. To have someone like that put his arm around you and bring you into his life…. It’s a beautiful thing. m

Patrick Doyle, formerly a 5280 senior editor, is now the executive editor of Boston magazine. Email him at [email protected].