Former legislator Paul Sandoval memorialized at state Legislature

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate on Tuesday remembered the late former Sen. Paul Sandoval for being a hustler considered the “Godfather” of Colorado political circles. Sandoval died on April 24, 2012 at the age of 67 after the hardest campaign of his life, a painful battle with pancreatic cancer.

He was memorialized as a wheeler and dealer who did not rest solely on Democratic races, though he was a Democrat through and through. When Republicans he admired came to him for his blessing, Sandoval was willing to break partisan divides.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, a Republican, is the perfect example. Sandoval fought his fellow Democrats who opposed Benson’s appointment. Sandoval saw the potential in Benson’s leadership on education.

Former state senator Paul Sandoval died on April 24, 2012 at the age of 67, but his full life was remembered by friends and colleagues at the state Capitol this week.
Photo by Morgan Smith

Former House Speaker Bev Bledsoe, a Republican, could also attest to Sandoval’s willingness to work with the other side, especially when a deal was in the works. As a tamale maker, Sandoval knew that he could appeal to Bledsoe’s love for Mexican cuisine. When Bledsoe asked Sandoval to cater one of his next parties, Sandoval made Bledsoe an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

Bledsoe agreed to guarantee Republican votes on one of Sandoval’s bills that legislative session in the early ’80s — as long as the price tag of the legislation did not exceed $100,000. The result: a measure that erected sound barriers along a stretch of Interstate 70 in Sandoval’s northeast Denver district. Those barriers are still there today.

“He worked across the aisle… There isn’t a statewide candidate that hasn’t come to see Paul,” recalled former House Speaker Ruben Valdez, D-Denver, who spoke during the Senate memorial.

Much of Sandoval’s political enthusiasm was embedded in a desire to hustle. Even before he could speak English — having been the child of a family with deep Hispanic roots — Sandoval learned to say, “Denver Post — 5 cents,” while operating a paper route as a young boy. Those early aspirations extended into his political science.

“Gov. [John] Hickenlooper once said when he was mayor that he would consult his cabinet and advisers when problems would arise, and then he would go to the tamale shop and ask Paul Sandoval what to do, and that’s what they’d end up doing,” explained Sandoval’s wife, former Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver.

Back room deals. And tamales.

Paul Sandoval was elected to the Senate in 1974 and 1978, and once to the Denver school board in 1983. But it wasn’t so much his work as a legislator, as much as his political strategizing when not in office. Most of that strategizing came from inside his tamale shop in north Denver on Tennyson Street. It has since moved to West 35th Avenue and Tejon Street.

It was inside this tamale shop that Sandoval mapped out the political careers of countless candidates and politicians, usually on a crumpled piece of paper, or even a napkin.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, was one of those candidates. After Sandoval positioned Salazar to win the Democratic nomination for state attorney general in 1998, the two became good friends, and Salazar went on to national acclaim. They remained friends to the bitter end, with Salazar calling Sandoval almost every day during his illness until he was too sick to hold a conversation.

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, also a Democrat, was another politician to have earned the good grace of Sandoval’s approval. Webb reportedly fought back tears when he realized the grave severity of Sandoval’s terminal condition. The two had been friends since childhood.

There are too many candidates and politicians to mention who sought the advice and support of Sandoval over the more than four decades during which he dealt his political might. Mayors, governors, legislators, commissioners, council and school board members all came to Sandoval for his approval, similar to the Godfather character created by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. If Sandoval asked, they’d bow down to kiss his ring.

“He was indeed the Godfather of north Denver,” attested Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who watched her political career launch at the direction of Sandoval.

“I like to call him a political scientist, because he understood that political power was there to secure a better opportunity for children; political power is that which can help aspiring citizens; political power is that you can use to support those who worked for and cared for orphans and children who were needy; he knew that political power could help him find dollars…” continued Guzman, who sponsored the memorial honoring Sandoval.

Guzman, who is gay, remembered Sandoval once asking her if she had any outstanding background issues to discuss.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m gay,’” recalled Guzman.

“He said, ‘For God’s sake, that doesn’t make any difference. I mean, do you have any back taxes that you haven’t paid,’” she warmly joked. “It didn’t matter to him, he respected diversity.”

A character in both business and pleasure

As his wife, Paula Sandoval, pointed out, her husband was a larger-than-life, colorful character — both in work and play.

Sandoval also helped to secure his wife’s political career. In 2002, when she was running for the state Senate seat her husband once held, he called his buddy Benson, who was then chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. Sandoval expressed his desire that Paula not have a Republican opponent. No Republican challenged her, though the district leans Democratic to begin with.

But it wasn’t simply his political genius that won the hearts of women. His charisma with the fairer sex could be overpowering. Paula Sandoval often called her husband the most handsome man on the planet.

He apparently had a power over his ex-wife as well, who he maintained a relationship with. When they met, Sister Mary Helen was with the Sisters of Loreto order. But she left the order to be with her love. They had four children together.

Paula Sandoval said her husband even maintained a relationship with his high school sweetheart, who he had his first child with.

While he wasn’t always a successful businessman — having hit rock bottom at one point — he always rebuilt. He was also once arrested on a drunken-driving charge, and resigned his school board seat in 1988 after the incident.

His advantages, however, clearly outweighed his shortcomings. In fact, it was a combination of his failures and successes that made the complete package.­­

“He was not always successful… he had his share of losses as well as successes,” said Paula Sandoval. “But he handled failure and success in the same way — with integrity and strength.”

A painful battle

He ultimately lost his final and most important campaign — against cancer. The devilish disease, which took hold of his pancreas, brought him to intense pain, which overtook most aspects of his life.

Doctors had been hopeful in the beginning, but in the end the treatments were not successful.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, understands pancreatic cancer all too well. The nefarious illness also took his beloved partner, Dave Misner, last year, just a few months after Sandoval departed this earth.

“I knew quite a bit about pancreatic cancer, but I didn’t know that it would be something affecting me as well, just a few months after Paul’s passing,” Steadman said during the memorial. “It is something that will forever bind Paula and I together — that experience of losing a loved one to this horrible disease.”

Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, who was brought to tears while remembering Sandoval, said she still summons his spirit.

“I feel cheated because there’s so many times, particularly this session, that I would like to say, ‘Gosh, what would Paul say? And what would Paul do?’” she spoke to colleagues, forced to pause from her remarks as emotions overwhelmed her.

Paula Sandoval said her husband would want his friends, family and colleagues to simply celebrate his life.
“While it’s sad to have lost him,” she said, “we also rejoice in the life that we were privileged to share with him.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com