The Organizer

Can councilman Paul Lopez reconcile his anti-city government past with his establishment future?

The first stop on the Paul D. Lopez District 3 sightseeing tour is a dirt alley. It's craggy and rutted, and I grip the armrest as his two-door Honda creeps down the residential corridor. Already his suspension is fucked from bringing observers here — and he's only been a Denver City Councilman for a month. We pass a broken-down car languishing in a backyard and a caved-in garage coated in an overlay of gang graffiti. This isn't just dilapidation, it's a neglect that has taken on its own gravity, the kind that first pulls down a house, then a block, then a neighborhood. It's a weight that Lopez carries with him all day. We hit a wide pothole, and the car's undercarriage gnashes against the ground. I ask how city trash trucks are able to maneuver this terrain.

"Exactly," he answers. Already, I'm beginning to understand District 3.

At 29 years old, Lopez is the youngest member of city council. With a suit and BlackBerry, though, he could pass for a man in his mid-thirties. Maybe it was the campaign that aged his demeanor. He seems different than the first time we met in the spring of 2005. Then an organizer with the Service Employees International Union, Lopez was attending a meeting at Denver Police Department headquarters ("Pick a Card," April 14, 2005). The discussion between chief Gerry Whitman and young activists on the issue of racial profiling was fairly restrained — until Lopez turned up the heat. "My family and I have been getting harassed by police officers since I can remember," he told the chief. "All the community sees is a blue line."

The next year, Lopez was speaking at a rally near the State Capitol, where he encouraged immigrants to show their economic power by participating in an upcoming national spending boycott. "We are going to shut down Denver," he announced. The crowd cheered, though many were unsure of what to anticipate. Two weeks later, on May 1, Civic Center Park was flooded with an estimated 75,000 protesters, nearly 2,500 of whom were SEIU members. Lopez knew many of them, having worked on the union's "Justice for Janitors" campaign to earn better pay and healthcare for downtown cleaning crews, which included his father.

Such grassroots support came in handy earlier this year, when Lopez heard that council president Rosemary Rodriguez would be vacating her position for a spot on the federal Election Assistance Commission. He decided to throw his hat in the ring in the May elections — along with six other candidates. Lopez and JoAnn Phillips trounced the other contenders, and then Lopez bested Phillips in a run-off. But victory did not come without some hefty legwork. Lopez estimates he and his supporters traversed the southwest Denver district five times and knocked on thousands of doors during the five-month campaign.

To talk about the issues, we meet for lunch at Lookin' Good Restaurant off First Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard. When I arrive, he shakes my hand and then gives me a knuckle pound. It's a working-class diner with a menu the size of a broadsheet. Elvis statuettes adorn the walls next to murals of Greek temples. Lopez started coming here with his grandparents as a kid, and then he worked at the restaurant as a teen, washing dishes and bussing tables, a fact mentioned repeatedly in his campaign literature. "I was pretty much raised by my grandparents," Lopez says, although he lived with his parents and three siblings in various rentals in the Westwood and Barnum neighborhoods. Add in Barnum West, Marlee and Villa Park, and you have the neighborhoods that comprise District 3, some of the poorest areas in the city with the highest concentration of Latino immigrants.

He understands that while other areas of Denver are surging with development and rising property values, his neighbors' homes are stagnant or losing value. This has everything to do with the housing stock. Many Denver neighborhoods established at the turn of the century have homes with intrinsic historical value, but District 3's homes don't have the appeal of those character-laden, pre-war buildings. Instead, they were built in the post-war rush of housing and are mostly cinderblock or stucco on a flat slab of concrete. Plus, when the area was developing, it wasn't incorporated into the city, so many of the homes and streets were not designed or constructed to city code ("Change of Plans," November 30, 2006).

"You look at other areas of town that have these distinct identities," he says. "Victorian homes, porches with the stoops and the flower pots. And you've got to ask yourself, 'What is southwest Denver's identity?'"

It's a question he's asked himself since graduating West High School and enrolling at the University of Colorado at Denver. He wasn't a good student when he first arrived on campus, but then he got involved with a Latino student activist group and was elected student body president his junior year. He did a summer internship with the SEIU and, after graduation, he became a staff organizer.

When we get in his car, the seats are filled with papers. "It still an organizer's car," he says. We drive by at least a half-dozen places that Lopez points out. Some are apartments, others dilapidated houses no bigger than a doublewide trailer; all are rentals he lived in while growing up.

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