Election

Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul López Thinks Outside the Ballot Box

Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul D. López.
Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul D. López. Evan Semón
For decades, county clerks and other election officials around the country did their work in relative quiet. But all that changed with the November 2020 election, which has put these public officials in the spotlight.

With the June 28 primary vote now certified by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office (recount aside) and the November ballot not yet finalized, Paul D. López, a three-term former Denver City Council member and current clerk and recorder and public trustee in the City and County of Denver, had some rare free time. So we sent author Helen Thorpe, who’s trained to be an election judge in Denver and also worked as a greeter at a vote center in the 2020 election, to chat with López about how he got into politics, ongoing controversies over the election process, and how things really work in the clerk’s office.
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Paul López greeting the crowd at Denver Days.
Evan Semón
Helen Thorpe: I’ve heard you say you love your job. What do you love about it?

Paul López:
I love it because I get to be with people. And I get to continue to help people see the opportunity in front of them, the challenges in front of them, and to help them confront them. That’s the difference between an organizer and an activist, right? A lot of us can say we are activists — there is something that will draw us out, because we believe in something bigger than ourselves. But to get behind folks who see challenges — either it’s to their freedom or their happiness or their well-being. Or it’s at a job site, or in a community. They see the injustice, but they don’t know how to address it. As an organizer, you teach them: one, not to fear it; two, you understand their story. You have them see that. And then you move them into action.

It’s an extension of that.

This is the hardest time to be clerk and recorder. But it’s also the best time. And I feel I’m the right man for the right job at the right time. I could have gone so many different ways in my life. Being a Mexican kid on the Westside — could have been a lot of different ends to that story.

Talk about growing up on the Westside back in the day.

I’ve always lived on the Westside of Denver, my whole life. I mean, a little bit in Chicago, worked in Houston, but I didn’t jump on a plane until I was well into college. My dad is a janitor. My mom was a teacher. She was a bilingual teacher. She taught in the community we grew up in, by choice. Teachers don’t make anything; they didn’t make anything back then, either. My parents struggled. There was a lot that we were dealing with at home. I moved, I think I’ve counted 27 times in my life. My dad, his company would get replaced at one of these buildings downtown, and we would have to move. I was having a conversation with somebody about commodities, and they didn’t know what commodity foods were, but anybody who’s had the peanut butter or the canned pork or the farina or the powdered milk, they would know. My parents, it was a little chaotic at home. I’m not trying to create a sob story, but it was really hard, and I left very early.

So you lived on your own?

I bounced back and forth from my grandmother’s house to my house. In a nutshell, worked since I was fourteen years old, bussing tables, washing dishes, cleaning concourses at Mile High Stadium. I was a janitor. I needed to buy my own clothes and pay for my own haircuts, and I learned how to do that at an early age. There was one point where I was sleeping in a tent in my grandmother’s backyard. My parents went to go live in a Motel 6, and there was just no room for me. I didn’t want to tell that story when I first ran, because I didn’t want people to think badly about my mom or my dad. But now my mom’s passed, and her story...the thing is, my story is not unique at all. It’s not. I was a representation of what a lot of us have gone through. But we lived all over the Westside. I went to four different elementary schools. Let me see: Ruby Hill, Russell, Newlon, Knapp. Four different elementary schools.

I got held back in first grade. My teacher had ridiculed me in front of my class. She was reading about Rabbit in the Southwest, Cone-joe, she called it. And I was a little first-grader, and I said, Miss, I think his name is Conejo.

She said, Only clowns speak Spanish. We don’t speak Spanish in here, do we, Mr. López? You’re not a clown, are you?

So I got held back, because my mom plucked me out of the class.

And as a Chicano kid growing up, I wasn’t Mexican enough, and then I was obviously not white. To be Chicano and Mexican, you have this duality, right?
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Paul López at Kindergarten Kickstart.
Evan Semón
Just to clarify for others, you are a U.S. citizen who identifies...

As Mexican. Or I’ll say Chicano, that’s great. But I say Mexicano.

How long has your family been living in this part of the U.S.? When we start talking about Colorado and New Mexico and the notch area...the U.S. border has moved, and the state border has moved, so it’s like, how do we count generations in this part of the country?

Six. A lot of us were ashamed to call ourselves Mexicans because there was always something in front of it [lists slurs], to the point where my grandmother didn’t teach my mother Spanish on purpose so they could assimilate. And my grandmother’s family is from northern New Mexico and northern Colorado. They sold veggies, they upholstered furniture. So the gardening, and my grandmother would always reupholster furniture instead of buying things new. Her handwriting was impeccable. She left school when she was little to take care of the rest of the family. Their family goes back like six generations. I’ve traced it; I’ve done my homework. I used to argue with my grandmother. I would say, you’re from Mexico somewhere, right, Grandma? And she was like, No, we’re from here. My grandmother, she was born in Loveland and raised in Timnath — they moved to Timnath after living in New Mexico — and then Greeley and northern Colorado, Weld County. She picked sugar beets — that was the crop up there. She met my grandfather; he was doing the same thing. And that was the short-handled hoe. [Points to farm implement on a shelf in his office.] They were both farm laborers. The short-handled hoe was banned through the UFW, the farmworkers’ union, because you had to bend over and it hurt your back. It was not a good tool, you know? And just last year, we passed the Farmworkers’ Bill of Rights here in Colorado.

We were talking about the Westside, back in the day.

Went to West. Wasn’t the best student in the world, but I wasn’t the worst. I was bored at the time. Played baseball, got hurt playing baseball. Was going to go to the Army, or the Marines. I placed really high on the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test — districtwide, I was one of the highest placements. And man, I had every recruiter at my door. They were going to make me an officer right out of the gate ’cause of that score. My grandmother intercepted a call one day, and he introduced himself as Gunnery Sergeant James. And she was like, What? What? Army — Marines? Looking for my Paul? No, no, no, no. You got me?

And I heard it. I was like, Oh crap.

She says, Get over here. She says, Paulie, my brothers all went to war. My friends in New Mexico went to war, and some didn’t come back.

My grandfather was there, and he was like, You need to go to school.

My grandfather served with Joe P. Martínez, the Congressional Medal of Honor winner. He came back hurt, my grandfather. And that meant something to me, for him to say it, ’cause I really wanted to [enlist]. Ended up going to CU Denver. I worked as a bartender, as a busboy; I worked as a cook. I had three jobs. I almost failed my first semester. I wasn’t ready for it. Nobody taught me about email, anything like that. And I paid my way, through the whole five years.

And if it wasn’t for joining MEChA, the Chicano student movement, and UMAS [United Mexican-American Students] — now my chosen family, my dearest friends — I would never have lasted. My first Fs and Ds were in college. In sociology, for crying out loud. Who gets a D in sociology? Me. Right? ’Cause I didn’t take it serious, and I didn’t see myself in a classroom.

We got involved in the Chicano student movement, and it just made sense to me after that. And I saw myself as belonging and realized I should be in this classroom.
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Paul López with a young friend at Cuatro Vientos Park in Westwood.
Evan Semón
What did you major in?

Political science. Business. It was boring, and I didn’t like the culture. Then it was biology, and that only lasted a little while. Then philosophy and then political science. I loved it. I loved it because I had some great teachers, particularly Dr. Tony Robinson. He was solid, and involved in MEChA and doing his stuff — organizing. And he was like, I’ll pay you to do that.

We had the Westside Outreach Center, and we organized folks who were living in Section 8. And we marched right into Mayor Wellington Webb’s office. We sat in. The good thing was, we had a mayor at the time who was willing to listen, and the city moved to save East Village, and now East Village still exists, and Courthouse Square still exists. Not a bunch of posh, high-rise, trendy little apartments. It’s for people who really need to live downtown.

How did you go from organizing to becoming an elected official?

I was thirteen years old when I registered people to vote for the first time, in Westwood. And the goal was to register people to vote so we could change the name of the school. Westwood Elementary was one of the oldest schools in the district, and that thing was probably built out of lead and asbestos. They were going to build a new school there anyway, and we decided in the community, my mother and others, to name it after Richard Castro — Rich Castro being a champion of bilingual education. So I went door-to-door with a clipboard, with my mom and others, and registered people to vote.

Here I was in middle school, thirteen years old, awkward, squeaky voice, knocking on the prettiest girl in my school’s door, scared to death, and registering her family to vote.

Change happens. But it doesn’t happen just because you’re holding up a picket sign. If that doesn’t translate into power at the ballot box, then change is not going to happen.

I grew up in the U.S. carrying a green card and then became a citizen at age 21 so that I could vote in a presidential election. I feel that having the right to vote is essential to having a voice in a democracy.

Absolutely. But that’s not the only thing to a democracy. Voting is one piece of a democracy.

If you’re eighteen, you can register to vote and be a voter. What about all those kids who have to do the let’s-hide-behind-the-door drills? They have a voice. Just because they can’t vote doesn’t mean they can’t participate. We have student election judges who are not old enough to vote, yet they are participating. We have young people that know how to go door-to-door, and I’ve seen them do it. It’s that kind of stuff, right? It’s a culture of participation.
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Paul López with fellow Broncos fan Mayor Michael Hancock.
Evan Semón
Talk about the climate of bullying in general that has taken hold again in American society. What’s the right way to stand one’s ground?

Don’t be a bully. Do not be in the position of a bully. To be the bully is to be an authoritarian and to have unjust power over somebody. The only way to defeat a bully in a union is to organize against them. Only way to do it in class is to do the same thing. The only way to do it as a society, as a democracy, is to stand up and participate. Your vote is powerful, but your participation is even more. To be in a democracy requires everyday intent. What you do every day. How do you participate? If you are undocumented, in an election, you can’t vote, but that doesn’t mean you can’t flier, it doesn’t mean you can’t go door-to-door or put a yard sign on your property. And that’s powerful.

You were the youngest person elected to Denver City Council.

At 28. Dang, I feel like one of the Jacksons! My childhood is gone, right? I didn’t have the chance to be a young man. But for me, the organizer’s paycheck is in your heart. This has been my life.

When you’ve done something in the community and you have this victory, no matter how big or small it is, it feels so good; it’s a high. And you know there’s a larger spirit at work, and you are part of that. That’s what drives change: organizers. [After college], I went to Chicago and learned how to do community organizing. Then went to DALF [Denver Area Labor Federation] and SEIU [Service Employees International Union] after that. Then they sent me back to Chicago, to help home health-care workers organize. And then Houston, to help janitors there organize for the first time. Organized janitors in these buildings here, where my father worked. I actually organized my father’s shop. The first time he ever had health care in his life was when I organized that damn shop. That was mighty Coors, whose subcontractors went union. And my father now has a little bit of retirement and some health care.

I could have done other things.

Why did you choose to run for a city council seat at such a young age?

Literally, was just driving down Federal Boulevard one day, and thought, Man.... I was a union organizer, had gotten arrested a few times, loved every moment of it. And I was like, I just drove from the other side of town, and Federal is beat up. No coffee shops, but I can’t tell you how many pawn shops and liquor stores. There are no grocery stores. The streets are all jacked up. Damn, those tags have been on that wall forever. And the worst thing is, you see people walking around with their heads held low. And I thought to myself, If there was ever a physical manifestation of the discrimination in which we live, here it is.

And you know, I never wanted to run for office. I did not like politicians.
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Paul López and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb.
Evan Semón
The Denver Elections Division just finished conducting its bipartisan audit of the primary as it was legally supposed to do. Meanwhile, we’ve had news reports of a private group going door-to-door asking voters what candidates they voted for and by what method they cast their ballot. What’s wrong with a private group attempting that kind of backward inventory of completed voting by visiting people at their homes?

There’s nothing wrong with elections here. To believe that elections are rigged or somehow faulty in Colorado is a lie. These are people who cannot lose with grace.

Unfortunately, those folks are trying to undermine what has already been established and has already been proven to be transparent, to be secure, to be professional and to be bipartisan. They are trying to create their own outcomes.

We even have 24-hour live feed of our ballot processing so people can see what’s going on. We are set up for that level of transparency.

The other thing about it is that in our communities with new Americans, sometimes they’re afraid to vote because they think that we’re going to find out how they voted and we’re going to make somebody disappear. They say, Where we come from, you go missing if you don’t vote for the right person. How do we know you guys don’t do that?

Well, check it out: When you get your ballot, the only thing that has your name is the envelope, and once we verify your signature and we determine that that’s you, [the ballot and the envelope] separate, and they never see each other again. And then we go count the ballots.

And guess what? We don’t work for the parties. I’m a Democrat — and that’s because I have a First Amendment right to be a Democrat — but these are Republicans and Democrats working together. It’s the people who run the elections — the people, not the parties.
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Paul López and Mayor Michael Hancock at Cuatro Vientos Park.
Evan Semón
And when you’re speaking to the new American audience, or even just the average layperson, what do you want people to remember in terms of having their ballots counted?

Vote early.

It’s a paper ballot, we mail it to you.

Let’s go back a little bit. Always check your registration. You may have moved, you may have gotten married, you may determine that Apollo sounds better than Paul, I think I’m going to go with Apollo now. You may have a DJ name, right?

Check your registration. Double-check it. Every time, before every election, just to make sure. For the most part, people already know they’re registered, but because of the way people have been moving, because of gentrification, because of the population gain, especially if you’re young, you want to do that.

Then sign up for Ballot Trace. Not Ballot Trace — it’s BallotTrax now. We changed the system. Because we want people like my family members who live in Adams and Arapahoe to be able to sit at the same table. And you can always talk about BallotTrax, no matter what county you live in, right?

The next step is, make sure you sign your ballot. Sign it, and don’t think twice about it — sign it how you normally sign. And then vote.

Literally: Check your registration, sign up for BallotTrax, get your ballot, sign it when you’re done voting, and go drop it off.

You want to go vote in person, be my guest. We’ve got plenty of vote centers. And this year coming up, we’re going to have West and North and South and East. Manual. These are already community centers that people know and have an affinity for. Why not make them vote centers? A long time ago, we used to do that, when we had precinct polling. Now they’re all vote centers. And they’re places that people have a connection to, so they want to go.

We’ve got 42 boxes now. When I started, we only had 28. We have a box in Swansea. Westwood. Corky Gonzales Library has a box. And his great-grandchild was there with her mom, Serena, a state rep, voting.
[Gonzales] was chairman of the Crusade for Justice. And we have put boxes down in areas where you don’t think there would be boxes. They are 24/7 secured. We have one at Windsor Gardens because of our aging community out there. They are high-participation. They could just mail their ballots, but they like going to vote. Mobility is an issue. So we did a partnership there, and we have agreements in place to permit that. And if anybody tries to do anything stupid to one of our boxes, we’ve got a camera on it 24/7, and nobody does. This whole narrative of monkey business — no, it doesn’t happen.

What else do you see as part of the role of a clerk?

I didn’t come to this job as an elections expert. I came into this role because we have to defend this democracy. And I know that becomes a cliché and it sounds like a hashtag, but it truly is in defense of our democracy. That’s what we’re defending. My grandfather and my grandmother’s brothers — that’s why they fought. And I’m not asking that people go suit up and go defend our democracy abroad. But my grandfather and my grandmother’s brothers — that’s why they fought. People fought in the streets for the right to vote. I was in the streets.

I’m not asking for you to do that, I’m just asking for you to vote. Just participate.

Turnout was low in the primary. Was that because so many races were uncontested?

It typically is, in the primary. A lot of it has to do with campaigns: Is there an active race, are people knocking on doors, are they getting mail, are they getting phone calls? And whatever is on the ballot helps drive it, too.

But in a democracy, voting is one part. The other is, what are you doing to participate before and after you vote? What are you doing every day to keep this a democracy? What are you doing if you’re one of the people who cannot vote, to make sure you have a voice?
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Paul López at Denver Days.
Evan Semón
And the people who cannot vote in the City and County of Denver include...

Undocumented people, minors, and people who are serving an active felony.

However, we have gone into the jail and not only registered voters, but we have set up our first vote center inside Denver County Jail for folks who cannot afford their freedom. There is somebody who doesn’t have their freedom because they can’t afford it, and they’re waiting for a judge, and they’re about to be disenfranchised if we don’t go over there and offer them that constitutional right. Why you’re here, it’s none of my business. My business is, are you a registered voter? Then you have a right to vote. That was in partnership with the Denver Sheriff Department, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the League of Women Voters.

And it doesn’t end there. We’ve gone to homeless camps, and we will continue to do it. They have to have a place where we can mail them a ballot. That can be the Samaritan House. It could be a P.O. box, it could be a friend’s house. But their physical location doesn’t have to be a home. It can literally say “the corner of Colfax” — and the mayor’s not going to like this, but I don’t care — “Colfax and Bannock.” That can be your home. “Tent at Barnum Park, on the Federal and Sixth side.” We have other ways of identifying the voter, through their signature, through an ID. Just ’cause you’re unhoused doesn’t mean you can’t vote. These are the folks people forget about. We fight those battles constantly.

I created an engagement team. Why? Because not everybody is on Twitter. Or Facebook. And also because we need to be in Warren Village. We need to go down and speak to the Russian community. We need to meet with the elders in the Vietnamese community. We need to be in the projects. We need to be in Sun Valley. We need to be in Montbello, where there are access issues. We need to be on the other side of I-70, where there are geographical nightmares in terms of barriers with that damn highway.

Not everything happens online. You can’t expect people to come to government. You’ve got to go to the community. I’ve hired a community engagement team, and one of my youngest ones, she’s amazing, she’s from Fort Morgan. I said, Here’s the agenda: One, I need you to get in the door. Two, get to know their story. Three, I need you to understand the issues in their story. Four, voting as a solution, action as a solution.

This is what I was taught. This is what Saul Alinsky taught. Fred Ross, César Chávez. This is their model. Ricardo Martínez. Dolores, right?

Dolores Huerta. I think you are saying that the most skilled community organizers can inspire eligible but unregistered voters who may feel alienated from society to evolve into becoming active in every type of election.

And that was my shit, back when. That was my specialty. But is that either because they have made up their minds, or have we failed to understand their story? I knew a million people on the Westside: Politics sucks, you suck. You didn’t pave my street. And I would sit there with them. I would hold the damn hose while they were watering their lawn. I got them registered, right? We need to figure who are our eligible unregistered. And check it out: The eligible but unregistered population, guess where they are at? It’s the inverted L, which is the segregated city of Denver. Child obesity, higher in these areas. Poverty, higher in these areas. Arrests, higher in these areas. Lack of sidewalks, higher in these areas. Tree canopies, lower in these areas. Access to grocery stores, lower. And then people who voted.
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Once a Westsider, always a Westsider.
Evan Semón
So your overall goal is increasing participation in democracy through voting?

It’s bigger than that, and deeper, and more long-term. Long after I’m done with this role, we want to create a culture of participation. There should be no question from one generation to another.

President Barack Obama was giving a speech to the Air Force Academy. And he was talking about how people third-party the government. Well, if you live in a dictatorship, [the enemy] is the government, right? But in the United States, we are the people, the government is the people. And we cannot forget that. You hear all these people say, The government, the government, the government. But the government is the people.

It is ours to change. And we have the ability to do it. And you know what? All it takes is one vote. I say that because these elections are close. In a city of 715,000, it can come down to just a handful.

What’s your feeling about the state of the city right now?

I feared this as a councilman. I feared the time when Denver would become so popular. Remember, I was a recession-era councilman. Property values weren’t high. We were cutting budgets, not figuring out how to spend. And I am very, very, very worried about those essential workers being able to call this city home. A city that they defended and kept afloat. I am panicky about schools closing in neighborhoods where kids and families need a school. I’m worried about the city changing so rapidly and us not even having rent control, or policies in place to be able to keep people in the city.

Whatever happens is going to come not at the hands of electeds, it’s going to come at the hands of voters. I fought like hell for my district on the Westside so that we had playgrounds, so that we had libraries, so that we had access to groceries, so that our streets were being paved. But most of all, so that people respected our side of town. And I gave up so much. I gave up so many years with my daughter. I had a failed marriage. I gave so much of myself for my district, away from my own life, you know? And to give it my all and barely move the needle?

We barely moved the needle.

Finally came to realize, you can be a councilperson, you can fight like hell, you can give everything — I’m still a bachelor’s, man, I don’t have a master’s. I shoulda been a freaking doctor by now, right? Like, you can give everything, but if you don’t have the voting propensity in your precincts, guess who is not going to pay attention? Whoever the mayor is and whoever your citywides are, they are going to have to pay attention to the precincts where there is high propensity. That’s where they send the money, that’s where their time goes. If you don’t vote, if your turnout’s low, they ain’t gonna spend money where you’re at.

In order for there to be parity, in order for there to be equality, you’ve got to make sure that people understand the weight of their vote. For their entire community.

What are you predicting for the fall?

That’s really hard. I don’t know. There are so many different things that drive people to the polls. But our job is to create a culture of participation, where people treat every election like the presidential, as their duty.

The other thing on the horizon is, I’m also the recorder, and during the pandemic, we made sure people could get married and record their deeds of trust. I kept my staff safe from COVID. The people who work in this office are real civil servants, unsung heroes. And I do everything in my power to make sure they are honored and respected and have pay equity.

And I get to sit back with my jaded self and watch people get married. And it’s beautiful! You see these young couples come in, dressed up, looking like something out of the ’40s, plastic-lit roses. And you see people who are marrying their partner, their best friend, the love of their life. Then you have a Supreme Court of the United States threatening to go backwards on your right to do that. Those are beautiful wedding ceremonies. That’s real love, that’s real commitment. And I fear — it’s voting rights, it’s your right to choose as a woman — but next I fear they are going to try and roll back equal rights to marriage.

And I am more than willing to go to jail for all these things that I’ve worked for. Not a threat in the world is going to keep us from doing our job. ’Specially not an old Westsider!
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Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist who has written three books of narrative nonfiction about immigrants seeking legal status, veterans returning home from conflict, and refugee families in the midst of resettlement. She has also published a digital only collection of linked personal essays about family, migration, and food.