The Organizer

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.

"We lived in that beat-up house," he says, slowing the car. "We had a garden hose for a shower." I look at him incredulously, but he's serious. Lopez laughs. "The plumbing was all jacked up. Absentee landlord. You really can't complain, because they'll kick you out."

When they got kicked out, Lopez would always end up at his grandmother's house, the only house in Denver that he considers his true home. It was the place he claimed as his residency when Phillips filed a complaint with the Denver Election Commission stating that Lopez hadn't fulfilled the requirement of living in the district for twelve months before running for the seat. At issue was a voter registration card from 2005 that showed Lopez living outside the district boundaries. But since the election law doesn't define residency, the commission ruled that Lopez's longtime connection to his grandmother's house and District 3 was substantial enough for residency. However, the issue is still being reviewed by Denver District Court.

He doesn't intend on having it questioned again. Lopez recently bought a beat-up old HUD home in Barnum with his wife and newborn daughter. "My family, we rented all our life," he says. "So I know what it's like to do that, and I don't want to do that. I don't want my daughter to grow up like that."

He pulls up to a house with a brown lawn and weeds growing tall from cracks on the front porch. Taped to the door is a foreclosure notice, one of three on the block. He knows there's a story behind that sheet of paper. "That's why you really have to get to know people and listen to them if you want to fix your neighborhood," he explains. His logic goes like this: If you do not have a living wage, you are going to have to work a second job. If you don't have health care and get sick, then you have to choose between the hospital bill, rent or food. "And then you definitely don't have enough money to water the yard or paint the house," he says. "And this is a city in the middle of an economic boom? It's not fair."

It's no surprise that it always comes back to labor with Lopez. The big fix.

But at least for now, Lopez is refraining from any of the class-warfare proclamations that marked his formative years. He has yet to articulate designs on proposals that would offer direct assistance to the working poor, like a living wage ordinance. But he does hope to talk with fellow labor-backed councilmember Chris Nevitt about the possibility of drafting a bill to require a higher minimum wage for workers paid through municipal funds.

I ask if he has plans to resubmit a failed proclamation that would limit police use of pepper spray, mounted patrols or instruments of force on peaceful protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Lopez answers that he has concerns for the "safety of people on both sides of the fence" and pushes for collaboration.

It's not quite the stance that DNC protest leaders were hoping for, particularly since Lopez sat in the street with many of these same organizers when he and 230 others were arrested by police in 2004 during the largest of the perennial anti-Columbus Day protests. The charges of loitering and refusing the order of an officer were eventually dropped.

So what happened to shut down Denver?

"Being a diplomat is a challenge," Lopez says. "But my passion hasn't changed. I'm still the same Paul Lopez with the bullhorn. The only difference is now I'm responsible for a whole district with different people with different economic backgrounds. I may wear a tie once in a while. But you still have to have the corazon, the fighting spirit."

Let's hope his suspension can handle it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jared Jacang Maher