Somewhere in the Denver clerk and recorder's office that he is moving into this week, Paul Lopez plans to post a sign that reads “397.”
That’s the margin by which Lopez — a three term Denver City councilman — edged out lawyer and ethics watchdog Margaret “Peg” Perl in the June 4 runoff election.
It was the closest Denver municipal election in 20 years and just missed triggering an automatic recount.
“That’s a number that’s going to go on my desk, so I don’t forget the value of the vote,” Lopez said in a recent interview on the Colorado Politics Podcast.
The close vote also drove home some important lessons about how votes are counted in Denver, Lopez said.
After the May 7 general election, there were about 960 votes that were initially not counted because of discrepancies such as mail-in ballots that were unsigned or had signatures that did not match.
Those voters were given time to correct those defects. By going door to door during that period, Lopez was able to obtain enough additional votes to avoid the automatic recount.
But in looking over that list of voters, Lopez said he noticed that most of them live in what he referred to as Denver’s “inverted L,” a stretch of precincts that run northeast along the I-70 corridor and then south along Federal Boulevard.
They also happen to be the precincts where many of Denver's lowest-income residents live.
Lopez said the Denver Election Commission works hard to make sure to alert people that they can “cure” the defects on their ballots and make them count.
But in talking to voters, Lopez heard from people like a man whose signature was altered after he suffered a stroke, from a woman who was legally blind and several young first-time voters who had made simple mistakes.
“And I thought to myself, 'You know what? We should be going out and doing this after every election, even ones that are not that close,'” he said. “We should make every effort to make sure that these votes count.”
In a wide-ranging 45-minute interview, Lopez also talked about another solution to improve voter turnout: moving the municipal elections to the November ballot, when turnout is typically higher.
Lopez said he is open to the idea but wants to hear first from the voting public.
“We have to engage people all around the city and get feedback from folks all around the city,” he said. “Because it’s not just up to folks who are downtown here in the Webb building or over here on Bannock to make that call.”
“We have to make sure if we’re going to change the essential timeline and the way we chime in and the way we participate in elections, we have to make sure everybody’s engaged,” he added.
Lopez said he got his start in politics as a youngster listening to his grandmother read Denver’s two daily newspapers over her morning coffee.
Later, he went with his mother, a teacher, as she went door to door to convince neighbors that a new Denver elementary school should be named after former state lawmaker and community activist Richard Castro.
The campaign succeeded and instilled in Paul Lopez a sense of belonging.
“It took me out of my shell. It got me to actually talk to people in my neighborhood,” he recalled. “I was so afraid, so scared to engage with people.”
“Then I started realizing, I really started falling in love with the people in my neighborhood in a way that I enjoyed the stories. I loved seeing people that looked like my family,” he added.
“And for the first time, somebody with a name kind of like mine was going to be on the marquee of a school.”
Several years later, after he had become of union organizer in the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, Lopez decided to go door-to-door again as a candidate for Denver City Council in District 3 on the west side.
His efforts there caught the attention of the Paul Sandoval, who summoned Lopez through an intermediary for a meeting at Sandoval’s restaurant.
Lopez knew Sandoval’s daughter Amanda, who won a seat in Denver District 1 in northwest Denver this spring. But Lopez said he did not immediately make the connection that her father was a legendary power broker in North Denver.
“I like you, kid. But let me do two things,” Lopez recalled Sandoval saying when they met at the restaurant.
First Sandoval said he would convince a relative who was also running for the same council seat to drop out of the race.
And second, he told Lopez to shave his mustache, a rather elaborate one at the time.
Lopez shaved some of it off, but on a return visit, Sandoval told him to shave the rest of it.
“And I said, 'I don’t know man. This is me. This is who I am.'”
“'Yeah,' he said. 'That’s what Ken Salazar said,'” Sandoval said, referring to the future state attorney general. “'And if Ken Salazar can shave his mustache, then you can too.'”
So, he shaved the moustache and gained a political mentor.
“And I remember him telling me this and he said, 'You grow it back when you’re established. Because then you’re going to have to prove to people that you’re old enough to get in the club.'”
In all that time, even after he won a seat on the City Council, Lopez said Sandoval never asked him for any political favors.
But Lopez said Sandoval did teach him a valuable life lesson.
“He understood the power of relationships in politics,” Lopez said.