On the third Saturday of each month, the Colorado Democratic Latino Initiative meets in a nondescript building on an industrialized stretch of Pecos Street just across the Denver County line in Adams County.

The organization overseen by Mannie Rodriguez has played an outsize role in helping elect Democrats and encourage Latinos to run for office.

At the Oct. 19 meeting, three U.S. Senate candidates — former Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff and state Sen. Angela Williams — talked about why they were running and took questions from the audience.

Other candidates and a who’s who of metro area Latinos were there to listen, learn and eat.

Among them were Maria de Cambra, the communications director for Gov. Jared Polis, who said she wasn’t attending in her official capacity but as a “Westminster Latina.”

Rosemary Rodriguez, the former state director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet who now leads Together We Count, discussed the upcoming 2020 Census. By the way, she said that while Bennet continues his long-shot run for president, he will see what happens after the New Hampshire primary.

After the meeting, the Latino Initiative hosted caucus and delegate training. Attendees learned about voter registration and how to target Latinos who haven’t voted in the past. During campaign season, volunteers work the phones.

“Mannie has been a good soldier for the Democratic Party,” said Alan Salazar, chief of staff for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “He’s always been willing to help.”

Salazar laughed as he recalled Rodriguez forgiving him for calling him “Mannie Martinez.”

Rodriguez, 70, grew up in northern New Mexico; one grandmother was Apache and one grandfather was French. The family labored in fields all over Colorado. He joined the Marines during the Vietnam War, came to the VA Hospital in Denver in 1970 and never left Colorado.

His wife, Corinne, is from Albuquerque. Their son, Robert, was elected to the Colorado State Senate in 2018.

Rodriquez and some fellow veterans started halfway houses for vets. Funding from the feds dried up; “They said the war was over and so there was no need.” So Rodriguez got involved in local politics. He turned to the Colorado legislature, where he worked with several lawmakers, including Paul Sandoval, who later became known as the godfather of Colorado politics; Federico Peña, who became Denver’s first Hispanic mayor; and Rich Castro, an educational and civil rights activist.

Rodriguez eventually was elected chairman of the Democratic Chicano Caucus, a statewide group that was autonomous from the Democratic Party.

He attended the Democratic mid-election conference in Philadelphia in 1982. Keynote speakers attacked President Reagan. Democrats hoping to unseat Reagan in 1984, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, and U.S. Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Ted Kennedy, attended.

Hart said “while Reagan may be the greatest communicator in history, 'it doesn't matter at all if all he has to communicate is division, and despair, and depression,” according to a story from United Press International.

Rodriguez attended the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 as a delegate for Hart.

At the time, former Colorado state Sen. Polly Baca, who was at the Latino Initiative potluck, was vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Latinos were upset that a proposed Simpson-Mazzoli bill called for, among other things, fining or jailing employers who hired illegal immigrants. Baca worked with other national leaders to confront the leadership of the U.S. House about the bill. They met with House Speaker Tip O’Neill and top House leaders.

Rodriguez was proud to be part of the growing Latino voice.

Mondale won the nomination over Hart and Jesse Jackson. Geraldine Ferraro was chosen as the first woman to be on a major political party’s presidential ticket. Baca said somewhere there is a picture of her banging her heel at the podium because she couldn’t find a gavel.

The San Francisco Chronicle described the convention as “historic but not smooth,” and Reagan thumped Mondale that November.

Two years later, Reagan signed into law the latest version of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. Among the provisions: amnesty for illegal immigrants able to prove they had lived continuously in the United States for the past four years.

Over the years, Rodriguez has played a role in Colorado Democratic victories. He worked on Roy Romer’s first gubernatorial race in 1984, which is where he met Mary Alice Mandarich, the former chief of staff for the Colorado Senate Democrats. They’ve stayed friends ever since. She brought the homemade brownies that Rodriguez loves so much to the Latino Initiative potluck.

They both have served as national committee members for the Democratic Party.

“There is so much more to Mannie Rodriguez and it goes unnoticed,” Mandarich said. “Mannie’s life is centered around helping veterans and helping to make sure that they are remembered for being the heroes they are.”

In fact, Rodriguez, who owns the building where the Latino Initiative meets, initially planned to remodel it as a halfway house for veterans but couldn’t get zoning approval.

Mandarich gives Rodriguez credit for the uptick of young Latino elected officials at the city and state levels, saying he and others worked “to make sure there was a seat at the table.”

In 2014, two staffers working for Hickenlooper, Alan Salazar and Romaine Pacheco, approached the Colorado Latino Initiative for help. Hickenlooper was struggling against former Congressman Bob Beauprez in his bid for a second term.

Rodriguez said 100 volunteers made calls seven days a week, reminding voters that Hickenlooper’s lieutenant governor was Joe Garcia. “That was the hook,” he said.

The race was so close Hickenlooper wouldn’t even learn until the day after the election that he had won.

Hickenlooper, speaking at the October meeting, mentioned the help he received in the close race and the difference it made.

Rodriguez offered a moment of silence for former Speaker Ruben Valdez, who died Oct. 1. He was the first Hispanic speaker and a fixture at the Capitol for five decades, and part of a group of influential Colorado Latinos who helped shaped policy and politics in the state.

Mannie Rodriguez is part of that legacy.

Lynn Bartels can be reached at againlynn@gmail.com.

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