It’s a pity that so many younger people are unfamiliar with the name Ruben Valdez. But it’s not surprising. So much of what he did---and that still resonates in every corner of Colorado---has either been forgotten or, perhaps, never known. But, make no mistake, Valdez, a quiet, unassuming man, was a legislative giant. The long-ago high school dropout, who had been in poor health, went to sleep one night last week and never awoke. He was 82.
“Ruben Valdez was a true trailblazer and an inspiration to all of us,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann who knew him from her days as a legislator. Each had their jobs; hers to pass legislation, his to influence it. But he was so much more than a lobbyist. “He was a champion for people of color and women,” said McCann.
What made Valdez a ‘go-to’ lobbyist was his knowledge of the legislature and its process. In the 1970’s, Valdez defied all odds and became the state’s first-ever Latino Speaker of the House. A Latino Speaker in the 70’s was unheard of. “That was something else!” said Val Vigil, former legislator and long-time friend of Valdez. “He knew the law, the politics, knew what he wanted to do.” Valdez, said Vigil, was a mentor who helped him find his voice. “He took an interest in me; gave me a lot of pointers.”
Once accustomed to the legislature and empowered by a Democratic majority, Vigil had to choose between two jobs leadership had offered. “It was rough,” he remembered. He had to decide between Speaker Pro-Tem and Chairman of the Finance Committee. Not knowing which to choose, “I went to Ruben.”
Valdez, recalled Vigil, looked at him and asked a simple question. “Who’s the last Speaker Pro-Tem that you can think of?” Vigil was stumped. “Well, there’s your answer.” Vigil took the finance job.
Valdez political ascendency was bookended by meager beginnings. He was born in Trinidad, the youngest of nine siblings. His father died when he was nine and he dropped out of school at age 15 to help his family. He later moved to Pueblo and worked at a brick factory before moving to Denver where he became immersed in union work, ultimately rising to president of Steelworkers Union 5099.
Valdez was first elected to state office in 1970 and became Speaker in 1975. There, one of his staunchest allies and a person who would become a life-long friend, was an Afro-coiffed, dashiki wearing young man who would go on to serve three terms as Mayor of Denver. “We were always supportive of each other,” said Wellington Webb, in a phone conversation. “Legislators of color stuck together.”
The pair initially met in the tumultuous early 70’s when they worked for separate organizations, Valdez for Operation SER and Webb at the Job Opportunity Center. “He got to the Legislature before I did. But when I got there, we remembered (each other) from the same meetings we had been in.” What united the pair in the legislature and in life, said Webb, “we had the same (philosophic) views.”
After leaving the Legislature, Valdez served in Governor Dick Lamm’s cabinet, held a position in the Department of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter and held other jobs in Colorado’s Department of Social Services and the U.S. Department of Labor and Employment.
In recalling their time at the Capital, Webb said their legislative coalition included the late Rich Castro, Paul Sandoval and Arie Taylor. Another allie, Paula Herzmark, who served as the Governor’s legislative liaison used to joke, “Anytime the three of us (Webb, Valdez and her) were on the same team, working for (Governor) Lamm, we always won.”
In remembering Valdez, Webb recalled a man who knew and loved the legislative process. He knew how to count votes, where to find them and, most importantly, how to work with everyone irrespective of party. He also knew how to massage the language of legislation.
“Many times, at the end of the session, there were poker games that took place after hours,” said Webb with only a slight lilt in his telling. It was a game that Valdez loved to play. But poker, because it was defined as ‘a game of luck’ was illegal. “But Ruben had changed the law,” said Webb. The change was semantic---and effective. No longer would it be defined as a game of luck. Through a legislative sleight of hand, poker would now be called ‘a game of skill,’ and therefore not illegal.
Valdez leaves a legacy of not only personal but legislative accomplishment. His own experience in Trinidad schools was one of the driving forces in shepherding legislation that brought bilingual education into Colorado schools. The one-time high school dropout was also proud of earning a GED diploma and later a college degree from Loretto Heights. Today, there is also a Denver Public School named in his honor.
Valdez wife, Virginia, passed away in 1999. Virginia, said Webb, kept her husband humble even with all of his legislative authority. The Mayor recounted when he and his wife, Wilma, also a close friend of Valdez, would visit the Valdez home, Mrs. Valdez would jokingly say, ‘Ruben might be Speaker of the House, but I’m in charge here.’