CU Denver alumni are making an impact on the future of Denver through their work on the Denver City Council. While Christopher Herndon, Council District 8, and Paul D. López, Council District 3, took different paths to their seats in the City Council Chambers, both share ties to CU Denver and a passion for service.
Christopher Herndon, Council president, Council District 8 representative
Leaders are learners
Denver City Councilman Christopher Herndon knows that being a leader means being a learner, which is why he enrolled at CU Denver. Herndon earned his Bachelor of Science in systems engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1999, and received his master’s in management from Webster University in 2003. After moving to Denver he earned his Lean Six Sigma certification from the University of Villanova. His latest achievement is a master’s in public administration (MPA) from CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, which he began in 2011 after being elected to office.
“I believe it is important to continue to get any type of education that you can, because that just makes you a better leader,” Herndon said. “After getting elected in 2011 I thought it would be a great opportunity to go back to school. I thought a master’s in public administration would be very fitting, given that I had just taken on a new role in public service.”
CU Denver’s MPA program was ideal for Herndon, as it allowed him to connect with working adults—helping him to be an effective council member while completing his degree. Herndon also offered praise to CU Denver for its ability to work with veterans.
“I appreciate any university that recognizes and supports veterans as we try to further our education,” Herndon said.
A desire to serve
Herndon’s reason for running for Denver City Council was simple: He wanted to serve.
A seven-year military veteran, whose tenure includes deployments in Kosovo and Iraq, Herndon moved to Denver in summer 2006 after being honorably discharged. He chose to live in Denver after accepting a position with United Airlines, which gave him the choice of being based in a city near one of five airline hubs.
Along with his new position, Herndon immersed himself in activities throughout the city, joining his registered neighborhood organization, teaching financial literacy courses, becoming involved at his church and volunteering to tutor Montbello students. It was while connecting with his community that Herndon made a personal discovery.
“I realized I missed public service,” Herndon said. “I wanted to find a way to serve again. In 2009 when I heard Councilman (Michael) Hancock was running for mayor, I thought about it and decided I wanted to run for office.”
During Herndon’s campaign in 2011, he set out to introduce himself to his future constituents. Rather than champion a particular cause, he just let people know who he was and that he wanted to serve.
“People needed to know I understood leadership and I understood service, which my time in the private sector and military have given me,” Herndon said.
Since his election to city council, Herndon has advocated for business creation in Denver and founded Northeast Denver Leadership Week, a weeklong program that connects high school students from diverse backgrounds with business and community leaders. In addition, Herndon is serving his second term as council president, acting as city council’s voice to the administration and working with Mayor Hancock to make sure he is aware of the council’s concerns. Even with the increased responsibility, he maintains that first and foremost, he wants to serve.
“When I go to registered neighborhood organization meetings, I always try to say that, ‘You are the reason I am here. You are my priority. You are the reason my team and I get up in the morning.’ I don’t like to call myself a politician or an elected official. I’m a public servant.”
Paul D. López, Council District 3 representative
A love of organizing began at CU Denver
When Denver City Councilman Paul D. López first enrolled at CU Denver as an undergraduate, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study. He considered everything from biology to business before finally selecting political science. His first year he struggled to find his place at CU Denver, and almost quit.
But everything changed for López when he became involved with UMAS-MEChA, an organization with a sole purpose to recruit and retain Chicano students in higher education. Through the organization, López learned self-determination and the value of community, while regaining the vigor and drive for his studies.
“I realized that I shouldn’t allow myself to be intimidated or feel inferior to sit in the front row of that large classroom,” López said. “Throughout history, people have struggled so much to create that seat of opportunity. To walk away from that would be to dishonor those struggles.”
Before he graduated in 2002 with his B.A. in political science from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he was elected and served a term as president of the university student government. It was also while López was at CU Denver that he found his passion for community organizing as part of the Westside Outreach Center. For López, organizing was a way to learn by application—applying what he was learning to his own neighborhood.
“I fell in love with seeing everyday people win,” López said. “We organized together on all levels, from gaining access to health care and affordable housing; to putting up stop signs in busy play areas.”
López would continue this passion for several years by organizing in the Denver Justice for Janitors movement, which unionized thousands of metro Denver janitors to access healthcare, living wages and respect in the job.
The big moment
López remembers the moment he decided to run to represent District 3. He was driving down Federal Boulevard and saw something was wrong. Actually, for López, a lot of things were wrong. The roads were in poor condition, graffiti was everywhere and pawnshops, liquor stores and payday lenders lined the streets one after another.
“The worst part was to see good people walk with heads held low,” said López, who was born and raised on Denver’s west side. “I didn’t recognize my own neighborhood.”
It was 2007, and there was an open seat on the council. López had wondered who would be running but didn’t imagine going for it himself. A neighborhood leader egged him on. He easily dismissed the idea, enjoying organizing and working behind the scenes. She told him he was afraid.
She was right.
López didn’t want to become just another politician and was afraid to disappoint. But during that drive, something clicked.
“It’s not enough to simply recognize a problem, or an inequity,” says López. “It’s about taking action.” He wanted to change things, and so he decided to run.
López had his work cut out for him. He had experience organizing community members and working on other campaigns, but never for his own. With six others running for the seat, López knocked on every door in the district organizing and gathering support.
“I did what I was trained to do—listen and organize,” López said.
At first an immediate underdog, López overwhelmingly won in District 3, and at 28, he became the youngest person to be elected to the Denver City Council, according to records.
López continues to be an advocate for his district, and has seen remarkable improvement. Since he has been in office, the west side has begun a transformation that López hopes to see continue. The district has its first new park in nearly 30 years, a new health clinic, a decrease in graffiti vandalism, better and safer affordable housing, and almost all of the streets and a large portion of alleys in the district have been paved—some of which were still dirt until just a few years ago.
“The important thing is that at the core of all of these victories, there is community,” López said. “The end result is to hear people proudly say, ‘I’m from West Denver.’ That’s what this work is all about.”