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Insights: State rep takes the wheel for Uber, sees life isn't politics

November 4, 2017 Updated: November 4, 2017 at 9:56 pm
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Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, has learned a lot about the city and people driving an Uber. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

State Rep. Paul Rosenthal looks out at a bigger world now that he sees it from the point of view of an Uber driver.

A few months ago the Denver Democrat splurged on an aluminum silver electric-hybrid Kia Optima, "efficiency with luxury," the ad says of the sedan's impeccable features.

Rosenthal already has two jobs, as a $30,000-a-year legislator to supplement his job as a teacher for at-risk children at Ridge View Academy, a part of the state Division of Youth Services.

The car payment is supplemented by his Uber earnings.

What he got was a good bit more than help on his car note.

"I've had such great experience talking with such a diversity of people," Rosenthal said as he navigated his shiny ride around the leaf-strewn streets near the Capitol in Denver at quitting time on a Friday.

Rosenthal is a skilled politician, one expected to do bigger things in Colorado public life, and one the governor called out to for an applause line in a large audience for a town hall meeting in Commerce City a few weeks ago.

But when he drives, he's just Paul. He rarely volunteers that he's a lawmaker. The ride is about the guest, not him or what he does, Paul said, as he approached the turn off at West 8th Avenue onto Speer Boulevard.

"I talk about the Legislature all the time, all day long," he said. "I want to talk about you and what's going on in your life. And if people don't want to talk, that's fine, too. But it's about them."

The 49-year-old boyish lawmaker joins in sing-alongs with partying millennials to the thumping bass of his six-speaker audio system. He's chatted with oil-and-gas professionals about their industry. He has ferried locals and tourists, the rich and certainly not-rich.

Later, Rosenthal texted a screenshot of his reviews from passengers, a composite score of five out of five stars.

"It's just so much fun," he said. "And the time just flies by. You lose track of time."

Rosenthal is fascinated by tipping, and not just because of the extra dollars. People who flaunt their wealth don't necessarily mean a generous tip, no matter how smoothly and quickly the trip goes.

He sounds a bit ashamed of himself for once picking up a construction worker in dirty clothes who needed to get from downtown to the Stapleton neighborhood. "I know nothing about construction or paving streets or anything," he said.

"I thought, 'Maybe he'll give me a tip, maybe he won't, he's a construction worker ..." Rosenthal thought.

For the $9 ride, the man left a $6 tip.

"I really have to check myself sometimes," a striking thing for Rosenthal, of all people, to say.

A little more background about him: He grew up in San Francisco and attended a multicultural high school with all kinds of kids. He is a leader in the Legislature for the LGBT Caucus and every year he tries in vain to ban conversion therapy, because it makes gay teens feel isolated and ashamed, he argues. A world traveler on a middle-class income, he is perhaps the state's biggest champion for the international sister cities program.

No one I know embraces diversity better than Paul Rosenthal.

"I don't ever want to come off as aloof, always respectful," he added.

The passengers and the moment he remembers best unfolded in pieces from the backseat of his dream car, real life. Life isn't politics and politics isn't life. Life really happens, and politics is a theory that it's about people's lives, when it's mostly about money.

A mother, about 30 years old, was helping her son, about 10, do his homework in the back seat. The assignment was about how to help someone going through a difficult time.

She was encouraging and loving in a way that immediately struck Paul as significant and interesting. She must have said she loved him a dozen times.

"I thought the lesson was so appropriate, how do you help maybe someone who's made mistakes, how do you forgive them and how do you support them," he recalled.

They were taking the boy to his father. The mom told Paul she had spent time in prison, but she was getting her life back together.

"I could tell how much she loved him, and how much she regretted not being there for him," he said, looking out his side window onto Lincoln Street in Capitol Hill. "It's real people out in the community, not just happy-go-lucky people going to a bar. It's a real snapshot in time of a real family dealing with a real situation. That touched me, and that happens."

Rosenthal recommends every person who claims to represent a large group of people to really get to know them, not as a candidate knocking on a door for a vote or a public official after Election Day, but as a random human with an ear to lend.

Honesty flourishes in the absence of an agenda.

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