Once a Democrat, Greg Lopez was Colorado’s youngest mayor. Now he’s a Republican running for governor.
In 1992, when Greg Lopez won a municipal election in Parker at the age of 27, he became Colorado’s youngest-serving mayor. His election happened around the time a handful of Hispanics were elected to public office in Douglas County.
Lopez was a Democrat when he was elected, but switched parties two years later as House Speaker Newt Gingrich was using his Contract with America to lead a Republican revolution in Congress.
Now, a quarter century later, Lopez, 53, who lives in Elizabeth and runs a restaurant with his son, is running in the crowded Republican gubernatorial field as a champion for small businesses and someone who says he will represent all 64 counties. He carries a small booklet-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution in his breast pocket.
His campaign slogan: “It’s about all of us.”
What’s Lopez’s background?
A son of migrant field workers in Texas, Lopez moved to Colorado three decades ago.
“My dad had a sixth-grade education, couldn’t read or couldn’t write,” he says. “My mom has an eighth-grade education. So I understand what it means to be humble … to preserve and protect, and take care of whatever you are able to achieve. I think that makes me different.”
He’s also a disabled vet who lost 87 percent of hearing in one ear after four years in the Air Force.
After serving a term as mayor of Parker, a small city south of Denver that boomed in population in the mid-1990s, Lopez left government for the private sector. “My wife reminded me that it was more important to be a husband and a father than to be a politician,” he says. “So I chose not to seek re-election.”
He did consulting work, joined various boards, and later became president of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and then president of the Rocky Mountain Minority Supply Development Council, which oversaw Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The group is funded by corporate America to bring more work to minority-owned businesses. After that he became the state director of the U.S. Small Business Administration where he says he spent six years traveling Colorado, doing breakfasts, luncheons, the rubber-chicken circuit and town halls talking about the “importance of Main Street” and economic development and trying to get banks to give loans to small businesses. He boasts of helping land $2.9 billion in loans and $4.6 billion in federal contracts to small businesses, which he says helped create about 40,000 jobs throughout Colorado.
These days he runs a small restaurant and bar called The Hideaway in Aurora and does consulting work for small businesses. He says his bid for the state’s top political office carries the support of his wife who runs her own healthcare industry business and their son and a daughter who are in their mid-20s.
What got him thinking about running for governor is his ability to solve problems, he says. And now he can answer a question he says was often asked by those who met him as he toured the state in his previous jobs: When are you going to run for high office?
What are some of his campaign themes?
Small business is the big one.
“I want to be the governor who supports small business and advocates for them,” he says. During a Sept. 14 candidates forum in Aurora he told a crowd of retired public employees, “I’m working to remove all the stifling regulations that you find in small business.” In an interview, he says he specifically is talking about how hard it can be to get certain certifications like, say, for cosmetology. He says he wants to streamline the process for creating a small business in Colorado. As governor, he says he would look deeply into business regulations and why they exist.
Another theme is a pitch for career and technical training. “You don’t need, necessarily, a college degree to be successful in life,” he says.
Lopez also makes a big deal about the 64 counties in Colorado and being someone who will represent all of them, not just the urban centers and the Front Range. Part of that is understanding water needs in rural communities, but he says he doesn’t have an answer yet about how to tackle a looming shortfall.
And he talks about wanting to root out fraud, waste and abuse in government. Asked to be more specific about what fraud, what waste and what abuses, he says with a budget the size of Colorado’s malfeasance must exist. How would he find it as governor? He says he would visit with front-line state employees and impress upon them that when someone is applying for state largesse that applicant must be legit. He would also do spot-check audits across state government programs.
“Those are going to be the highlights,” of his campaign, he says about backing small business, wanting to bolster technical training, representing all counties and rooting out fraud. He says he would address other issues, like transportation, once elected.
Where does Lopez fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
He talks like a moderate problem solver, not a red-meat ideologue.
“I’m not your typical Republican,” he said in a recent interview at the Interstate Kitchen and Bar in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District. “I’m not wealthy, I’m not an attorney. I’m not someone who you would say has been groomed by the party. I’m someone who is looking to do the right things for the right reasons. I’m a problem solver and I’ve been doing that for the last 20 some odd years.”
When Lopez was running for mayor in Parker, he recalls speaking to classrooms and hearing students ask him what party he represented and why.
“My answer for a while was, ‘I’m a Democrat because my mom and dad are,’” he says. But after awhile that answer didn’t feel right. He decided to study both party platforms. He found a mentor on both sides with whom he would talk through the big questions. After six months, he says he pulled out a piece of paper and drew a line down the center, writing out issues and values on either side, one side topped with a D and the other with an R. “I came to the realization I’m a Republican,” he said. He was 28 years old.
Because he was elected as a Democrat, Democrats fumed. Republicans in Parker, he says were happy but unsure of their new Republican mayor. Whenever it came up he would use a version of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Some men will change their values and beliefs for the sake of the party. Other men will change parties for the sake of their values and beliefs.”
And that, Lopez says, “is why I became a Republican.” What that means in practice, he says, is being a conservative who believes in financial responsibility and less government.
He voted for Donald Trump for president, he says, because “I could not vote for the other individual.”
Where might he draw his support?
Lopez is running a grassroots campaign without a cadre of buzzing aides with digital devices, stickers and clipboards. He isn’t raking in boatloads of money.
“A lot of people will say, Greg, nobody knows you,” he says. “Well, you know what, nobody knows me in the press, nobody knows me in the political circles. But you talk to small business owners, you talk to people in the trenches and they will tell you, ‘Yeah, we know who Greg Lopez is.’”
So he’s relying on a web of contacts in the small business community he cultivated over decades in his positions with the Hispanic Chamber, the Development Council, and the Small Business Administration.
“We all know the next governor has to win Denver, Arapahoe, Adams, Boulder and Jefferson Counties. Those are where the votes come from,” he says. “I have a network entrenched into Denver, Arapahoe, Adams— throughout the counties.”
Lopez says he will go through the caucus-assembly process in the GOP early nominating contest, which means he won’t try to gather enough petitions to get directly onto the ballot. It’s a gamble in a large field because only three contenders can emerge from the April assembly after the thousands of Republican delegates gathered cast their votes. So he will be getting to know them as part of his campaign.
He also pitches himself as a candidate who will go places other Republicans might not. In an interview, for instance, he says he planned to soon meet with a local Teamsters union group.
“I’m going into the minority communities,” he says. “For the last 20 years I’ve been working with minority communities. So when I go into the black community, when I go into the Asian community and the Native American community and the Hispanic community they know me. I’m not a candidate for governor, I’m a friend that they know that’s running for governor.”
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Lopez candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far right wing of the party more than one who does.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Republican Party nominates for governor. Republicans will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates.
Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in. One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Lopez believes the new law will be a positive force.
“If your message is not resonating with [voters] you have a problem with your messaging,” he says.
Photo by Corey Hutchins
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