GREG LOPEZ | A ‘taste-test’ candidate counts on personal touch to prove skeptics wrong
In the world of conventional political wisdom — a world to which he pays no mind — Greg Lopez’s chances of winning the Republican primary later this month are approximately zero.
Lopez is a pretty solid Republican candidate, the old hands in the political trenches will give him that. Veteran? Check. Small businessman. Check. Experience in office? Check. Hispanic? Bonus.
Those who hear him speak in person say he might even be a great candidate, refreshing, really, in his lack of pretension, an ease that says, “Hey, I’m just like you. Not the smartest man in the room. Not the wealthiest. Not the most educated. I grew up in a beans-and-tortillas family, but my parents taught us respect and work ethic and belief in the Lord.” And when he says his childhood home in Texas was about 900 square feet and he and three siblings shared one bed and a bunk bed because bedrooms were not sanctuaries, not places to watch TV and play video games, they were for sleeping, people of a certain age laugh with him because that’s how they remember it, too. In the flash of nostalgia, they warm to Lopez.
He checks the boxes on conservative values. Anti-abortion. Pro-limited government. Anti-sanctuary city. Pro-religious freedom, gun rights, school vouchers. The social conservatives seem to love him. He says he lives by the Bible and makes pronouncements like, “We need to remind our children, if they were born as a boy, they’re a boy and if they were born as a female, they’re a female.” He gets applause when he says he and Lisa, his wife of 30 years, believe God wanted him to run for governor because among them, too, are believers in God’s vast and unknowable plan and who is to say whether there is a mighty thumb on the scale here.
“Normal,” is how people tend to describe Lopez after they meet him. This constitutes praise only during a political campaign where superlatives come cheap and the polish of the candidate on the stump has been burnished to a high, impenetrable gloss.
“Politicians tend to spin things. They try to accommodate. But he’s a true believer,” Giuliana Day of Greenwood Village says after first hearing Lopez at a meet-and-greet in Littleton a couple weeks back. “He presents himself in a very honest way: ‘This is what I am going to do, take it or leave it.’ And I like that. I was very, very impressed.”
A man like that might walk into the Republican state convention in a white button-down shirt, and red, white and blue tie with a copy of the Constitution tucked inside his suit jacket and give a speech that catapults him from relative obscurity into the GOP primary.
Greg Lopez’s name sits now on the Republican ballot along with state Treasurer Walker Stapleton (establishment pick, first cousin of George H.W. Bush) and Doug Robinson (would-be establishment pick, nephew of Mitt Romney) and Victor Mitchell (former state lawmaker, multimillionaire).
His campaign was 11 months old at the time of the April convention. In those 11 months, he’d raised $14,000. Some people running for school board raise more.
And that, conventional wisdom has it, is why Greg Lopez can’t win.
“Mijo, Republicans are for rich people”
The Lopez bio has been well-covered. When he offers it to crowds, he generally summarizes the highlights in this order: veteran (Air Force weapons specialist), child of migrant workers (Texans), small businessman (owns a bar/restaurant managed by his son, Michael, and a project management consulting company managed by his wife, Lisa), former mayor of Parker, about 35 miles south of Denver. He was a long-time board member and interim president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was the president and CEO of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Minority Supplier Development Council, which certified minority contracts in a four-state region. From 2008 to 2014, he was the head of the Small Business Administration for Colorado. Over the years, he ran unsuccessfully for state Senate and planned to run for U.S. Senate in 2016, but his father died and he never actually filed the paperwork.
His stint as mayor, his only elected position, gets the most attention because he was 27 when he took office in 1992. He was a Democrat when elected and changed parties while in office.
He told his mother he was leaving the Democratic Party —her party— before he made the announcement. She did not approve. “Mijo,” he remembers her telling him. “Republicans are for the rich.”
In the early ‘90s Parker had strong mayor form of government, which means Lopez managed the city, too. He touts this dual role on the stump. He does not say that during his term, voters approved a change to a city manager form of government. Lopez supported the move, but two weeks after the town vote, while he was out of town and when he still had eight months left in his term, the City Council unceremoniously stripped him of his duties and appointed an interim city manager.
Parker’s politics were ugly and centered around growth. In 1990, the population was about 5,600. By 2000 it would surpass 23,000. Lopez’s most controversial action was to veto a council-approved annexation of 136 acres, a move later supported by voters.
(He remains wary of growth and often draws applause when he says if he were governor, the state would not be courting the Olympics and it wouldn’t be wooing Amazon and certainly wouldn’t be offering any tax incentives. Companies seeking incentives have loyalty only to the deal, he says, not to the town, the city, the state. For that, he says, you have to turn to local businesses, and, most of all, to small business. Helping small business through deregulation is the heart of his campaign.)
His one and only term as mayor was marked by lawsuits, accusations of double-dealing and name-calling. A Douglas County district attorney investigation of Lopez and five of the six council members in which, a 1995 Colorado Springs Gazette story reported, an investigator spent 60 hours over three months “looking for criminal activity, such as bribery, undisclosed conflicts of interests and influence of officials,” resulted in no findings of wrongdoing.
This was all chronicled somewhat breathlessly by the state’s biggest newspapers back when there were still reporters to cover what was happening in bedroom counties.
Lopez did not seek reelection. Speaking of this time in an interview, he says, his eyes wide, that if he wrote about a book about what really went down there people would never believe it.
In 1993, during his term as mayor, he and Lisa, then pregnant, got into a fight. He’d been drinking. She hit him. He pushed and then kicked her. She was cited for harassment. He was cited with third-degree domestic violence.
At the state Republican convention, someone passed out sheets of paper emblazoned with the words: “This is Greg Lopez. Charged with domestic violence against his pregnant wife.” It went on to say, “The Republican party cannot afford a candidate that won’t win the general.”
He was expecting such an attack. In January, he and Lisa made a campaign video in which they sat side by side, holding hands, talking about the fight and marriage counseling and the strength of their bond. They didn’t get into any details. They basically summed the incident up as a teachable moment never to be repeated.
The only Republican on stage
Lopez likes to emphasize he will be a governor for all of Colorado and he is the only Republican candidate to regularly appear at candidate forums sponsored by left-leaning organizations.
In an audience full of lefties, he sticks to the Republican orthodoxy. He says he “will die on the sword” to defend TABOR, the voter-approved constitutional amendment that limits state spending. He says state government may say it has no money to fix roads, but he will find it. He says, in reference to both LGBTQ people and undocumented immigrants, that he doesn’t believe in “extra rights, but equal rights.”
He’s no moderate, not even close, but he has way of sounding reasonable enough that people in these audiences nod when he says standardized testing has gone too far or that we need to bring back vocational education because “it’s just wrong” to make kids feel like they will never be a success unless they go to college.
The nodding stops the moment he says there are communities in the U.S. that practice sharia law, or that society’s violence is a result of having abandoned God, or transgender people — for whom he insists he bears no personal animus — might just be confused. We need to go back to the values of the ‘50s when men respected women and opened doors for them, he said at one forum. “No,” a woman shouted from the audience. Yes, county sheriffs should hold people past their release dates if immigration enforcement asks, he said at a recent meet-and-greet.
For someone who carries a copy of the Constitution in your pocket, you seem pretty comfortable with holding someone without a warrant, I tell him after that gathering. He cocks his head, not defensive, but curious. He says that if immigration asks a county sheriff to detain someone, it must have a good reason, and holding someone for some number of hours seems reasonable.
“I’m not saying arrest them,” he says. “I’m not saying, ‘Hey, you gotta hold them for weeks.’”
We go back-and-forth. He pulls out his pocket Constitution, and reads the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure. “You know what,” he says. “I’ll need to talk to more attorneys.”
The ghost of Darryl Glenn (who is still very much alive)
Lopez says at every opportunity that his path to victory lies in winning 15 percent more of the Hispanic vote and 15 percent more of millennial vote than Republican candidates have been able to win in previous years, particularly in the state’s most populous counties. Had Ken Buck been able to do that, says Joe Rodriguez, Lopez’s senior campaign adviser, he would have defeated U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010. According to exit polling, Bennet won a whopping 81 percent of the Latino vote.
Lopez can win over Hispanics, he says, because “I know how to communicate and engage with the Hispanic community. I am one of them.”
The Hispanic community is diverse, so what does that mean? I ask him.
“What is means for me, maybe most, is the struggles of the Hispanic community, the traditional Hispanic community, the heritage, the history, the machoism, the whole thing about how we have been brought up,” he says. “Some of the things people have told us that we can’t achieve. Some of the things that people have told us that you’ll never amount to much.”
We are talking after a meet-and-greet at a Littleton brewery. About 30 people showed up and now all but a handful are gone. Lopez has no handler perched nearby running interference. He sits on a couch, drinking water. I tell him that before he arrived, his ethnicity came up and provoked a familiar exchange.
“In this day and age, with all the division, we should all just be looking at we are all people,” one woman said. “We all face the same issues.” Said another: “I don’t think race and ethnicity come into it. I think that’s just a narrative of the left.”
So, does your ethnicity matter? I ask.
“I think it matters,” he says. “People want something they can connect to, something in common. It’s just a common thread.”
Jerry Natividad, a prominent Hispanic Republican businessman who served on Mitt Romney’s presidential steering committee and is backing Doug Robinson, calls Lopez an “outstanding gentlemen. He’s very bright. He’s very articulate. He’s really engaged with the depth of public policy, and I think his message is good.”
But, Natividad says, what the Republican party needs is its own version of Ken Salazar, the Democratic powerhouse who served as state Attorney General, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior during the Obama administration. Salazar, a moderate Democrat, was able to draw Republican support, including Natividad’s.
“We need someone of that caliber,” he says, “and, while I think Greg has that ability, the difference is Ken had the money and my good friend Greg doesn’t.”
There is no talking about money and Greg Lopez without talking about money and Darryl Glenn, the Republican nominee who sought to unseat Bennet in 2016. Like Lopez, Glenn is the rare nonwhite Republican, and as such, must thread the needle of the party’s conflicting attitudes about that fact.
Its first take: Race and ethnicity don’t matter. At all. Floyd Trujillo, another well-known Hispanic Republican businessman declared on Facebook that he could not back Lopez in the primary (though would if he made it to the general), in part because Lopez’s past work included steering federal and other contracts to minority-owned businesses, “which, in my opinion are great qualifications if running as a Democrat.” Trujillo, who is backing Walker Stapleton, tells me later, “To me, Hispanics are natural conservatives. We reduce them to the color of their skin, rather than their values.”
The second take: by elevating Hispanic and African-American candidates, the party can prove it welcomes nonwhites. (And, a couple non-Hispanic Republicans told me, given the left’s preoccupation with race, a Hispanic Republican might pull some Democratic votes in the general election.)
Like Lopez, Glenn, a lawyer and a county commissioner, had no money of his own. Like Lopez, Glenn came basically out of nowhere to win the state party convention in 2016 and land on the primary ballot. Glenn then won the five-way primary, thanks to infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending on his behalf.
And then Bennet crushed him in the general election. (Glenn is running now against six-term incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn in Colorado’s 5th Congressional district.)
Glenn’s fizzle weighs on the mind of a voter like John Koller from Castle Rock. Koller was a delegate at the state convention. He walked in planning to vote for Stapleton but voted for Lopez after hearing him speak. But Koller is uncertain whether Lopez can prevail in the general election against what will undoubtedly be a more monied Democratic candidate. “I don’t want to see another repeat of Darryl Glenn,” he said after the Littleton meet-and-greet. Later he told me: “I really hope Lopez can deliver. We need someone who is different and can build bridges because, I mean, we’re not talking to each other.”
Without money, Lopez can’t win, says Dick Wadhams, a senior and somehow ageless statesman of the Republican political consultant fiefdom.
“This is the stark reality of a primary election fight. You’ve gotta have the financial infrastructure because the only way you build a statewide infrastructure for a primary is with money,” Wadhams says. “You have got to be able to touch several hundred thousand Republicans and this year, the unaffiliated voters, of course. The only way to do that is with mail, with media.”
Natividad says he described it to Lopez this way: “You’ve got Coca Cola and Pepsi and let’s say Pepsi says ‘I’m not going to do any more marketing. I’m going to control the market based on taste tests. I will go to every 7-11, every street corner, every Costco and do a comparison of my product versus theirs.’ At the same time, Coca Cola is spending $20 million on marketing.
“Every street corner might tell you, ‘Oh, I like this Pepsi,’ but how many people is that in the end?” Natividad recounts asking Lopez. “Tell me, how do you run against Walker Stapleton with his Coca Cola?”
‘The money will come’
Lopez, of course, has heard the Glenn comparisons. He says he can’t speak to how Glenn ran his campaign in 2016, but that as far as he’s concerned, the 2018 campaign for governor truly started when the ballots dropped last week. Now, he says, the sprint to June 26 begins. His campaign will do a couple radio spots, has ad buys logged in Grand Junction and Colorado Spring, and, he says, social media helps amplify his message, he says. Lopez’s most recent campaign finance statement says he had $10,605.03 in the bank as of June 4.
Once he becomes the nominee, Lopez says, millions will pour into the race to support him, not just from super PACS, “but I will get access to donor lists and phone numbers, where I, along with hundreds, will be able to reach out to the Republican Party.”
Plus, he says, each of Colorado’s 64 Republican county chairs will mobilize their people and “overnight, you will have a network actually working to get you elected … The money will come. The money is there.”
First you have to beat Walker Stapleton, I remind him.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t know that it’s that hard to do.”
“You know why I think I can do it?” he goes on. “Because I’ve done it before. When I ran for mayor, I’d only lived in town for a year and a half. I ran against the incumbent mayor. She’d been on the council for four years and had served as mayor for a year. I ran against a bank president and against a retired school teacher who became a real estate agent. They were all 15 years my senior. They had a strong network that I did not have.”
He won by 33 votes.
Lopez’s campaign was buoyed last week when he won a straw poll of candidates after speaking at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver — the equivalent of Natividad’s Pepsi drinkers. A few days later, a more scientific poll of 593 likely Republican and Republican-leaning unaffiliated primary voters put him in third place and far behind Coca Cola Stapleton.
At the Littleton gathering in early June, Pam Winnefeld said she narrowed her choice to Stapleton and Lopez. Everyone’s saying Stapleton is the logical choice, she said, but the fact that he’s an insider — state treasurer, Bush relative — “is really not my thing.”
She said she’d heard Lopez on the radio and liked what he had to say. She came away from the meet-and-greet even more impressed.
“He comes across as someone who could be your next-door neighbor and you would like,” Winnefeld told me later. “Yes, he runs his own business and yes, he’s been a mayor, but he doesn’t come across as Joe Blue Suit Boardroom who you would never talk to.”
The Winnefeld family took a Lopez yard sign home that night. Winnefeld texted me the next day. They put the sign right in the middle of the front yard, on a well-traveled road in Highlands Ranch.
Photos of Greg Lopez by Phil Cherner
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