Former Parker mayor Greg Lopez and Colorado 2018 gubernatorial candidate shocked the political establishment when he guaranteed his place on the Colorado Republican Party primary ballot by earning more than 30 percent support at the April 14 state assembly. He describes his surprising victory and the policies he sees as setting him apart from the still-sizable pack in the wide-ranging conversation below.
For more than a year, Westword has conducted in-depth Q&As with gubernatorial hopefuls. Among the Republican participants in the series are Colorado treasurer Walker Stapleton, who also won a spot on the primary ballot with his performance at the state assembly, entrepreneur Victor Mitchell, a successful user of the petition process, and businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson, officially on the ballot by a judge's order after his initial rejection. On the Democratic side, we've chatted with former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Representative Jared Polis and Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne, who have secured their places on the Democratic Party primary ballot.
Interview subjects in this series who are no longer in the running on the Republican side include Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, tech expert and author Barry Farah, 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock, former congressman Tom Tancredo and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, who is now focusing on a bid for attorney general, as well as several Democratic counterparts: ex-Republican-turned-Dem Erik Underwood, businessman Noel Ginsburg and Representative Ed Perlmutter, presently engaged in a re-election effort for the 7th Congressional District.
Lopez begins by talking about his hardscrabble youth, his stint in the Air Force and his unexpected entry into politics by way of the Parker mayoral race, which he won at age 27. He also details the time he spent as Colorado director of the U.S. Small Business Administration — an experience that informs his economic policies. In addition, he weighs in on gun rights, water issues, transportation and TABOR, among other things, and he doesn't balk at discussing a 1993 domestic-violence arrest involving his wife of three decades and a past DUI bust. These incidents helped shape him, too, he stresses.
Continue for more of the Greg Lopez story.
Westword: Why should Coloradans vote for you to become the state's next governor?
Greg Lopez: I recognize that there are 64 counties in the state and there are so many different economies and so many different ways of life. It's important for the governor to keep his hands on the pulse of all the people who are out there. I'm a former elected official. I know what it means to be a true public servant. I really care about the future of Colorado, and I care about where we're going. And I don't think we're heading in the right direction. I think we need to re-evaluate a lot of the decisions that are being made and make sure that we all have a future we can be proud of, not only for ourselves, but for our children. That's why I'm running. I think I bring the right voice, the right temperament, the right experience, and I want to do the most I can do to help the state of Colorado.
Where are you from originally? And how would you describe your family and where you grew up?
I'm originally from Texas. I was born and grew up predominantly in the Dallas area. I grew up in a little town called Irving. That's where I went to school. That's where Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys play, was built. I've been in Colorado thirty years. I moved out here when I got married to my wife, Lisa. We've been here since 1989.
I come from humble beginnings. My parents worked long hours in the fields until I was almost ready to go to school. I have three brothers, and my parents decided they wanted to provide a better life for us, and they didn't want to keep following the crops, so they landed in Dallas. Their journey was from the Rio Grande Valley, the tip of Texas, all the way up to Michigan, where they were picking strawberries and cherries.
I had a little brother who passed away. When my mom was expecting, she caught the German measles, and he never was able to speak or able to see, never able to hear. There were a lot of surgeries on his ears and he had heart issues. He just passed away a year ago.
He wasn't supposed to live past ten. He was a year younger than I was. The Lord gave us a lot of time with him. People have told us he was a walking angel. He never saw evil, he never spoke evil and he never heard evil. That's a very touching sentiment when people say that.
I was on the free lunch program. My mom used to go and buy clothes at Goodwill. I remember having to go to K-Mart to chase the blue-light special and put pants on layaway. We always got one pair of pants, one shirt and one pair of shoes at the beginning of the school year. We were all excited until we found out we couldn't take them home because they had to make payments before we could get them. Being the third boy, I got a lot of hand-me-downs. I tell people now that we live in an 1,800-square-foot home now, but I grew up in a 900-square-foot home: two bedrooms, one bath. Us boys had bunk beds and we shared a full bed. That's how we grew up.
My dad was a hard worker. He was a truck driver. My mom didn't work. She took care of the boys and the family. Tortillas, beans, potatoes: We were a very humble family, but we made ends meet. We had pride in our values and we believed in our Lord, and I still do. We just did the best we could with the life we had. We never got down, never pointed fingers. We always knew we had the ability to define who we were. My parents taught us that you work hard, you take care of the family, you take care of your job, you don't call in sick, you're always there. You surround yourself with good people, you believe in God, you go to school, and if you do all that, you'll be able to achieve the American dream, whatever that is. Whatever level you want to go to, you can achieve. Not that it'll be easy, but you can get there.
I don't forget my humble beginnings or where I come from. It's a little surreal that I'm on the ballot considering where my family comes from.
When did you decide to join the Air Force, and what experiences did you have during your service that inform who you are today?
My brothers and I were the first to ever graduate from high school of any members of the clan: uncles, nephews. We were the first. And I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I really wanted to fly jets. A lot of kids wanted to be firemen, policemen. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I never wanted to fly to the moon, but I thought it would be cool to fly jets. When I graduated, I tried to get into the Air Force Academy; there's a whole different story on that. But I decided to make sure I fulfilled my expectations, so I joined the Air Force. I wanted to be close to the military. My older brother had joined the military, so I got to see a little bit about what it was.
There were two components that made me want to join the military. One was that I wanted to experience more in life than what was around me. I thought, I'll join the military. Who knows where I'll go, but they would take care of me — give me food and shelter and medical care. I just had to do what they told me to do and I'd be fine.
When I got into the military, I was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base here for tech school. Lowry was still active, and that was my first experience with Colorado. It was a different experience. Family vacations when I was growing up were spending three weeks with Grandma and Grandpa. We didn't travel to different places.
I ended up at Holloman Air Force Base down in New Mexico, and what I really learned was the brotherhood — the brotherhood that comes from being in a military unit. In basic, they remove your entire identity. Everything you are, everything you believe you are, they remove it. They purge you from what you think you bring to the table and help you re-form those values of loyalty and teamwork and brotherhood. That's why you need to learn to march together and do things together as a team — because you're all connected. Everybody needs to stand together to be able to achieve any mission or task we might find ourselves being assigned to. It helped me understand that in life you always have to have good people around you and we all have to help each other.
In my unit, there were some great people, and there were some great sergeants who took me under their wing and guided me not only through the military process and organization, but also life — giving me good advice and guidance and talking to me about life and the future. I had a sergeant say, "You're not going to waste your time just sitting around playing with cars or buying stereos or whatever most guys do. You're going to go to college. You're going to go to school." That's why he picked me out of the group. He said, "That's an order. That's not an option for you." I was like, "Okay, how does that work?" And he said, "You need to go register at the college [New Mexico State University]. We'll make sure and schedule you appropriately, but you will go. I expect you to get a degree, and I don't expect C's and D's. I expect A's and B's."
So that's what I did. It was kind of fatherly military advice from someone who cared. And I built some great relationships there. There are four people I'd take a bullet for. That's how much they mean to me. And I think when you talk to a lot of people in the military, they probably have a similar story. It really taught me how to be a better man and how to look at things differently. It taught me it's not all about you. It's about the mission.
After you moved to Colorado, you ran for and were elected as mayor of Parker at a very young age. What inspired the run? And what are some of your proudest accomplishments from that period of time?
I was a weapons specialist when I was in the military. I worked with fighters and pilots and ended up losing 80 percent of hearing in my left ear, so I'm a disabled vet. Coming into the real world, the skills set you get from being in the military doesn't always transfer over to the private sector. But I was fortunate to become a financial adviser. I was helping people with their retirement, with stocks and mutual funds. So I learned a lot about the economy and the stock market when I got out of the military.
We ended up in Colorado because my wife...we had gotten married and were living in Texas when she got a job offer up here from US West at the time. She asked, "Would you mind moving back to Colorado?" I said, "No" — and I thought I was being smart. I thought, maybe there will be one day in my career where they'll ask me to relocate, and if I follow her for her first relocation, maybe I'll have a trump card I can play then. Now, I would never leave Colorado. But that was my thinking then.
We moved out here in ’89 or so, and if you recall, Colorado had just gone through the Silverado fiasco. We moved into Denver and got a phone call one night and were asked, "If you could pay what you're paying for rent now and get a house, would you do it?" Of course, the answer was, "Yeah. Why wouldn't we?" So the agent came out and asked, "What do you want?" And I said, "I want a nice neighborhood where I can leave the door open, hear kids playing out front, the dogs barking. A really nice family environment." And she said, "You need to go to Parker." And we were like, "Okay?" And she said, "I'm going to take you."
We used to live in the area of Mississippi and Havana, and she started driving. My wife and I were in the back seat, and we were like, "Where is this lady taking us?" Because she was taking us out in the country. We thought, "This is far!" She brought us to a subdivision called Cottonwood, and it was a water district, and it was in bankruptcy. One night after we moved there, I got home from work and my wife said, "You need to go to this meeting. I just got this notice that our water district is in bankruptcy and they're talking about our taxes going up and our rates going up. You need to go." I was like, "I don't know anything about that." She said, "You need to go" — and when your wife tells you that you need to do something, nine times out of ten you end up doing it.
So I went and asked a lot of questions because I understood the bond market and I understood the issues. And I got drafted to become the president of the homeowners' association, which was dormant at the time. There was no job description of what the homeowners' association president did, and there were no mandatory dues. They were all voluntary. So I decided the one thing I could do is go to the council meetings and report back about what the council was talking about.
For a year, that's what I did. I'd go to the council meeting and sit back and listen, and then I'd come back and report. I never thought I'd be running for elected office. There was a time I thought I might want to sit on the school board, and I was selected to sit on the Douglas County long-range planning committee for the school district. We talked about growth, talked about when we would need to build new elementary schools or high schools based on the student population and so forth.
When the election came up, people came to me and said, "Greg, you need to run for mayor." I said, "Why?" And they said, "We're the biggest subdivision in town, and we don't feel we have any representation." I said, "I'm not interested. I need to do what I'm doing." But I started to get phone calls from people saying, "We hear you're running." And I would be like, "No..." I got all these phone calls over the course of two months. I finally asked, "Where are you guys hearing the rumor that I'm running?" And they said, "We're hearing it from the county commissioners." I said, "I don't even know who those people are." They said, "I don't know, but they say you're running, and if you are, we're behind you." So I committed that I would do some due diligence.
We'd had our son by then. We had no immediate family in Colorado, but when our son was born, if you recall, there were a lot of stories about shaken baby syndrome, and my wife was really nervous. So I volunteered to stay at home and raise our son for the first year, because she was making more money than I was. I said, "I'll stay home and raise him if you trust me with him." And she said, "I trust you enough to know that you're not going to do any harm to him, so, yeah." I was able to go out to city centers and places like the Optimists Club, and I would bring my son along in the stroller, in the walker. I would just ask, "What are the jobs of the mayor?" I realized there was no true incumbent, and after talking to people, I said, "Okay, I'll do it. I'll run."
No elected official can ever know if you're truly making the right decision when you vote for something. You can only hope, because no one has a crystal ball, where you can say, "That was by far the right decision." And I only voted when there was a split vote. If the council didn't have a split vote, I didn't vote on any issue. But there was an annexation called the Davidson property, and people didn't like it. It was residential, it was a little far removed from the town, services were going to be extended, and every referral agency said no — and the community said no. There was a councilmember who was in conflict that I found out about, and I had to ask him to remove himself. Then the vote happened and they passed it. But I had veto power, and I vetoed their decision.
They were not happy. They'd gone through this whole battle, so they decided to take it to a vote of the people and put it on the ballot, and let the people decide. And the people came back two to one in my favor. That one decision was the only time I used my veto power once in my entire administration — and when the people were asked, "Did Mayor Lopez do the right thing?," they came back and said, "Yes, he did." That kind of thing typically doesn't happen. So that's one of my proudest moments as a public servant — knowing that I truly represented the wishes of the people.
Could you talk to me about your time as Colorado director for the U.S. Small Business Administration?
That's one of the biggest positions I've had and the one I'm most proud of, because I helped small business across the entire state of Colorado to be successful and achieve the American dream. Every community has a small-business component. Our entire country is built on the shoulders of small business. It's not built on the shoulders of big corporations. When you think about it, every corporation started out as a small business at one point or another. So small business is really dear to my heart. I know that's where people are really trying to improve their lives and improve everything around them. They take the risk to hire others, and then they're responsible for those people — to make payroll and make sure they're not losing income. And it's tough. It's tough to be a small-business owner. But there are people who are driven by that.
When I was at SBA, I was the voice and face of small business. I was at the highest ranking level you could be in the state for that agency, and I'm proud to say we were able to garner $2.9 billion in loans to small businesses while I was there, $4.6 billion in federal contracting when I was there, and about 45,000 jobs that were either retained or created from those contracts.
I resigned — I left SBA — because of the VA hospital. I was the first one to ring the bell about there being a problem with the VA hospital being built, because I had 21 small-business owners come to me and say, "Greg, we need your help. We've reached out to our congressional delegation, but we don't think they're paying attention to us. We've been doing work for two years and we haven't been paid." I didn't understand that: "What do you mean you haven't been paid? You haven't been paid for two years?" They said, "Yeah." And I said, "That's just wrong." They said, "Can you help us?" I said, "Let me do a little bit more research."
Then one of the congressional staffers called me and said, "Greg, have you seen the letter?" I said, "What letter?" The entire Colorado delegation had sent a letter to the VA saying they needed to fix this because there were small businesses going bankrupt. So they provided me with the letter, and sure enough, all seven members of the Colorado congressional delegation and the two senators had signed it. After that, I made a phone call to a dear friend of mine, Jim Nicholson, who was the former secretary of the VA, and I said, "I need help." He said, "What do you need?" I told him, and he said, "You're going to get a phone call. Thank you for letting me know." Then I got a call from the chief of staff of the Veterans Administration and he said, "Greg, we're hearing you're wanting to help us." I said, "Definitely. What can I do?" And they said, "We're going to send our team down there. Maybe you can help them." So I started to help them, and we were making progress. But unfortunately, my leadership in Washington felt that I was overstepping my boundaries as a director for the SBA. I did not agree with their assessment, because I felt it was my job to advocate for and help small business at all levels, because small-business people have families and obligations. And I finally realized, perhaps the federal government isn't where I need to be, because they have different values than I do. I want to be a public servant, and they're telling me I can't do this. It seemed like the perception of the government was more important than what was actually happening, and that's not who I am.
So I decided it was time for me to leave, because government — at least the federal government — will always use tactics that aren't warranted. It started to hurt the state, it started to hurt the small-business community, and I thought, it's all because I'm standing my ground. That's why I decided to move out of the way. But I walked away with my head high, because I did everything I could at the level I was at to help small business. I had letters from small-business owners thanking me for everything I did for them. I told them I was going to dive on the sword for them, and I knew it was a battle I'd have to fight at a high level. So I knew exactly what I was walking into. But being able to stand tall and support the mission was the most important thing. I met a lot of great bank owners and small-business owners. There's so much energy in the small-business community here in Colorado. You'd be surprised and amazed at some of the products and some of the services and some of the things they do. You'd scratch your head and think, "This is all happening in our community?" And the answer was yes.
The last story I'll share with you about the SBA: You'll remember that under the Obama administration, there was a movement to stimulate the economy. They decided to support shovel-ready projects, and they also decided they were going to revamp and modernize all the federal facilities — just bring them up to modern-day facilities. I was approached by GSA [General Services Administration], and they told me, "We're going to do this to the buildings. This is what we're doing, this is how we're doing it. Do you have any questions?" I said, "I have one question: What percentage of this work is going to small business?" They looked at me and said, "Sixteen percent." I said, "Okay." They said, "You don't look happy." I said, "I'm not." They said, "What percentage would you want?" I said, "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't tell you I wanted to go 100 percent small business. And based on what you're telling me, I know we have small-business owners who can do this. I know that for a fact." So they went back to their leadership, they shared my displeasure, and after about five weeks of serious discussions and them realizing I wasn't going to back down, they went to 100 percent small business.