Greg Lopez: The suburban ex-mayor challenging the Republican establishment

Greg Lopez in Colorado Public Radio's Denver studio. June 9, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Greg Lopez in Colorado Public Radio’s Denver studio. June 9, 2022.

A few minutes before 9 a.m. on a recent morning, a rented sedan swooped into the parking lot of a strip mall in Parker.

Out stepped Greg Lopez, one of two candidates for the Republican nomination for governor of Colorado. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Lopez lives by the maxim that one should always be early — even if it means driving a little too fast sometimes.

“I have a tendency to have a heavy foot, you know?” he said in an interview that Monday. “If I'm late for a meeting or trying to get somewhere, or I get caught up in a conversation … I have to remind myself that, ‘You know what, you need to slow down.’”

But at this moment, speed is necessary.

Lopez is running for governor as a Republican and the June 28 primary is fast approaching. He’s the right-wing underdog in the race, but he’s built a base of support over the last few years with a message about making Colorado great again by controlling the state’s booming development and rejecting liberal influence on culture and government.

“It's like, how did we lose Colorado?” Lopez said, adding that voters “are tired of the rich elitists on both sides — the Republican side and the Democratic side — you know, trying to dictate to us who the candidates should be.”

His campaign office in this aging strip mall — a former tattoo parlor, complete with sinks in each cubicle — was stacked that day with Lopez yard signs and decorated with a few patriotic sparkles and a white board. Lopez takes pride in the no-frills operation.

“This really reflects my personality and how I look at things,” he said. “It just needs to be functional. It doesn't need to be fancy.”

Compared to rival Heidi Ganahl, Lopez has less money, fewer big endorsements — and more troubling episodes on his public record, most notably a 1993 domestic violence complaint, a 2003 DUI, and allegations that he misused his influence from a federal job. 

He talks freely about those incidents, saying they were mistakes in the past while still disputing some of the reported details. He frames them through his evangelical Christian belief in repentance and redemption, and argues his humility will connect with voters.

“There’s only been one perfect man who ever walked this earth, and we nailed him to the cross. I’m not a perfect man. I’ve made my mistakes. I’ve learned from them, and I think most people learn from their mistakes, and I think that’s what most people want to hear,” he told 9News host Kyle Clark in a televised interview.

Lopez is happy to be the right-flank challenger, as he also was during a failed 2018 run at the governorship, in which he finished in third place in the Republican primary. This year, he thinks his chances are better. Several months ago, he won more support at the GOP assembly than any other candidate in the race — ensuring his name appears first on voters’ ballots.

What’s his platform?

As a candidate, Lopez is many things to many people. He’s a God-fearing conservative and a businessman. He’s also trying to become the state’s first Latino governor. In his 2018 run, he often said he doesn’t “look like most Republicans.” 

“I am here to tell you that America is not evil and there is no systemic racism. I'm Hispanic. I never felt there was a systemic issue,” he said.

While he hits the usual Republican messages about shrinking government and supporting small business, he gives few details of his policy plans — instead saying he’ll “start a conversation” on everything from behavioral health to housing. He often presents himself as a convener and a “servant leader.”

“You always look 'em straight in the eye. You give 'em all the attention that they're asking for,” Lopez said of voters.

On some of those issues, Lopez talks about compromise. He told Colorado Matters that he was open to the idea of banning people under 21 from buying AR-15-style rifles, a stance few Republican politicians have entertained.

But in other areas, he cuts hard right. He believes President Donald Trump won the 2020 election, a false claim whose purported evidence has been rejected by dozens of courts. He says the “jury is still out” on whether climate change should be a priority for lawmakers. And he told Colorado Matters that he would not have implemented many pandemic restrictions, comparing vaccine mandates to racial segregation.

He opposes legal abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. His campaign says, however, that he would allow operations to remove a non-viable but still-living fetus. (Ganahl generally opposes abortion but supports exceptions for all three of those reasons.)

In a speech at the GOP assembly, Lopez promised to abolish “critical race theory and the sexualization of our kids from public schools.” Lopez was raised Catholic and now attends The Rock church in Castle Rock, and occasionally Colorado Springs’ Church for All Nations, a hub for far-right politics in the state.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican candidate for governor Greg Lopez at the 2022 Colorado Republican State Assembly on April 9, 2022 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.

His message resonates with voters like David Moran of Delta County, who worries about election security and is offended by changing norms about gender.

When the two met, Lopez “heard my idea, he heard who I was, and he repeated it back to me,” Moran said at the GOP assembly. “He was willing to fight.”

The party establishment doesn’t share that faith. Lopez’s record — and the data from electoral polls — are a worry for some, said Republican political consultant Josh Penry. Penry and many of Colorado’s more-centrist high profile Republicans, including former Gov. Bill Owens, are supporting Ganahl. 

“Lopez is working hard and hustles and people like him. He does have some crossover appeal,” Penry acknowledged.

But he pointed to the fact that Democrat-aligned groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads that may help Lopez win the primary — a sign they also expect he would do poorly in the general election.

“Democrats have … concluded Greg (Lopez) is the one they’d prefer to run against,” said Penry, who condemns the Democratic meddling in the race.

'From humble beginnings'

Lopez’s parents and grandparents traveled the U.S. as field workers, with Lopez himself sometimes pitching in as a small child. He grew up to become a first-generation graduate of high school and college, joining the U.S. Air Force out of high school and using military benefits to pay for an associate’s degree in business administration from New Mexico State University — Alamogordo.

“I come from humble beginnings. A lot of people will say, ‘Well, you had an unfair disadvantage.’ And I said, ‘No, that's not true,’” Lopez said, adding that “we all start at the same point” and arguing everyone has a fair shot in the U.S.

Lopez stayed in the military for four years and left active service after sustaining significant hearing loss from airfield work. He and his wife, Lisa, moved from his home state of Texas to Colorado in 1987, soon after buying a home in Parker.

Soon after, Lopez learned his local homeowners association was in financial trouble — and the city’s elected leaders refused to help, Lopez said. Feeling ignored by bureaucrats, Lopez, then just 27 years old, ran for mayor and won by a margin of 33 votes. 

Lopez was a Democrat at the time, but soon switched his affiliation to Republican. At the time, Parker’s population was a few thousand and growing fast.  

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
New homes under construction near Parker in Douglas County, April 5, 2022.

Lopez saw rapid development as a threat to the city’s finances and quality of life, and he quickly got into a bare-knuckle political fight over growth. He vetoed a residential project, and soon after accused other council members of corrupt ties to builders.

The resulting criminal investigation resulted in no charges, but it left Lopez with a distrust of development that remains one of his firmest political beliefs. Today, Parker has a population of nearly 60,000, and Lopez has moved to the much smaller community of Elizabeth.

“I truly believe Colorado right now is growing out of control. It's not smart growth,” he said, adding that he’s especially concerned about the state’s limited water supply.

“I'm not looking to eliminate (growth). What I'm looking to do is minimize it,” he said.

Trouble with the law

In an incident that has continued to shadow his political career, Lopez was accused of domestic violence while he was mayor. 

In 1993, his wife called the police. She said an argument over how to care for their young son had turned physical. She reportedly told police that she first struck her husband, who then pushed her to the ground, kicked her and attempted to drag her by the hair.

Asked recently about the incident, Lopez denied that he had pulled his wife’s hair, implying that contemporaneous news articles were suspect because they came from The Denver Post. (The Rocky Mountain News also published the hair-pulling claim.)

“We've been married 34 years. This happened 28 years ago. We learned from our mistakes. We have a strong marriage. We love each other,” he said.

In the aftermath, Lisa Lopez said she shared the blame. 

“In light of all the publicity and mudslinging, I now regret my action. You see, I am not a victim of my husband, I am a victim of the press and those who don't know us well enough to recognize that we simply made a terrible mistake,” she wrote in a letter at the time. 

She has repeated that message over the years, including in campaign videos, and declined to discuss it further in an interview. Both spouses pleaded guilty to harassment.

Another encounter with police came one night in 2003, when Greg Lopez was charged with driving under the influence. He said he doesn’t remember how many drinks he had that night.

“It’s important for us to learn, and I learned from my mistakes,” he said. The incident cost him about $10,000, he said. “And when you do the math, it's like you're paying $700 to $800 for a beer. It's like, I will never do that again for a beer.”

Lopez tenure at the SBA

Lopez’s public profile took an exponential leap in 2008, when he was appointed by the Obama administration as Colorado director of the U.S. Small Business Administration. He had previously been working for an organization that promotes minority-owned businesses. 

After applying on a whim, Lopez said he was whisked to Washington, D.C., to interview. He stayed with the SBA for six years. 

Lopez was later forced out of the job in 2014, he said, because he had been making headlines in an effort to get subcontractors paid for their work on the troubled VA hospital project

“My leadership in Washington called me and said, ‘You need to stop helping small business. You need to stop what you're doing because you're making the president look bad,’” Lopez recalled.

Numerous current and former SBA employees declined to comment about Lopez’s tenure in the job, saying they wanted to stay out of politics. Asked to confirm Lopez’s description of his departure, a spokesperson said the administration doesn’t comment on the “personal information of former employees.”

Lopez then returned to the private sector — doing business consulting and opening a pub in Aurora with his son. But a controversy from his old SBA job would later resurface.

Greg Lopez

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice pursued a civil case alleging Lopez had improperly tried to influence former SBA colleagues several years earlier, after he had left the Administration. The case centered on an email and two phone calls. 

In the email, Lopez had asked a former colleague for a “favor” — to help get approval for a change to an agreement with a business owner. Lopez’s email also had informed his colleague he would be running for U.S. Senate.

Today, Lopez says he was just trying to help the developer on the project, Jesse Morreale. Morreale didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“If you can help, no matter how big or how little, you should always offer to help or try to help,” Lopez said.

Lopez agreed to pay $15,000 to settle the case, about a tenth of what he said the feds were asking.

“Mr. Lopez’s attempts to exert improper influence over a federal agency on behalf of his friend were serious violations of the rules for former federal officials,” wrote then-U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn at the time of the settlement.

As part of the settlement, Lopez agreed the DOJ could prove its allegations with a preponderance of evidence, but he now says he entered the deal just to ward off an unfair legal attack.

Sprinting toward the finish

In the final weeks of the campaign, Lopez plans to stick  with his strong suit — talking to strangers, whether at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association or outside Stanley Cup finals games in Denver.

More than anything, said Lisa Lopez, the campaign is fueled by the candidate’s desire to connect with people.

“We’re looking forward to the victory that is coming our way. Greg is forever a positive individual. He never gets negative. He’s always looking at the upside in life — he’s the Energizer Bunny,” she said.

If he can meet enough people, the couple believes, they’ll see a man who can beat both the Republican and Democratic establishments alike.

As Lopez acknowledges, some polling shows Gov. Jared Polis with a substantial lead over a “generic” Republican. 

“Well, I’m not generic,” Lopez said. “I'm a Republican that has a totally different way of looking at things.”