Mitchell Award Honoree: Ernie Lopez
Ernesto “Ernie” Lopez came to Delaware from Puerto Rico when he was just a young child, but his parents didn’t want him to forget his Hispanic roots, so he spent summers on the Caribbean Island with his grandparents growing up.
“They were magical summers, and it was there that I was able to really perfect my Spanish and run around with my cousins and just have beautiful memories,” he recalled.
Although there wasn’t a large Puerto Rican community in Newark where he was raised, Lopez said he was impressed by the melting pot of cultures that the college town fostered.
He began a career at the University of Delaware and saw an opportunity to get involved with a State Senate district that was redistricted to eastern Sussex County where he lived. He ran for office in 2012, winning a largely Democratic district as a Republican on the back of a promise to be a consensus builder. Lopez became the first Hispanic to be elected to the Delaware State Senate in its history.
“There weren’t a lot of Lopezes in the phonebook living in Lewes, Delaware. There still aren’t,” he said. “But Delaware is a place that welcomes people. It welcomed me and my family and so for voters to put their trust in me and say we’re going to give this kid the opportunity to serve was tremendous.”
He would serve a decade in the Senate before stepping down in 2022 but managed to complete an agenda that served constituent needs and brokering bipartisan support for bills like Rylie’s Law, which granted medical marijuana access to children with certain debilitating illnesses.
“After hearing Rylie’s story, I just put aside whatever feelings I may have personally had on the issue and built a coalition of support to make it happen. And, in doing so, changed my own opinion on the matter,” he recalled.
Lopez also co-sponsored a state Constitutional Amendment to enshrine protection against discrimination based on race, color, and national origin along with Democratic colleague, Sen. Darius Brown.
“It showed the relationships that and the collegiality that we still have in Delaware as opposed to other places,” he said of two men of color from different political parties uniting to protect all minorities.