Like many who have grown up on the East Side of Pueblo, life wasn’t easy early on for Harold Pope Jr.
After his parents’ divorce and his father accepting a job to work at the University of New Mexico, Pope was raised by a single mother as the oldest of five children.
At times, Pope didn’t have the confidence that he could make something out of his life, whether that was looking up and seeing little representation of Black Americans or looking around at the violence and gang activity that engulfed some of his friends.
However, Pope, now 46, found his way to success.
The born and raised Puebloan will become the first Black state senator in the history of New Mexico after he won the District 23 State Senate election over Republican incumbent Sander Rue.
“I’m humbled and honored by (being the first Black state senator in New Mexico), but in a way I was also shocked and surprised that, here it is 2020 and we’re still kind of breaking barriers,” Pope said. “That was kind of hard to believe, and it wasn’t even a reason why I was running.
“I actually found out about it the day they announced the results.”
Born on May 26, 1974, at Parkview Medical Center, Pope attended Pueblo East High School before transferring his senior year to Pueblo Centennial and graduating as a Bulldog.
Outside of school, things weren’t easy for Pope, whether at home or with his friends.
“Growing up, we didn’t have much,” Pope said. “We did struggle financially. And on the East Side at the time, we did grow up and there were issues with gangs and violence out there.
“I always wanted to find other opportunities and I didn’t want to get caught up in that. I saw some of my friends die from gun violence or get in trouble and end up being incarcerated.”
Initially, Pope didn’t have any intention of going to college as he struggled a bit with grades in high school.
Pope said he believes his struggles came from not having mentors or representation of people who looked like him, leaving him with less confidence to be something successful.
But Pueblo is the Home of Heroes, and after talking with some uncles in his family who served in the Army at Fountain-Fort Carson, Pope made the decision to join the Air Force.
“Once I did that, it really helped me and it was probably the best decision I ever made because I got in there and it just helps you build a lot more confidence,” Pope said. “I got some mentorships from folks and officers and they pushed me to go to night school.”
After finishing his term of enlistment, Pope joined the reserves and went to attend college full-time at the University of New Mexico thanks to the confidence he gained from his classes while in the Air Force.
Pope eventually graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and went back to active duty as an Air Force officer, serving as an acquisitions officer and chemist working on satellite programs, weapon systems and nuclear deterrence.
All of those accomplishments couldn’t have been achieved without the confidence gained from Pope’s first jump into the Air Force and finally seeing people like him being successful.
“We have to see other people in those positions and see people that look like us,” Pope said. “We really have to see people that look like us or came from our situation so we can understand, ‘Hey, I can get there.’ Otherwise, we just remain stagnant or we think, ‘This is my life and this is all it can be.'”
Pueblo dawns the nickname of “Home of Heroes” thanks to the four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients who are from or lived in Pueblo, one of them being Jerry Murphy, who has a road named after him on the East Side.
Like Pope, Murphy also moved to Albuquerque later in life, where he helped run a VA hospital.
“I joke with people that there was already a precedent for someone from Pueblo doing good down here,” Pope said.
Pope retired from the military in 2018 and started as the facilities transition advisor, an appointed position by the mayor in Albuquerque. He’s also been a substitute teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools.
Eventually he decided to run for state senate and won earlier this month in New Mexico Senate District 23 on the west side of Albuquerque, a place that is only 3 percent Black.
“It was my record, it was what I ran on and my background; that’s what got me elected,” Pope said. “It shows people that are in the same situation that I was growing up that are in there now, it shows them that they can do it.”
Pope still comes to visit Pueblo a few times a year with friends still in the area.
Being in New Mexico now, he stays away from the green chile debate between New Mexico and Pueblo, instead letting the governors of the two states duke it out.
But now, the hard work begins as Pope faces the challenge, like every other politician in the country, in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic while also taking on issues with education, race, health care and more.
However, with the confidence obtained over his military career and strong educational background, Pope is ready to make a difference in government.
And he hopes his election is the first of many more for Black Americans in his community and the country.
“I just want to set the example and take a lot of pride in it, but because I am the first, I don’t want to be the last,” Pope said. “I just want to be that voice and have that seat at the table.”
Chieftain sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/ajw_sports. Help support the Chieftain and get the latest news on prep sports with a digital subscription.