Erik Underwood, a tech-industry pro who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat after his 2016 run for the U.S. Senate fell short, is a candidate for Colorado governor in 2018. In the following in-depth conversation, Underwood talks about overcoming an impoverished childhood en route to a successful business career and the details of his ambitious agenda for the state.
There is no shortage of prominent challengers for the office. Among the declared Democrats who've participated in our gubernatorial Q&A series to date are former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Congressman Jared Polis and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg. (Representative Ed Perlmutter briefly threw his hat into the ring before dropping out of the governor's race — and after a change of mind, he's now running for reelection in the 7th Congressional District.)
On the Republican side, we've chatted with 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson, 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock, and Victor Mitchell, an ex-state legislator who founded Lead Funding, which offers private funding for the real estate investment market.
We've also submitted a slew of interview requests to state treasurer Walker Stapleton and his various representatives, but thus far, his campaign has not responded.
Like Mitchell and Polis, Underwood, whose business is called My24HourNews.com, is spending some of his own cash in the race, earmarking $250,000 as seed money to get started. He left the Republican Party after Donald Trump earned the GOP's presidential nomination last year, but he stresses that he's always been a moderate — and he believes his positions on free college, immigration, hemp, criminal-justice reform, the repeal of the TABOR Amendment and more are capable of appealing to independents as well as voters on either side of the major-party political divide.
Get to know him better below.
Westword: How do you introduce yourself to voters who may not be familiar with you?
Erik Underwood: I introduce myself as a candidate who is about change and is also lifting the bar of what is expected about my leadership as the next governor. I talk in solutions, not sound bites. Everything I talk about from a policy standpoint or what I propose about how to fix issues and problems here in Colorado, I have a way of doing it. I think that's refreshing, and I think that's something some of the other candidates lack. They lack details in their ideas, and I don't lack details in my ideas. I'm not claiming to have the best ideas in the world, but I do have a plan for all of my ideas, and I will take my plan and my ideas any day of the week versus sound bites and people throwing fluff out there.
A lot of my opponents are saying, "I have all of these grand and lofty ideas for Colorado, but I'm not going to tell you how we'll get there. Just elect me and trust me and we'll see what happens." You'll never get that from me. Not from Erik Underwood. I think voters have a right to understand how you are coming up with these plans, how you are paying for these plans. I think that's a great responsibility I have when I'm laying out my vision for Colorado.
Where are you from originally? And how did you get to Colorado?
Originally, I am from one of the oldest cities in America: York, Pennsylvania. That's where I was born and raised. York is actually where they had the first capital of the United States for a short time. I come from a single parent. My mother had six children. She had two sets of twins. I'm the oldest out of all my siblings, and I'm older than my twin sister, Erika.
My mom wanted to make a life change after feeling that she was stagnant. She wanted to move to Atlanta, Georgia, but I didn't stay very long in Atlanta. My grandmother actually took me, because I didn't want to go down to live there. So my grandmother partially raised me, although I went back to Atlanta for a short time. But I was in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program in York, and my Big Brother when I was eight years old was Jim Clark, and they took me in to live with them for a time. They were business owners. They developed a multimillion-dollar company called SMP: Specialty Metallurgical Products right there in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. I got to see firsthand how entrepreneurship works here in America. They took me under their wing and taught me a lot of business sense. I got a first-class education in business from the Clark family, watching them build their titanium company into a multimillion-dollar facility and operation on the East Coast.
So I grew up in two different worlds. I grew up in a world where I was basically poor, but I also grew up in a family of means that was affluent in their community. So I understand both worlds. I come from them. I grew up in the projects with my mom, so I get struggling and being part of a hardworking family.
Eventually, I moved back to Atlanta to finish high school, and I went to college: I went to Morehouse College and I finished at Central State University in Ohio. I worked for U.S. Senator George Voinovich in Washington, D.C., as a Senate staffer, working on anything from communications to constituent issues for Ohioans. I went back to Atlanta to work with a state legislator, David Ralston, who's now the speaker of the house there in Georgia. I ran for Congress there, but eventually I put politics behind me when I started developing my company called My24HourNews.com Inc.
My24HourNews.com Inc. has two components: a digital news network and a digital content company. And it's also a digital mobile platform/broadcast technology platform that we've developed with AT&T. We did a $102 million deal with AT&T in Atlanta, and many years ago, AT&T and My24 decided to move operations to Colorado. And that's how I got out to Colorado. We moved the business to Denver, and I eventually settled in Marshall, Colorado, which is between Superior and outside of Boulder.
You mentioned setting politics aside, but you've recently run for office in Colorado as a Republican, correct?
The Clark family was a Republican family. This is kind of the typical thing: If you grow up in a household, you get used to the political ideologies and views of that household. So I grew up as a Republican. I felt, the Clarks are Republicans, and they're great people — and I'm still close to them today. In fact, I'm going to the wedding of Jim Clark's son in October, and every time I go to Pennsylvania, I stay with them in their house. They're my family. So I grew up in their household and in that ideology. So when I was emerging into politics, that's what I identified with. But as I got older and as I was becoming immersed in politics, I found that who I am as a person and my personal ideology and views were not lining up with the Republican Party. It's fact that in 2007, I came up with an Iraq exit strategy plan when I was running for Congress in Georgia, and I was against the war. It wasn't a very popular thing to be a Republican at that time and totally against the war in Iraq. I caught a lot of flak for it, but I stuck to my guns. And there were other things, too. I felt the party wasn't making efforts to include more diversity. I felt they didn't understand a lot of social issues that I understood as a person of color. So there was already a drift from me and the Republican Party during that time.
When I was getting involved in the Republican Party in Colorado, I thought: This is different from the South. These Republicans seem more moderate and more in line with what I think. And I ran for the U.S. Senate and did well in terms of gaining a lot of notoriety. I got in at the last minute; I was urged to get in because of the far-right candidates that were in the race at the time. I got a lot of recognition around the state and a lot of people were encouraging me to run for governor after I didn't make the U.S. Senate after the convention last year. But what really ticked it off for me is that not only did the Colorado Republicans fall in line and support Trump, but the national party did as well. So I told Steve House last year, when he was still the chair of the Colorado Republicans, that I had to leave. I would not support someone who is one of the most divisive persons I've ever seen in American politics. I left with my principles, and that's why I left the party. I left the party right before Donald Trump accepted the nomination in Cleveland last year. But I was already drifting from the Republican Party anyway.
Some of the social-justice issues did it for me in terms of community and police. We have a problem in America with that, and we have to make it better, and the Republican Party, in my view, doesn't understand those problems for people who are coming from lower socioeconomic situations, whether it's urban America or all that. So I think they need to make a lot of growth. Now, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of Republicans who understand that. But they're the minority in a party — people who are really trying to move the party forward. But Donald Trump has set the Republican Party back at least fifty years, and it will be a long time before the Republican Party comes back to be a more moderating force in American politics. And I didn't want my name and brand associated with a candidate like that, because that's not what I believe America is all about. We're bigger than that; we're better than that.
Looking through your campaign website, I didn't see any mention of your previous affiliation with the Republican Party — and I would think highlighting that might be a positive strategy in terms of outreach to Republican voters. Why isn't that more a focus on your website?
I disagree with the last part of your premise. It's no secret that I used to be a Republican. There have been some articles written about me, and before I converted my personal website into a campaign website, there was information about why I switched. It's been no secret. In fact, I've been getting a lot of calls and emails — hundreds of emails — from either moderate Republicans or people who've left the party and switched to Independent, since Trump saying that they're going to support and vote for me. So there's plenty of information about what I've done in the past as far as politics and where I've stood on my views. There's nothing I'm hiding. I'm an open book.
I wasn't suggesting that you're hiding your past affiliation — just that emphasizing them might be a positive for your campaign.
Sure, and I think we'll get that message out more sometime early next year. The primaries aren't until June 26, and I'm going through the convention process. Our focus right now is talking to the Democratic delegates and voters for the precinct caucuses and county caucuses and the state assembly caucus that will be held on April 14. We have a narrow focus right now. But what makes me unique, and I recognize this, because I keep hearing it, is that I used to be a Republican — and a very moderate one at that. And now I'm a Democrat. And people, and especially unaffiliated voters, understand where I'm coming from. That's why I think I'm so dangerous come June 26th.
I voted to allow unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary this past election. I thought that would be a very valuable thing. It helps to keep people from being too extreme in either party, whether it's the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. I think we have extreme candidates on the Democratic side. So I think that would help me in lots of different ways. And my opponents know that very, very well. That's an opportunity we're going to seize come primary time on June 26th.
Let's talk about some of the issues you've highlighted as being particularly important to you. One of the first is free in-state college at a public college or university. How would you make that work?
I call it the Colorado Hope Grant, and the Colorado Hope Grant basically takes excess lottery revenue. You know it's capped: Voters capped it in 1994, when we were voting for the lottery. It's capped at $64.9 million to the state wildlife department. It's capped, and the excess money just sits in a fund. It goes into a reserve fund for these programs. But I'm saying, let's take this excess, which is over $350 million, and do something good with it. Let's give hardworking families a helping hand. The state grant will give free in-state tuition to graduating high school seniors with a B+ average. And/or trade school, because that's important, as well. In return, students will have to give one hundred hours of community service to the state parks and recreation department. If they broke it down to 25 hours of community service per year, who can't do that? This is very simple. And if those graduating high school seniors that don't graduate with a B+ average, we have something for them, too. They can go to a public community college. You go there for a semester, and if you still want to go to CU or CSU, get your grades up in a semester and then you can transfer to those universities or any other public university for free, provided you get that B+ average. So this is the way to free college.
I noticed that you did an interview with Mike Johnston — and I'm going to describe the difference between me and these other candidates, because I talk in solutions and these other candidates talk in fluff. I like Mike Johnston. He's a great guy. I've met him. But you did an interview with him in January, when he was touting free college, and you asked him when he was going to come out with his plan for free college. He said, "It's forthcoming. We're working on it. It'll be out soon." That was January, and I still don't see a free-college plan from Mike Johnston.
This is what I'm talking about. Voters are tired of the fluff and tired of the sound bites. I was in Pueblo for a county Democratic picnic, and I was the only candidate down there from my field, so I had ample time to speak about my plans for Colorado. They all cheered and clapped. I got almost a standing ovation when I explained how we're going to give hardworking family the option of sending their child to an in-state college for free. Those are the kinds of responses I'm getting. I'm telling people what we're going to do, but I'm also telling them how we're going to pay for it. And this plan is at no cost to the taxpayers of Colorado — no additional cost. The money's already there. I just want to reallocate the reserve fund for the state lottery money and shift that to deserving students here in Colorado. And once I'm governor and once we can pass this in the state legislature, my Colorado Hope Grant, students will have something to shoot for. They'll see that now I have a way to shift the burden off my parents, and now it's on me to go through high school and at least get a B+ average, and I can go to school for free. I challenge any of my opponents to come up with something better.
You've also proposed a program for undocumented immigrants called Come Out of the Shadows. Could you give me a quick overview of that idea?
We have to bring undocumented immigrants into the fold of society. I'm tired of kicking this can down the road. If Washington is unwilling to act on immigration reform, I'm going to act as governor, because it's the right thing to do. My plan will allow undocumented immigrants to become a legal state resident of Colorado through a process. You pay a nominal program fee, you stay out of trouble, and after two years, you become a resident of Colorado. After completing that, we will set you up with a state advocate to guide immigrants on how to become a U.S. permanent resident or a U.S. citizen. The program fee that they pay will help with administrative costs of the state advocates on the back end after they complete the program. We have to do something. When Trump announced that he's ending DACA [Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals], and when he waffled on it, well, I can't really trust him. I have to do something here. I saw so many people on television crying. I've met some undocumented workers and undocumented immigrants who were crying and didn't know what to do. And DREAMers, from DACA. And we can't afford to play with their lives — especially the recipients of DACA. I'm going to act. Again, I'm not saying my plan is the greatest plan in the world. But it's a start. It's a plan to end the problem, at least here in Colorado, and that's what I intend to do.
Tell me about the Colorado Rural Urban Agricultural Hemp Manufacturing Initiative [CRUAHMI].
Places like Pueblo and Greeley and other rural areas of our state that have lost jobs — people there have been asking, "Erik, do you have a plan to get jobs back here to Pueblo?" And Pueblo was a steel town, as you know, back in the day. The opioid addiction problem down there in Pueblo is growing, and it's due to a lack of jobs. People are depressed, and when people get depressed, they unfortunately turn to other vices. So what me and my staff came up with, and I'm very proud of this, is CRUAHMI, which would basically be a co-op between farmers and manufacturers. It will help farmers to develop industrial hemp for products such as shoes, clothing, rope, paper — you can use hemp for dozens upon dozens of things. We would help farmers through a financing process to secure financing to grow hemp here in this state as a cash crop for Colorado. And we will help farmers pair up with entrepreneurial manufacturers in the state who will take that hemp and manufacture it into products. And on that back end, we will actually give manufacturers tax abatements and tax incentives to put manufacturing facilities in hard-hit areas in Colorado such as Pueblo, Greeley and other centers where people have less opportunity to access. These will be great-paying jobs.
We legalized marijuana, rightly or wrongly — I'm not going to get into that debate. But my job as the next governor is to take it to the next level. How can we move this economy forward and continue to include everybody in the process? Because there are so many people in rural Colorado that are being left out. And my initiative will help get people into the fold and into our economy, where they can get decent-paying jobs and perhaps become an entrepreneur, growing industrial hemp or creating a manufacturing facility where they can produce products. And we can export those products nationally and internationally, creating a new multibillion-dollar economy here in Colorado.
You mentioned the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. One of your other goals is to expunge nonviolent marijuana convictions. Why is that important to you?
It's important because these convictions for people who were arrested on nonviolent charges are a stigma attached to them when they're applying for jobs. I've heard this time and time again. When I was in Denver talking to a group, a couple of people there had been convicted well before marijuana was legal in our state, and they're still having problems trying to get jobs. So I want to remove that stigma from their record. We legalized marijuana. Now I'm willing to expunge their records, working with the state legislature, on nonviolent arrests associated with marijuana convictions. And not only does it affect urban Colorado, but it affects rural Colorado. They're vulnerable, too, out there. We have to do right and we have to do better. And what puzzles me is that we legalized this, but we didn't say, "We need to do something for people who were convicted of marijuana offenses that aren't tied to a violent crime." Some of my opponents on the Democratic side want to talk slickly about not being brand-new on criminal-justice reform, but this is part of criminal-justice reform. I will lead the charge on getting this done for Coloradans who have been negatively affected by these arrests in the past.
You comments about rural Colorado call to mind your comments about economic equality in both urban and rural areas. Is Colorado's booming economy not being felt across the state in an evenhanded way? And what can you do as governor to spread the wealth?
People are being left behind, and things aren't evenhanded. I'm in the technology sector. I have a team in Napa and Silicon Valley that did innovations for me off my visions and plans for My24. At the same time, a lot of people are being left out of jobs in the technology sector. Boulder and Denver are pretty much where a lot of these tech companies landed. But I'd like to see more incentives created through the state to push some of these companies into the more rural parts of Colorado, so rural Coloradans, as well as urban Coloradans, can have a piece of the action. CRUAHMI is just one way of helping rural Colorado, as well as urban Colorado. But there's so much more that needs to be done in terms of affordable housing and education in these rural areas — because the education, I can assure you, isn't the same in rural Colorado as it is in public schools in Boulder County. I've been in parts of rural Colorado and spoken to teachers and even school-board members, who've alerted me to that fact. We need to make sure everyone is included, and that we let them know they matter and they know we care. We have to make sure they're visible to us throughout Colorado.
What are some of the other key issues in this campaign, from your perspective?
I'm definitely going to get my hands around TABOR and lead the effort to repeal the TABOR Amendment. It's holding our state back financially. How can we improve our roads and our infrastructure in Colorado when we can't keep much-needed tax revenue for these improvements? So I'm going to lead the charge to free up our hands. We have to repeal TABOR, and I think a lot of people, both Democrats and Republicans, recognize that now. We can do it either in the state legislature or I would be willing to call a special session to put it in an off-year election vote. I think it's that important. If I get elected as governor, I'm willing to put that up for a vote, probably in the fall of 2019. In fact, that would be a top priority of mine.
I definitely want to expand Medicaid for the most vulnerable Coloradans. Health care is still being toyed with in Washington, but rest assured, I'm going to take care of our Coloradans who are most vulnerable here in the state. I do believe in universal health care, but we're not there yet. In the meantime, I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure the most vulnerable are taken care of.
The opioid addiction is another big thing. In 2015, there were more opioid deaths than murders in Colorado. There were something like 260 opioid deaths versus 204 or 205 murders in the state. And that's hitting hard in the rural areas, where there are fewer opportunities. We need to create treatment programs and resources for families dealing with this crisis. It is a crisis, and that's what we have to do.
I love the environment, of course, and I'm going to make sure as the next governor that we're going to protect the environment. We're going to reduce our carbon footprint, and we're going to make sure that there are innovations, whether it's wind or solar. Some of my other opponents are talking about making Colorado energy independent by 2040. But let's make sure rural Coloradans and urban Coloradans get a piece of that action on the upside, through innovation or by working in plants creating solar panels or wind turbine engines or whatever the case might be. We need to make sure no one is left out in that process.
And we have to do something about our public schools. Gone are the days of home economics and wood shop. You know, those nine-week courses in home ec or wood shop or one of those electives we used to take in school? We're in the 21st cntury. We need computer programming. We need 21st century-type innovative programs in school. I'm not saying we can't still have home economics and wood shop. I'm saying we need to include computer programming and other skills necessary for students to be able to adapt in the world that surrounds them in technology. We have to do better at that. We have to do that in the urban schools and the rural schools and in every school in Colorado. I want everyone to be on the same foot and the same level in education in Colorado. These are things we need to talk about — 21st-century skills for everyone in Colorado, from kindergarten all the way through high school. We have to do better. We have to innovate in these classrooms to give students the skills they need, so when they graduate from high school, they can either go into the workforce or they can go to college and enhance the education they need for their careers.
In terms of the campaign itself, you've talked about using some of your personal resources. There are a number of entrepreneurs in this race — some with more money, some with less, and a variety of opinions about how best to use it. Why are you choosing to invest in your campaign in this way?
I want to take money out of politics, to be honest with you. I don't want to be beholden to any one group or wealthy person who donated the maximum amount. For me, personally, I look at this campaign as a startup, so I gave myself some startup money for this campaign so I can focus on my message and getting my message out there to people. That way, I can focus less on raising money and more on my message, and I think that's key.
It's key for me now, because I'm going through the assembly process in April. Obviously when I make it through the convention process, it will be a statewide thing, and that's a different level of raising money. So we've looked at this as a process, and this process seems to make sense for us. I'm focused on my message and the startup money I gave myself, and my campaign is basically for me to get my message out and raise awareness — and there'll be different phases and different processes. We're very comfortable with this outline and strategy we've laid out. In fact, I'm so comfortable with the strategy and so confident that I'm inviting all comers to the state convention, whether it's Jared or Mike or Cary or Noel or even Donna Lynne — to come to the convention and go through the process with us in April. Because we're going to be ready. I understand some of them are going the petition route, and that's fine. That way, they can assure their name is going to be in the primary for next year. If you want to play it safe, I understand. But we're very confident in my message and my electability statewide — and that's a key thing. I believe I'm the most electable out of all the Democratic candidates right now because of me being a moderate and having a firm grasp on the issues in Colorado. So I welcome Mike and Cary and Jared and Noel and Donna to go through the assembly process and put their message where their mouth is and tell 4,000 delegates at the state assembly why they should be the nominee for the party. That's where my campaign is headed. Everyone has their own strategy about how they want to conduct their campaign, but we're very confident about the outcome of the assembly on April 14.
When you're at that assembly, how do you plan to present the argument that delegates should support you rather than one of the many other candidates out there?
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I'll tell them that I'm the only one who has actual solutions. I've gone on all my opponents' websites, and I've gone to events where I've heard them speak. And they're not speaking about solutions. They're speaking in generalities and sound bites. I'll put my ideas and my plans and my solutions against anyone in the field at any time or day of the week. A lot of people are taking to my ideas and solutions, and I'm getting positive feedback from a lot of Democrats. Some have said, "Thank God you're in this race."
Look, I like Jared. Jared is a great person, and in fact, he and his staff were actually working on an issue for me regarding My24 — regarding the Time Warner merger with AT&T. We're in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit right now with AT&T stealing our IP technology we created with them. Jared got me on the list to testify in Congress for hearings.
I respect Jared. I wish Jared would stay in Congress, because he does such a great job there. But I don't think he has a chance of winning statewide because he's so far left. I'm worried about that. As Democrats, we want to win. We want to make sure we have another Democratic governor in 2018. And if Jared stays in Congress, I believe in 2018 and certainly in 2020, we're going to take back the House and the Senate, and Jared will probably have a chairmanship in some committee if he stays in there and will have a greater voice in Congress once that happens. He's a great guy. I hate competing against him because I really like him. But I have the better ideas.
Trump's election should be a wake-up call on both the Democratic and Republican side. People need to understand what happened in 2016. I certainly understand, and that's the reason why I've formulated all my solutions and plans on the front end. I'm either going to live or die on the solutions I put forth in my platform. People are going to know where I stand. They're either going to vote for me or they're not going to vote for me, but I'm laying it out there on the table for all to see. And then they'll have to make up their own minds on who is best to lead Colorado moving forward.