In August, tech-media entrepreneur Erik Underwood kicked off his campaign to run for governor as a Democrat.
That was notable in part because the primary field was already large at the time, but also for another reason: Underwood ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate just last year. He earned six votes among a sprawling field at the party’s convention where he jumped in at the last minute and said during a brief speech that he would “drop a nuclear bomb on Common Core,” be a “lion in the Senate for conservative values,” and, “They’re not going to take your guns away if you elect me to the United States Senate.”
But in an interview, Underwood says he never really fit in with the GOP, and Donald Trump snagging the Republican Party’s nomination for president was the last straw. So Underwood switched parties and now he wants to become CEO of Colorado— as a Democrat.
His campaign motto is “Outward Inward,” a nod to representing rural Colorado just as much as its inner cities, he says.
Underwood, who lacks the statewide name recognition of high-profile candidates who have been campaigning for months, says he plans to front-load his bid with $250,000 of his own money and try to meet as many people as possible. This year’s governor’s race is expected to become one of the most expensive in state history given its wide-open nature and the number of candidates running. Steve Welchert, a Democratic strategist, has said he expects Polis alone could spend as much as $20 million.
What’s Underwood’s background?
Underwood, 37, who lives on 35 acres in the small mining town of Marshall outside Boulder, founded a digital platform technology and media company called My24HourNews in 2010, which he says was supposed to enter into a $102 million deal with AT&T — a company he’s now fighting in court because he says it broke the agreement.
Like his Democratic rival, Rep. Jared Polis, Underwood says it would be accurate to describe him as a well-off tech entrepreneur from the Boulder area.
He worked as a staffer in Washington, D.C. for Ohio GOP U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, and he once ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Georgia. Most recently, Underwood— yes, Underwood like in House of Cards— ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate here in Colorado last year. He is not married and doesn’t have kids. In his spare time he rides horses and kickboxes. He was born in Pennsylvania and has lived in Ohio, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
What are some of his campaign themes?
A key tenet of his campaign is immigration.
Underwood says he has a plan to allow undocumented immigrant workers to apply for state residency even if they can’t claim U.S. citizenship. He calls his program Come Out of the Shadows, or COOTS, for short. He says it would enable undocumented workers to register and undergo a background check. If they stay out of trouble for two years and pay a “small nominal fine,” Colorado will grant them state residency, which would make them eligible for state programs.
“I’ve checked with some of my attorneys … the state of Colorado would have that authority to grant residency,” Underwood says.
Aaron Hall, an immigration attorney in Denver, says he expects if such a plan came to fruition there would be hesitancy among undocumented immigrants to come forward because of fears of ending up in a database. Also, he said, state residency can be hard to define and the plan would offer no protection against deportation.
Underwood also proposes using excess money from the state lottery to create an in-state scholarship program called the Hope Grant for those who graduate high school with a B+ or better so they can go to a state university for free. They would also have to volunteer 100 hours of community service to the state parks department.
In 1994, Colorado voters decided how profits from the state lottery are distributed. The formula is 50 percent of profits go to the Great Outdoors Colorado (COGO) Trust Fund, 40 percent to the Conservation Trust Fund, and 10 percent to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Funds for COGO, however, are capped at $64.9 million for 2017, and funds that exceed that cap go to the Colorado Department of Education, Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund, according to lottery spokeswoman Val Beck.
“To change the distribution formula of lottery proceeds,” she said, “it would have to once again go to a vote.”
Underwood says that shows the complexity of constitutional amendments in Colorado, and he would still try to re-allocate the money through the legislature. If that doesn’t work, he’d run a state ballot measure. Either way, he says, it would not raise taxes.
“There is money from the state lottery, and one way or another we’re going to get it,” he says.
During a gubernatorial forum in September, Underwood made the most dramatic statement in the race about tax policy in Colorado when he said if he is elected governor he would try to “get rid” of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment known as TABOR that requires a vote of the people to approve tax increases.
“TABOR has been an albatross around our neck,” he said, adding in an interview that he would rid the state of TABOR by pushing for a statewide ballot measure as governor.
Underwood also took part in the first head-to-head gubernatorial debate in September when he faced off against Republican Lew Gaiter over cryptocurrency at a conference in Aspen. None other than Jesse Ventura moderated the debate.
Where does Underwood fit along the Democratic Party spectrum in Colorado?
Well, he’s new to the spectrum, for one.
He points to his immigration plan, saying such a proposal wouldn’t fly as a Republican candidate. “So I’m really excited to be a Democrat to go where my heart leads in terms of where I think I can be of assistance as a leader,” he told The Colorado Independent.
He calls himself a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.
“I’m moderate,” he says in an interview. “I was never with my ex-party on gay rights or social issues like that.”
He believes in man-made climate change and supports universal healthcare. He wants to expand Medicaid to more vulnerable state residents. “I am the true moderate in this race that can work on both sides of the aisle,” he says.
Underwood says he expects his former status as a Republican will actually help him in this year’s primary where unaffiliated votes can participate.
Before Arvada Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter dropped out of the governor’s race, Underwood says, he considered Perlmutter his biggest threat.
He calls himself a “unique” candidate who will try to bring together diverse coalitions. “When I say diverse, I mean people from rural Colorado to urban Colorado to black, white, Latino— everybody,” he says.
Asked how he plans to do that in practice, he says he has been meeting with Latino groups and black groups and “everyone in between.”
But by November, Underwood started to feel like he was getting “Bernied” by Democrats in Colorado— meaning he was catching shade and not being invited to party events, and he accused party operatives of not being fair to him and urging him to drop out of the race. The state party’s spokesman said the party charter requires the party to remain neutral in open primaries.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect an Underwood candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the left wing of the party more than one who does.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Democratic Party nominates for governor. Democrats will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of the caucuses or by petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in.
One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
“I understand Republicans and I still have Republican friends,” Underwood says. “And I think a lot of people who are either unaffiliated or independent or even Republicans— if I make it to the general election — I think they’re going to be like, you know, Erik is someone who we think we can be able to trust because he’s not far left, he’s not far right or anything like that, but he is someone who is open.”