Erik UnderwoodParty: moderate DemocratAge: 38Occupation: digital technology entrepreneurFamily: SinglePolitical experience: Ran for U.S. Senate in 2016 as a Republican
This is a weekly feature to profile the candidates for governor as people, before we dig deeper into their politics as the race heats up.
Erik Underwood is a candidate for governor who has seen the world from many sides, and we’re not just talking about left and right.
Sure, he was a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate last year, and this year he’s the only candidate of color in the Democratic primary to be the state’s chief executive. But that only begins to tell the story of the diversity he has known.
Underwood grew up the oldest of six kids — with a twin named Erika — to a single mother. His father was not in the picture, he said.
When he was 7 years old, Underwood was lucky enough to get into a Big Brothers program in York, Penn., where he met Jim Clark, a successful local businessman who mentored Underwood from early on. As an older teenager, Underwood lived with Clark family.
When he was 11 years old, he was sent to live outside Pittsburgh with his grandmother, Victoria Nicholas, whom he characterizes as a “great and formidable woman.” Besides keeping a roof over his head and a meal in his stomach, she set high standards for her precocious and ambitious grandson, starting with manners. She gave him a copy of a book on etiquette and tested him on it constantly.
“My grandmother instilled a lot of civility in me, and she really taught me to be a gentleman,” Underwood said.
It also shaped his moderate politics.
“That’s what’s missing today: civility, and how to treat people with respect,” he said. “That’s what my grandmother taught me, and it still holds true with me today.
“A lot of times, politically, we’re talking at each other instead of with each other. That’s what I want to bring with me to the governor’s office, the ability to see both sides.”
He moved to Atlanta to be with his mother when he reached the 11th grade. He continued to be a star athlete. He was undefeated running the 110- and 300-meter hurdles on his school track teams in Pennsylvania and Georgia.
He was unhappy in Atlanta, a crowded, dangerous city, and his mother’s troubles were party of his daily life. Jim Clark brought Underwood back to York to live with his family. “The Clarks were a wealthy family, so I got to live in two worlds,” Underwood said. “I grew up, a little bit, in the projects with my mom, who was struggling, and the Clarks.”
Underwood considers the Clarks his second family. He was with them in October for a wedding, he said. They fed his eagerness to to get a good education at Morehouse College and Central State University. In college, he worked in the Washington office of Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich.
“I grew up poor, but I also grew up, a little bit, in a wealthy family, so I understand both sides of the coin,” Underwood said. “That’s where my moderation comes from. I understand a lot of issues in urban America, the inner-city struggles of single parents and people living paycheck to paycheck, but I also understand the business world and what it takes to get there.”
Underwood ran for Congress as a Republican in Atlanta in 2007.
His Colorado candidacy’s tall hurdles — as a former Republican candidate with little financial support or name recognition so far — don’t bother him.
“I had long odds from Day 1, when I came into this world,” he said. “I don’t think my odds on this are all that long.”
Underwood moved to Colorado in 2012, after closing a deal with AT&T for his website and app, My24HourNews.com, which he started two years earlier.
“I fell in love with Colorado instantly,” he said. “When i got off the plane and saw the snow-capped mountains, this was it. It was love at first sight. I’m still in love with Colorado.”