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15 October 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:15pm

Meet Lauren Underwood, the 31-year-old Democrat hoping to shake up Illinois politics

The registered nurse would be the first woman and the first African-American to represent her district.

By Sophie McBain

This is the first in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

Lauren Underwood, a 31-year-old registered nurse and a public health adviser to the Obama administration, decided to run for office because of a broken promise.

Her local congressman, Republican Randy Hultgren, had pledged that he would not vote for a healthcare bill that made it harder for people with pre-existing conditions to access health insurance. And then, in May 2017, he did just that.

“I was very, very upset,” Underwood told me when we spoke on the phone. As a nurse, she regularly cared for people with chronic conditions, but this was also personal: when Underwood was eight years old she was diagnosed with a heart condition. Had the Republicans’ 2017 Health Care bill passed, health insurance could have become prohibitively expensive for her, too. “I decided, you know what? It’s on. I’m running,” she said.

The Cook Political Report classifies Underwood’s district in Illinois – the state’s 14th congressional district – as leaning Republican, and Hultgren has held office there since 2010. But before then, the seat was Democratic. If she wins, Underwood, who is one of 43 women to be selected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue list, a programme that gives extra financial support to top candidates running in Republican seats, will be the first woman and the first African-American to represent her district.

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She told me that she was shocked at the sexism she experienced during her primary campaign. During her career in nursing and public health she had worked for “dynamo women” and so the prejudice she faced running for office took her aback.

Underwood described how, when she was petitioning ahead of her primary race, a Republican running for local office tried to physically intimidate her. When he discovered that she planned to run against Hultgren, “he made himself larger, you know, pushed up his chest into this aggressive stance and then leaned in to me and was like, ‘how dare you run against Randy. I’m going to get Randy on the phone.’ And I said, ‘great, I’d welcome the opportunity to talk with him’,” she told me.

“But the idea that somebody would feel threatened that I would I have the audacity to put my name on the ballot was something I’d never encountered before.”

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In the primaries, she ran against six white men. “My opponents would talk about their wives and that their wives were more qualified to be a member of Congress than I was and things like that,” she said.

The strategy did not pay off. Underwood said she was pleasantly surprised by how often members of the public intervened when she was subject to sexist attacks. And when it came to the primaries, she won 57 per cent of the vote, on a turnout of over 51,000. That figure alone offers some indication of the extent to which Democrats have become re-energized in the district: in 2014, only 8,000 people voted in the Illinois 14th District Democratic primaries.

It forms part of broader pattern that should worry Republicans: the turnout for Democratic primaries has soared in many districts this year while it has either dipped or remained steady in many Republican races. Democrats, and particularly progressives, are mobilizing in greater numbers in response to the Trump administration.

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Underwood grew up in Naperville, Illinois, where her father worked in finance. She got her first taste of politics during high school, when she was appointed by Naperville’s mayor to sit on his local housing commission. She reviewed discrimination complaints and made recommendations to the city council.

“I was sixteen and able to make an impact, so I ended up getting appointed for another term and I fell in love with public service,” she said.

At university she studied nursing and public policy, and under the Obama administration she served as an advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services, working on the roll-out of Obamacare and on US preparedness for major public health emergencies such as the Zika or Ebola viruses or the water crisis in Flint.

She returned to Illinois after the election, working for a company that administers Medicaid, the state-subsidized health insurance for low-income groups.

Underwood says that as a black woman she has to work twice as hard as a white man would have to in order to prove herself up to the job. “I believe that our team have to be excellent all the time. Every day. We can’t mess up. Because we’re not going to get the same opportunities, the do-overs, the saying ‘oh I’m so sorry, it was a misunderstanding’ or whatever. That’s not inherently applied to us. Because there’s not necessarily the same base level of acceptance,” she said.

“That’s just something I’ve just learned throughout my life, that’s not unique to being a candidate for Congress. You have to be twice as good, sometimes.”

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A few days before we spoke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old left-wing activist, had beaten the longstanding Democratic incumbent in New York’s primaries. In November, Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly be the youngest person ever elected to Congress. “She crushed it. She certainly has shown that young women can lead, young women cannot be counted out,” Underwood said.

Unlike Underwood, Ocasio-Cortez did not have the backing of the Democratic leadership when she ran. “I think her victory shows … that the tradition archetype of the congressman can be broken down, and now communities can get behind leaders from diverse experiences. As Democrats, if we’re going to be the big tent party and rely on support from diverse communities, it’s in everyone’s best interest to cultivate leaders and talent from those communities as well.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Underwood has embraced the progressive label, pointing to her commitment to increasing the minimum wage to $15, fighting climate change and expanding access to healthcare.

She wants to protect women’s reproductive rights and expand parental leave, is in favour of greater gun control, and supports offering a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. She also says she supports extensive infrastructure investment in the district, to create more jobs.

In terms of healthcare, Underwood wants to cut costs for middle-class families, reduce the cost of prescription drugs and expand access to mental health care and addiction treatment.

“When we get to Washington, we are going to do the work,” said Underwood of the cohort of young women running for Congress this year. This year, a record number of women have run in the congressional primaries and to date, 235 have won their races. All but 52 of them are Democrats, and they are a remarkably diverse group.

As part of our “Blue Wave” series, New Statesman America will be interviewing a number of them over the coming weeks, including Veronica Escobar, a Mexican-American county judge running in Texas; Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim American progressive lawyer running in Michigan; Kara Eastman, the social-worker who scored an unexpected progressive victory in Nebraska; and Dana Balter, a progressive university professor running in upstate New York.

“We want to go in, and get things done for our communities. This is not some kind of power-play, in the sense of, oh, the natural next step in our career is to run for congress, which you sometimes see in other folks,” Underwood said.

“That’s what I think is going to be the lasting change that could be seen from electing this cohort of women.”