On Tuesday, Lauren Underwood won the Illinois 14th Congressional District primary with about 60% of the vote. We've republished this profile, which explores Underwood's path to becoming the first Black woman to ever run in her district.
It all started with a broken promise.
At a public question-and-answer session last spring, Rep. Randy Hultgren told his constituents in the 14th District of Illinois that he wouldn't support a version of the Affordable Care Act repeal that excluded protections for pre-existing conditions. Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse and former senior health adviser for the Obama administration, thought the Republican meant it. The fight to save Obamacare was personal for her: Not only had she worked on implementing the legislation, but she also has a heart condition known as supraventricular tachycardia, which qualifies as a pre-existing condition.
But then, Hultgren went ahead and voted for the bill anyway.
"I wasn't angry because of the vote itself, necessarily. I was upset that he didn't have the integrity to be honest the one time he was planning to stand before our community, because it's not like he was planning to come back and explain himself," Underwood told Refinery29, alleging the congressman hasn't held any other public events since then. (Hultgren's office has not responded to Refinery29's request for comment.)
She continued: "In that moment I decided: It's on. I am running."
The 31-year-old didn't really see herself throwing her hat in the ring this election cycle. After President Obama's time in the White House ended, she moved from D.C. back home to Naperville, IL. And when she heard rumors that Democrats were looking for someone to challenge the Republican incumbent, she wanted to support whoever ran for office. But then, Hultgren went back on his word.
As a progressive woman of color, Underwood is not who the Illinois 14th District is used to. She is the first Black woman ever to run for the seat. "I'm running against six middle-aged white men in a district that has never elected a woman, ever in history," she added. "I'm the youngest person in my field running; I'm the only person of color."
Heading to the @MomsDemand kickoff meeting in Geneva this afternoon. Yesterday I was honored to speak with the Naperville group. So delighted to support this grassroots movement across the #IL14 to prevent gun violence. #ExpectUs pic.twitter.com/FwPMqDuHxj— Lauren Underwood (@LUnderwood630) January 14, 2018
The community, which is about 85% white, has swung Republican pretty consistently, except for a brief Democratic stint between 2008 and 2010. According to the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional races, it's likely to remain red in 2018. But none of those factors have stopped Underwood, who wants to serve the community she's been part of all her life. For her, it's empowering that women of color like her and New Jersey's Tamara Harris are running in districts that are not predominantly Black.
"For so long, African-Americans have only had elected representation from those traditional districts that are historically Black, maybe urban," she said. "But not all of us live in all those majority-minority districts."
She continued, "Now we are able to step forward and say, 'Hey! I grew up in this predominantly white area and my family has been here for years. I'm a leader and I have ideas.' The community rallies around [me] not because I'm Black, and not despite my race and heritage, but just because I'm a dynamic, compelling leader who shares [their] values. That's what I get excited about."
It's not a surprise that Underwood's public service path has led her to become a candidate. If anything, it's a natural progression for someone whose love for healthcare and public policy began at a young age.
When she was diagnosed in the third grade, she said she got "excellent care" from her providers and was inspired to become a pediatric cardiologist, "because I had to see mine so frequently," though she switched to nursing later. Then, while she was attending Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, the school launched a program allowing students to serve on local boards and commissions.
Underwood joined the Fair Housing Commission and was exposed to reviewing cases, some involving discrimination against people who depended on Section 8 vouchers, and was able to make recommendations to the City Council. Heading off to college at the University of Michigan, she was unsure how to combine her interests of medicine and politics — until she took a class about nursing and health policy during her freshman year. It blended her interests, so she decided that would be her path. Over the next years, while her classmates interned at hospitals, Underwood was interning on Capitol Hill and working in government.
After finishing her undergrad and getting a graduate degree from John Hopkins University, she joined the Obama administration. She believes her experience working with health issues at the federal level — besides working on Obamacare, she also helped create responses to the Ebola epidemic and Zika crisis — has prepared her to work on, the issues her district is facing.
The community rallies around me not because I'm Black, and not despite my race and heritage, but just because I'm a dynamic, compelling leader.
Her platform has three main components: jobs, healthcare, and family. This translates to her support for job creation and economic development; improving the Affordable Care Act and tackling the opioid epidemic; investing in local public schools and making higher education more affordable; and providing access to reproductive health services and affordable child care.
"I'm so honored to be able to speak on all these issues at this time, in particular with the Trump craziness," she said. "And obviously, [with] this congressman who doesn't share our values."
Of course, the Democrat has faced pushback, too. She said that she was aware she might experience racism, but nothing really prepared her for the barrage of sexism she would encounter. "This is obviously me being naive," she said, while explaining that since nursing is a heavily female field , she has always been supported by women and hasn't dealt with male bosses or coworkers undercutting her. Since she announced her candidacy last August, she's experienced everything from people having low expectations of her because she's a young woman to encountering a man who tried to physically intimidate her when he found out she was aiming for Hultgren's seat.
"The intersection of being a woman, a young woman, and a young woman of color running for office is something that just can't be discounted," she said. "So I tell my team every day we have to be excellent. It's not okay to be good. We don't have the luxury of really being 'okay' because people doubt us every day."
But as more women, but particularly women of color, run for office and get elected at every level of government, they'll have the chance to prove the doubters wrong. And that's something that fires Underwood up.
"We can have the opportunity to maybe have equal representation in these bodies. Not just 19% or 20%, but getting close to 50% or god forbid a majority? [Imagine] the impact that could have on our country!" she said. "We're at this point now where women are really stepping forward, finding success, and seeing that leadership potential within ourselves. I think it's wonderful."
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships — and that's without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: "It's our turn."
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