Lauren Underwood flipped Illinois’ 14th District from red to blue. But can she keep the seat?

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Lauren Underwood, bundled against the January chill in her now-familiar bright green coat, beamed for the cameras as she stood shoulder to shoulder with the highest-ranking woman in American politics.

With the U.S. Capitol dome as a backdrop, Underwood, the newly elected congresswoman from the 14th District, chatted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then posed for photos with the women of the Illinois House delegation amid a crush of photographers, reporters, police officers, fresh-faced staff members and curious tourists.

As she lingered to answer questions from reporters, three women inched toward the 32-year-old Democrat, the youngest black woman ever to join the House of Representatives. The trio leaned in as Underwood, a Naperville native and former intern for then-Sen. Barack Obama, spoke candidly about balancing the work on Capitol Hill as a member of a diverse, young set of Democratic women representatives with the realities of representing a suburban Chicago district long held by Republicans.

“I think the opportunities are all around us,” Underwood said. “The work starts now.”

A few years ago, as Hicks, Underwood and a few other friends were out on New Year’s Eve in Washington, they witnessed a car crash, Hicks said. Underwood, a registered nurse working at the Department of Health and Human Services, was the first person to react, Hicks remembers, immediately calling 911 and approaching the vehicles to render aid to the injured before paramedics arrived.

“She was Johnny-on-the-spot,” Hicks said. “There was no hesitation. She’s truly a compassionate person.”

Hicks, 32, a Whitney Young graduate originally from the Beverly neighborhood in Chicago, said she is particularly proud of her friend’s trailblazer role. Underwood, Hicks said, epitomizes what she calls “Black Girl Magic,” someone who will be able to listen and pay attention to the needs of everyone in her district, including those who may have been previously overlooked or marginalized.

Later that day, as she waited for the elevator in the basement of the Capitol, Underwood worked herself into a crescendo about the federal shutdown, mentioning how she had once been placed on furlough during her time at HHS.

“This is a waste of taxpayer money,” she said, her voicing growing louder as congressional staffers and Capitol maintenance staff whisked past. “There’s no excuse for this shutdown to continue into today, and there was no excuse for this shutdown to begin.”

“I heard what you said,” called out someone from down the hall. Underwood turned and looked down the hallway, where influential Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings was navigating his motorized wheelchair up a hallway ramp. Underwood, a bit surprised, smiled and walked over to the longtime congressman.

“You’ve got quite the followers,” Cummings noted, referring to the reporters and videographers surrounding Underwood.

“I’m glad she’s here,” Cummings said. “She’s a breath of fresh air. And I thank God for her.”

A powerful ally

Underwood said she knows there is a limited window in which to capitalize on her position as one of Illinois’ 18 representatives. The reality of legislating in a divided Washington amid a polarizing federal government shutdown has already begun, and the challenges of being the first black congresswoman from the 14th District have started in earnest.

“I have a two-year opportunity to make a real difference and represent the people of the 14th, and they have placed their faith in me,” Underwood said. “They’ve given us a chance. I have to prove myself, and we will.”

She already has tried to make a quick imprint on the Capitol, authoring two provisions in a House rules bill and, on Wednesday, delivering her first floor address on a health care bill.

“My community sent me here to use my voice and my vote as their neighbor and as a nurse, and I am proud to vote today to protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Underwood said from the podium.

Underwood’s new colleague, Rep. Cheri Bustos, who represents the 17th District in western Illinois and is the new chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the first-time legislator already is navigating her way on the Hill.

“I think she’s off to a great start,” said Bustos, who arranged for the women of Illinois photo with Pelosi last week. “Her demeanor is pleasant and she’s smart, she listens, she’s a hard worker and she’s great with people. Those elements are how you can be a successful politician, but also a legislator. I think Lauren Underwood is the complete package.”

Bustos said she will try to maximize Underwood’s health care policy expertise in the House, doing everything she can “to make her the face of the party when it comes to health care.”

Underwood made health care a central part of her campaign, and she impressed audiences and interviewers with her grasp of the issues, highlighting her experience as a nurse and as a policy expert during debates with Hultgren and one-on-one interactions with voters.

In one of the key moments of the campaign, Underwood responded to Hultgren’s charge that she didn’t understand the legislation that would have repealed and replaced the Affordable Care Act with a detailed argument about her position on its flaws. Health care was cited by voters as one of the top election issues of 2018, but whether it will remain top-of-mind for voters next time around remains to be seen.

“Her most salient policy position, humanizing and personalizing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, will likely garner less national media attention than the redistributive and environmental policies furthered by the rising progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Andrew Ballard, an assistant professor of government at American University who specializes in congressional politics, said in an emailed response to questions about Underwood’s path. “This puts Underwood in a similar position to most rank-and-file House members. The current environment of gridlock in Congress has members looking toward 2020 already, and I would imagine Underwood is no different.”

Mindful that the next election begins nearly as soon as the last one ends, Democrats announced this week that 10th District Rep. Brad Schneider, who represents the suburbs north of Chicago, will be one of the co-chairs of the DCCC’s Frontline program, designed to defend the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the House. While the specific districts and members will not be announced for several weeks, Underwood is likely to be included, considering that Democrats will target districts won by less than 5 percentage points and highlight those that flipped from red to blue. Twenty-four Democrats in the freshman class, the party said, were elected by 5 points or fewer.

Schneider, who became the first Democrat in 32 years to win the 10th District in 2012 and then successfully defended his seat in 2018 after six years of back-and-forth with Republican Robert Dold, said the best way for new House members to bolster their chances for re-election is to stay connected to the district and learn the ins and outs of the budget and legislation process while focusing on the tasks at hand in Washington.

“I ran as a Democrat, but I represent the whole district. I represent Democrats, Republicans, independents and everyone in between,” Schneider said. “It’s about being accessible, and it’s about being interested in what people have to say.”

Door-busting Democrats

On her second day in office, after voting on a bill on the House floor and mingling with her new colleagues, Underwood headed down the Capitol steps for the group photo of House Democratic women.

While Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have received the brightest spotlights of the newly elected young women of color, the national media also took notice of Underwood.

So did ordinary Americans. After meeting the three women from Colorado, Underwood boarded a bus for a retreat for new House members, which her parents also were scheduled to attend.

Still visibly energized by their interaction with Underwood, the trio of Democrats from near Denver said they were encouraged and heartened by Underwood’s willingness to speak with them for a few minutes. Her affability, they said, impressed them, but they also said they were encouraged to see a young woman of color in the halls of Congress.

“She’s giving a voice to the people who don’t have a voice,” Laura Reeves said. “I hope this is just the beginning. They’ve pushed the door open a little bit, but it’s not busted down completely yet.”

Chicago Tribune’s Mike Riopell contributed.

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @pmocwriter

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January 11, 2019 at 06:06AM

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