Lauren Underwood Wants To Bring Back Heartland Values
The 32-year-old nurse and Obama administration alumna is the first serious challenger Rep. Randy Hultgren has faced since being elected in 2010.
The Teamsters Local 179 annual picnic is about as “Midwestern Americana” as it gets: Held in a large field every summer out behind the union’s regional offices in Joliet, IL, the picnic attracts more than a hundred Teamsters, plus their families. This year, on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in August, they set up tents and long picnic tables. A mix of country and Top 40 hits blared from speakers affixed to a stage situated nearest the building. Kids played in water slides, while parents took sips of cold beer and played cornhole, or congregated in line to wait for sizzling hot dogs and burgers.
In other words, it was the perfect setting for an underdog Democratic candidate for Congress to work a crowd and make a speech — which is exactly what Lauren Underwood’s campaign was thinking when they added the event to her calendar. Joliet is technically outside the bounds of the 14th District, where Underwood is running, but because many of the Teamsters in attendance that day actually live (and therefore vote) in the 14th, the group is a crucial constituency in her bid to oust Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren from the seat. Encompassing many of the exurbs west of Chicago, like Geneva and Elgin, as well as rural areas like Plano, the 14th has long been Republican-leaning. It’s population is mostly upper middle class and 85% white. If she wins, Underwood will be the first Black person, and the first woman, to ever represent her district in Washington. And right now it’s looking like she has a shot: In mid-October, the non-partisan Cook Political Report changed its prediction of the election outcome from “lean red” to “toss up.”
When it comes time for her speech, the 32-year-old first-time candidate stumbles a bit before finding her stride: “I decided to run for Congress when our congressman Randy Hultgren voted to….” she says, before starting again, her voice growing more confident. “When our congressman Randy Hultgren voted to take healthcare away from folks like me, people with pre-existing conditions.” But from there, having found her footing, she wastes no time going for her central pitch, one she’ll make again and again during the few days Refinery29 spent shadowing her campaign: She’s the “hometown girl,” a registered nurse and former Obama administration appointee who helped implement parts of the Affordable Care Act. She is running for Congress because she is fed up with how her opponent has failed to uphold the basic duties of representing his constituents’ best interests.
This time, for this audience, she adds a promise tailor-made for them: “Let me tell you something about this guy,” she booms into the mic. ”He’s someone who doesn’t believe in the fundamental rights of collective bargaining and can’t even show up for working families across our district. [But] I’m gonna have your back.”
As a proud member of the historic wave of first-time female candidates running for office this year, Underwood is banking on the anti-Trump progressive wave building all over the country to help her kick Hultgren out of office. But for Underwood to cross the finish line on November 6, she needs to win undecided voters who voted for Hultgren in the past, says Democratic consultant and Midwest native Ian Russell. That’s where the 14th District’s many suburbs will likely play a role: “Trump has accelerated a movement that was already going on in suburban communities. Educated suburban voters who voted Republican because they wanted lower taxes are finding it harder and harder to back Republicans who they generally think are homophobic, xenophobic, and backward,” he says. “They’re not full-fledged Democrats yet, but they’re more socially progressive, more moderate, and willing to take a chance on [someone like Lauren.]”
This crucial need to appeal to the middle is why she’s running on straightforward middle-of-the-road Democratic policies: She’s not a supporter of “Medicare for All” or #AbolishICE. It also might be why, contrary to many other candidates across the country who are running, at least in part, on their status as history-makers, Underwood prefers not to focus on that part of her story. She loves the idea of being an inspiration to young girls of color, for sure, but she maintains that the fact that she was raised in the 14th District is what really matters. "For so long, African-Americans have only had elected representation from those traditional districts that are historically Black, maybe urban. But not all of us live in all those majority-minority districts," she told Refinery29 earlier this year. "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."
The opportunity this year is to elect a Congress that better represents the experiences of the American people. Real lives, real families who for so long have not had a voice in our decision-making process in Washington.
This message is one that resonates deeply with Jennifer Smith, whose home in Underwood’s hometown of Naperville is somewhat of a regular homebase for the campaign’s many volunteers. A mother of four kids all under the age of 10, including three girls, Smith was crushed by the 2016 presidential election. But when she heard Underwood speak at a public event in early 2018, Smith knew instantly she had to help get her elected. She felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. “Lauren is an inspiration, and it’s important for me that my daughters see a strong role model like her running for office,” she says.
Though she’s long been a policy nerd, especially when it comes to our healthcare system, Underwood says she never had aspirations to run for office — until her now-opponent Rep. Hultgren lied to her face at a town hall meeting last year. At a public question-and-answer session, Hultgren assured her and other constituents in attendance that he would not support a version of the Affordable Care Act repeal that excluded protections for pre-existing conditions. But then, back in Washington, Hultgren went ahead and voted for the bill anyway. The Affordable Care Act’s protections are personal for Underwood because she herself has a pre-existing condition: When she was in elementary school, she was diagnosed with a heart condition known as supraventricular tachycardia, a type of heart rhythm problem that causes occasional episodes of abnormal heart beat, after passing out during a swimming lesson.
“I think representatives should be transparent and honest with us, and ultimately know that they’re accountable to the voters,” she says. “And he didn’t seem to recognize that fact, so I said, you know what? It’s on. I’m running.”
Rep. Hultgren, who describes himself as a “fiscal conservative,” is pretty entrenched in the local power structure. He’s been in office in some form or another since 1994, when he was first elected to a DuPage County board seat. After climbing from there to the state legislature, he rode the Tea Party wave of conservative enthusiasm to Washington in 2010. Since then, he’s carved out a reputation for himself as a reliable soldier in the Republican machine in Washington. He’s voted in line with President Donald Trump’s positions nearly 97% of the time. Besides supporting the failed Affordable Care Act repeal, he identifies as anti-abortion and has voted to defund Planned Parenthood. He supported the Republican tax bill, and would like to see Trump’s border wall built.
Underwood, meanwhile, is pretty much the diametric opposite in every way: She believes healthcare is a right, and wants to see the provisions of the Affordable Care Act expanded to the include more middle-class people; she’s pro-choice, and supports a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and a clean Dream Act.
Underwood has spent the past year knocking on doors, meeting donors, and traveling to public events in her district (or if necessary, outside the district, like the Teamsters picnic) to talk about this platform. When Underwood announced she was running, she was told she needed to raise at least $100,000 in six weeks in order to be considered a viable candidate. She missed that target, but didn’t give up. “This all started because I got upset with a lie that my congressman told us,” she says. “Instead of just letting that feeling pass, I pursued it — that idea of perseverance, of believing in myself and putting it all on the line.” Then in the March primary, she defeated six white, middle-aged men hopefuls, with 57.5% of the vote. “We swept them,” Underwood says, beaming.
Since then, she has morphed into a political rising star. She’s earned endorsements from everyone from Emily’s List and The Sierra Club to the Chicago Sun-Times and AFL-CIO Illinois. In the days before Refinery29 traveled to Illinois, Underwood received what was for her, the ultimate endorsement: that of her former boss, President Obama. “President Obama has been such a shining example of excellence, of a leader who truly cares about the people, and a role model for so many of us,” she says. “The idea that he would one know anything about our campaign and to publicly say that I would be a great member of Congress is something that I am truly humbled by.”
“Congressman Hultgren has not seen anyone quite like Lauren as a challenger. She’s really got momentum on her side,” Russell says. Even though the district has been reliably Republican for a long time, one of the main reasons Underwood could flip it is because the GOP brand is damaged. “In Illinois, the incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is very unpopular. He’s headed to defeat,” says Russell, who also served as deputy executive director and national political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in the past. “Trump’s numbers are very bad. The Republican Congress is also unpopular. If there’s any time when a challenger had a chance it’s this time.”
Ultimately, what Underwood is promising is a return to the heartland values that Trump and the modern Republican party seem to have abandoned. “This is the community that taught me how to be a Black woman. This is the community where I learned and gained all of my confidence as a leader,” she says. “The opportunity this year is to elect a Congress that better represents the experiences of the American people. Real lives, real families who for so long have not had a voice in our decision-making process in Washington. Now that’s going to change.”