In some ways, Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood has always been prepared for this moment. She ran for office in 2018 on a platform that prioritized protecting the Affordable Care Act and lowering health costs. In less than two years, she's made good on those promises; Trump even signed two of her bills into law, including one to lower insulin costs. Underwood has a nursing degree, and served as a senior advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, where she worked on implementing the Affordable Care Act and helped create responses to the Ebola epidemic and Zika crisis. Now she is working on a bill to bolster training and jobs in the public health sector amid the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the bill would expand contract tracing and support the administration of COVID-19 tests, two things that are badly needed before any reopening in the U.S.
As Republicans plow forward, reopening many states despite expert warnings that it's too early to do so, Democrats have needed to provide a counterpoint to their rash actions. Enter Underwood, whose sensible but no-nonsense Midwestern approach is extremely valuable right now, as is her healthcare background. "As we think about this next bill, I'm really pleased that we're closing and fixing these loopholes so that [essential] workers can access the emergency paid sick days, the expanded family and medical leave, so that workers can take care of themselves and loved ones," she said in a recent conversation with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill the U.S. House expects to vote on Friday. While Underwood anticipates a pushback from Sen. Mitch McConnell, she plans to fight on.
While she stays busy legislating and keeping in touch with constituents, Underwood is also doing the unprecedented work of campaigning for reelection amid a global pandemic. In 2018, she was part of the blue wave of women who ousted Republican incumbents, and the first woman, first Black person, and first millennial to win the House seat in the 14th District of Illinois, which is Republican-leaning and 86% white. She easily won her primary on March 17. Now, she needs to hang on to that seat and defeat Republican Jim Oberweis, a dairy entrepreneur and member of the Illinois Senate whose many unsuccessful election campaigns have earned him the nickname "Milk Dud."
Much more used to working behind the scenes, Underwood is now taking on a new role as one of the central characters in Surge (see trailer here), a feature documentary coming soon about the record number of women running for office and winning since the 2016 election. It's a film that seems more relevant than ever given that a record 490 women have filed for House seats in 2020, surpassing the previous record of 476 in 2018, according to new data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. The film, which explores the question, "Is this a moment or a movement?" follows three candidates, including Underwood, who were looking to flip red districts in 2018. It features an all-woman, star-studded team, including first-time director-producers Wendy Sachs and Hannah Rosenzweig, executive producer Tanya Selvaratnam, editor Laura Tomaselli, cinematographers Margaret Byrne and Contessa Gayles, executive producer Alyssa Milano, and advisor Katie Couric.
Ahead, we spoke with Underwood about Trump's coronavirus response, campaigning for reelection, and starring in Surge.
As a registered nurse and public health expert, what goes through your mind when you watch healthcare workers begging for PPE, like masks and gloves, and not being able to get it?
"It's unacceptable. We have healthcare providers literally begging for help. In the spending bill, we put billions of dollars to produce and distribute PPE. What we need right now is for the president to activate the Defense Production Act, which we've seen the federal government use in limited circumstances. There needs to be federal coordination so states won't bid against one another."
There are huge racial disparities when it comes to coronavirus deaths and infections. What do you believe are the biggest underlying reasons and solutions?
"Instead of helping communities of color prepare by taking a public health-forward approach, we saw the president deny the threat for months, his unwillingness for wide-scale national action. Essential workers don't have PPE and aren't protected. People of color face disparities in access and care. Some may even experience disparities in outcomes. If you live in a community where you don't have healthcare, you are less likely to get tested. We need to see a really focused, dedicated increase in testing in communities of color. This is not something that can be ignored. The extreme disparity is unacceptable."
You are now campaigning for reelection. How has your campaign changed during coronavirus? What challenges are you being faced with?
"We are doing digital outreach, whether it's video chat or people making phone calls. We've been trying to uplift the stories of people in our communities; Illinois is a hot spot for COVID, but there's so much going on with people trying to help — like these moms having sewing groups for healthcare providers. These are heartwarming stories."
Are there any lessons you learned from your first congressional campaign — anything you would do differently?
"The first Thanksgiving after the 2016 election, feelings were so sharp that people couldn't talk to their families and retreated to their partisan corners. During my campaign, we encouraged people to get out and talk to their neighbors. We reminded people that we have shared ideals and values. It's not necessarily about repeating what you heard on The Rachel Maddow Show or on Twitter, but talking to your neighbor who you share so many bonds and experiences with. A lot of places, we would go door-knocking and folks would tell us that no Democrat has knocked on their door in 10 years. Most people want more affordable healthcare, and solutions to climate change and gun violence. If you talk to them as their neighbor, there's an opportunity to connect. It makes a difference in the electoral outcome. Our Own Your Cul-de-Sac video is a good example of this.
"Some of my constituents say that both sides can't come together because of ideology. But what I find is that how we talk to people and the words we use makes so much of a difference. Tone of voice matters, the way you speak matters, as well as the setting, your ability to connect with people. I continue to emphasize that in my campaign today. Messaging is important."
Why was it important for you to participate in Surge? What story do you believe it tells that other films don't?
"I was running a campaign as an unlikely candidate in a place that a lot of people had written off. It wasn't a community people were tracking in 2018. We ended up hearing about a number of projects like this Surge documentary, and I was pleased to be able to work with Wendy and Hannah, who understood what we were hoping to do in our community. She was excited to help share our story, and I was excited to participate."