When you venture out into the suburbs of Chicago, there are some townships that standout, serving over 100,000+ residents, standing solidly and cultivating a rich tradition of what Midwestern towns are known for. The city of Chicago is the largest and dominant city in the state of Illinois, but it’s the towns and counties throughout the state that resonate very different viewpoints on policies, religion, class and often race.
Lauren Underwood has set out to bring out the best of these values and also discuss the hard issues that have become the elephant in the room. Her decision to run for the Congressional seat in the 14th District will make her the first African American woman to contend for this office, challenging Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren.
A native of Naperville, IL, she grew up learning about civic engagement and policy while attending Neuqua Valley High School.
“When I was in high school, they introduced a program to high school students to serve on local boards and commissions. When I was 16 I served on our Fair Housing Commission. That was a wonderful experience to get an appointment at that age to understand what service is and to go through the process to get appointed and reappointed for another term,” she said. “We were working on fair housing and discrimination issues in Naperville. Naperville is not known as a place that has this large rental community, but surprise, surprise, landlords were doing things that were not entirely legal or that shared the values of our exclusive community.”
She said this experience in her youth allowed her to review statues and make recommendations to the city council about lead sources, section 8 vouchers and uncovering discrimination on the basis of race, sex and other cultures.
“All of these proactive classes were something I was fascinated by. It made public service and government truly local and I understood my power as an informed citizen to make a difference. I was moved by that experience, but at the same time, I wanted to be in healthcare,” said Underwood.
While in third grade, she was diagnosed with a heart condition known as supraventricular Tachycardia, which rapidly speeds up the heart rate abnormally.
This led to her fascination and interest in pursuing a career in the health field.
She recalls, “So, I had these two experiences—healthcare and understanding the need to have strong excellent providers to help young women like me at that time. Also, local politics. I hadn’t reconciled it but I knew I had these two interests so I picked medicine and went to college.
After acquiring her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from the University of Michigan in 2008, she went on to earn her graduate degree in nursing and public health at John Hopkins University.
“Now I can bridge my two interests and have a whole career in policy. I knew I could take this experience I had in local government and my interest in nursing and make a difference for our population in our healthcare system.”
As part of President Barack Obama’s administration, Underwood was appointed to serve as the Senior Advisor at HHS, helping communities prepare for domestic and public health threats. This also included the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak and the recent Flint, Mich., water crisis.
Her experience to combat the real issues around the country on a federal level has prepared her for pursuing the congressional seat in a district that covers a diverse spectrum of communities that range from low-income to working and middle class to wealthy and affluent areas. No matter where the class divide begins, her grassroot efforts on the campaign trails has brought together similar concerns from constituents.
“Jobs and economic development are major concerns across the board. When I look at Northern Illinois, if we were to isolate and take out the city of Chicago from the equation—there would be no Illinois. Where I live, we use to have our own economic engine. In Naperville, everyone wasn’t going to the city to work. We had industry, we had companies that were excited to move their headquarters to our suburban environment because we had this pool of educated and skilled workers. It wasn’t all agricultural business—it was across the board. That growth isn’t happening anymore. Now, every month in my community we have plants closing and massive lay-offs.”
At 31, Underwood says she was worried about how people in her district would react to an African American woman running in a district that has swung Republican in the past. But, surprisingly, her race was not the issue.
“I was prepared for the ugliest, in your face version of racism when I launched this campaign. I was ready for it. What I’ve been surprised by is not racism—it’s sexism and my age. It was ‘sit over here little girl and let the big boys sit at the table and make the decisions’. I’m running in a Democratic primary against four middle-aged White men. It’s not about race, it’s about the age and the gender,” Underwood said.
“It’s the gatekeeper’s comfort levels—by that I mean local party structures, traditional funders, their comfort levels with that kind of representation. Even in the Democratic party—that’s where I start to get angry. When you look traditionally at Democratic voters, at the core constituency of the party, what do you see? People of color, so why is there this active movement to keep our voices off the table?”
Aside from her advocacy for quality healthcare and keeping in place the Affordable Healthcare Act—she is a staunch supporter of public education. She and incumbent U.S. Rep. Hultgren differ on this platform. “He has been the lead sponsor in the House of Representatives for several cycles for the Healthy Relationships Act. What that bill seeks to do is to limit funding for public schools unless they teach abstinence only in sex education. Limit significant funding for public schools because according to this bill, ‘abstinence only’ is the only way to have a healthy relationship. You can’t be a supporter of public education and put a limit on ‘fact base’ teachings.”
On the national front, the Democratic party is aggressively seeking to flip the House of Representatives in 2018, which takes 24 Congressional seats to turn back blue.
Underwood is knocking on doors and canvasing the communities while maintaining her daytime job working as a registered nurse for a Medicaid-managed care plan agency. With the support of her family—her father, a retired corporate comptroller, and mom, who currently works in the corporate arena, and her sister—she is determined to grind to the end. Underwood contributes this to the tenacity and spirit of her grandmothers who marched during the Civil Rights era.
“By way of Alabama on my father’s side and Pittsbugh on my mother’s side, I come from a real industrial, working class family. For my parents to relocate from Cleveland and come to Illinois is significant.”
Underwood reflects on her last grandmother’s recent passing in June. “I wish she could’ve seen this—they both would’ve been out here knocking on doors with me.”