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Meet Freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood Of Illinois


When Representative Lauren Underwood welcomed us into her office, she was just finishing lunch at her desk. She's a new member of the House, and she's one reason Democrats won control last fall. She captured the 14th District of Illinois, which had been reliably Republican. Her reward is a modest office space near the Capitol and a chance to share a Washington apartment with a roommate, another House freshman, California's Katie Hill.

Are you living this kind of insane sort of grown-up college life of working odd hours...

LAUREN UNDERWOOD: It is not even that glamorous. We are scheduled from, like, 7:30 a.m. to probably 10, 10:30 p.m. So we both get home very late. I'm like, do you remember that meeting that happened at 10 a.m.? Wasn't that so crazy? And she is like - yeah, girl.

INSKEEP: Not that glamorous, maybe. But Underwood is among the young, diverse House freshmen who've made a lot of this year's political news. She met us in the brief downtime between her Caesar salad and a press conference. She's 32 - born in 1986, a former nurse.

UNDERWOOD: I am black. I know I'm black. The people in the 14th know I'm black, and I am a millennial, and I'm a woman. And so do I have an interesting perspective on issues that impact those demographic groups directly? Sure.

INSKEEP: Although, Underwood says, she can represent people who identify differently. She faces a different situation than her outspoken fellow freshmen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a safely Democratic district in New York. Underwood is more typical of the Democrats who flipped seats in 2018. She's from a Midwestern district of suburbs and farms with a minority of people of color. Its congressman was once Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. In 2016, the district voted for President Trump. The reason we visited Underwood was to hear how a Democrat works to fit that district.

I want to note that you're doing something that, in American politics, was really rare until recent years. And that is, you are African-American - you identify as African-American - and you're representing an overwhelmingly white district.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah. I mean, we hadn't seen that happen in the Congress. And yet, in this 116th Congress, I'm not the only one. And so representation is important. And the idea that only certain folks can be representatives is one that I think that we have worked to completely redefine.

INSKEEP: Her district extends from Chicago's suburbs to the Illinois prairie. And she says she is as determined to support mostly white farmers as anybody else.

UNDERWOOD: Well, I think that there's a lot of issues that help communities of color that also help our community.

INSKEEP: She campaigned by saying she would better stand up for the district's interests than the Republican incumbent. When President Trump's trade war affected Illinois farmers, she brought it up. She noticed the separation of migrant families at the border captured her district's attention. So she brought that up, too.

UNDERWOOD: In this district that the Cook Political Report rated as an R+5 and was a lean-Republican until the weekend before the election, we won every county - even the most rural. There are people who supported us who have never voted for a Democrat before. We have people who will never, ever, ever, ever call themselves a Democrat.

INSKEEP: People who voted for Donald Trump voted for you, do you think?

UNDERWOOD: A hundred percent - hundred percent. And this is about representation and values. And for us, that issue was so illustrated with health care and what happened in the spring of '17 around Obamacare repeal and, you know, our prior representative's votes on the American Health Care Act.

INSKEEP: Do you think you're to the left of the average voter in your district when it comes to health care?


INSKEEP: You've said, if I'm not mistaken...

UNDERWOOD: I don't...

INSKEEP: ...You might like "Medicare for All" if it could be done. But I bet the average Republican would not like that.

UNDERWOOD: I don't think so. I would challenge that statement because I believe that health care is a human right. And based on conversations - and I had many of them, mind you - throughout the year-and-a-half that I ran that a lot of people believe that as well.

INSKEEP: Do you need to talk about health care in a particular way to avoid those kind of, you know, hot-button phrases that set people off?

UNDERWOOD: I think that the words we use matter. And I've cautioned a lot of my colleagues here about literally the words that we use to talk about issues that we care about. Right? Student loan debt is an issue that is not partisan, it is very clear. And it's impacting so many individuals and families. If you start calling things free or for all, we lose some people.

We can talk about the solutions in a way that's inclusive. Right? So what if we talk about creating a modern financial aid system where we have Pell Grants that reflect the true cost of college and we have subsidized student loans that fill that gap? Some people might call that free college for everybody or whatever. But the people that speak in these, like, hashtaggy-type (ph) phrases do not always have lots of solutions underneath it. And...

INSKEEP: The hashtag is the polarizing thing. It may draw some support to the idea, but it also drives people away.

UNDERWOOD: Right. And I'm into solutions. And I am happy to speak in paragraph statements to talk about the solutions because - guess what - problems are not always illustrated in 140 characters, and solutions are not always illustrated in 140 characters.

INSKEEP: This lawmaker, who carefully considers what to say, chose to say very little about another lawmaker's choice of words. The day we met Lauren Underwood was the day last week when the House voted to criticize anti-Semitism. The resolution answered remarks by Underwood's fellow freshman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. That issue divided Democrats, and Underwood was determined not to give it any more fuel.

Did she go too far?

UNDERWOOD: I don't have a comment on that.

INSKEEP: You don't?


INSKEEP: You've been pretty frank on every other issue. What makes...

UNDERWOOD: That's why I'm being frank on this one.

INSKEEP: Then why - what do - you mean you don't know what to think about it? Or...

UNDERWOOD: I said I don't have a comment on it.

INSKEEP: In the end, Lauren Underwood, like other Democrats, voted for the resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. But as she represents what is now a swing district, one expected to be competitive next year, she is not wasting many words.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUCHAETA'S "PIANO LOOPS 001: LAUGHTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.