Lauren Underwood, 33, recently spoke to EBONY about her campaign to become the next U.S. Representative for the 14th Congressional District in Illinois and unseat current GOP U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren. Underwood is competing in a district that usually supports the GOP, but her message has connected with people in the district, especially women.
EBONY: Why did you decide to run for political office?
Underwood: I am a registered nurse from Naperville. It’s about 45 minutes west from Chicago, and I spent my career working to expand health care coverage in communities across our country. First, by working to get the Affordable Care Act on the federal level, I worked in private insurance reform in health care quality in the Medicare program. I then joined the Obama administration where I worked at the Department of Health and Human Services and worked on things such as Ebola and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
During our time in Flint, the 2016 election happened. Like so many, I thought we had a chance to hand off our work on Flint, hand off our work on health reform to see we want to continue forward the progress. But then we got the Trump team who made it immediately clear they want to take away health care coverage for the American people, and that’s not why I became a nurse or did any of this work. I knew that I couldn’t stay in government to help them do that. I decided to return home to Illinois because [Medicaid was expanded under the ACA] and I began working for a Medicaid managed care company in Chicago. When I found out that Rep. Randy Hultgren, my opponent, one and only participant in 2017.
[Hultgren who was running unopposed at the time was at] a moderated question and answer session hosted by a local chapter of a league of women voters. He said he would only support a version of Obamacare repeal that let people with pre-existing conditions keep their healthcare coverage. At first, the promise was really important to me because I’ve taken care of patients who rely on their coverage in order to afford any medications or procedures that they may need.
Like so many Americans, I have a preexisting condition. It’s a heart condition. It’s one of these diagnoses that I wouldn’t be able to get coverage under the repeal scenario. When he made that promise, I believed him because it was personal, and then he went and voted for the American Healthcare Act, which was a version of repeal that did the opposite. It made it cost prohibitive for people like me to get insurance coverage.
I believe representatives should be transparent and honest about their votes, they should be accessible to the community and ultimately they should know they’re accountable to the voters. He didn’t seem to recognize any of that.
I decided It’s on. I’m running. And I launched the campaign in August 2017. I ended up running in the primary against six guys, I got 57 percent of the vote and now we’re [less than a month] away from the general election.
What is it about your message that you think resonates with people?
I’m a regular person. I’m somebody who has set my career working in the healthcare space, which I have a reasonable level of expertise given my role as provider and as a patient. I’ve worked for insurance companies, so I’ve seen this issue from different angles. I was looking for a representative to have my back and to make sure they were working to redesign our healthcare system. My district has 300,000 people who have preexisting conditions. Millions of Americans who fall in the same category as I do, make sure we would have affordable coverage. When he broke his word, that was it for me. I think that a lot of people can relate to a promise made that wasn’t kept to a representative that doesn’t show up for our communities. He’s been gone for 16 months, 16 months not having public events, not having town halls, not engaging with voters.
I think that I am connecting with folks in my community on a fundamental values level. We are aligned in recognizing the need for affordable health care and supporting public education. All these core issues that are top of the line for voters all across the 14th District. And I’m a hometown girl. This is where I grew up, this is not like I am somebody who just came in. I am not a career politician…this is authentically real, this is my story and I think a lot of people recognize that truth.
Other than health care, what other issues are you running on? What issue is the most important to voters?
Healthcare is the no. 1 issue in this election. Drug prices are too high, premium prices are too high. They’re really looking for leadership in Congress that’s going to work for middle-class families. Second, is the economy. I’m in a community right outside of Chicago. Most people are working in my district, we’re fortunate in that way. People here are part of the upper middle class, earning an average of $105,000 a year. Most people are working in and around the city of Chicago, they’re not working in our community. So that means without economic opportunities in our communities, our suburbs are at risk. We can’t attract new residents by pulling them in for job opportunities that limit the ability of our community to grow.
I support things such as a federal infrastructure that helps and improves our roads and bridges, which can be pretty dangerous in the rural parts of our district. To approving mobile broadband, which even an hour outside of Chicago gets pretty spotty. We really need to make some major improvements to broadband and commuter rail.
We have two counties that have no commuter rail options. If economic…is going to be in the city then we need to be connecting our residents to those opportunities. We have seen what happens when communities build around their transit hub. There are retail opportunities and commercial opportunities in those downtown transit centers. I think that’s a really concrete local strategy that solves the problems we have in this district. A congress and representative can help create real change.
The last policy issue is related to families. Every single town has a great public school and we’re lucky to be able to say that because I know there are so many around the country that aren’t in that situation. Public education is a core value in our district. Our current representative is someone who believes in school choice like Betsy DeVos. We don’t have charters and we don’t have voucher schools in my district, we just have great public schools. When you do school choice it just means taking away resources from our great public schools and disadvantaging our students and that’s wrong. We’re talking about ways we can reinforce the federal investment in public education, and enable our kids to be in a global economic environment.
Why is it important to go out to vote or to register to vote?
It’s critically important. We’ve seen what happens when we stay home and assume that somebody else is going to vote. When we assume that somebody is going to knock on doors and make the phone calls. We assume that our friends are going to go out and vote. When we assume we end up in the situation where we have chaos and confusion in Washington, we have a do-nothing Congress, we have widespread corruption, faith in government is at an all time and we have representatives who are not working for the people.
If we don’t vote we will end up with a Congress that wants to support everything Donald Trump wants to do or end up with a Congress who will literally not show up for people; we’ll end up with a Congress that supports an agenda that so many American families, including and in particular African-American families. I am going to say it’s incredibly easy to vote early in Illinois, you can vote by mail. I think it’s important we all take advantage of this right that we have as citizens to go cast a ballot.
I talk to people and I hear two things: one, people think their vote doesn’t matter and it won’t change the outcome of an election, and that’s simply not true. Every two years the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for reelection. You have the opportunity to make a change in the direction of our country. It’s critically important that we take advantage of that opportunity to elect representatives to the House that will be the voice of the people. Two, I hear that people think it’s hard to vote. They don’t understand what’s required when you go into your polling site, they don’t have a good idea on who the candidates are. I think that you should have an idea where your county municipal building is or City Hall. It’s worth just going. It’s pretty easy to vote. There are so many resources online to help explain what’s on your ballot. One resource that I find is Ballotready.org. It explains every candidate, every ballot referendum if you put in your zip code and address. It will tell you what your ballot looks like. We have to be informed voters, but let’s not let unfamiliarity really keep us from exercising that fundamental right as a citizen.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.