First-time candidate Lauren Underwood becomes the first black woman to represent her Illinois district

Underwood is the youngest person and only person of color to rep her district.

November 07, 2018, 4:21 PM
PHOTO: Lauren Underwood, the Democratic candidate in Illinois' 14th District, visits with others at her election night party in St. Charles, Illinois, Nov. 6, 2018.
Lauren Underwood, the Democratic candidate in Illinois' 14th District, visits with others at her election night party in St. Charles, Illinois, Nov. 6, 2018.
Rick West/Daily Herald/AP

When Lauren Underwood decided to run for Congress in Illinois’ predominantly white 14th congressional district, she knew she there was an opportunity for history to be made.

In the 2018 November midterms, the 32-year-old became the youngest person and the only person of color to represent her district after defeating Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, who had been in office since 2011.

“I'm honored to be your next representative for #IL14—and your first Congresswoman, ever. This victory belongs to you," she tweeted.

Underwood, 32, is one of the more than 100 women elected to join Congress after this historic midterm election cycle. At least 98 women were elected to the House of Representatives -- 84 Democrats, 14 Republicans -- and 12 will join the Senate -- 10 Democrats, two Republicans.

As the "so-called" pink wave swept across the nation with an unprecedented amount of women running for office, the 32-year-old was the youngest black woman to run for office.

"Good Morning America" followed Underwood during her campaign in October for The Women Who Run series profiling first-time female candidates.

Defeating the incumbent, to win a seat in GOP stronghold

Underwood, a former adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, beat out Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, who has been in office since 2011.

PHOTO: Lauren Underwood is seen here pictured with Barack Obama.
Lauren Underwood is seen here pictured with Barack Obama.
Underwood for Congress

The 14th Congressional District, located near a blend of suburban counties and farmland, stretches from Naperville to Marengo and St. Charles. The district voted for Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin in the 2016 election. But prior’s to Underwood’s victory, the seat had always been held by a white man.

Underwood now becomes the first Democrat to win the district since 1939 following Bill Foster, who first won in 2008 but lost his re-election.

I was steeled against racism. I was ready for it.

During the campaign, her opponent Hultgren called her an outsider and untrustworthy, comments she refuted.

The registered nurse said she assumed she would experience racism. But she was unprepared for the sexism and ageism she said she's faced.

“I was steeled against racism. I was ready for it,” said Underwood, whose district is more than 80 percent white, according to the last U.S. Census.

“What I found instead was sexism, and folks being a little uncomfortable with my age," she told "Good Morning America" before the election. "This combination of being a young woman has been something that people have had some pretty strong reactions to."

However, Underwood did not make the issue of race and identity politics central to her campaign. Instead, she she ran a fairly moderate campaign focused on pocketbook issues.

Underwood became the first woman to receive a nomination from the Democratic Party in her district after beating out six white men in the March primary. She was part of a larger wave -- across the country this year, 278 women who won major party nominations in the U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial races because of a huge surge in female candidates.

PHOTO: Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood meets with girl scouts in Naperville Illinois.
Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood meets with girl scouts in Naperville Illinois.
Rachel Scott/ABC News

Why a broken promise pushed her to run for office

Underwood's decision to run was fueled by what she says was a broken promise. In 2017, while working for a Medicaid-managed healthcare company in Chicago, Underwood attended a public event hosted by Hultgren.

“That night he made a promise. He said he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal to let people with pre-existing conditions keep their health care coverage,” she said.

"I decided, You know what? It's on. I'm running."
Lauren Underwood PolicyProposals
Lauren Underwood PolicyProposals
ABC News

As a nurse who worked on the Affordable Care Act, she knew her patients relied on their coverage for medications and procedures.

But it was more than that: the promise was personal because she said she knew exactly what her patients were going through. Underwood, who has a pre-existing condition herself, suffers from supraventricular tachycardia, which can occasionally prevent her heart from maintaining a normal rhythm.

“I believed him. And then [Hultgren] went and voted for the American Health Care Act, which is the version of repeal that did the opposite -- made it cost prohibitive for people like me to be able to get insurance coverage," Underwood said. "And I was really upset because I believe that representatives should be transparent and honest about their votes. So I decided, 'You know what? It's on. I'm running.'"

Running her campaign, her way

It’s just it's just been a treat and an honor to be able to be my full authentic self on this campaign.

Even though Underwood represents the minority of her district -- with black constituents comprising only 3 percent of the population -- she didn’t want to surrender to the pressure of conforming to certain beauty standards. She wears her natural curly short hair and takes pride in having an image that is authentic to who she is.

PHOTO: Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood walks in the Settlers Day parade in Marengo, Illinois.
Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood walks in the Settlers Day parade in Marengo, Illinois.
Rachel Scott/ABC News

“I figured I can introduce myself as Lauren Underwood like this," Underwood said referencing her hair.

She said she had a lot of success because people got to know her for who she is, not her appearance.

"It's not about my hair. ... It’s just been a treat and an honor to be able to be my full authentic self on this campaign,” she said, admitting she’s received a few comments about her hair but less than she had expected.

Her campaign, she said was focused on the issues, not just identity. In Congress, she hopes to tackle gun control by requiring universal background checks for all gun sales and supports student loan forgiveness programs and Pell grants.

She also supports equal pay, paid family leave and affordable childcare, three issues she said primarily impact women.

“We've seen even President Trump campaign on paid family leave and deputize his daughter, Ivanka, and said, ‘Go make it happen.’ And she couldn't even make it happen in the Congress,” said Underwood. “You know why? Because the congressional Republicans are filled with men who don't recognize and see the inherent value in these kinds of policy priorities.”

Obama endorsed Underwood in August, just a few months ahead of the election.

“I'm still stunned and so humbled. I have looked up to the Obamas and have admired President Obama's leadership for many years,” said Underwood.

PHOTO: Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood and Rep. Pramila Jayapal host a roundtable near Naperville, Illinois.
Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Underwood and Rep. Pramila Jayapal host a roundtable near Naperville, Illinois.
Rachel Scott/ABC News

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who made history as the first Indian-American candidate elected to Congress, also visited the district to campaign for Underwood. She joined Underwood for a roundtable discussion at a restaurant in Naperville hoping to mobilize the South Asian community to vote.

“There are too few people who come from the areas that represent the diversity of our country...there are too few Lauren Underwoods,” Jayapal told the group over dinner.

Underwood was even been backed by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the two co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, who decided to name an ice cream flavor after her.

“When I was considering running for Congress, my race and background was not something that I considered. This is my home. This is my community," Underwood said. "I love Naperville and I love northern Illinois and it's been a real honor to be able to run for office.”

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