Ep. 49 Lauren Underwood, IL-14

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. Today we bring you another in our series of candidate Friday interviews. But first just a couple of quick pitches. This past week, we had the super squeaker Ohio 12 special election and a batch of primary results from Michigan, Kansas, Missouri, and Washington. Now wouldn't you love an e-mail that rounds these results up and highlights the best in local and regional coverage of the midterms? And wouldn't you love a weekly e-mail that shares updates from our Midpod travels? Well, consider your needs met. You can sign up for our new weekly newsletter at themidpod.com/newsletter. And for some real local flavors and colors, consider becoming a Midpod patron at patreon.com/themidpod for as little as one dollar per month. You can get exclusive recipes from Heather and glimpses of our lives on the road. I'll be heading to the Iowa State Fair this weekend. So think food on a stick. So please consider becoming a Midpod patron today at patreon.com/themidpod. Now you may have seen that former President Barack Obama recently endorsed a slate of Democratic candidates running for a range of offices in November. Obama awarded one of these coveted endorsements to Lauren Underwood, who's running against incumbent Randy Hultgren in Illinois' 14th Congressional District. You met Underwood in Episode 37 of the Midpod and here is your chance to get to know her better. We spoke to her at her campaign offices in the district.

LAUREN UNDERWOOD: Hi everyone my name is Lauren Underwood. I'm running for Congress in the Illinois 14th Congressional District and I'm a registered nurse.

NICIE: Can you tell us about the district. Tell our listeners what Illinois' 14th Congressional District, maybe what it looks like, what it feels like to drive around, what are your favorite parts?

UNDERWOOD: Sure. I grew up in a community called Naperville. It's a town 45 minutes west of the city of Chicago. My family first moved to Naperville when I was three years old and so this is sort of, I call it a "super suburb." And it's, it's fairly large within the Chicago land area and the Will County portion of Naperville is in the 14th District. The 14th District is seven counties in our western suburbs of Chicago. So as we travel from north to south you sort of see the half-suburban, half-rural parts of the community come out. This is the community I grew up in. I love it. It's been such a treatment honor to be able to run here and just to describe it for you, it looks like an average suburb, but then, you know you drive two minutes away and you are in the middle of some cornfields. This is an middle class and upper-middle class community. The average income here is $105,000 for a family, average household income. So a sizable number of like stay-at-home-moms so people are resourced, by and large, college-educated. In terms of demographics, it's 85 percent white. 2.9 percent black. And the rest split between Asian and Latino, and Asian is South Asian, so like Indian and Pakistani.

NICIE: So tell us about growing up here. Tell us about your childhood, and what, in going to school here, and everything was that, what was it like as a kid?

UNDERWOOD: Sure. My family moved here when I was three years old. We moved from Ohio. My parents are from Cleveland, and my dad got a job and they left and you know this is sort of like a big deal for their family, because mostly everybody was still in Ohio. So they ventured out to this town called Naperville which back in 1990 was like, a very...farming community that was just transitioning to be a suburb. It was not what it is now. So, for example when I was in first grade, I went to school called May Watts Elementary School, and, in my classes this guy Brian Book and he lived on Book Road. And that's because his family's farm was on Book Road. Now now, if you drive along Book Road there is literally no farm. It is all, you know cul-de-sacs and, subdivisions and the like. And so, that just for me illustrates the transition to, to know the family and then to see the whole community change and sort of move away from that agricultural base. And so, when I was younger, there were well there was like a new wave pool that had opened up and there was this man-made beach downtown Naperville called Centennial Beach. And so between the wave pool and Centennial Beach we had to learn how to swim. And so it was like this milestone that we were gonna to be, we being my sister and I have a younger sister she's, two years younger than I am. And so we went to swim lessons one summer and then that's when I got diagnosed with my heart condition. It was during that, that time of the swimming lesson because I had to learn how to tread water, it made me really anxious. But by and large this community has been fantastic.

NICIE: So your heart condition which you just spoke of that has, I understand that's led to some thinking about your career, right? That sort of directed you.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah I was, I was young and having to go to a cardiologist probably quarterly, and so really got to know the providers pretty well and was inspired by them. I love the idea that they could help young kids like me get well and then have these great lives. And so I wanted to become, once I learned how to spell "pediatric cardiologist" I wanted to become a pediatric cardiologist. And then I took chemistry in high school and I was like, "Oh God I don't want to do this. I don't want to do that for the next 10 years." I wanted to be in the clinicals phase and taking care of people not necessarily in that type of a didactic setting. So I explored and discovered public health and that really made me excited. So I was in high school and I was like, "How do I get to do public health?" And so then I discovered nursing and I was like, "This is great." It sort of combined everything, decided to become a nurse. And, and at the same time, when I was in high school, our mayor in Naperville decided to start this program which allowed high school students to join local boards and commissions. So you had to get a full appointment you had to apply whatever. And so I got appointed to our local fair housing commission for a one-year term, and then got reappointed to another year term. And so for junior and senior year I did this, and so we were investigating complaints of discrimination from landlords and, and Naperville has this reputation, I think rightly so being this welcoming community where people can come and thrive.

UNDERWOOD: But then there, you sort of go below the surface and there's all these allegations of, you know landlords telling people, "Oh you can't live here." You know, "We don't take your source of payment" or "We don't want certain race colors, sexual orientation whatever in our complex" and I was just horrified. And so, to do this work and you can make recommendations to City Council and I was like 16 or 17 years old, you know I loved it. And so, I was inspired by the idea of public service. And so I had this clinical interest and then had an early exposure to public service. And from then on I knew that I needed to find a way to combine those two things, and that happened for me in college. I ended up getting a couple full ride offers and picked Michigan because they were the best for nursing, among the institutions that I got the offers from. And so, I went there and it was so interesting the summer before I was to start, so in between graduation and when I enrolled, the Supreme Court weighed in on a court case about race as a factor of admissions at the University of Michigan. And so, it ended up essentially saying that race could no longer be a factor in admissions. And so, over that summer a bunch of the African-American students had committed to enroll did not actually end up enrolling. And then, I think it was like junior year, the state of Michigan had put forward a ballot initiative, "The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative," that was gonna ban affirmative action across the state, which, would not normally make campus a hotbed but they were trying to look for votes, right, on both sides, so it became like this issue on campus, and so it ended up being much more of like a racial...minefield than I would have otherwise expected going to college in Ann Arbor. And...

HEATHER ATWOOD: How did you navigate it, did you feel like it was your responsibility to...speak out or be part of the debate or...

NICIE: Or were you just really uncomfortable?

UNDERWOOD: Well I think that I was asked to be part of it. And I was at the School of Nursing which is a small program. So let's say there's like a 120 round number students in my class. There might have been, of that 120 maybe eight to 10 students of color, maybe. And even fewer faculty in each class right and fewer faculty of color. And so the idea of diversity and the idea of representation and making sure that everyone had access to the great education that we were benefiting from was something that was real and was personal to me and so I had served them like a bunch of organizations advisory committees and the like within the university and so certainly was active but it was just a formative experience during my time in college, that was one I didn't expect. Now at the same time, there was also formative experiences that shaped my career, which were great. So the school of nursing my freshman year, I was in the Honors Program. The Honors Program was generally for nurses who liked to color outside the lines a little bit. And so they had decided to enroll all the freshman honors students into this course "Policy and Politics at Nursing." And so while all my colleagues in nursing school were like, you know spending their summers like a mother/baby, or in the ICUs, or working as a tech on different clinical units, I went down to Capitol Hill and I was interning for Senator Obama, then when I went to the CDC, and was interning in Atlanta. And so really went down that separate path. So I had found my lane, you know in terms of career stuff, and was growing and learning about myself as a black woman in the midst of like this campus identity question that was going on. So it was, it was a good experience.

NICIE: So you went to graduate school, and then you ended up in Washington. Right?

UNDERWOOD: I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins. So I thought I was gonna be able to graduate from school and like, waltz right into the Obama Administration. I had some connections still. And that didn't end up happening because politics and life in D.C. So I got a job, working for a company for a few months and then the Affordable Care Act passed and I joined the government as a career employee. And so I worked on private insurance reforms. So things like making sure insurance companies use their premium dollar on medical costs and not CEO bonus payments, those provisions that allow the kids or children under age 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance. Did that stuff, did healthcare quality in the Medicare program. So under the Affordable Care Act there were many new initiatives to make sure that the government was only paying for high-quality healthcare. So did that and then, preventive services. So the free screenings, immunizations, contraceptive coverage that came with the Affordable Care Act.

NICIE: It just must feel so monumental to know that you were part of that ACA. And, and now you're running for Congress. And now there's all this discuss-- I mean, it must have been heartbreaking to watch the Republicans go after that law. And you want to talk about that a little bit, how that felt?

UNDERWOOD: Sure, so you know the, the Democrats passed the ACA and then promptly lost the House, right? In, in 2010. So the entire time, mostly the entire time that I was working in government, there were these attacks and threats to the law trying to take away funding, trying to undermine and some of these efforts were successful, thinking about like the Prevention of Public Health Fund, which was essentially almost like zeroed out and local public health never got all the resources that they were owed. And so the idea of the ACA being attacked and under threat was not something new in my experience so having left the administration returning back home, and then going to see my congressman at his one and only public event, for him to be critical the Affordable Care Act was not what was challenging to me. What was challenging to me was that he would not be honest about it. This week last year, our congressman had his one and only public event. And so that night he made a promise. He being our congressman. He said he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal that let people with pre-existing conditions keep their healthcare coverage.

UNDERWOOD: Now as a nurse, that's so important to me because I know that people particularly with chronic illnesses need to have access to medications or procedures, right? And having health insurance coverage is critical to that. Obviously I worked on the Affordable Care Act so I've read the law, and I know that it works. And I know that we can fix what doesn't work. There are solutions. It's not like this nebulous thing. And we do not have to throw the whole thing away. And, as I shared with you earlier, I have a heart condition which is considered a pre-existing condition and it's well-controlled but it's one of these diagnoses where I wouldn't be able to get coverage under these repeal scenarios. So when he made that promise about not supporting something unless it protected people like me I believed him because it was personal. Well then, after the event, like a week to 10 days later our congressman went and voted for the American Health Care Act, which is the version of repeal that did the opposite. And it made it like cost prohibitive for people like me to be able to get coverage. And so I was angry and it wasn't because the vote itself because like I said he's voted to repeal the ACA dozens of times along with his whole caucus, right? So that itself wasn't the issue, the issue was he didn't have the integrity...to be honest with us. The one time he showed up in our community. We literally haven't seen him since. Literally. Like where's Randy? And so, I decided you know what? It's on. I'm running. And launched the campaign in August, of last year, 2017.

NICIE: Just briefly, we did an interview earlier in the show with Leah Greenberg the founder of Indivisible, and she talked about how every politician makes constantly every day essentially risk/reward calculations about how they behave. And I'm just curious how you interpret the risk/reward calculation that Representative Hultgren is making by not being just even a little bit more in touch with, with constituents on this issue and perhaps others. Why?

UNDERWOOD: I think he has become comfortable in having...no, no, no one challenge him. So in the last, since he's been elected, he's had Democrats have run, but they haven't been well-resourced in terms of financial support, haven't been able to mount campaigns with strength, and haven't been able to get support and resources from national groups in order to foot the seat. And so I think that he got complacent, and stopped showing up and especially in this Trump era when it's very clear that Donald Trump doesn't reflect the values of our district. And Randy Hultgren in turn over the years has grown increasingly further and further and further to the right. Randy Hultgren's our congressman. Increasingly further to the right. And so I think that the risk/reward scenario for him is that if he can just stay absent, you know, the community will be fine, and people won't notice what he's doing in Washington and he can keep his donors happy, meaning his donors the big banks. Wall Street banks, the gun lobby, he can keep them happy, he can keep going to Washington, and having fun with his friends like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan. And, he doesn't have to show up for us.

HEATHER: So do you want to talk about running now? And now you are the candidate and, and healthcare is the story, right? Yeah, you want to, so let's, you want to talk about the ACA, what works, what you're, what we need to fix, what, you know...


HEATHER: Tell us about that.

UNDERWOOD: I believe that we can fix the ACA. Things like..risk pools. So there, the way the program was developed, there's supposed to be a pool of money that if, hypothetically Humana got all of the sick cancer patients in the marketplace you sign up on healthcare.gov, and people just self-selecting to Humana, and they have a history of cancer, and then all the healthy 25 year-olds self-select into Aetna. There's supposed to be a pool of money available to make Humana whole, for that what we call adverse selection. Well, that pool of money has been essentially like zeroed out. Right? Like that it just is not available anymore. And so if a program is starved of resources, it will fail. It will fail! It's not like, "Oh there must be some fundamental flaw." Like no. It just doesn't have the money it was supposed to have. And so what do you see in this scenario without that pool of money? You see insurance companies who were willing to offer plans in the marketplace now pull out because it doesn't make, there's no business case for them. The first year of open enrollment when the website didn't work everybody remembers that? But the untold story is that we had enormous competition in the marketplace. You had plans being offered by every major provider in every state in every county and there were a lot of options. And by and large they were affordable for families to be able to pick from. And then again you'll remember, the Republicans went and tried to zero out that fund. And what do we see? Now we see minimal competition, maybe one or two insurance companies offering a plan in any geographic area. And without competition what happens? Costs increase. These are fundamentals of economics. It's not a surprise that we're in this situation. And so we need to fix and this is like a technical fix to me, to properly fund this, this risk pool, right? We'll have competition. It lowers prices.

HEATHER: Can I ask a question? And this relates to the funding of the risk pools but also potentially the subsidies themselves, the income-based subsidies. I had read somewhere and you would know the history better, that during the development of the Affordable Care Act there was great attention paid to attempting to make it deficit-neutral. And we have now just watched the U.S. Congress and the president pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut for essentially the net benefits of that tax cut just accrue to the corporate sector and wealthy families, and it's increasing the deficit by $1.5 trillion so I am just so interested in this question of you know resource allocation and our priorities and our values for our resources in terms of how that card is gonna play out in this campaign cycle now as we head towards the general. That this $1.5 trillion was more important to borrow...than it is to spend a little bit more money on the ACA to make it work. So maybe you could talk that through.

UNDERWOOD: So I would, I agree with the exception of the $1.5 trillion being better to borrow, because our taxes are increasing to pay for that and our grandchildren will have to pay for it.

HEATHER: Right, right I agree.

UNDERWOOD: The debt and the tax increase it's, it's substantial and our community, we live in the state of Illinois. This is a high tax state. We have a community that's a high property tax community. And, you know most people who live in the 14th District own their homes. So they have property tax assessments every year that exceed this $10,000 cap. So literally...basically everybody in our community's taxes are going up. We do not benefit from this tax plan...at all. And it is politically pretty unbelievable that our congressman voted for it. It's one of the things that we are gonna be talking about every day in this general election. It's incredibly unpopular here.

NICIE: We'd be remiss if we didn't ask you what it's been like running as a woman, running as an African-American woman for Congress here. How hard is it been? What, what are some of the challenges?

UNDERWOOD: I think running for Congress is always hard. That's not as woman or as a young person, or due to any race. It's just a challenging endeavor. But so rewarding. I think that it's interesting in that there's not these like ready-made networks for me to just activate, but even that I don't think has to do with me being a woman. It has to do with our community not necessarily having competitive congressional races in almost 10 years. Right? And so, this is just gonna be a challenge for anybody. I think if you had talked to any of my opponents in the primary they would have said it was hard, because it is. And so, I think running as a woman this, this cycle has been awesome. There are so many women who are activated, who are passionate, who are engaged, who are ready to do the work and they have joined us. Women have been our largest base of support in the district. Our volunteers, our largest donors. Our biggest champions, and so I could not do this without the women in the 14th district. The young moms, the older moms, the grandmas, you know the, the young women, the 18 year-old new voter or in Illinois 17 year-old high school seniors can vote, if there'll be 18 before the election. And so, we have a number of high school students who are so excited about this election and just voted for the very first time on March 20th. And so, people here are engaging oftentimes for the first time, for the first time in years. And many of them are women, not all. But I'm honored that they have chosen to support our race. And I stand with them shoulder-to-shoulder to work hard every day till November.

NICIE: That was Lauren Underwood running in Illinois 14. You can learn more at underwoodforcongress.com. Tune in next Tuesday for our profile of the race in Texas 23. We'll take you to the U.S. Mexico border and even across the Rio Grande as we explore issues of immigration and the Latino experience in Texas. And, we'll introduce you to the impressive Democrat in this race, Gina Ortiz Jones. Thanks for listening, and see you next Tuesday.

Eunice Panetta