‘We Saw This Problem Coming’

Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress, on remote legislating during a pandemic.

Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times
Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

On Illinois representative Lauren Underwood’s first flight during the pandemic back in March, she was the only passenger on the plane to Washington, D.C. The 33-year-old — who is the youngest Black woman ever elected to Congress and also a registered nurse with master’s degrees in nursing and public health — has a heart condition (supraventricular tachycardia) that puts her at elevated risk of complications if she contracts COVID-19.

That’s meant that doing her job — as both a legislator in a country clawing its way through an economic crisis, where the unemployment benefits holding up many American families are about to expire, and a candidate up for reelection in November in the historically conservative district she flipped two years ago — has been trickier than usual.

Underwood works mainly while sheltering at home in Naperville, participating in video conferences with colleagues and holding hearings over Webex, but when we speak, she’s in her car taking a “rare field trip” to Waukegan for a press conference on the use of CARES Act funds in her district. Before she tells me more about how the work in Washington is getting done in a pandemic, she talks about the anxiety of just trying to get to the capital every month. Her most recent flight was full. “No one right next to me, but I was very scared because the man on the aisle was very, very, very slowly drinking a coffee without a mask on. It was just like, Oooh, God.

And that’s all before dealing with her work itself, especially on the big omnibus COVID bills that are being hammered out remotely.

“Usually,” Underwood says, “every member in an area of jurisdiction would have the opportunity to shape the bill, to touch it in some way.” But now, “we have been so far removed from that, and negotiations have pretty much been between the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi], [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, and [Treasury Secretary] Steven Mnuchin. So a lot of the work we’re doing is just trying to flag issues, items that should be priorities, accounts that are running out of money.”

Underwood says that sometimes she finds out details about bills from the press, meaning one of her biggest everyday responsibilities is “reading Politico, reading the Washington Post, reading the Times several times a day, as these little nuggets of information drip out, so we can react and respond.”

She winds up writing more letters to leadership, and speaking up and calling on Pelosi and her committee more directly, than she used to. Email and text exchanges between members, she says, “are far more active than they ever were before, because we’re geographically distant from the action. It’s very different from how things have been throughout my first year and a half.”

Underwood is part of the House’s historic 2018 freshman class, many of them young, many women of color, many first-time candidates who swept into office in the midterms. In her 2018 primary, Underwood defeated six white men for the Democratic nomination in her predominantly white district; she then beat the four-term incumbent Republican by running on a platform that prioritized affordable and accessible health care, public education, paid-leave reform, equality in the workplace, affordable child care, and improvements in local infrastructure. Now she and many of her young female peers have found themselves and the issues they ran on at the absolute nexus of global, national, and local calamity.

“We flagged so many of the key issues early!” Underwood tells me. “The system was broken during good times, right? People want to characterize the last couple years of this booming economy and low unemployment, but women were still burdened because the economy wasn’t working so well for us consistently.” She and many of her incoming congressional peers, she said, “saw this problem coming with paid leave and affordable childcare. We saw this problem coming with unaffordable out-of-pocket health-care costs. We saw this problem coming with inequality in our education system. And we started to try to lay the groundwork, but obviously those have all sharpened into focus during this time.”

Her text chains, she said, are mostly with her fellow committee members, others in the Illinois delegation, colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, and the whole freshman class, the members of which have an ongoing email conversation. The freshman class, she says, interacted more socially at the beginning of the pandemic, “when the differences were so stark and we were acutely missing one another.” Now, she says, their communications are “more business stuff.” And then there are her girlfriends (whom she declines to name individually). “We like each other, we trust each other, and we are the ones that are saving our country, period.”

Before the pandemic, Underwood and her father had a routine; every week when she returned from D.C., her dad would spend an hour or so giving his “feedback” on everything that had happened in our country that week. “He’d go through this list: what the Speaker said, what Adam Schiff said, what I said, what he saw on MSNBC, how it’s been playing out in the news locally.” Since Underwood lives around the corner from her parents, who are high-risk, they’ve kept up the tradition, safely, from a distance. “There’s one chair I sit in in their house, and they sit on the other side of the room.”

In its way, the crisis has brought even more clarity and opportunity, Underwood says.

Because Illinois had early COVID cases and locked down quickly, Underwood says, her district faced “dual health-care and economic crises far earlier than many states in this country. A lot of families have been struggling on both fronts for a long time.” Underwood is confronting the same challenges as millions of others who have been left to fend for themselves. “I go to the state public testing site to get tested. I am hustling to get wipes and spray and supplies just like everybody else. We don’t get any special privileges. I think that my exposures are higher than the average person because I get on a plane, [and when I arrive] my colleagues are walking around on the [House] floor without masks on — you know people try to get in the elevator with me without masks on! It’s disrespectful.”

Terrible circumstances can usher in a chance for change. When 5.4 million people are kicked off employer health-care plans, the argument that health care should be decoupled from employment gets easier to make, and while Underwood — who has not been a supporter of Medicare for All but rather of protecting, expanding, and lowering the costs of the Affordable Care Act, which she worked on in the Obama administration — doesn’t exactly think her constituents are suddenly going to become leftists, she has seen more openness to policy reforms.

“If you ask people unprompted to describe which changes they want to see in our health-care system, you wouldn’t necessarily get a fully developed set of reforms, but when we present solutions and give very concrete localized examples, they embrace it.” She recalls how some of the farmers in her district who were initially the wariest about health-care reform became some of her most enthusiastic backers in her efforts to pass the Health-Care Affordability Act, legislation she wrote, which would mandate that no family that purchases coverage on the exchange would pay more than 8.5 percent of their adjusted gross income on health-care premiums. (It passed the House as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act in late June.)

Underwood sees racism as a public-health issue, and her work has long reflected her understanding of the interconnectedness of oppressions: The COVID handbook her office prepared for constituents includes information and links not only to public-health and employment offices but also to emergency childcare services, mental-health and domestic-violence hotlines, and food-assistance programs and numbers to call about broadband access. So when I ask her about the Black Lives Matter protests in her majority-white district this summer, she lights up.

“Oh my God, it’s amazing when you watch your community change before your eyes.” Every town in her district, she says, “had a march or a rally or a protest, and they were all led by these high-school students, these girls who would usually be organizing spirit meets and drives to help children in an orphanage in another country, but they have embraced the cause of equality and justice and have mobilized not only their classmates but their entire community to fight for change, policing reform, and to say that black lives matter. I’ve been so proud to watch this happen.”

But that pride has been met with frustration at the harsh limits of possibility that have been made ever clear in the midst of crisis. “In this moment, we continue to have people who are uninsured and the administration will not support even extending free COVID treatment,” she says. “We have not been able to get bipartisan compromise on surprise medical bills, which at the very beginning of the Congress we had widespread agreement on. It was tremendous and destructive pressure from [health-care] industry groups that froze that effort.” So when she thinks about the openness of America — especially an America in upheaval — to the “transformational change that a large segment of the population is seeking,” she keeps running up against current congressional (and presidential) reality.

What we are seeing in this moment, she says, “is a complete failure of leadership” at the executive level. “We have had over 100,000 preventable deaths related to COVID-19, and because of a lack of early decisive action, we are in for a very challenging rest of 2020, because now we’re playing culture wars with masks.”

As a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, she is staring down the seemingly impossible, intricate calculus of how to reopen safely and justly.

“Everybody is talking about, ‘Oh, we want an economic recovery,’” says Underwood. “And of course we want an economic recovery! But we’re never going to have it if women can’t return to the workforce. We will not have a full and swift economic recovery without addressing core needs around paid sick leave, paid family leave, and affordable childcare. And my Republican colleagues have not come to terms with the crisis we have in childcare. School reopening is not about sheer force of will, you know?” Which isn’t to say that Underwood, whose grandmother taught school in Jim Crow Alabama, isn’t also driven to get kids back to school and worried about the students who were already barely keeping up and those who may not recover. “We will have failed them in this moment,” she says.

When I ask if she’s optimistic that Congress is going to be able to deliver more aid anytime soon, Underwood pauses long and hard. “Ummmmm. I don’t know,” she says. “Because Mitch McConnell seems to be asserting himself more in this negotiation than he did in the CARES Act and obviously we don’t share values. So all these issues that we discussed today? I don’t think he would list any single one of them as priorities.”

Earlier in the term, Underwood, alongside Karen Bass, Ayanna Pressley, Barbara Lee, and others, introduced a bill demanding from the CDC a full demographic breakdown of illness and outcomes for those with COVID. It’s the kind of information that the New York Times recently had to sue to get and, as Underwood points out, her bill “would require 100 percent reporting; the Times got 50 percent.” It’s the kind of information that a Trump administration is working hard to obscure. “Because the president believes if you don’t test people, then there won’t be COVID,” Underwood says with exasperation. “And he believes that if you hide the ball that must magically mean everything’s fine. I mean … it’s not fine, Mr. President.”

*A version of this article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

‘We Saw This Problem Coming’