A Life in Congress: Lauren Underwood Learns What It Costs
Was this what she signed up for?
Not exactly. But Lauren Underwood was here to do the job, and today, on a Friday at 11 p.m., the job was to sit in the House chamber and to wait, alert, present, attentive, for her name to be called near the end of the alphabet. So that’s what she did. She had her navy-blue blanket draped over her legs. She had cough drops and hard candy in her bag. Underwood came 405th in line, about 40 minutes into each roll call, after four Johnsons, four Smiths, three Thompsons and two Torreses. Fourteen rounds of votes and still no speaker of the House. Four days of anxiety and confusion, waiting to be sworn in. It occurred to her early on that week that the world was watching, and that Congress was not exactly putting its best foot forward. There was a grimness haunting the place. It was not a happy scene. Underwood scrolled through text messages on her phone. Across the aisle sat the new Republican majority. She heard murmurs. Then she heard yelling. The word “combustible” came to mind. She turned and saw two colleagues about to lay hands on one another — an almost-fight breaking out in the House chamber. Was she surprised? After four years in this job, no, not really. She looked back down at her phone and fired off a skull emoji to her sister. One more vote and then she could begin her third term in Congress.
And all that was fine, because Lauren Underwood had given a lot to be here. So had everybody in the room, of course. This job, being a member of Congress, was not supposed to be easy. They were America’s public servants. Some of them were famous for it. Most were not. Some put in the work, striving beyond the bare minimum. Some did not. All of them had done what was required to survive, to win a campaign, to secure their seats, to be one of 435. But Lauren Underwood had given something different. There were a lot of women like her. But she didn’t see many in Congress.
The truth is, she loved her job. She believed she was good at it, too. She’d had 14 pieces of legislation signed into law under Presidents Trump and Biden. She was going to serve in a House leadership role now — the first Black woman elected by her colleagues since Shirley Chisholm in 1977 — as co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She’d kept her head down and she had worked. Going viral, she had learned, was overrated. If anything, she had dialed back her personal online presence over the past four years. It only invited hostility, an ugly darkness. She’d come into Congress with the Class of 2018, part of that big blue wave of young, diverse women who promised to block Trump and change the way things work in Washington. Underwood, a registered nurse from the Chicago suburbs, wanted to make the health-care system better. She was 30 years old, just a “regular person,” she said, when she gave up her career to run for office. She was 32 when she became the youngest Black woman elected to Congress. That first week here, four years ago this January, had been so busy, so full of possibility. Everything was new. She remembers wanting to work with her colleagues in “this really sweet, optimistic way.” She remembers searching the halls for a “Republican bestie,” a fellow member of Congress who could be her partner on meaningful health-care legislation. But that was before two impeachments, before Jan. 6, 2021, before she knew the job. Now, she was less candid, less trusting, more aggressive about managing her time. Now, she knew that people would waste your time here, if you let them. Now, she knew that some Democrats and Republicans avoided eye contact when they crossed paths in the halls.
She also knew that to keep the job, she had to be perfect. She couldn’t mess up. And so she didn’t. Early on that week, when she learned that her assigned seat with the Democratic leadership team would be in view of a C-SPAN camera, she was vigilant, careful to be seen paying attention. She was seated on the aisle, across from the Republicans — the confrontation between Reps. Matt Gaetz and Mike D. Rogers just a few rows behind. Her district, Illinois’s 14th, about an hour outside of Chicago, was competitive. The seat had once belonged to a Republican giant, the former House speaker of eight years, Dennis Hastert. Now it was Underwood’s to lose. She’d won it by five points in 2018. Two years later, the margin shrunk to 1.4 — a difference of about 5,000 votes. Her opponent had refused to accept defeat. He’d even flown to D.C. for freshman orientation. Three times now, always by single-digit margins, Underwood had fought to hold on to her place in Congress — and she’d done it, she said, “in a really serious way, in an all-consuming way, in a no-days-off kind of way.” Which meant raising money, lots and lots of money, and then turning around and doing it all over again. Every day felt like an “opportunity for the whole thing to implode.” It was like a war, and there were land mines everywhere. “And you just can’t step on any, but you’re seeing them explode all around you.” It had been that way since 2018.