So far, 118 Democrats in the House of Representatives have called for an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has cautioned against it. On the latest episode of Recode Decode With Kara Swisher, one of the party’s rising stars — Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois — explained why she won’t be the 119th.
“In my community, there’s a large cohort of people that shut down when you say ‘Russia,’ that you can’t even get to investigation or impeachment because it’s just noise to them,” Underwood said. “It’s been like this endless bickering. They don’t really know who’s at fault, [they don’t] care because it’s not addressing the core issues affecting their family, and it feels like more of the same, right?”
“We need to move forward in a way that brings the community with us, because if I act unilaterally, or what’s perceived as unilaterally and leave my community behind, then it looks like a power grab,” she added. “And then I’m no better than him, being the president. And that’s not what we’re here for.”
Underwood was elected in 2018 to represent Illinois’ 14th District, replacing Republican Randy Hultgren; as a freshman facing a tough re-election fight next year, she said some of the Democrats running for president in 2020 are “toxic” for communities like hers and should drop out.
“If I’m forced to run the 2020 presidential in the Illinois 14th, we will lose,” she said. “I think that if I wait to engage those voters that we know that we need to follow up with and we wait until the spring of 2020 to reach out to them, I will lose. I think that some of the presidential candidates are super toxic. And I will lose along with many other Democrats in swing seats, and we will lose the House.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Rep. Underwood.
Kara Swisher: I’m really excited to interview Congresswoman Underwood, because I interview a lot of tech people and I interview a lot of people who have opinions about tech.
And you don’t have that many opinions about tech, but we might have some. But what we want to talk about is where we are in Congress.
You’re a freshman, and a little bit about your journey and what’s going on now. Because I think it’s hard to be from a district that is a swing district, essentially. You have a swing district.
It definitely has a different flavor on the job than some of my other colleagues.
Yes, exactly. So, we need to talk about that, because I think people need to understand what’s happening.
Beyond just that, beyond just the regular things. So let’s talk a little bit about your background first.
Talk about how, for the people who don’t know you, how you got to where you got, because you’re one of the more compelling stories, of the many compelling stories of the freshman class.
Thanks. Well I’m Lauren Underwood. I represent the Illinois 14th, which is a half-suburban, half-rural community outside of Chicago. I live in a town called Naperville, it’s 45 minutes west of the city. We have a Naperville contingent, specifically Neuqua Valley Wildcats, in the room today. I’m so excited. But our community is 45 minutes west of Chicago, and I’m a nurse. And I spent my career working to expand health care coverage in communities across our country.
So I worked to implement the Affordable Care Act at the federal level, worked on private insurance reform, worked on health care quality and Medicare preventive services, those free screenings and vaccines and contraceptive coverage. Basically anything the Obama administration was getting sued on, related to the ACA, was in my portfolio.
Okay. All right.
And then I joined the Obama administration and worked on public health emergencies and disasters. So we did Ebola, we did Zika, the mosquito illness, you all remember that? And the water crisis in Flint. And so it was during our time in Flint that the 2016 election happened, and I thought Hillary was gonna win and that we’d have this chance to hand off our work on Flint and hand off our work on health reform to a team that cared.
And Ebola, I hope. End to Ebola, right?
Well Ebola, by 2016 it was on a downturn. It has resurged now in Africa.
Yes, it has, now.
But then, it was not at crisis levels.
Right. Well, just a little bit of Ebola is a problem, as far as I’m concerned. But go ahead.
Yes, thank you. Yes. And so, you know, when the Trump transition team came in, they made it immediately clear that they wanted to take away health care coverage from the American people. And I didn’t want to help them do that. So I had an opportunity to convert back to a career employee, decided not to do that.
And so I went back home to Illinois. Our state expanded Medicaid, so I began working for a Medicaid managed care company in Chicago, was living my best life, and found myself at my congressman ...
Wait wait, what is your best life? What is that?
What is my best life?
My best life at that time was, you know, not having to fly wherever there was a natural disaster, an emerging infectious disease, right? Not going abroad at the last minute because something had happened. Being able to plan my life and do work I cared about, but have some balance, right? Like, work-life balance.
Right. Got it.
And then I decided to run for Congress, right? Out the window that went. But at the time I was just so excited about this idea of being able to be a millennial and do millennial things. Honestly.
And it was fun while it lasted, but I went to my congressman’s town hall. And so, this was during the time that there was all these different versions of Obamacare repeal being considered in the Congress.
And so there’s all these different bills that did slightly different things. And at that event, he said he was only going to support a version of repeal that let people with preexisting conditions keep their health care coverage. So I’m a nurse, I have a preexisting condition and I worked on the ACA. So when he made that promise, I believed him, because it was personal.
And two weeks later, he voted for the American Healthcare Act, which is the version of repeal that did the opposite, made it cost-prohibitive for people like me to get affordable insurance coverage. And I got really mad and decided, “You know what? It’s on, I’m running.”
Wait, no, come on.
You know, some people get upset and they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to do something about that.” And then life happens, right? So people have these ideas to write a book, and then life happens. Or start a business, and then life happens, or an organization ... For me, I just could not let this go.
Couldn’t let it go. This is like three months after the Women’s March, and you know, the president’s doing all kinds of crazy things. And I felt like we, as citizens, needed to engage.
So had you ever thought of that before? I mean, you worked in the Obama administration, a lot of people do run from there. Rahm Emanuel, all kinds of people.
Had that been a plan of yours?
Well, I was always interested in service, and serving in elected office is something that I thought could be an interesting thing to do, later in life. I was not at all planning to launch a campaign at 30.
Right. And you didn’t want to go back to nursing, you just wanted to continue working in health care in some way.
In health policy. That’s right.
In health policy. So you do this, and then you win.
But I want to, I want to actually be specific. You know, “nursing” is a very broad profession.
Yes, it is.
We have nurses working in many different settings, including in health policy. There’s just fewer of us. But it’s very important that we bring our expertise to these spaces because our patients are ... they’re families, and our communities are counting on us, sharing our expertise.
So I don’t want folks to walk away and think that, you know, I left it behind. Right? Or that I’m somehow not a nurse because I’ve spent my career in these spaces.
So you run, did you think you were going to win? Did you have any sense that you could win? This is again, talk about the makeup of your district.
Yes. So, the Illinois 14th was on that very first targeted list from the DCCC. So they put out a list at the end of January, which I saw. They put out the Illinois 6th, which was Peter Roskam, and the Illinois 14th, Randy Hultgren. And my town of Naperville has actually been gerrymandered into three congressional districts. So a town of 140,000 people has just been carved up. And so, one Democrat and two Republicans represented our community.
And I was so excited to see that somebody at the DCCC thought that our community was winnable. Because they had not invested in our community in many, many, many, many years. And so at that time I was like, “Oh, I wonder who’s going to run. I’d love to help them.” Right?
And, when I’m living my best life. I certainly knew ...
What were you doing at this moment? What was it that ...
So this is at the end of January.
No, what was the best life part? Was it kombucha drinking? What was your best life?
Oh. It’s like going to spin class, going to pilates, you know?
Right, okay. Just want to make it clear.
Like, eating healthy, and then baking and eating whatever I baked.
Hanging out with my girlfriends, and I was in the process of buying a house. You know, I was really living my best life.
Okay, all right.
By most standards, I think. And so, maybe millennial life. Others probably have other high points.
No, that sounds like my life, but go ahead, move along.
Okay. So the DCCC had listed the Illinois 14th. So they had some data to suggest that our district could flip.
Could flip, right. How long he had been there? How long?
So my family moved to Naperville ...
No, no. No, you were fair. How long have you been there? How long had the congressman been there before?
Oh, Randy Hultgren had served for four terms when I beat him.
So Randy Hultgren was a Tea Party Republican, but our district is probably most notable because it was Denny Hastert’s seat when he was speaker of the House. So Denny Hastert is the longest-serving Republican speaker. Then, in 2006 and the election, under Rahm Emanuel’s leadership at the DCCC, the Democrats win the House. Speaker Pelosi becomes speaker for the first time. And then Dennis Hastert steps down. Shortly after he steps down, all of the news of his sexual misconduct and sexual abuse of his students came out, because he was making these inappropriate payments, payoffs. And so then he went to jail.
So that’s the history of the 14th.
But most notably, there had only been one other Democrat ever in history that represented our community in Congress.
Right. And who was that?
His name is Bill Foster. He won the special election. He’s a physicist. After Denny Hastert left, he did not get reelected. Randy Hultgren, this Tea Party Republican, beat him in the Tea Party wave, and then had continued to get reelected. Randy Hultgren is a very nice man, presents as a moderate, and then stood right by Trump at every turn.
And so, a lot of folks in our community — you know, the Illinois 14th is a very nice, beautiful, half-suburban, half-rural community. A lot of folks are not looking to the federal government day to day for help, for assistance, for much. Right?
And so, for a long time, people were comfortable and didn’t need to interact with their congressperson, weren’t looking to watch what their congressperson was doing. And so then when Trump wins, and you start to see all this stuff happening, people are like, “Well, who’s our guy?” And then they saw that our guy didn’t have our back.
He wasn’t showing up for us in Washington. He wasn’t engaging folks at home, refused to do town halls. He did that one and then went away for 16 months. Didn’t appear in public, didn’t have any kind of engagement.
And so, at the time that I got mad, right? This is your question. Spring of ‘17, did I think that we could win? Yes. I thought that we could win. Did I know how we were going to do it? I did not. Did I know how to run for Congress? Not necessarily.
A friend and I went to lunch, her name’s Sarah Feldman. And I was like, “Yeah, you know, I have this idea, I’m gonna run for Congress. I’m really thinking about it.” And she takes out her notebook and starts writing things down, at lunch. And that’s how we did it. We spent the summer of 2017 figuring out how to run and we, you know, I made the website. And it’s the website that we still have up right now. We wrote a launch video and got some friends to shoot it. It was a very DIY campaign.
And we ended up launching in August of 2017. I ran in a primary against six guys. I won, I got 57 percent of the votes.
Why do you think you won? What was the appeal?
I think that I won for a number of reasons. The primary or the general?
Okay. In the primary, health care was the No. 1 issue.
I had really rich background expertise on and could speak credibly about the No. 1 issue. Secondly, we had an approach that was nontraditional in our community. The traditional way that Democrats would be competitive — because they’ve never really won, besides for Bill Foster — to be competitive, is to target a few suburbs across the district and then just spend time in those areas.
And I said, “No, we’re going to go everywhere.” So I had seven counties, we set up volunteer operations in all seven and spent a lot of time in each of those communities. And what we found is that farmers would tell us that no Democrat had knocked on their door in 10 years. In 10 years! And so it’s like, “How could that be?”
But we know that when you surrender seats, meaning if you don’t have a Democrat running for County Board, you don’t have a Democrat running for State Rep, then that means that there’s no one door-knocking. If you don’t have full slates of committees, like precinct committee men and women, then that means that there’s no local representative from that Democratic Party. And so people just didn’t hear from us.
And so, when we would show up in their living rooms and their cul-de-sacs and their soybean fields and talk to them about their issues, and then come back and then come back, they’re like, “Oh, I guess this Underwood girl’s serious. Hmm, this is interesting.” Right? And then, quite candidly, we out-raised all my opponents combined, so we had the resources. And when I say out-raised, I’m not talking about millions of dollars.
Right? It was just more. And I just want to make that distinction, because I know that so many folks, this is a very well-educated political audience that we have here. And you all, I think, pay attention to quarterly fundraising numbers and you know who’s up and who’s down and whatever. But for my primary, we raised $350,000. Total.
And that was more than everyone in our race combined. And that let us do mail, it let us do cable TV, it let us do digital ads, it let us do what we needed to do to win our race. Did we hit our threshold every quarter? No, we did not. I never, in the primary, hit my DCCC goal. The DCCC wanted me to raise, I probably shouldn’t even say this. The DCCC wanted me to raise $400,000 in my first quarter. I was like, “Are you out of your mind?”
And we didn’t, you know, maybe that’s the traditional playbook, but I’m not a traditional candidate.
Right. Right. Right.
And so when you are a nontraditional person in a district that people think is possible, potential, then maybe you don’t follow the traditional playbook to get to success. And so, we crushed it.
And then ended up in this general.
Yeah. Against Randy.
And, in the general that was ... it was intense. Our district had never elected a woman, had never elected a person of color, had never elected a young person. Right? And so someone like me is very different. But the Republicans, naturally, thought that Randy Hultgren could sleepwalk and get reelected, because he had that R for Republican next to his name on the ballot. That gave us some freedom to do what we needed to do on the ground, because they weren’t paying attention.
Why do you think you beat him? On what topic? Health care.
Health. So we won really for, I’d say, three reasons. No. 1, health care was the No. 1 issue throughout the whole campaign.
Prescription drug prices.
Cost. So, not just drugs.
Premium prices, surprise billing, right? This idea that people can’t afford to see their provider because they’re struggling to pay their premium. They can’t afford their insulin because they’re struggling to pay their premium, right? And it just goes up, up, up, and it’s gotten out of control.
So, the only thing that bumped health care as the No. 1 issue was those three weeks over the summer last year, where we saw those images of kids in cages at the border. That’s the only time that health care dropped. And so, that stuck with me.
The second reason we won is, this representation thing I was talking about. Did our guy have our back and would he show up for us at home? For Randy Hultgren, the answer was no. And for a lot of the moderate Republicans and independent voters, they saw that. And they were not happy with that level of nonresponsiveness, inaccessibility, and nontransparency.
And then the third reason I think that we won is that we were willing to do the work. So it’s not just alignment, right? You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to fight for it and show up for people. And the tone of our communications, the way that we ran the race, is very different than people typically do in Illinois. Right? Like, corruption is something that Illinois voters are very familiar with. So many of our former governors end up in jail, right? This community had a congressperson that, you know — deep betrayal.
And so, the idea that you were going to run a race with integrity and be honest and positive.
So you wanted to, since you had a swing district, you wanted to be positive, forward-thinking.
Not necessarily running against Trump.
I was not running against Trump. Donald Trump, this election in the 14th was not about Donald Trump.
I didn’t talk about the president. It was something that everyone knew was going on, but it didn’t really have a bearing on our race.
Meaning the voters did not want it, they wanted to talk about the issues in your district.
Right, I mean, Donald Trump won our district. He got 49 percent, Hillary Clinton got 45. With that 45 percent, she outperformed Barack Obama in 2012, but Obama won our community in 2008. And then obviously everybody voted for him for senator.
At the same time that I was running, we had a really competitive gubernatorial race. J.B. Pritzker won that governor’s race in our state. He won by 16 points.
He lost my district by eight, and I won by five. So there’s a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump. They voted for Bruce Rauner for governor, the Republican. And they voted for me.
And we knew that, in our community, we would not be successful if our race was about partisanship, right? This is not, “Vote for the Democrat.” That doesn’t mean that much to a lot of people, right? The Democratic Party in our state is run by a machine. The machine ends up being pretty toxic, you know, doesn’t have a lot of fans out our way.
What we found is that if we were able to talk to our voters, mostly women, women age 35 to 70. In my district, their names are Pat and Barb and Sue and Marge, and they are the ladies of the 14th District. And we would go out and we would talk to them. Everything we put out is designed to reach them. We know what they read, we know what they watch, we know the language they use, how they communicate with each other.
So how does Barb feel right now?
So Barb, listen, Barb is pretty frustrated right now. Barb is pretty frustrated because gridlock is consuming, right? The president keeps tweeting. He’s very offensive, right? He’s using language that she would never tolerate out of her kids. That her kids would get suspended from school if they said those kinds of things. She sees an administration whose officials are breaking the law by ignoring subpoenas. And even if she doesn’t buy into the whole need of investigations, which she — depending on if Barb is a Democrat or not — she doesn’t.
She’s concerned about the flagrant breaking of the law and she really just wants someone to help her with her health care costs.
She really wants someone to help her have a reliable internet connection, because depending on where she lives in my district, she doesn’t have it.
Right? She really wants someone to help her child not be terrified, going to school, in three weeks when they go back, because those kids remember each and every active shooter drill.
And it is like this, I would use the word paranoia, but it’s actually grounded in a very real chance that it could happen to us.
Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
And she’s disgusted that this is what our country has become, right? Where children are scared to go to school. So, Barb is not, like, happy right now. Barb, I think, is pleased that her congresswoman shows up and is engaged and whatever, but she’s concerned about the future of our country.
So when you get to Congress, well, that’s what you’re faced with.
You’re faced with this. So what do you do as a swing congresswoman? A lot of people here and across ... well, not Nancy Pelosi, she represents this district.
Yes, she does.
Haven’t been pushing for impeachment, haven’t been caught up in the fighting that’s been going on, or apparent fighting between the Squad and Nancy Pelosi. And all the Democrats seemingly fighting, in some fashion, is hard to understand, I think.
Meanwhile, Trump takes advantage of it and uses it to create a series of racist tweets, that are flagrantly racist. How do you, when you are in your position, can you explain to everyone what the risks of doing that is, and why you wish you could or wish you couldn’t? Or, where are you on impeachment right now?
Okay, so I’ll answer the first part of your question first, which is what do you do when you win from a swing district?
And so, I recognized that health care is the No. 1 issue in my district, across the country, and that’s what I went to Congress to do. So I serve on three committees, one of which is Education and Labor — which was always traditionally part of health reform conversations but had a very, very small role, as compared to the others, meaning Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce. Well, they put me, Donna Shalala and Kim Schrier, the first female physician in Congress, on this small health care committee to work on health care. And we get to do whatever we want. Right? And it’s so fun. They are so smart. We are aligned...
Yeah. Nobody crosses Donna Shalala. But go ahead, yeah.
Right, it’s amazing. And so, we really get to advance the health care agenda. I requested to serve on Homeland Security, and I’m now the vice chair on Homeland Security, and we have jurisdiction over the US-Mexico border and what’s going on, right?
And so, remember when I said the only issue that bumped health care was the treatment of the migrant children? Now we get to work on that, right? And I serve on Veteran’s Affairs. And the way that our country has continued to struggle to offer high-quality health care services to our nation’s heroes is, quite candidly, pretty despicable. And I was like, “Let’s work on this.”
And so, I decided to go to Congress and work on health care issues at every chance I get, right? On Homeland, they’ve never had a health care person, ever, since this committee was created, since the Department of Homeland Security was created post-9/11. What an incredible opportunity, when we think about cybersecurity and all the rest, to really explore and dig deep. So I love my job. I think it’s very fun. And we’re getting to solve a lot of problems.
Now, with respect to impeachment and the investigations and all these other things, in my community, there’s a large cohort of people that shut down when you say “Russia,” that you can’t even get to investigation or impeachment, because it’s just noise to them, right? It’s been like this endless bickering. They don’t really know who’s at fault, that doesn’t care because it’s not addressing the core issues affecting their family, and it feels like more of the same, right? Because, again, that voter in my community is very familiar with what corruption looks like. And so, this flavor is not necessarily more or less alarming than others.
Even if it’s insecure elections, it’s just the same...
Well, right, because you have to remember, we knew that Illinois got hacked well before the Mueller report came out. We knew before my election in 2018, we knew that there were vulnerabilities that were exploited and that the Russians got in. We knew this.
And so, two years later, for Mr. Mueller to outline it in a report, it’s like, “Yes, next,” almost. It’s alarming, and there’s certainly things we need to do about it. But I’m just saying, the ladies of the 14th, I don’t know that they’re across-the-board clamoring.
So what do you do in that situation? You have not supported impeachment yet, is that correct?
I have not called for impeachment.
And that’s because ...?
That’s because we need to move forward in a way that brings the community with us, because if I act unilaterally, or what’s perceived as unilaterally, and leave my community behind, then it looks like a power grab. And then I’m no better than him, being the president. And that’s not what we’re here for. Right?
I think it’s very important to make sure that our investigations can continue forward. As Mr. Mueller stated when he testified, the scope of his investigation was very limited. He could only do obstruction and Russian interference. He wasn’t able to investigate the financial dealings and all these other things. Congress is the only one that can do that, along with a few attorney generals, depending on their jurisdiction. Right?
And so, I think that we need to continue to see where the court cases go. We are — we being the House — is winning a lot of these court cases. And I think it’s important that we get all the information, because let’s say that we just skip ahead and we move forward today, right? A lot of that information would never come out. And I think that a lot of people are concerned primarily with the president’s actions, but I think that there could be a scenario where others are involved, and it’s important to have all the facts so that we can ensure that this never happens again in our country.
Yeah. So you’re running for the next election, which is like tomorrow, you have to start doing that, right?
We’ve already launched our reelection, yeah. I mean, I have seven Republican opponents, so a lot of people, especially at the congressional level, that you’ll talk to, they’ll say, “We’re gearing up for a very competitive race.” No, I’m in a competitive race. I had a Republican opponent that filed to run against me two weeks after I was elected in November of 2018. It’s like they objected on general principle. I hadn’t been sworn in, I hadn’t done anything. And it’s just like, “Nope. Who is this young black woman in our seat?” And that layer of racism, sexism, -isms is on everything that they, the Republicans, put out.
So how do you feel? How safe do you feel your seat is?
It’s a toss-up race, literally rated a toss-up by all those political people.
Toss-up raters, yeah.
Mm-hmm. And it feels competitive, but I’m doing my work and keeping my promises.
How do you stay in there? How do you keep that? Because that’s one of the issues.
Keep these seats. How do they keep these swings seats to hold the House? Because that’s the critical part of getting the House.
I mean, I’m home every weekend. I think I have missed probably two weekends in six months. And we show up to all the small towns and all the public events, and we have the town halls, we do these things called “office hours,” which, I found after the first set of town halls that people had questions that really weren’t appropriate for the large group, and people just wanted to be able to engage me directly. So I’ll just post up at a city council chambers, and people just come in and talk to me for 10 minutes and ask their questions or take their pictures, or whatever. They just want to be able to interact. And I think that that’s really important. We have good constituent services.
So how are you going to hold onto the seat? What do you think the keys ...
We’re going to fight for it. We’re going to work for it. I am running for reelection. I am raising money. We have staff on the ground, we have offices. We are doing the work every day.
And how do you imagine you could get beaten by one of these Republicans, one of the seven? They’ll duke it out among themselves.
Well, you know ... Yeah. I think that if I’m forced to run the 2020 presidential in the Illinois 14th, we will lose. I think that if I wait to engage those voters that we know that we need to follow up with and we wait until the spring of 2020 to reach out to them, I will lose.
I think that some of the presidential candidates are super toxic. And I will lose along with many other Democrats in swing seats, and we will lose the House. And I think that we have to be careful in how we approach this wonderful opportunity that we have to select ...
Who is toxic?
I’m not going to answer that. I think that you all can imagine. Whoever you think is toxic, is toxic.
Because whoever’s — think about it — whoever’s toxic for San Francisco is super toxic in the 14th district.
Well, it’s a different thing, what’s toxic here.
It’s different, but not that different.
I would imagine if you had to pick toxic, probably Biden would be more toxic than Elizabeth Warren here. So that’s a different toxic. Right?
I suspect. I suspect.
Yeah. I don’t know about Marianne Williamson, the feelings here. I haven’t asked anyone. But, you know.
Yeah. Mayor Pete, I just did an interview with him.
He’s a nice guy. Some of the others you just said are nice people, too.
But I don’t want my silence to be like, “Ooh, there’s beef.” No. There’s no beef.
I presume that you’d want a Democrat that people in these swing districts can get behind.
And I want someone who’s used to talking to people. A lot of folks in Washington have gotten good at Washington, right? They learned how to be successful and effective in navigating a very dysfunctional system, which is a skill set and it’s very valuable. But there are a lot of people who are not used to going into a living room or sitting down in a diner and talking to a regular person. They have no idea what to say. They literally don’t know the words to use. They literally don’t. And that is something that I found was so valuable. If you are disciplined about your speech and your language, you can talk to anybody.
So one of my favorite examples, because I figured you might ask, it’s about debt-free college.
I’m waiting on “toxic,” but go ahead.
Okay, debt-free college. So debt-free college was something that really came out of the 2016 election, right? Bernie was all excited about debt-free college. And in my district, people don’t like things that are “free.” And they don’t like things that are “for all.” Right? They just don’t.
And so I heard that and I said, “Okay. So what I would talk about is modernizing our financial aid system where we would have Pell grants that reflect the true cost of tuition at a four-year public college. And we would have subsidized student loans that would fill the gap for the rest: room, board, books, fees, whatever.” Right? And, lo and behold, people were like, “Yes, that’s right. We do need a modern financial aid system. People shouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt,” right? And they’re on board, they’re like, “Yes.” Well, guess what? That’s the debt-free college proposal, but you don’t call it that. You don’t call it that because that turns people off.
And I think one of the things that the Democratic Party has been doing is that we like hashtag labels, hashtag-y conversations, things that people can be like, “Oh, debt-free college. Yeah, mm-hmm.” And while that’s good at what I would consider to be mobilization, right, to get people out, that does not convince persuadables. And I think that we all need to be more thoughtful, we all being engaged, very engaged Democrats, need to be more thoughtful in the words that we use to describe our ideas when we are talking to persuadable voters. Persuadable voters are not mobilizing people.
So getting to, then, Medicare-for-All, hashtag Medicare-for-All, how do you feel about that, being someone who is quite up on this topic?
Yes, so when I would travel around my district and people will be like, “Well, Lauren, Medicare-for-All,” I’d say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” And I would get some version of Medicare 55 and up, which is lowering the Medicare eligibility age, that is not Medicare for all, Medicare 40 and up, Medicare 18 and up, Medicare at birth, and buying into Medicare.
Then you get the people who want to buy into Medicaid and they call it Medicare-for-All and all this other stuff, right? So everybody has a different definition. You have the people that want to keep private insurance, get rid of private insurance. There’s all these different ideas. We are in an open brainstorm period, and I think it’s very, very healthy for people to be having this open exchange of ideas.
However, we know, at least in my community, that the majority of the support from Medicare-for-All is coming because people’s health care is too expensive and it’s out of reach for too many people. And that is what’s driving their support. And the reason I learned this is because I thought when I started running that people supported Medicare-for-All because, like me, they believed that health care was a human right. And that, in fact, is not the case. They support Medicare-for-All because they think that Medicare is free and they want health care to be free, because they can’t afford it. Does that make sense?
And so, I am not supporting the bills in the Congress as they stand. I think that they are flawed. And, more importantly, we don’t know how much they’ll cost and how to pay for them. And at this point, I think it is a strategic decision to not talk about the cost, because that will transform not only our health care system but our economy. And I think that in a community like mine, where the average income is $105,000 a year, average, that you need to be upfront about what that cost looks like and if folks will be on the hook for a tax increase.
Now, just because it’s a tax increase doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, right? And I’m very clear on that. But people are not seeking out tax increases, as just a general rule.
Read my lips: no new taxes.
Well, I didn’t say that, just for the tracker that’s listening to this, that was Kara.
So are there any other issues you think are critically important? Because I went to, just so you know, I went to the House Democratic Caucus to talk ...
You did. I was there, mm-hmm.
Yeah, you were there.
At our retreat.
At your retreat. And what was fascinating about it was the differences of opinion, for me.
And I brought my two sons, and one of them said, “Mom, this is a ballroom of America,” because everyone’s arguing with each other. And it was like, “The Republicans aren’t even here and they’re arguing with each other.” But what was really interesting was the different viewpoints. How do you work with a caucus like that? How do you feel being part of that versus sort of a more lockstep? How are they going to manage that? Because over here you have the Squad doing things. You’ve got Nancy Pelosi over here doing things. You’ve got the swing-state people. How do you manage to be, as part of that ...?
So we might have some disagreements in how you achieve certain goals, but for the most part everyone shares values, and I think even shares priorities, meaning folks recognize that health care is very important, right? That we want to pass an infrastructure package, that’s very important, right? This anti-corruption message is very important. Climate change is very important, right? So people are pretty united on those top agenda items. It’s just how you solve those problems is where there might be differences of opinion. And, in my experience, that reflects some of the difference of opinion among the American people.
The press likes to talk about the division and the disagreements and how we can’t even talk to each other. There’s these heated debates and people storm out and all stuff. It’s nonsense.
Well, some of those words were pretty pointed. I don’t think that was the press. They said it...
Well, yeah. I mean, I think it’s inappropriate ...
They all said it to each other, kind of thing.
Sure. But at the end of the day, we work together to get things done and to deliver for the people.
Because the Republicans are using those as a wedge between and among the Democrats. They’re using it to try to talk to the persuadables, “Look at this group,” they’re sort of taking the Squad and making it villainous.
How do you deal with that? It can be somewhat effective to do that.
Well, there’s a very clear difference in style, in the way that I do my job and the way that some of my other colleagues do theirs, and not just limited to those four women, but really across the caucus, there’s a real difference there. And I’m clear at who I work for. I work for the people of the 14th district. And we’re in touch. And I think that they do not hesitate to let me know when they disagree with things, and we have two-way communication.
But you’re in a world where this kind of talk is ... Is it just noise? I mean, you have Trump doing some, you have the Squad doing some, you have everybody ...
We had to learn very early on how to be disciplined in our work, because if I’m so busy responding to the news of the day, I will fall into a tangent and get so far off course that the idea of passing my health care legislation becomes an afterthought. And that is not what ... I am not here to respond to the news of the day.
And that’s, candidly, why I stopped going on all these news shows all the time, because we talk to the producers ahead of time, they’re like, “Oh yeah, we want to hear about your bill, we want to hear about your bill.” And I sit down, and they spend five minutes on the president’s tweets or whatever disagreement, and then 30 seconds on why I’m there. Right? And my job is not to communicate with America. My job is to communicate with the people of the 14th district.
And one of the things that I know in talking to some folks in this community is that there’s a real concern that the Democrats don’t have a message, or the Democrats aren’t being responsive and communicating about these top-tier issues. All we do is talk about investigations or Russia or Trump or whatever.
And I want you all to know that in my community, folks know what we’re working on. They know about my veterans suicide bill that we passed. They know about the robocall bill that we passed last week, right? They know that we affirmed the US to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. They know about the wonderful work that we’re doing in the House, because our local press publishes it. And so, while that doesn’t get national coverage, I think in these swing communities, folks know.
So how do you, as a Democrat and as a politician, ignore the enormous amount of noise coming from Trump? Largely, he creates something and there’s an action. There’s an action-reaction, and action-reaction.
I mean, I don’t ignore it. But I think a lot of people treat their social media like they are a news agency, right? So they are reporting out on what happens. I am not a journalist. It is not my job to be like, “Blah blah, blah happened today,” right? Someone can read that in the news. If I have something to say about it, then I will comment on it. But I don’t think I have to comment on everything. Like, for what?
Is that hard to resist?
No, because I have enough people that are close to me that I trust, and I don’t have like these ... I don’t get enraged where I just feel like I have to release. And if I wanted to release, it certainly would not be on Twitter. Certainly would not.
Now, I read comments. I’m very well-informed on what people think and what they’re saying, and you go deep, and it’s interesting when you meet your Twitter troll in real life, whew, and the troll lives around the corner. It is not a bot, right? And so then you’re like, “Okay.” You interact differently.
What was your troll like?
I mean, cranky and kind of odd. But they’re real people who are very engaged and don’t like what’s happening. And sometimes they’re loud at town halls and they demand attention and energy. But when that conversation moves offline, then at least you can have a conversation, which I think is valuable. Like, let’s just talk, because, at the end of the day, I don’t think that true values are ... At least in my community, we’re not that far from each other. We’re really not. It’s just in how we solve those problems, there might be disagreement.
So why does it feel like that, coming out of Washington? Is it that people should just ignore what Trump is doing, not just saying, but doing? Sunday, yesterday, there were like eight things, it was like, “We’re going to kill everyone on death row. We’re going to fire the ...”
See, I didn’t hear about that.
You don’t care?
Well, I didn’t hear about it. So the only things that I knew ...
No, I know, I’m just saying, there were eight of them, and I just started Marie Kondo-ing my house to make me feel better.
Oh, that’s good. See, that’s living your best life.
So the only thing that, and we haven’t spoken out about this, but I think would require some attention is Dan Coats being forced out as the director of national intelligence. And to call this new guy a Trump loyalist is I think even downplaying how completely unqualified this man is to be the director of national intelligence. [editor’s note: between the taping and publication of this interview, Trump’s nominee, Rep. John Ratcliffe, withdrew himself from the nomination]
However, I mean, now I just spoke out against it, but we hadn’t before, because I’m not chasing those headlines and don’t need to be part of all those news articles. And, honestly, when I’m before my community on Wednesday morning at a town hall, right, we’re going to have an opportunity to talk about those things to people directly, which is where I see a lot more value than tweets.
I want to get some questions from the audience.
But how positive do you feel about the Democrats winning, keeping the House, winning the White House, and you keeping your job?
Well, I think that if I keep my job, the Democrats will still be in the majority. And I think that we are going to do all we know we need to do to win this race. We cannot do it alone. We cannot just count on the DCCC or party organizations to do it for us. Like I said earlier, I’m a nontraditional candidate. I’m the youngest black woman to ever serve in Congress. Ever. This is an institution that literally was not built for someone like me. It was built by people who look like ... and that’s very different. And so you know, we’re just going to hustle and do the work, and I feel … okay.
I mean, it’s competitive.
What’s the fatal thing to do wrong and what would you think ... If you were one of the 27 people running for president, what would be your message?
If I was running for president?
Oh, I’m definitely not running for president. I don’t want to be the president.
But if you were, I’m putting you there.
I don’t know.
Okay. That’s a good answer.
I don’t know. That’s something that I can’t even contemplate in this moment.
What should the candidates be running on? Health care?
Yeah. The candidates should be talking about things that regular people care about. I think that the early polling, they should not be distracted by the early polling. And I think that if they know that they can’t win, they should drop out.
All right. On that note. But they so much like being in the debates.
And if they think that they’d be toxic in communities, then they should drop out.
All right. Okay. All right.
Because it’s too serious.
It’s too serious. All right. All right. Non-toxic people. Questions from the audience. This is terrific. You’re fantastic. Right here to start with?
Audience member: Hi there. I’m really curious to know, what was the challenge for you speaking to a community that I believe is 11 percent Hispanic, like 4 percent Asian American and less than 3 percent African American, speaking on issues that might have a tinge of like racialization, like migrant youth, in a way that was consumable and that couldn’t be headlined in some right-wing moment?
Lauren Underwood: What’s interesting is that our election was not about race. Like, it literally didn’t really come up. And here’s why. I’m black. You can tell I’m black by looking at me, right? I know I’m black. They know I’m black. My parents are brown-skinned black people. My parents were on the campaign trail every day. Every event, one of my parents would be there, because they loved it and they love meeting people and seeing their new friends all around the community and they’re very engaged. My parents are so glad I’m running for reelection because they get to go and see their friends all around the district again, right? That’s just how we ran our campaign.
So, once people were like, “Oh, okay. She’s a black woman. So, what do you think about X, Y, or Z?” Issue-based. That’s how the election was. And even with the migrant kids, it was a moral issue. Children should not be in cages and certainly not in the United States. People were horrified that this stuff was done in our name, right underneath our flag, by the leaders of our country. And they felt like it was wrong, un-American and completely unjust.
And so that’s not something that I would have to stand in front of people and be like, “As a black woman” or “as a person of color, I am horrified.” No, as an American, I am horrified. And this is wrong and we have got to do everything that we can to stop it. And at the time, you know what Randy Hultgren said? He said, “Oh, I sent a letter.” Really? That’s weak, right? And people agreed. So it wasn’t like we had to invoke race or respond to challenges because of race.
Now, this year’s a little different because Donald Trump has used racist rhetoric and targeting of many of my colleagues in order to score cheap points among his base. This is a strategy that he is employing. And many of my Republican opponents are ardent Trump supporters and they like to mimic what he does. And so we are preparing ourselves for a 2020 election that will have this — again, young black woman — intersectional racist, sexist, ageist attack line coming. And that’ll be different.
But I also have a record and now people know me. And so my staff and I were having this conversation today, like this whole idea of othering. Othering is only effective if people are scared of you. And I am not a scary person. And even if I were, right? Folks are, I think ... We have delivered for the people of the 14th district and we will be able to demonstrate that to them.
Okay. Next question? Right here.
Audience member: Hi. Other than give you money, what can we San Franciscans do to help you?
Lauren Underwood: Well, thank you.
Do you want San Francisco money? Just a question.
We are running a very competitive race. I need to raise $6 million to $8 million to win this race.
Wow. From $350,000.
That was for the primary.
That was the primary and then the other one you spent ...
And then whatever $4.7 less $350,000 is, so $4.3? A lot. So, yes, we need your financial investments. I’m not taking corporate PAC money, right? And we want to uplift the voices of people in our political process. And yes, in the House we passed HR1. And Mitch McConnell has basically said, “Over my dead body,” right? And that is unacceptable. So, we need to have a Senate that will be responsive to the American people instead of just killing all legislation, even nonpartisan legislation.
I think of my veteran suicide prevention bill. This is something that everybody should be clamoring to vote for right now. And the idea that Mitch is just too busy with his judicial nominees to give it full consideration is something that I just think is appalling, right?
So, what can you all do? I know that you all are very skilled at canvassing. I welcome you to come to the 14th district. People are so nice. Even folks who do not agree, they’ll be like, “I’m going to close the door now.” They will not slam it in your face. And it’s really a lovely experience. Phone banking and texting is very important. And then just at a foundational level, being careful how you speak and the words that you use and engaging in public discourse about what’s happening in our country is very important. And that is a message for everybody, right?
I do a lot of chats with interns and students, and I’ve spoken to every student nurse in the state of Illinois, and I always tell them, “Do not tweet in anger. Do not let that be your outlet, because this stuff lives on forever and there will be consequences for you and there will be consequences for all of us.” And I think that that’s just an important reminder for folks who are interacting with our political system in a way that yields influence, but folks may not be happy about the direction of our country. It’s very easy to be a boss behind a keyboard, right? And it just has some consequences for folks in other places.
Good piece of advice. Over here? Right there.
Audience member: Right, right. First of all, you are amazing and I thank you. Health care is also my No. 1 issue. I volunteered to help get it passed and for the past five years, I’ve been an enrollment counselor for Cover California.
Lauren Underwood: Thank you.
Audience member: You’re welcome. It’s my passion as well. How are you feeling about, several of the candidates have plans where they want to fix the ACA, which we never got a chance to do, and then create the public option that’s Medicare-like? It’s what Pelosi wanted to do originally, and let people choose to go in there on their own so that it gradually takes over. Is that more your approach?
Lauren Underwood: I think a public option is something that, duh, we need. Right? A public option is not a political winner. You say public option, nobody applauds in my community. No one applauded here, right? It’s just like, yes, if you want to buy into one of these programs, you should be able to do it. Next. And the idea that we have to expend so much political capital to do something as basic and needed as that is something that I think speaks to how fundamentally flawed our political system is. That being said, I think that we’re probably going to vote on a public option bill before the end of the 116th Congress and I think that that would be great.
I have a bill. It’s HR1868, it’s the Healthcare Affordability Act, which would extend tax credits to more Americans so that they could afford their health care premiums. Right now under the Affordable Care Act, people making 400 percent of the federal poverty limit or less, so a family of four making $100,000 or less, would be eligible for tax credits. But we know that every year, some people work an extra overtime shift or something very slightly small changes in their financial situation and they no longer qualify for the tax credits. Well, in my community, premium prices can be $20,000 or $25,000 a year — premiums on the marketplace — which is not affordable.
So, our bill says that people would pay no more than 8.5 percent of their adjusted gross income on premiums. So that same family of four would now pay $8,500, down from $20,000 or $25,000. Huge savings. People understand it. And I think we’re going to get a chance to get that on the floor this fall. I’m excited. I get excited about things like that. It’s concrete. It saves folks money. They understand how it would impact them. And you’ll appreciate it. This is for a silver plan. That’s good coverage. This is not like those high-deductible, “I have health insurance in case I need it” kind of situations.
People need to be able to live healthy, well lives. This is not a luxury. This is not a commodity. This is basic human rights. And we have an opportunity in this 116th Congress to make real progress. We do not need to wait for a Democrat to be in the White House to be able to do this work. Now, Mitch is the barrier. But it is not like we don’t have the power to convince him, to persuade him, and to make him see that he needs to move on our legislation.
Okay, last question. Let’s do the way back since I didn’t get to anyone in the way back. Sorry.
Audience member: I’m curious about how you feel so confident knowing what Barb, or the representative in your voter, thinks.
It was Pat, Barb, and who?
Lauren Underwood: Sue and Marge. And they were real women.
Audience member: Sue and Marge. How did you get to know, get your pulse on, did you do polling? Was it really just from knocking on doors? Were there ever differences between focus groups or polling that you did and what you heard knocking on doors? I’m just curious how you really got, it seems like you really know your district.
Lauren Underwood: Yes. We got to know people through having a series of house parties. What a house party is is people invite you over and they invite their neighbors over. And we would sit there for an hour, hour and a half, and they would ask me whatever they wanted. And it would be on all kinds of things. And we got to know each other. And then we would come back. We’d come back and talk to them again. And then folks would come out and volunteer.
And I like people. I like to talk to people. I’ll ask them questions about their lives, their business, their families, what they care about, why, how they got here, if they’ve ever done this before, I just ask a lot of questions. People are surprised that I care. And they share quite candidly.
Now, of course, we did polling. Of course, we did the focus group. I couldn’t even really tell you what the focus group said. I think we only did one. That was not the most valuable way that we learned about the district. The most valuable way to learn about a community is to be in the community. Ayanna Pressley says, and I’m going to get it wrong, but she always says something like, “You got to be closest to the people with the pain so that they can have the power.” Something like that. I think you have to be among the people. Everybody’s not going to respond to a poll in a way that’s truly honest. We learned that in 2016 with these exit polls. But people will tell you about themselves. And they will do it quickly.
Who here’s been to speed dating? Right? It’s amazing. Am I the only one?
Okay. Okay, yes. Manny and I, not together, but we have both been to speed dating.
That would be really wrong.
Yes. And in speed dating, you get like three minutes with the person. It’s amazing what people will tell you in three minutes about themselves. You’ll be sitting there like, “Ooh, is that really the way you want to introduce yourself?” It’s kind of shocking. But people just share. They share about their lives. And they welcome you into their homes and you meet their children or their grandchildren or their partner. And it’s beautiful, the trust that people place.
As a nurse, early in nursing school, we are taught how to build a rapport with a patient. Because you get maybe three, four minutes max with a new patient, to walk into their room and build trust. And so the way that we were taught to do it is you look into their eyes and you say, “Hi, I’m Lauren. I’m your nurse. How can I help you today? How are you feeling? Tell me what’s going on.” And they need to trust that the advice that we’re giving and the information that we’re sharing is in their best interest, right? And that we’re only doing it because we believe that it can help them.
And I see so many parallels in the work that I do today. People come up to me and they’re like, “Lauren, I need help. I don’t know where to turn. I don’t know what to do.” People are sharing their most vulnerable concerns and it’s almost like a very intimate moment. They are very, very, very vulnerable. And it’s an honor to be able to do this work on their behalf. And I’m really grateful that they place their trust in me.
Final question, what’s the best question Marge asked you? Or Pat?
Yeah. Or Pat.
Not Barb. Let’s leave Barb out of this.
Once we got through all the policy questions, then they get to the personal ones, right? And those are always fun because inevitably someone has a son, right? Or the cute neighbor down the street, and I should come back a different day so we could just like casually bump into that person. That kind of stuff.
And I really enjoy those interactions because then that’s just human being to human being. Right? And they care and they’re invested. The ladies of the 14th are often like, “Lauren, how are you doing? No really, are you getting enough sleep? Are you drinking water? How can you keep up with this schedule?” That kind of thing. They care. And they’re watching and they’re following, and I appreciate that. And so we have great chats. You really should come out.
I’m planning on it now. I have to meet these people.
Yeah. And it’s not that far from Chicago, so you can get a little bit of all worlds, if that’s your thing.
I’ve been to rural areas. I have many relatives there.
You know, but everybody hasn’t.
No, I know.
We have some folks here who grew up in the 14th district, I met them before our chat started. And they’re from a very small community near the Wisconsin border and it’s just different than here. And I think that people should get outside the bubble. I don’t know enough about San Francisco to presume, but I suspect it’s like DC and like Chicago where you need to break out every now and then. And I encourage people to do that. Because we’re not so different, but life is different.
No, it’s true. It’s interesting. I went to Kentucky, but I ended up telling the coal miners their jobs were going to get AI’d out of existence and it went okay. Everyone was telling them they were going to get their jobs and I was like, “Actually, here’s what’s going on,” and they appreciated the honesty, I think. It was interesting.
People do appreciate honesty.
Yeah. It was interesting. But they can come here, too. They’re welcome to come here if they want to come to San Francisco.
Oh, sure. Sure, sure. But I think that a lot of folks can’t or don’t travel.
No, I know that. But people should be spending more time meeting other people outside their comfort zones. Anyway, speaking of which, Lauren Underwood.
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