WASHINGTON — Illinois Democratic freshmen Lauren Underwood, Sean Casten and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia were sworn-in on Thursday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the gavel for a second time, ushering in a new era of divided government for President Donald Trump with the House the most diverse it has been in the history of the U.S.
Voters in November, Pelosi said, “demanded a new dawn.”
Underwood and Casten, each unknown long shots when they started their Herculean campaigns, defeated Republicans Randy Hultgren and Peter Roskam in their suburban districts in their first bid for elected office, part of the blue wave the House Democrats rode to win back the House they lost after the 2010 elections.
Garcia, a former Chicago alderman, Illinois state senator, Cook County Board member and mayoral candidate, is a political and legislative veteran, taking the baton in a cakewalk contest from now-former Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who anointed him as his successor in the only district in the state of Illinois created to elect a Hispanic.
“I am particularly proud to be the woman Speaker of the House of this Congress, which marks the 100th year of women having the right to vote,” said Pelosi, who took her first turn as speaker between 2007 and 2011.
According to the PEW Research Center, a record 102 women will serve in the new 116th Congress, making up 23.4 percent of the voting members of the House.
Pelosi, the first female speaker — and still the only female speaker a dozen years later — comes to power during a partial federal government shutdown after pushing back challenges to her power from other Democrats.
Pelosi, 78, won the speakership over Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a 220-192 vote.
Pelosi needed 216 votes to win. There were 15 Democrats who did not vote for Pelosi. In symbolic moves, four voted for Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., the powerful new chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democratic political operation. Two others voted for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.
When I saw Duckworth — paying a visit to Underwood’s new House office — I asked her about the surprise vote and she joked, “I didn’t even know I was in the running” because if she did, “I’d be on the floor trying to whip up more.”
Underwood – 14th District
Underwood is already one of the stars of the freshman class, a nurse who worked in the Obama administration, and the rare African-American who won in a majority white district. Underwood, 32, is also part of the youth movement in the chamber.
Underwood already has a national profile. A documentary crew has been following her around for some 18 months, filming her for the feature, “Surge.”
I caught up with her at her Longworth House office, at a reception for her constituents. As she was walking to the House chamber for a vote, I asked her about the role of this very diverse freshman class.
Said Underwood, “The role is to represent the people who sent us here. And that does not always mean that we will do what everybody else does. And I think that that’s part of the magic that we have the opportunity to be the voices of the people.”
Casten – 6th District
During the vote for speaker, Casten, 47, sat in the House chamber with daughters Gwen, 14 and Audrey, 11, next to Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill. Before that, Casten hosted a reception in his new Cannon House office for supporters and constituents.
Casten ran an energy company before running for Congress. I asked him about the record diversity in the House — occurring because of the Democrats who were newly elected.
It’s “not just diversity in terms of how people physically look — their gender, their race, their age, “ Casten said. “… But the diversity in the ways people think in this class is remarkable.”
Garcia – 4th District
At the Cannon House office reception, Garcia, a Mexican-American, hosted visitors who were greeted by music by musicians from the Chicago Mariachi Project.
Garcia, 52, presided over a ribbon-cutting at his office door, saying, “I want to only add, that progressive politics from the Chicago metropolitan area are here. We came here to make Washington work.”
Garcia’s first day in Congress was marred; a New York Times story said Garcia’s congressional Chief of Staff, Bill Velazquez, who managed Latino outreach for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, initially made light of and did not take seriously allegations of sexual harassment brought to him by women complaining about other staffers. He later passed along complaints to his boss, the Times reported. Garcia, a national surrogate for Sanders in the 2016 campaign, declined comment on the situation Thursday.