What surprised Underwood, Casten and Garcia in their first 100 days in Congress

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Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., on Capitol Hill in January. | Susan Walsh/AP

WASHINGTON – What surprised freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., the most when she came to Congress 100 days ago – the thing she never expected – was “the number of documents that are on paper.

“This is a body that does not work in electronic communication,” Underwood, 32, said. “This is an institution that runs on printed paper. And I think it’s kind of crazy.”

Underwood, Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., and Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., are the three newcomers Illinois voters sent to Congress, sworn in Jan. 3. Friday marked 100 days.

Casten and Underwood flipped the 6th and  14th Districts, seats held by Republicans, which contributed to the Democratic takeover of the House chamber. Their tenure is already marked by their holding town halls in their districts, noteworthy because their November GOP rivals, former Reps. Randy Hultgren and Peter Roskam, declined to do so.

Underwood, from Naperville, arrived in the House with an unusually high national profile for a freshman. That’s because her general election campaign made national news. She was a young African-American female with a good chance of winning a majority white, Republican suburban district from an entrenched older male, white incumbent.

Garcia, who turned 63 on Friday, came to Congress well known in national Hispanic political circles and is in position to be a player on immigration issues.

The Southwest Sider is a former Chicago alderman and Cook County Board member who for the last 100 days straddled the worlds of Congress and Chicago’s City Hall elections. He was knocking on doors for his slate of aldermanic candidates and Lori Lightfoot for mayor.

In a freshman class with many outsized personalities – the big one being Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., – Casten, 47, from Downers Grove, seems delighted to be in Congress and shrugs off the attention others are getting.

The biggest surprise for Casten was discovering that some legislation is “passed by unanimous consent, when hardly anyone was on the floor, because we are in hearings, markups or meeting with constituents. I find myself singing the line from ‘Hamilton’ about wanting to be ‘in the room where it happens’ and wondering if 400 of my colleagues are simultaneously singing it with me sometimes.”

For Garcia, who represents the 4th District, the big surprise was “the patience required as a freshman member to wait to ask questions from witness in hearings,” because the members with the most seniority go first.

Besides committee assignments — handed down by party leaders — there are an abundance of caucuses members can choose to join. Some caucuses back an ideological agenda; others specialize in a certain subject matter.

Garcia is a member of the Congress Hispanic Caucus; the Congressional Progressive Caucus; the Equality Caucus; and the New Americans Caucus.

Casten, all about climate change, joined the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition; plus the science-oriented Freethought Caucus; the Grid Innovation Caucus; groups dealing with state and local taxes; the freshman working group on addiction; and the politically centrist New Democratic Caucus.

Both Casten and Underwood will likely face big 2020 re-election contests.

Unlike the unabashed progressive Garcia and the outfront centrist Casten, Underwood does not want to be pegged in any Democratic camp. She also wants to avoid controversies stirred up by other freshmen.

In March, on Obamacare’s 9th anniversary, she was picked to deliver the Democratic weekly address, since health care is her major issue.

On Tuesday, Underwood, with Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C. launched their newly created Black Maternal Health Caucus. She is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus; the LGBT Equality Caucus; the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force; and the Democratic Women’s working group.

More to know from the first 100 days:

Main achievements: Underwood and Casten introduced a bill to ease the burden of new state and local tax deduction caps, a robust suburban issue.

Underwood sponsored a measure to protect pre-existing conditions in health insurance coverage. At a hearing, she grilled now-former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about “horrendous” treatment of children at the border.

Casten was named to a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and is the New Dem Climate Change task force co-chair.

Garcia scored hard-to-get seats on the Transportation and Financial Services Committees.

Number of tweets from congressional account: Casten 351; Underwood 185; Garcia 196. None inflammatory.

DC living: Underwood shares an apartment with Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif. Casten has a studio, Garcia an apartment.

Best commute time from Capitol office to Chicago airport: Garcia, 2.5 hours to Midway. Casten, 3 hours to O’Hare.

Said Casten, “The sheer number of people who are passionate and knowledgeable about an issue and come to Washington every day to meet with me is astounding and humbling.”

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