Rep. Lauren Underwood elected to House Democratic leadership position

The last Black female to hold an elected House leadership spot was Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., — an Underwood role model — in 1977.

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U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood waves to the crowd after speaking at Jones Elementary School in Joliet, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, during Pres. Joe Biden’s visit where he spoke about lowering the price of prescription drugs and protecting Medicare and Social Security.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., was elected to one of three co-chair positions on the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., poised to start a third term after a big November win, was elected to a spot in House Democratic leadership Thursday, the first Black female to win an elected position on the team since Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., back in the 1970s.

Underwood snared one of three co-chair positions on the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, known as the DPCC. Other winners in the field of seven who sought the posts were Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas., and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.

Underwood is now on a path paved by Chisholm, who in 1969 became the first Black woman in Congress, embracing a motto that became famous — “unbought and unbossed.” Underwood often cites Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972, as a role model. From 1977 to 1981, Chisholm was secretary of the Democratic Caucus — and that’s the last time, Underwood noted, that a Black woman was in an elected position — not appointed — at the House leadership table.

Though the new House term starts in January, Democrats and Republicans are picking their leaders now, and the current top three Democrats — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina — all in their 80s — have given up their top spots, making room for a younger generation.

House Democrats picked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., 52, to be their new leader — the first Black member to lead Democrats — with Rep. Pete Aguilar, 43, D-Calif. in the number two spot and Rep. Katherine Clark, 59, D-Mass., to be minority whip. Clyburn, wanting to keep his hand in, was elected assistant leader, a lower-ranking role.

The main job of the DPCC is what’s called “messaging,” figuring out persuasive ways to communicate Democratic policies, proposals and legislation and draw sharp contrasts to Republicans.

Underwood, who turned 36 in October, told the Sun-Times in a Thursday interview, “I think it’s really important that we work together as the Democratic caucus, to make sure that we are effectively communicating our achievements, our shared values and a strong contrast with the House Republicans, to our communities that we serve.

“And I have a pretty unique perspective within House Dems, as a millennial, as a front-line member, someone from the Midwest,” Underwood said. “Front-line” Democrats were seen by the Democratic House political operation as the most vulnerable in the November contests.

Last month, Underwood, from Naperville, beat Republican Scott Gryder, the Kendall County board chair from Oswego, 54.1% to 45.9% to claim the 14th Congressional District seat. The district is anchored in suburbs west of Chicago, political turf Underwood describes as “ideologically diverse.”

Saying she was “pretty young,” Underwood said in the interview she “certainly” has “some ideas about how we could strengthen the messages and tactics that we use to talk with our diverse constituency.”

Underwood said her new position is “an opportunity for me to contribute after winning one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.”

House New Democrats elect Schneider, freshman Budzinski to leadership spots

The centrist New Democrat Coalition in the House on Thursday elected Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., of Highland Park, to be a vice chair and freshman Rep.-elect Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill., from Springfield, to be the representative of the freshmen members who joined the group.

Schneider teams up with former GOP Sen. Mark Kirk

Though bipartisanship is increasingly rare, Schneider’s office announced Thursday that he is partnering with former Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a former House member who represented the 10th District seat Schneider how holds. Kirk is a moderate Republican, a wing whose numbers have been shrinking through the years.

They are relaunching a program Kirk championed while in Congress. Kirk’s “Abuelitas” program helped “families navigate the complex visa process so their elderly relatives living in Mexico, whom they hadn’t seen in many years, could obtain short-term tourism visas to reunite with family in the Tenth District of Illinois” Schneider’s office said. The reboot will have the same goal.

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