Three new Illinois Democrats were sworn into Congress on Thursday, capping a blue wave that helped the party win the U.S. House and taking their seats amid ongoing partisan wars over President Donald Trump, his policies and a federal government shutdown that has halted services across the country.
Registered nurse Lauren Underwood, 32, of Naperville, became the youngest black woman in U.S. history to serve in the House when lawmakers took the oath Thursday afternoon. Clean-energy entrepreneur Sean Casten of Downers Grove, another political newcomer holding elected office for the first time, joined her in representing vast swaths of suburban territory in Chicago’s collar counties long held by Republicans. And Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Chicago replaced longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who was vocal on immigration issues.
All three voted to elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of East Moline, the new leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, received four protest votes for speaker, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates received two.
Bustos said the votes weren’t laying a foundation for future moves. Those who voted for her likely have “politics that align with mine,” she said.
Now, Illinois Democrats have 13 members in the House, a key advantage with only one election left before the state could lose at least one of its 18 congressional seats because of population loss after the 2020 census.
Underwood attended a first day of the new Congress gathering hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday morning at a theater near the Capitol and teared up during the playing of the black national anthem. New House members from across the country began arriving on Capitol Hill under gray skies as their family members, friends and curious tour groups looked on under heavy police presence.
The new class of Congress “is what I always hoped the United States Congress could always look like,” Underwood said. “Diversity of thought, geographic diversity, age, race, gender, life experience are all great things that we each bring to this Congress of the United States, and I’m really proud to be part of a caucus where I’m not ‘the only.’ ”
Underwood said she has already authored two provisions in the House rules package, one that would prevent the use of nondisclosure agreements for congressional staff prohibiting them from reporting sexual abuse, harassment or discrimination to ethics boards and the other banning sexual relationships between members of Congress and committee staff.
“I have a two-year opportunity to make a real difference and represent the people of the 14th, and they have placed their faith in me,” Underwood said. “They’ve given us a chance. I have to prove myself, and we will, beginning on day one, where I’m leading an effort to reform this government.”
About 15 minutes before the noon start of the House’s session, Underwood met briefly with supporters in her new congressional office across the street from the Capitol, thanking them. Then she briskly walked down the halls of the Longworth office building and down the steps toward Independence Avenue, where strangers greeted her and offered congratulations.
On her way to the Capitol, Underwood posed for photos with her first campaign manager, Sarah Feldmann, as well as incoming U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, using the dome as a backdrop. As she neared the entrance to the House, a horde of television and video reporters swarmed her, shouting questions.
“Are you excited to make history?” one reporter said.
“A moment in history,” Underwood responded.
Inside the House chamber, Underwood greeted fellow new and also veteran House members with hugs and handshakes, eventually making her way to her sixth-row seat. She took her spot two seats away from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the youngest woman ever in the House.
Casten, settling into his new office Thursday morning while greeting friends and well-wishers, focused much of his campaign on criticism of President Donald Trump and said before the swearing-in ceremony that House Democrats will provide renewed oversight of the White House.
“The Mueller investigation is going to go forward and what’s terrific is that we’re going to have people like Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) running (the) intelligence (committee), and we’re going to be doing the kind of oversight that we all take an oath to the Constitution to do,” Casten said. “Not for partisan reasons, but because the Constitution matters. If we always put the good of the country and the good of the Constitution first, we’ll follow that thread where it lies. Every time the president opposes that path, it makes it look more and more like he’s trying to hide something. I’m not saying I know he’s guilty, I’m saying I wish he’d stop acting like a guilty man.”
Before Pelosi took the oath of office as speaker, she invited the children in attendance to join her on the dais for the moment. Casten took photos and video with his cellphone when his daughters joined the other children at the front of the chambers.
Meanwhile, Jose Garcia, a longtime friend of incoming U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia, wore a button celebrating his pal’s new position as he strolled outside the Capitol a few hours before the new Congress was to be sworn in.
“Chuy was made for this,” Garcia said. “He’s always based his career on common-sense solutions, and this was just the natural progression for him. His career led him to this moment.”
Republicans, though, control the Senate and the White House, so Democrats won’t have an easy road ahead despite their Thursday celebrations.
“We’re always hopeful, but we know it’s going to be a struggle,” Jose Garcia said.
For the freshmen, the early days of their congressional careers are packed with training and administrative work, like setting up offices. Underwood on Wednesday tweeted about taking her first constituent call. Politics will always be nearby, though. Casten tweeted about a story on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, and Garcia on Wednesday endorsed a Chicago City Council opponent of the powerful Ald. Ed Burke, who was charged with attempted extortion Thursday.
Nancy Pelosi elected speaker of the House, sees ‘new dawn’ for 116th Congress
Garcia won his 4th Congressional District race in November without much drama, after he emerged from a contested March primary in which Gutierrez endorsed him. He goes to the House four years after taking Mayor Rahm Emanuel to a runoff and declining to run for mayor this year.
Casten defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, whose congressional career included a stint on then-House Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team and work on the Republican tax overhaul of 2017.
And Underwood overcame Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Plano, a low-key conservative who represented the 14th District since 2011.
Neither Roskam nor Hultgren has held many public appearances since the November midterms nor have they responded to requests for interviews.
Chicago Tribune’s Stacey Wescott contributed.