YouTube Sensation. Progressive in a Purple District. Single
What the Democratic Party could learn from first-term Congresswoman Katie Porter
Katie Porter is full of questions. There’s Would you be willing to share your Social Security number, birthdate, and address at this public hearing? That’s what she asked Equifax CEO Mark Begor when he came to testify about his company’s massive data security breach at the House Financial Services Committee (he declined). There’s Are you lying to a federal judge or are you lying to me and this Congress? She flung that one at Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan after pointing out the inconsistencies in his company’s legal arguments and public statements (he resigned two weeks later). And there’s the instant classic Do you know what an REO is? That one was for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson (she was talking about the acronym for “real estate owned,” a common industry term; he thought she was talking about an Oreo cookie). These questions are the moments that, in Porter’s first year in Congress, ricocheted across the internet and made her a rising star among the MSNBC class.
A first-term Democratic congresswoman from Orange County, California, Porter regularly eviscerates witnesses who testify before the House Financial Services Committee, which was not known for compelling television until she joined it. Clips of her cross-examinations now have hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. At a recent event in her district, a woman tried to get a picture with her, concluded the photo line would be impossible, and took a star-struck selfie with Porter in the background instead. Before a town hall that evening, at the end of a long line of attendees that went out the door of the community center, I overheard a woman who looked to be in her 70s tell a friend, “Katie Porter is my spirit animal.”
It’s unusual for anyone other than the most devout political junkie to know the name of a freshman House member. At least that was true until the 116th Congress, which has produced “the Squad,” the four first-term freshmen Democrats known for their online followings and far-left politics. Porter has gone a different route. In just over a year, the former law professor has established herself as a YouTube celebrity, a prolific fundraiser, and a progressive who also works with Republicans to pass serious legislation. In a political era defined by Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has been going through a full-blown identity crisis. What should the party look like? What should it sound like? Porter, who represents a district that, before her election, had never sent a Democrat to Congress, offers an intriguing model for how the party might move forward.
Porter, who’s 46, has a warm, over-caffeinated energy, some of which is innate and some of which comes from Starbucks cold brews and a minifridge full of Diet Dr Pepper. She’s unfailingly polite, even when grilling witnesses. While questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October, she responded to one of his answers with a genuine, not at all sarcastic, “Super!” When I first met her in early November, she greeted me with a story about how Politico had confused her with Katie Hill, the other Southern California freshman Democrat named Katie, who had just resigned from office after allegations of sexual misconduct. Porter told me this conspiratorially, leaning in as if she were delivering gossip to an old friend. Then she shook her head and laughed. “Dipshits.”
That was, I soon discovered, classic Porter, who’s known among her colleagues in Washington for her dry sense of humor. In an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, she told the host, who had just revealed he was “squishy” about abortion because his mom had considered ending her pregnancy with him, “Look, your mom made her choice, and we’re all here with the consequences of that choice.” The audience went nuts. Maher looked aggrieved.
Porter is one of the most progressive members of the new Congress: She supports Medicare for All and was one of the first members in a swing district to announce her support for impeachment. But she doesn’t make those beliefs central to her identity. Instead, she presents herself as a fierce consumer-protection advocate and a divorced mother of three who understands the struggles average Americans face. It’s a canny and probably necessary strategy. More than 35 percent of the voters in her district are registered Republicans; 27 percent have no party preference.
“She is careful about which issues she speaks out on and which issues she supports behind the scenes,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which Porter is a member. “Even if she’s going to vote with progressives, she’s not necessarily going to make every vote as vocal a priority.”
On the progressive issues she does speak out on, Porter rarely talks like an ideologue. At a women business owners event in her district, she answered a question about health care with a story of her own. “I went to the Albertsons here to fill a prescription the other day. They said, ‘Your doctor didn’t fill out a pre-authorization form. You’ll have to go back to your physician’ — another visit — ‘to get this pre-authorization form.’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that. I have to go to D.C. tomorrow. I’ll just pay out of pocket, maybe.’ And they said, ‘OK, that’ll be $3,000 for a 30-day supply.’ ” Several women in the audience gasped. When she told the pharmacist she couldn’t afford that, they suggested she use a prescription discount card like Rx Helper. Using the card, the prescription dropped to $70. It seemed like a godsend. But then, just before she was about to pay, the catch: “The pharmacist said, ‘Just know that next month, when we get the authorization form back, and you’re covered by your health insurance, it’s going to be $300.’ ”
“So I ask you,” she continued, “what is the price of that drug?” It’s crucial, she told the audience, “to start from the premise that continuing the status quo is not an economically viable option.” Which led to her stance on Medicare for All. “I think it is really important to say to Big Pharma and to big insurance companies and those who are gouging the American patients as well as the American businesses, ‘If you don’t create market forces and competition and price negotiation and a meaningful capitalist marketplace in health care, then we will go the other direction.’ ”
Most politicians’ I’m-just-like-you anecdotes are carefully crafted narratives regurgitated at every stump speech. With Porter, you get the impression that she could have picked any snippet of her life to share, and it would have resonated. “I’m going to use that personal experience to speak up,” she told me later. “Because I am a single mom, because I drive a minivan with 120,000 miles on it, because I was surprise-billed. I’m going to speak up about those issues in ways that I think are going to call out that there are some problems in Washington. That there are things that we need to be doing more aggressively to fix them.”
When she talks to constituents, Porter can sound professorial, taking the time to explain the workings of Capitol Hill without talking down to them. At a town hall at a synagogue, she mentioned one of her bills, saying it had been “marked up through committee.” Rather than leaving it at that, she detailed what that means. (“A bill gets entered into Congress. It goes to a committee. The committee then sometimes has a hearing. They have what’s called a markup. It’s a discussion, basically, between the members of the committee of the bill.”)
Later, a man in the back asked why the “Democrat” Party was so against Trump’s border wall. He’d been to Mexico, he said. He’d been to the border. It’s a dangerous hellscape. Why don’t Democrats want to protect our country from the cartels?
Porter spent six minutes answering him. The vast majority of the gangs, she said, come in through ports of entry — they drive over the border, come into the Port of Long Beach, fly into John Wayne Airport. Democrats have appropriated millions for better border security at those places. These cartels, she went on, they’re sophisticated. They’re building tunnels and using other tools to evade the existing border security. She’d gone to the border in August and talked to Customs and Border Protection agents, she said, who told her that the physical barriers already at the border were plenty sufficient.
“Border security is something that every single country has to have,” she said. “It’s part of being a nation-state, having some system of knowing who’s coming and going and having some system of admitting people. But that system has to honor our principles of who we are as a country. It has to honor our promises of international law, and it has to make smart use of taxpayer dollars to actually improve what’s happening at our borders rather than achieve a political agenda for any particular person.”
When she finished, the mostly liberal audience applauded loudly. I looked over at the man who had asked the question. He cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders, and joined in the clapping.
Porter grew up on a family farm outside of Lorimor, in central Iowa, in a house her great-grandfather built. Her dad and grandfather grew corn, soybeans, and hay, and she showed pigs and cows in the 4-H club. She wasn’t interested in politics beyond an Iowan’s first-in-the-nation civic duty to shake hands with presidential candidates. “I grew up in a poor farming community,” she told me. An enormous blue-and-white quilt hung on the wall behind her that her mom, who used to host a show called Love of Quilting on Iowa public television, sewed for her office. “There was no PTA. There was just getting through the day.” This was in the midst of the farm crisis in the early 1980s, which decimated her community. Her parents took jobs off the farm, and though her grandfather continued to work the land, he managed a much smaller tract. As a kid, she’d spend afternoons walking along the gravel roads of the countryside looking for pop cans because each one earned a rebate of 5 cents. Eventually, the family sold the farm and house.
After she attended a summer camp for gifted middle schoolers at Iowa State, the program sent her a packet of information on other academic opportunities. That’s how she learned about Phillips Academy Andover, the prestigious Massachusetts boarding school where she spent her last two years of high school on scholarship. She’s said that when she first got to campus and met her privileged classmates, she prayed, “Please let me pass, please let me pass.” She did better than that: She went on to Yale. On campus, she was known as a big personality, a gregarious farm kid with a knack for storytelling. After college, she taught math and history in Hong Kong, then worked as a costume designer for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Eventually, she went to Harvard Law. In her third year, she took an 8 a.m. bankruptcy class with Professor Elizabeth Warren. That class has become a pillar of her self-mythology. It changed her life, she says. The questions Warren talked about that first day — What do we do in a free-market economy when people stumble? When things go wrong? When there are downturns? — have driven her ever since.
(She and Warren have remained close: Warren appeared in campaign ads for Porter during the 2018 election, and Porter was one of the national co-chairs for the senator’s presidential campaign, stumping for her in Iowa ahead of the January caucuses. Porter also named her daughter, Betsy, after the senator.)
Porter went on to teach law, giving a version of Warren’s bankruptcy lecture to her students at the University of Iowa; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and the University of California, Berkeley. She became a consumer-protection advocate, writing books about bankruptcy and consumer debt. In 2007, her paper on questionable lending practices — mortgage servicers, she found, often charged the wrong fees and lacked required documentation — was some of the first research to sound the alarm on the impending housing crisis. In 2011, the University of California, Irvine, recruited her to its newly formed law school. “We had a real sense that she was a rising star,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the school’s founding dean. She was driven, rigorous, and demanding of her students. (“I think I was almost always feared by them,” she told me.)
The next year, state Attorney General Kamala Harris tapped Porter to monitor banks’ compliance with California’s portion of the national mortgage settlement, which resolved claims against financial institutions that had wrongfully foreclosed on homeowners during the 2008 disaster. Her office responded to more than 5,000 complaints. Her chief of staff during that time, Lynh Tran, told me that Porter would visit with people struggling with their mortgages and would often be moved to tears.
Every woman who ran for office during 2018’s Year of the Woman has a story about what inspired her. Here is Porter’s: On election night 2016, she brought her kids to her neighborhood community center. She also purchased a sheet cake with Hillary Clinton’s name on it. She’d been asked to join the Clinton transition team and had bought winter clothes (“like, actual boots”) for her six-week sojourn to Washington. Her luggage was packed. When she realized Clinton was going to lose, the first thing she did was go home and unpack all of her new clothes.
“It was that night that I said, ‘I have to wait. I was so excited to do this. I really wanted to see these things happen in Washington and now, who knows what’s going to happen?’ ” Her boyfriend — who often ferries her around to events in Orange County in his beat-up Toyota Camry, topped with a surfboard — suggested she run for Congress. She shrugged him off. He was just trying to make her feel better, she thought. “You know, like when your favorite blouse gets ruined.”
We were at a coffee shop a few blocks from the Capitol when she told me this story. She pointed to a grease stain on her top. “If he were here, he’d be like, ‘Nobody will notice that.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yes! Yes, they will!’ ”
To be honest, I said, I hadn’t noticed. “That’s quiche,” she said with a what-are-you-gonna-do? shrug.
It got her thinking, though. Maybe she shouldn’t wait four years to take action. She talked to friends and mentors, including Warren, and started to think that maybe she could do it. Maybe her boyfriend was right. Maybe nobody would notice the grease stain.
Orange County had long been a conservative stronghold. The county, which Ronald Reagan once quipped was “where the good Republicans go before they die,” had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1936, and the 45th District had sent only Republicans to Congress. But in recent years, the demographics have changed, as the number of Latinos and Asians has increased rapidly. When the district voted for Hillary Clinton by five points in 2016, the Democratic Party saw an opportunity to flip it and three other congressional districts, pouring millions into the races and moving senior staffers to a newly opened Irvine office. Porter, however, wasn’t the party’s choice to swing the 45th. The state party endorsed the more moderate Dave Min, another UC Irvine law professor, who also had the backing of more than a dozen members of Congress.
In the primary, Porter looked at people who had registered as Democrats or “no party” preference for the first time after the 2016 election, on the theory that they’d been galvanized by antipathy for Trump. She reached out to moderate suburban women, many of them Republicans, identifying early on a constituency who was moving away from the president. (That strategy could work only in California’s top-two primary system, in which all candidates compete in a single primary and the top two advance to the general election.) Porter, the single mom who shopped at the local supermarket, resonated with them. She also identified progressive issues that would play well in the district. Proposition 63, a 2016 ballot measure that instituted background checks on ammunition purchases and banned large-capacity magazines, had passed the district overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, the Republican incumbent, two-term Representative Mimi Walters, boasted an A rating from the NRA. Porter made gun control a major theme in her campaign.
Although she didn’t take corporate Political Action Committee money, she had plenty of outside help from progressive groups who saw her as the liberal alternative in the race. EMILY’s List, the Democratic PAC that supports pro-choice women candidates, backed her as the group’s first endorsement of a House challenger in the 2018 cycle, and End Citizens United, another PAC, made her campaign the first it had ever spent on in the primary. The two groups teamed up to send out mailers and run digital ads.
In the spring of 2018, right before the June primary, the circumstances around Porter’s divorce started getting more attention. When she was married, her husband had thrown things at her and, on one occasion, according to court records, pushed her into a bookcase. She filed for a protective order against him and eventually gained custody of their three children. Rumors swirled that her contentious divorce was potentially disqualifying baggage. Min, her chief opponent in the primary, ran ads claiming Porter had lied about being a consumer-protection attorney because she wasn’t licensed to practice in California. The ads were misleading: She was licensed in Oregon; teaching law at Irvine did not require her to be licensed in California. Ultimately, Porter defeated Min in the primary by almost 4,000 votes.
In the general, she assailed Walters’s record of voting with Trump 99 percent of the time. It took nine days after the election for the final numbers to come in. Porter won by 4 points. “There was a real Trump backlash in Orange County,” said veteran political pollster Adam Probolsky. Any competent Democrat, he said, could have won in 2018 running against Trump. Although it’s true that Democrats swept all seven congressional districts that make up Orange County, that perspective minimizes Porter’s shrewdness. One example: She took positions that didn’t always square with her progressive politics but catered to the district’s affluent voters. She supported repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions, a vestige of the Republicans’ 2017 law that increased taxes largely on wealthy homeowners. And in her first TV ad of the general election, she called for repealing the recent increase in the California gas tax.
Although Porter was part of the so-called pink wave, which ushered in a historic 102 women to the House of Representatives, she doesn’t think that number is something to celebrate, given that women still make up only 23 percent of Congress. “I don’t know how that’s so many women.”
As soon as she arrived in Congress, the House Financial Services Committee was an obvious destination. Previously, members had used the committee mostly for fundraising: Newly elected members from swing districts would join to get easy access to Wall Street lobbyists and bankers. That was not Porter’s aim. She figured out early on that, while there was a lot she couldn’t do because she wasn’t senior enough, she at least had the same amount of time to question witnesses as every other member. She decided to make the most of those five minutes. “It’s never been my intention to go viral or create a TV clip,” she told me. “We don’t know what’s going to catch the imagination or capture the interest of the American people. We’re trying to ask good questions.”
That’s true, but those viral moments have helped Porter raise $3.9 million for her re-election fight in November, a stunning sum for a freshman House member. Much of that support has come from outside her district, through progressive groups like Democracy Engine and the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue. That’s a reflection of how quickly she’s gained national prominence. “She’s making sure she’s up front and in the eye of the media,” said Randall Avila, the executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County.
In December, Nancy Pelosi named Porter to the House Oversight Committee, which has broad investigative authority and is one of the most powerful assignments in Congress. Financial Services is generally an exclusive committee, meaning it is the only one a member sits on. But Pelosi made an exception for Porter — a sure sign that the party considers her an up-and-coming member.
There are many things about Congress that don’t make sense to Porter. There’s the arcane voting process, which requires members to line up on the House floor, where they eventually all cluster and crowd around the machines and cause a traffic jam. There’s the baked-in partisanship, like how newly elected Democrats and Republicans rode separate buses at their orientation last January, setting the tone for how members interact across the aisle, or don’t.
One of her most well-worn laugh lines is how much academia prepared her for Congress. The endless meetings! The stunning inefficiency! When there’s so much she wants to get done! Overhauling the health care system. Passing gun control. Lowering prescription drug prices. Curbing climate change.
“Laundry!” chirped her 14-year-old son, Luke, who was lounging on the couch in her Capitol Hill office.
Porter nodded. “Seven loads we counted out last night. Or six loads?” Six loads, they agreed. “Two overflowing baskets.” She took a bite of a Subway sub. She’d barely had time to eat all day. What she’s learned over the past year is that she never has any time. To eat, to see enough of her kids, to get everything done that her constituents are counting on her to do. When she first got to Washington, a retired congresswoman warned her that she wouldn’t have time to go to the grocery store. This congresswoman would buy Costco snacks in her district and fly them back with her. Porter thought this sounded ridiculous. “Not two months later, I flew back to D.C. with a four-pack of toilet paper because I didn’t know where I could go on the Hill to buy it.”
What she was saying is that this place wasn’t built for people like her. Moms, single moms, single moms of young kids, single moms of young kids who also still lead the local Cub Scout pack because they can’t bear to give it up. She’s one of just a handful of single mothers in Congress and the only one with young children. Even though there are more women in the 116th Congress than any before it, the way the legislative branch operates still assumes that members have a wife who can cook for the kids while their husband is at the Capitol voting in the middle of dinnertime.
Earlier that day, when Porter arrived at a Financial Services Committee hearing, she was visibly distressed. She took her seat on the second row of the dais, and as she talked with members Cindy Axne and Rashida Tlaib, I saw her mouth, “It’s OK.” But it didn’t look like it was OK. As they sat down, she wiped tears from her eyes. During our interview, I asked what had happened earlier.
“During the committee meeting?” she responded. “I was just talking to my friends. I mean, Rashida and Cindy are my two best friends in Congress. Where you sit really matters. You’re assigned seating. And those are my two best friends. We haven’t seen each other in ten days, so we’re talking about our travels and our kids and our votes and our districts and our races. Those are the two people that I talk with about stuff. All the same kinds of stuff that you talk about with your best friend at work…. They’re in some of the same situations I’m in. They’re both raising kids.”
Right, I say awkwardly. It’s just, well, I could see you were crying.
“I was talking to my best friends.” She paused, then said curtly, “I get to have best friends, too.”
In March of last year, Porter introduced the Help America Run Act, which would allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care, elder care, dependent care, and health care premiums. She knows that there aren’t more single parents in Congress because it’s incredibly difficult — not to mention expensive — to run a campaign when you have kids to take care of. Congress needs to look more like America, she said. Like everyday people. The bill passed the House in October with unanimous, bipartisan support.