Unlike some of her fellow freshmen, Representative Katie Porter of California has managed to escape the ire of the current occupant of the White House. While she isn’t exactly rushing to take part in the Squad’s frequent Twitter smackdowns with the president, she is on friendly terms with the four women who make up the most controversial clique in her class. She sits next to Rashida Tlaib in committee and recently wrote a joint letter with another Squad member, Ayanna Pressley, as well as Elizabeth Warren, on debt collection.
These women share many of the same priorities—Medicare for All, reproductive and LGBTQ rights, a desire to get corporate money out of politics (in 2018, while running in conservative Orange County, Porter refused to take PAC money)—but, today, she conveys cautious, considered pragmatism more often than idealism or militant fire.
Her background as a law professor, a textbook author, a consumer protection attorney who studied under Warren at Harvard, and a single mother of three has helped to equip her with an even-keel approach, an incisive analytical mind, and a boundless well of patience—qualities that have served her well during her customarily rigorous preparation for congressional hearings, which often begins around midnight, when she gets home from Capitol Hill.
From her position on the House Financial Services Committee, Porter has staged neatly surgical dissections of testimony. If she senses a lack of preparation, she approaches her target with all the languid menace of a coiled python. As witnesses like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Housing Secretary Ben Carson have discovered, when Porter strikes, it leaves a mark.
She was questioning Carson about REOs, a common real estate term, at a May 21 hearing on disparities in foreclosures, when he confused the term with Oreo cookies. “For me, it was like a student who just cannot get it,” she told me in July, lapsing into her professorial persona. “I’m trying to make the question easier and easier. (Sometimes, in the classroom, you’re, like, ‘What is your first name?’) You’re trying to find a question the student can answer.”
She had written her questions for Carson on her iPhone on a flight the day before the hearing. When she shared them with her staffers, she said, “their exact words were, ‘these are dope’—which is not something I would ever say, because I’m a minivan-driving mom, but they’re younger!”
For Porter, the subject of Carson’s testimony—Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, which trap low-income homebuyers in a web of expensive premiums—was personal. In 2011, California Attorney General Kamala Harris had appointed Porter, who was teaching at the University of California, Irvine, to serve as a watchdog, monitoring the banks involved in a massive mortgage settlement following the 2010 foreclosure crisis.
There, Porter saw families plunged into heartbreaking circumstances as a result of toxic FHA loans. “We were still trying to help some families save their homes, but to be frank, by 2013, 2014, especially 2014, a lot of the damage was done.” So, when Carson asked one of his staffers to deliver a peace offering of a package of Oreo cookies to her office, the former law professor was not amused.
“That was his response?” she recalled, still aghast. “To send me cookies and post a picture of himself eating a cookie? Have all the Oreos that you need to feel refreshed and ready to dig into the material, but I still need answers.”
In Porter’s mind, the American public is hungry for proof that their government is working for them. As a result, she throws herself into hearings; she understands that the five minutes she has with a witness are the most direct form of democratic action available to her—her best chance to tease out answers to the questions that matter most to her constituents.
It’s also why her videos keep going viral; her ability to demystify technical, often esoteric financial concepts is a boon to those who understand that nitty-gritty details, all the minutiae of government work, are important, but aren’t sure how to connect the dots. It’s not all that different from what she used to do as a professor, and as a textbook author; now, she just has a much larger audience.
When she isn’t skewering witnesses before the Financial Services Committee, Porter focuses on health care and childcare legislation. As a single mother, she receives a scant $345 per month in child support from her former partner, whom she divorced in 2013. (The $5,000 limit for workers using fixed savings accounts to pay for childcare hasn’t been updated since 1986.) A survivor of domestic abuse, she is intent on improving access to psychiatrists, whom she struggled to find for her family. Years later, a provision to guarantee better care found its way into her bill on mental health parity.
Porter is open about the physical and emotional toll the job takes on her and her colleagues, mentioning a day when, following a contentious few hours on the House floor, she needed to go sit in the bathroom and collect herself before a big hearing. Even as a member of Congress, she has had to swallow her anger when legislation on even the most pressing issues moves at a glacial pace. “I want to scream in frustration that we have not tackled prescription drug pricing, and you can put that in print,” she said, her voice tinged with steel. But “I can’t just wave a wand and bring the bill to the House floor.”
She has, however, found ways to work around the impenetrable procedures and leisurely tempo of Congress, forcing change with moments that shift the conversation. Porter is well aware that bankruptcy law and consumer protection aren’t the most scintillating subjects. She discovered as much during her teaching days, when students declared the subjects she taught to be “too hard”—“my classes were like, ‘oh my God, what even is that that that lady teaches?!’”—but she remains devoted to breaking the concepts down. The fact that she can rack up 50,000 views on a video about bill markups is an added benefit—proof that her lectures have sunk in, even if legislation is still years away.
“I believe that every American can understand the difference between a man making $31 million a year, and a worker making $16.50 an hour,” she said firmly. “Part of how I think about my job is: How can I make this visible to people and convince them that this is absolutely not only in their capacity to engage these issues, but as believers in democracy—as little d democratic citizens—that I need them to engage in these issues, or corporate special interests will continue to get away with doing what they’ve been doing?” The only question now is: Can the rest of Congress keep up?