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Fast Company: She demanded free Covid-19 testing. Now Katie Porter is taking on child care policy

She demanded free Covid-19 testing. Now Katie Porter is taking on child care policy

Wearing a poppy-red top and a turquoise beaded necklace, Rep. Katie Porter materializes in Zoom gallery view alongside two dozen childcare professionals from her home district in Orange County, California. It’s mid-January, 10 long months since COVID-19 upended operations at day cares and schools, and pandemic fatigue casts a shadow over the group.

But not on Porter. Yes, she’s been mostly at home with her three kids, and yes, they’re driving her crazy—how hard is it, really, to put a dirty plate in the dishwasher? Still, her energy and optimism at this listening session today, fueled by a steady stream of Diet Dr. Pepper mini-cans, pierces the virtual gloom. As the attendees recount their challenges—quarantined teachers, cleaning supply shortages, Paycheck Protection Program bureaucracy—Porter listens attentively.

Kimberly Goll, president and CEO of First 5 Orange County, a public agency charged with improving early-childhood outcomes, is among the last to speak. “Currently, in Orange County, we have 6% of our families that are eligible to access subsidized childcare [who are] actually receiving that care,” she says.

Porter switches to high alert and leans in, eyebrows raised. “I want to make sure I understand this,” she says. “You’re saying that of the people who are eligible for Head Start care, we have 6% enrolled?”

“Not just Head Start,” Goll replies. “All eligible subsidized childcare.” There aren’t enough seats, her organization has found, and the income guidelines are complicated to navigate.

For Porter, this statistic, a woeful illustration of inept government, is like a shot of adrenaline. “Just a sec,” she says. “I think I’d like to blow this up.” The listening session is about to turn into a teachable moment for her constituents and colleagues on one of Porter’s favorite topics: government failure. And more specifically, government’s failure to design solutions for busy, working families, who play a critical role in economic growth. Business, in her view, should share the blame. After all, no piece of legislation gets through Congress these days without corporate lobbyists’ fingerprints all over it.

“I’ve seen this so many times: We pass a law, and we assume that whatever we created is working perfectly, that there’s 100% take-up, that companies are following the law,” she tells the group. The reality is never so simple, and Porter—who spent the early part of her career as a law professor focused on bankruptcy and consumer protection, and is herself a divorced single mom with childcare needs—knows it better than anyone.

Porter entered politics in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, notching a surprise win in the Democratic primary for California’s 45th congressional district. In the general election, she upset a GOP incumbent in an area long considered a Republican stronghold (at school, her kids were teased for being “liberal commies”). Against the backdrop of a president who had been repeatedly accused of fraud, Porter centered her 2018 campaign around the idea that nobody likes to get ripped off, least of all by the government. It was a deft bit of positioning, allowing her to appeal to all voters. She won the general election by 12,523 ballots.

On paper, Porter looks like a relatively conventional candidate. She has the Americana origins (a struggling family farm in Iowa), the prestigious degrees (Yale undergrad, Harvard Law), and the high-profile mentors (Senator Elizabeth Warren). But her adherence to a certain mold of political leader ends there. Other politicians weave homespun stories of regular people into their speeches. Porter, who speaks in frank, sometimes profane language about topics like mom guilt, prescription-drug sticker shock, and family camping trips (she owns five tents), simply draws from her own experiences.

“She’s so . . . normal,” says Goll, who spent a Tuesday morning with Porter last year loading personal protective equipment into the trunks of childcare workers’ cars. “She’s just like your average person, but with a brain the size of a small continent.”

That combination of relatability and intellect has made Porter, who is less than a year into her second two-year term, something of an unlikely breakout star. She has found a way to hold business leaders accountable, using the meager five minutes allotted to each House member during committee hearings. Most freshmen in Congress are lucky to nab a headline or two; Porter, thanks to her knockout-punch questioning of political appointees and executives, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, has quickly become a viral video tour de force. (A March 2020 clip of her pressing Robert Redfield, then the head of the CDC, to commit to making COVID-19 testing free—which he did—has been viewed a million times on YouTube.)

These days, the only thing that seems to unite Americans is a shared frustration with corporations so powerful that they effectively write legislation for politicians to rubber-stamp. Porter, equally fed up, has become our proxy. In stark contrast to many of her colleagues, she refuses to accept corporate political action committee donations. Yet she is currently fundraising at a furious pace, one that reflects Democratic donors’ optimism about her prospects, which could take her to the U.S. Senate or the California Governor’s Mansion. In the first quarter of 2021, she was one of only five House Democrats to raise more than $2 million, putting her in the same league as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Investing in her is investing in the future, the same as when Kamala Harris was running,” says Andrea Dew Steele, founder of Emerge America, a recruitment organization for Democratic women interested in getting on the ballot.

Porter says that she used to feel conflicted about her career ambitions when her sons and daughter were younger. “I internalized this idea that things I did to advance the causes I care about, the work I did, was hurting my kids,” she says. But she’s no longer hounded by “this sense of constant trade-offs.” Running for office, despite its challenges, has crystallized for her the importance of making the case that expanding support for childcare so that parents can work is “an economic investment that benefits every American.”

It has also underscored for her the value of setting an example for her own children, ages 9, 13, and 15. “I came to realize that my children are becoming the people they’re becoming because of the work that I do, because it’s part of my identity,” she says. “And I like how my kids are turning out.” She smiles. “Most of the time.”

Porter’s first experience with government leadership came in 2012, when she was appointed by Harris, then California’s attorney general, to oversee the state’s $18 billion implementation of the National Mortgage Settlement, a relief program for homeowners affected by the foreclosure crisis. Porter had only recently joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, but she had written the textbook on modern consumer law (title: Modern Consumer Law) and arguably knew the details of mortgage servicing better than anyone. She was also at the vanguard of a progressive new approach to consumer protection.

“Historically, consumer law has been about protecting what assets you have,” says Ted Mermin, executive director of the Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice at Berkeley Law. But over the past decade, as rising economic inequality has been exacerbated by successive recessions, Warren acolytes like Porter have come to find that premise outdated, and the need for structural change increasingly urgent. They have flocked to institutions such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—and, in Porter’s case, the California Monitor Program—with the goal of pursuing justice in a more systemic way.

Mermin, who first met Porter when she was a visiting professor at Berkeley and later helped her recruit staff, recalls that she had little interest in the legal advocacy world’s default mode of operating one case at a time. “Katie was extremely impatient. She was not going to do things that way,” he says. “She wanted to impact millions of people, not hundreds.”

Overseeing the mortgage settlement program gave Porter a sense of the headaches and rewards of redressing wrongs at scale. She assembled a team that sifted through thousands of consumer complaints, many dealing with eviction and foreclosure. Adamant that each consumer should receive a personalized, jargon-free response, she developed a dozen base templates for common scenarios so that staff attorneys could take the time to customize their correspondence.

Working for Porter, says former California Monitor legal fellow Charles Carriere, was an “education in how to be an effective communicator.” Even when a homeowner’s options were bleak, he says, she wanted to “make sure that the person had a positive interaction with government.”

It wasn’t always easy to make good on that goal. The program was “well intentioned,” Porter says, but, because it was designed by policymakers in faraway Washington, “it didn’t work very well.” Some forms had to be faxed, for example, and customer service was an afterthought. “What kind of worker can get away in the [middle of the] day to call a 1-800 number and be on hold for an hour?” Certainly not the kind affected by the financial crisis.

Nonetheless, Porter’s management of the program was widely praised and earned her a spot on presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s transition team. After Trump landed in the White House instead, Porter began to think about ways that she could do more, outside of her current job.

When Porter arrived on Capitol Hill in January 2019, the House was crowded with Democrats who had helped the party claim more than two dozen seats and turn the chamber blue. It took her a while to find her footing (in one instance, a literal stumble in front of colleagues left her in tears). The atmosphere in Washington was tense, the congressional cliques were unforgiving, and the commute from one coast to another was exhausting. “This job may kill me,” she remembers thinking. “I have to do this job in a way that makes it meaningful because what it’s taking out of me and my family is significant.”

As a freshman, she had little power to set the agenda. The House Financial Services Committee, where she landed by request, was seen as a sleepy corner of the Hill overrun with lobbyists. “It became pretty clear early on: I wasn’t in leadership. I wasn’t a subcommittee chair. I wasn’t a media darling.” But Warren, her Harvard Law School professor- turned-confidant, had taught her that if something is too hard, find a different way. And if you are the only one investing real effort in that different way, all the better.

Like Warren, Porter had always been inclined to teach. She recalls coming home from kindergarten to write report cards for her little sister. At Andover and Yale, she volunteered as a tutor. Before attending law school, she taught eighth-grade math and social studies for a year in Hong Kong. Later, as a law professor, she enjoyed finding creative ways to engage students on topics, such as secured transactions law. Why not use the time she was allotted during hearings as teachable moments for the public?

“In these hearings, you get your five [minutes],” she says. “Nobody tells you what you can say.” It offered her a rare bit of freedom in a workplace dominated by tradition and hierarchy.

Porter and her staff began to throw themselves into hearings preparation. For each, they would start by asking themselves what they wanted to learn from the witness. “It’s much more about the issue than it is about the person,” Porter says. They’d draft questions, whittling down word counts in order to use their time as efficiently as possible. Then came the most crucial step: role-play. Porter’s staff would do their best to stand in, moot court-style, for Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf, for example, or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. When witnesses would try to filibuster or wiggle their way to a safer line of inquiry, Porter rehearsed strategies for pulling them back to her agenda without wasting any of her 300 seconds.

“The hardest thing is [when] my staff are too deferential to me,” she says. “Every time I interrupt, they stop talking. But the witness is not going to do that.”

Porter’s preparation has paid off, as has her orientation toward the kind of real-life touch points that regular Americans can appreciate. When she squared off against Scharf, she didn’t just accuse his bank of stealing $350 from certain borrowers, she pointed out that $350 represents 18 bags of groceries. She took Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to task for not knowing how much it costs to mail a postcard. And she stumped JPMorgan’s Dimon with a question about the gap between an entry-level salary at his bank and the cost of living: “I don’t know, I’d have to think about that,” he finally allowed, unable to argue with the household budget she had outlined with dry-erase marker on a small whiteboard. Each carefully plotted exchange between a gray-haired millionaire and the straight-shooting former professor attracted millions of views. Porter has become a regular on MSNBC and boasts more than 1 million Twitter followers.

“Teaching like Katie does is an act of empathy,” says former SEC commissioner and New York University law professor Robert Jackson. “As a teacher, when somebody is confused, you have to assess what is in that person’s way—what’s in their background, their way of thinking about the world—that makes it impossible for them to see what you see.” Sometimes, that person is the CEO of a bank with more than $72 billion in annual revenue. Others, it’s a parent trying to stretch a paycheck to cover a week’s worth of groceries. Porter, he says, explains how the “complex world of financial regulation affects their lives.”

Douglas Baird, chair of the National Bankruptcy Conference and former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, says that he finds Porter’s approach to hearings “rhetorically effective,” and that he’s a “big fan” of the congresswoman, who previously served as the NBC’s secretary, even though the two might not be what he calls kindred spirits. (“In the world at large,” he says “people would categorize me as someone who has sympathy for the fox in addition to the hen. If I lend you money, I should be able to get it back.”) He considers her a “nuanced person with nuanced ideas.”

The whiteboards, now famous, that Porter often uses to accompany her arguments were initially a point of contention within the House Financial Services Committee, as were other props and visual aids. “I’ve been on the committee for 15 years, and this is not something I’ve seen,” objected one Republican member. On at least two occasions, one involving a debt collection bingo poster and another a movie clip, committee chairwoman Maxine Waters ordered Porter to stand down and “refrain from disrupting” the proceedings.

Porter won her whiteboard battle, but lost the war, as far as committee assignments are concerned. In her second term, she applied for a waiver that would have allowed her to remain on Financial Services, which typically requires an exclusive commitment, while also serving on the Natural Resources and Oversight committees. More brazen, she drafted a proposal that would have stripped Financial Services of its exclusive status. The proposal failed to gain traction and Democratic leadership denied her waiver, effectively booting her from the committee closest to her expertise. Porter, embracing her new role, has since affixed an “OVRSITE” vanity plate to her 2010 Toyota minivan.

So far, the reshuffling has not slowed her momentum. On Oversight, which carries a broad investigative mandate, Porter’s whiteboard has continued to serve her well. In May, for example, Richard Gonzalez, CEO of pharmaceutical company AbbVie, which makes Humira, the world’s best-selling prescription, appeared before the committee as part of an ongoing inquiry into drug pricing. Since its launch in 2003, the cost of Humira has increased by nearly 500%.

“One of the things we’ve heard over and over and over again is, ‘Well, all of this [higher pricing] is justified, because we spend so much on R&D,’ ” Porter says, echoing Big Pharma’s typical arguments. Prepping with her staff, she decided that she wanted to probe those claims and put R&D spending in the context of other costs.

“Listing a bunch of numbers [on a whiteboard] wasn’t going to help,” she says. It was the proportions that mattered. The day of the hearing, she and her team measured and cut shapes out of colored paper to represent Abb­Vie’s expenses. A large blue circle signifying $50 billion worth of stock buybacks and dividends dwarfed all the others affixed to her whiteboard—including R&D—neatly making her point in a social media-friendly way.

“You lie to policymakers when you tell us that R&D justifies those price increases,” Porter told a weary-eyed Gonzalez as her five minutes drew to a close. The exchange, posted to Twitter and YouTube, has been viewed nearly 9 million times. (AbbVie declined to comment.)

“I have a lot of tolerance for disagreement, for criticism, for ‘I see another way,’ ” Porter says. “What I don’t have a lot of tolerance for is just the BS.”

Before announcing her candidacy, in 2017, Porter attended an event for aspiring Democrats in order to get to know Orange County’s political power brokers. Letitia Clark, who’d recently been elected to serve on the city council in Tustin, California, was a featured speaker. When Clark mentioned that she was a single mom, Porter let out a touchdown-worthy “woo-hoo!”—that reverberated through the quiet room. “I thought it would be an applause line,” Porter says.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that “all of the talk about ‘how great single moms are’ comes from successful people who were raised by single moms.” As a single mom herself, she is acutely aware that the expectations are more complicated, given our long history of stigmatizing divorcées, “welfare queens,” and other women who find themselves raising children without a partner (for women of color, the opprobrium is all the greater).

Porter’s instinct, and her political gift, has been to brandish an Iowa-nice smile while confronting such expectations, and the challenges of single parenting, head-on. She brings her kids to work events, for example, even when they aren’t in the mood. (One friend recalls a particularly amusing contrast at a campaign rally between the hungry, tired, and bored Porter kids and Governor Gavin Newsom’s well-coached “Zoo­lander” brood, who were gamely posing for the cameras. “A blue sun will rise!” Newsom proclaimed. Porter’s daughter, Betsy, cried.)

Lately, Porter has been raising a rumpus about the way the tax code favors married parents at the expense of single ones—hardly a political slam dunk. When we catch up over Zoom in May, while she dispenses with a breakfast of avocado toast in her kitchen, she has just introduced legislation that would raise the income threshold for the child tax credit that single parents can claim to $150,000, bringing it in line with the threshold for married couples. Under current law, federal child tax credits start to phase out at $112,500 for single parents.

“The point here’s pretty simple,” she says. “Do we think that the costs of raising a child are high and that families need help raising children? We all benefit from successful children, [our] future workforce, [so] yes. Do you think any child should get less help, less adequate housing, less nutritious food, less quality childcare, simply because of the marital status of their parents? No.”

She estimates that there are 400,000 households that would be affected by the change, or roughly a million people. In addition to future benefits, the policy would have an immediate effect on parents in our current workforce, freeing them to take bigger career risks and pursue bigger career goals. But not everyone is on board. “I had a colleague say to me, ‘Well, we don’t want to incentivize people to get divorced,’ ” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, have you never been divorced?’ Because I have. Nobody is getting divorced [because they’re] chasing a couple-hundred-dollar tax [break], okay?”

The episode is a reminder of how frequently moral fear (or, perhaps, fearmongering) drives policy in Washington. Porter counters it with the common-sense perspective of lived experience. She has strong progressive beliefs, but she makes them sound practical, rather than partisan. It’s a strength that she’ll need to draw upon next election, as her district remains competitive and may change shape, due to rising population.

Growing up on a farm, one of Porter’s chores was to herd the cows. The job was not unlike her current one: a hundred cattle trying to move in one direction, and one person, arms waving, trying to move them in another. On her first try, then 8-year-old Porter recalls thinking, “I might get trampled.” But she learned fast. Ultimately, she led them forward.