IRVINE, CALIF. - “Professor, could I do you a favor? Could I introduce myself?”
First year Democratic US Representative Katie Porter is not shy.
“Because it would go faster. ‘Cause I've done this a million times.”
Porter was speaking to students at Concordia University in Irvine, a private Lutheran college nestled atop a hill overlooking Orange County, California, 10 km inland from the Pacific Ocean.
She knows this audience is a treasure trove of new voters because their young demographic helped her become the first-ever Democratic Representative from California’s 45th congressional district.
Porter was a law professor at a nearby college – University of California Irvine (UCI) – when she decided to run for office.
Women making history
Katie Porter is indicative of many first-year Democrats who ran for office to protest the policies of President Donald Trump. The 2018 midterm winners became the class of the 116th Congress – the most diverse in history. Almost one in four is a woman, the highest female percentage of voting members to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But even as a record 102 voting female representatives made history, Porter finds the Capitol lacking in gender equality and says it remains what she calls “a male institution.”
“All the furniture is too big for women to sit in … and I’m not a particularly petite woman,” says Porter, as she explains her feet don’t reach the floor in the traditional leather office chairs. She also says the official Congressional House pin, which has become a security feature to identify true House members, is a lapel pin, “which works great if you're a man, and you're wearing a jacket.”
A promising protégée
While her peers have made headlines for their diversity of color, religion or sexual orientation, Porter - a white woman born to an Iowa farmer - is getting noticed for her sharp questioning of witnesses who testify before the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees housing and financial institutions.
She honed her lawyerly style of questioning under her professors at Harvard Law School. One of those professors is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. Porter says she had brunch with Warren after Trump was elected and told her mentor three career ideas she was considering. Porter says Warren told her the first idea was terrible and the second was forgettable. The third idea was to run for Congress. Porter says Warren responded, “‘Now that is a good idea.’”
How a freshman gets media notice
A month after Porter was sworn in, she received her first national media exposure by sharply questioning a corporate CEO, Mark Begor. His credit card reporting agency Equifax was under fire for a 2017 data breach that exposed 147 million customers to possibe data theft.
Porter began by asking Begor to release his own Social Security number, date of birth and home address in the public hearing. When he refused to do so because of privacy concerns, she asked, “Why are your lawyers arguing in federal court that there was no injury and no harm created by your data breach?”
It happened time and time again, with Porter calling corporate CEOs to task. She also humiliated Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson when he couldn't recognize a common foreclosure term known as an REO. Carson seemed to think she was talking about an "Oreo," a popular black and white sandwich cookie. “No, not an 'Oreo,' an R-E-O,” instructed Porter. “Real estate?” asked Carson. Porter persisted, demanding to know, “What’s the “O” stand for?” Carson, sheepishly, did not answer correctly.
Finding care for three children
Porter is a divorced mother of three school-aged children. She says that as a member of Congress, she's often asked about them. The children continue to live and go to school in California, and see their mother when she returns home from Washington or they visit her there. "I’ve been a working parent for my whole career," Porter said.
While Congress is in session, the freshman legislator lives on Capitol Hill in a one-bedroom unit, but with her children in mind. She has a couch that converts to a sleeper bed that pulls out to touch her bed. She says it will be an adventure when they visit and she may move them to Washington eventually.
Porter says, “I think my children ground me, I think they remind me why I'm here, what I'm fighting for.”
Flipping the district
The election of Porter shocked many. Traditionally conservative and Republican, Orange County, California, voters had elected Republican Mimi Walters twice to represent them in the House. In 2016, Walters won by 17 percentage points. But during the campaign, Porter linked Walters to President Trump, who didn’t receive the majority of votes from the 45th district.
It was a close race, with Porter winning by less than 5% of the vote.
So close that no winner was certified on election night or in the following weeks, and Porter says she missed out on some of the freshmen House member activities until the race was officially called.
Porter says she raised UCI’s voting record from 2% of the potential vote in midterm elections to 30% participation last year.
“They focused a lot on UC Irvine,” says Brooke Staggs, a reporter who covers Porter for the Orange County Register. “They had an office setup there.”
Andre Mouchard, political editor at the Register, points to the precincts near UCI, which had about 200 voters in the 2016 election. Two years later in the Porter race, “you see, like, 1400 to 1500 votes,” notes Mouchard. “And of those, 1,350 went for Porter.”