WASHINGTON / IRVINE, CALIFORNIA / DULUTH, MINNESOTA - Katie Porter’s birthday took a back seat to something more important this year. On the day she turned 45, she was sworn in as the US Representative to California’s 45th district.
Pete Stauber had déjà vu on the day he was sworn in as the US Representative to Minnesota’s 8th district. As his wife Jodi attached his official “US Congress” pin onto his lapel, he remembered that she did the same with a different pin 23 years earlier, when he became a police officer.
It was an historic moment, as the Democrats reclaimed control of the House in the second year of the Republican Trump Administration, Nancy Pelosi for the second time in her career became the only woman to have ever served as House Speaker, a record number of women were sworn in, and Americans were being treated to another round of divided government, with the Republicans controlling the White House and Senate and the Democrats in charge of the House.
Porter and Stauber were granted a ring-side seat to this political drama. And as freshmen legislators who had never served before in the House, they had plenty to learn and little time to begin making a mark before they had to start worrying about running for reelection.
VOA chose to report on the two lawmakers during their first year in office because both were elected under extraordinary circumstances. Each had “flipped” his or her district – meaning each won in a district dominated by voters from the opposite party with differing philosophies.
No Democrat had ever won election in southern California’s 45th congressional district since its creation in 1983 until Katie Porter prevailed in the November 2018. Porter unseated a two-term Republican, Mimi Walters. Porter, a University of California Irvine law professor (now on leave) and divorced mom of three did not take any special interest money to fund her bid for Congress.
Porter’s original plan was premised on Democrat Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 presidential election. Porter was counting on joining Clinton’s presidential transition team as a housing expert. But Donald Trump dashed her plans with his victory over Clinton. The day after the election, Porter says a friend told her not to wait for others to “create opportunity for you.” So she decided to run for office and make change in Washington, DC.
Porter has arranged for childcare for her three children, all under age 13, while they remain in California. When at work in Washington, Porter rents one room near the Capitol.
Stauber is only the second Republican to win in northern Minnesota’s 8th congressional district since 1947. Stauber’s interest in politics dates back to the late 1980’s. As the captain of the Lake Superior State University hockey team, he met then-President Ronald Reagan at the White House. He went on to play professional hockey with the Detroit Red Wings organization and then joined the Duluth, Minnesota, Police Department. He and his wife Jodi, an Iraqi war veteran, have four children, including one teenager with Down syndrome, who is staying at home with his mother and siblings in Minnesota. Rep. Stauber shares a townhouse near the Capitol with three other congressmen.
Freshmen learning curves
Since her birthday coincided with the day that 435 US representatives were sworn into office, Pelosi wished Katie a happy birthday from the speaker’s rostrum as soon as Pelosi swore in this year’s 116th Congress. But Pelosi got it wrong as she wished a happy birthday to the wrong Katie -- Representative Katie Hill who is also a Democrat from southern California, albeit more than 10 years younger.
Porter laughed that off and said the real treat was having an office party with birthday cake and a quick appearance by her former Harvard Law School Professor, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination. “I was thrilled that Senator Warren came by,” said Porter.
The family celebration was held later that night. “My kids were very excited that there [were] cupcakes and cake and cookies and sugary drinks – all at the same event.”
Part of a diverse Congress
Porter is one of a record number of women elected to congress for the 116th class of Representatives. 102 female voting members make up 23.4% of the House. The class also set records for the first Native American and Muslim women, the first US Army Special Forces Green Beret, and the youngest and oldest women ever elected.
The House of Representatives once was filled by white men, like Stauber. While that may still prove to be a benefit, Stauber has a challenge this year of championing Republican issues in a Congress that is majority democrats who want to impeach President Trump and investigate him on other matters.
“I can’t stop them from doing that, if that’s the majority’s will, but I don’t think it’s the American people’s will,” says Stauber.
First year priorities
For Stauber, his day begins at sunrise. He attends daily Catholic mass and is in his congressional office before his staff. He says it’s a routine schedule from his decades as a police officer. During that time, Stauber was shot in the head by a criminal suspect in 1995. Despite this, Stauber supports the rights of gun owners. But his primary concern is bringing jobs to his district.
The first bill that Stauber introduced, if enacted, would clear the way for the first copper-nickel sulfide mine in an area of Minnesota called “the Iron Range,” a storied mining district known for its rich iron resources. The bill faces opposition from environmentalists, including a Minnesota Indian tribe, but Stauber insists, “We can do it safely, keeping our waters and our forests pristine.”
Since February, the bill has been sitting in a congressional subcommittee, which hasn’t yet voted on whether it should be moved to the floor for a vote by the full House.
Prominently displayed on a front desk in Porter’s congressional office is a toy made of Legos. “This Lego piggy bank was a present from a friend that knows I want to work on financial services,” explaining her desire to be named to the powerful House Financial Services committee. Porter got that assignment and started fighting for consumer rights, her forte given her history as a child, living in Iowa during the farm crisis. In the 1980’s thousands of family farmers defaulted on loans and lost their farms. Porter says blames the government for not stepping in to help. Because of her lawyerly outspoken questioning in Congressional hearings, Porter has become a favorite of the Democratic House leadership, whose members often refer her, even though she’s a freshman, for national television interviews.