ATen years ago, Kamala Harris called Elizabeth Warren to ask for a tip. It was the messy aftermath of the Great Recession, and Harris, then California’s attorney general, needed a referral for someone who could handle the complicated job of overseeing the settlement money that the big banks had paid for. create and bust the infamous mortgage-backed securities. bubble.
“I said, ‘Talk to Katie Porter,’” Warren recalls telling Harris. Porter, who was then professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, had been a student of Warren at Harvard Law School. Warren remembered her as “Fully prepared. Ready to go. Leaning forward. All systems are fine. “
Harris listened. In 2012, she appointed Porter as Independent Banking Supervisor of California, where the professor spent about two years overseeing more than $ 18 billion in debt and mortgage relief, responding to more than 5,000 complaints from consumers and writing half a dozen bank compliance reports. And she did it all on a low budget. When Porter finally received funding to hire an assistant, but not enough to hire another lawyer, she got creative, Warren recalls. Porter asked her assistant to “dress to look more like a lawyer” so the two could look great in meetings.
Today, as Porter’s first term as a congressman for California’s 45th District comes to an end, his reputation as a tough – and at times theatrical – leader remains intact. At a House Financial Services Committee hearing in March 2019, Porter puzzled Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection director Kathy Kraninger about the difference between an interest rate and an annual percentage rate. . Unsatisfied with Kraninger’s response, Porter released a textbook she had written, Modern Consumer Law. “I will be happy to send you a copy of the manual I wrote,” said the MP.
In a hearing the following month, Porter pushed JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to explain why his employees’ salaries are so low. She calculated that a single mom working full-time as a Chase bank teller in Irvine would end up in the red for $ 567 every month after paying for necessities, like rent for a one-bedroom apartment and daycare. “How should she manage this shortfall when she works full time in your bank?” She asked Dimon, who had no solution. At another hearing in May 2019, she baffled Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson by questioning her about the term related to the seizure of property held. Carson suggested that its acronym, REO, looked like an Oreo cookie. (Porter threw away the Oreos Carson sent her after the hearing, she says.)
Porter’s pledge to hold power to account culminated with his near meteoric rise to the Hill and, according to the Cook Political Report, great chances of re-election in his historically red district in November. At a time when the nation’s president is spreading scientifically refuted and potentially deadly lies in the service of a political agenda, Porter comes across as an avatar of what factual politics might look like: cheesy, data-driven, and serious about the subject. of improving the lives of American -class workers.
This year, Porter again applied his wobbly approach on Capitol Hill as his colleagues grappled with the deadliest pandemic of the century, combined with the worst economy since at least 2008. In a March 12 committee hearing Surveillance and House Reform, Porter pulled out a whiteboard. to illustrate what it would cost an uninsured American to be diagnosed with coronavirus. The figure was $ 1,331. “The fear of these costs [is] will prevent people from being tested, getting the care they need and keeping their communities safe, ”she told the room, which included Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Citing an existing law that grants Redfield the power to make testing widely available during a public health emergency, she used her dying moments to ask Redfield if he would commit to invoking her. She asked him a variation of the same question three times, increasing his enthusiasm with each iteration until the visibly besieged Redfield finally bowed, “I think you’re a great questioner,” he said. . “So my answer is yes.”
Congressman Mike Levin, another freshman Democrat, jokes about his tenacity. “Fortunately,” he says of their time together during the election campaign, “I was never submitted to the whiteboard.”
In a recent zoom-in interview from his California kitchen, Porter answers my questions while folding a pile of laundry for his three children, ages 8, 12 and 14. In the case of the exchange with Redfield, she was furious. She had told the CDC before the hearing that she would ask this exact question and that Redfield should be prepared to answer it. “In all my years as a teacher, I never gave the answer in advance, and yet he resisted,” she says. “He knew the law, he knew which answer was the right answer, he just didn’t want to be responsible for using the law to improve the lives of Americans.”
Porter’s commitment to fighting for the little guy may have sprung from his own humble roots. She grew up on a farm in Iowa, where her father was a farmer turned banker and her mother founded a magazine and public television show about the quilt. With the help of scholarships and student loans, Porter attended Yale as an undergraduate and Harvard for law school. Between the two efforts, she taught math in eighth grade. It was then that she discovered what she calls “the performative art of teaching” – a skill she uses today, whiteboard in tow, at House audiences. Financial Services Committee. As a single mother and survivor of domestic violence, she saw first-hand the value of government-funded benefits. She says she would not have arrived in Washington without access to free public education for her children. “There is no room in my budget to pay for a private school,” she says. “Knowing that my children are safe, learning and developing good life skills in public school makes this job possible. “
Like many single mothers, she is adept at multitasking. Shortly after our conversation, still folding her clothes, the MP jumps on a virtual racial justice and police briefing. When a GOP colleague mentions “the gentleman who died in Minnesota,” she holds up a hand-made sign scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper: Say his name. George Floyd. It is a characteristic gesture of Porter. She doesn’t want to let a good learning time pass by, says Josh Mandelbaum, one of Porter’s former law students. “She didn’t treat her students any differently than she treated a CEO in Congress,” he recalls. “She expected you to be prepared.”
As a progressive Democrat who supports more accessible health care and fewer accessible weapons, she isn’t necessarily a natural fit for her California district, which has elected Republicans to the House since its inception in 1983. In 2018 , his narrow 4-point victory was in part the result of a recent influx of new Latino and Asian voters, who tend to vote Democrats. But Porter suggests that her appeal is also a result of her style. As a natural teacher, she is driven by facts, fairness and, she says, “calls people out for what they say when it doesn’t make sense.” It is a message of responsibility that she is ready to deliver even to the most formidable power brokers in Washington. “I don’t let them get away with it, because I believe in democracy,” she said, “because I believe in government. “
It appears in the August 17, 2020 issue of TIME.