To Understand What People Want, Katie Porter Thinks You Need to Get Off Twitter
The firebrand freshman congresswoman spoke to GEN about impeachment, the myth of electability, and working on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign
On a chilly afternoon in early January, Katie Porter was thinking about corporate America. In the narrow, stale maze of hallways belonging to Democrats of the House Oversight Committee, the freshman congresswoman from California was darting in and out of conference rooms, prepping with harried aides for a hearing about the upcoming census count.
Businesses in her district, she later told me in a cramped office belonging to committee chair Carolyn Maloney, didn’t want the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship to the survey — small but consequential evidence, Porter believes, that it’s possible to “reset the relationship between corporations and policymakers.”
Prior to her election in 2018, Porter’s presence in Washington was not a foregone conclusion. The 46-year-old, unabashedly liberal consumer-protection lawyer comes from a historically red district in Southern California that includes the uber-rich and uber-conservative Orange County. She defeated Republican incumbent Mimi Walters by only about 6,000 votes, becoming the first Democrat ever elected to represent the district.
The successful bet that Porter made on her campaign then is the same bet she’s making on the 2020 election as a co-chair of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign: that Democrats can win in blue, purple, and yes, red districts by punching up at the wealthy corporations that have contributed to the country’s soaring inequality.
While Porter joined the Oversight Committee only last month, she was immediately tapped upon taking office to serve in the House Financial Services Committee, thanks to her background in bankruptcy law. It’s in this role that she has made a name for herself, demonstrating a knack for excoriating negligent corporate executives. Dry erase board in hand, she’s gone viral for interrogating JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and urging Mark Zuckerberg to moonlight as a content monitor at his own company. (He declined, shakily.) Last May, Porter got housing secretary Ben Carson to confuse Oreo cookies with a basic term for foreclosed properties used in a program his own agency runs.
In a conversation with GEN, Porter talked about how to get people on board with Medicare for All, why Congress needs an open floor plan, and her theory on how to change America. Hint: It includes hanging the 1% out to dry.
GEN: I’d like to start with impeachment, if we can.
Katie Porter: That is, by the way, where every reporter has started for a year. So, you’re not alone.
Speaker Pelosi faced a good deal of criticism from her colleagues for waiting so long to send the articles of impeachment to Mitch McConnell. Was her strategy ultimately effective?
It’s really the speaker’s job to coordinate with the Senate and to make these sorts of decisions, and she’s doing a good job of keeping us all informed and we’re then trying to keep our constituents informed.
There’s no impeachment handbook; this is a negotiated process. One of the things I’ve taken from my year in Congress is that getting the House and Senate to work together has been virtually impossible. The bipartisan bills the House has sent to the Senate — that have at least some Republican support — we can’t get them to move. It’s not a surprise to me that impeachment is experiencing the same kind of gridlock that we’ve seen with virtually all of the legislation that we passed this year.
I think we’re trying to come up with strategies to get things moving in the Senate, not to have them just be mockeries of the process.
There’s been a split among Democrats over whether to focus impeachment solely on Ukraine, or to broaden the impeachment and include findings from the Mueller report. You came out in support of impeaching Trump in June 2019, shortly after the FBI released the report. Do you think the articles have been broadened?
One of the things about this president is that, in his engagement with the legislative branch, there is great consistency in terms of the abuse of power and obstruction. These are the exact same types of misconduct that were at issue in the Mueller report: the failure of witnesses to testify and the directing of people to ignore subpoenas. While the factual findings are more focused on Ukraine, the articles and the conduct that we believe create the need for impeachment — the gravity and depth of harm to our country — you really see some commonality across how this president engages with the legislative branch and how he understands his Constitutional duties and fails to do them.
There’s this idea among some Democrats that progressivism — and programs like Medicare for All or universal free college — is at odds with some voter demographics, like people who live in the Midwest. They get treated like a monolith. You’re a Frontline Democrat, and you’re from Iowa. You won on progressive policies in a red district. Are these concerns about the electability of a progressive platform valid?
The most useful thing for everyone to do is to check out from social media and check-in with the American people.
People can have reasonable disagreements about the right way to tackle health care, or the right way to tackle access to higher education. What I think is unproductive is to pretend that those are not real concerns in every single household or the vast majority of households in this country. The cost of college is out of reach not just for middle-class Americans, but even upper-middle-class Americans, right? I represent a suburban district with a lot of job opportunities, and the median income is just under $100,000 for a household. But if you’re making $100,000 when you have two kids, how do you pay a $60,000 college bill?
While people can disagree about what the right policy is, to say that these are not really front and center issues on the minds of people in every single part of this country is a mistake.
Given your work on Senator Warren’s campaign, I’m sure you hear this all the time: that Democrats need somebody who can speak to the blue-collar worker in Minnesota.
I’ve been on the ground in Iowa, and I have seen the size of her events. I’ve seen the energy coming out of her events. I ran a campaign that energized people along some of these same things.
I think there’s a growing understanding that we need to reset the relationship between corporations and policymakers, and that we want to have partnerships with businesses. We want to listen to them, we want to hear their concerns, but my vote is not for sale, period. And it hasn’t ever been; it never will be. A lot of my colleagues can say that now.
You and Senator Warren both support Medicare for All. Do you believe her approach — a phase-in over the course of her first term in office — to be politically expedient?
Let me talk to you about how I really think about this. As a mom, as somebody who needs health care, I’m on the Affordable Care Act. As a congress member, that’s the insurance that I have. We’ve seen in our own health care — both when I had employer-provided private coverage and now — a denial of claims, no doctor in your area, nobody taking new patients, bad coverage to no coverage for mental health, and all of these prescription drugs.
The detail that Senator Warren has provided… I value her thoughtfulness in explaining, “This is how it’s going to work; this is what your options are going to be; this is how the transition will occur; this is when you can expect things.” When something is as important as health care, I don’t want naked promises, I want solid plans.
But it’s fair to say that the Warren campaign’s approach to Medicare for All hurt her standing among voters.
Democracy is like this, right? It means grappling with where voters are. It means honestly addressing their questions and concerns; in that process, some people are going to have reservations, they’re going to have questions. Other people are going to be enthusiastic, they’re going to be pushing you further. What really stands out to me about Warren—and what I have really tried to take from her—is the way that she listens. She’s tried to connect with voters to build partnerships with community groups.
Any time an American wants to have those conversations and give me a chance to hear their stories — I’m all in for that. That’s part of being a candidate, and that’s a vibrant democracy. That’s what we should be striving for.
Has the Warren campaign’s difficulty with Medicare for All changed your perspective on how to tackle something as big, policy-wise, as that plan? Has it taught you any lessons about how to run a campaign?
I think one of the things we’ve tried to do that’s been very effective is to give information to our constituents. It’s less about trying to tell them what you think or what they should think, and more about giving them the facts and information so that they can make up their own mind.
You do the same thing in hearings. You ask witnesses questions — sometimes they have good answers and sometimes they don’t have good answers. If they don’t have good answers, I want to know why they don’t know. And I want to know how to get them there.
What, in your mind, are some of the biggest ideological differences right now in the Democratic Party?
To be honest, I think there’s so much unity about what we’re trying to accomplish. Look at the way that we vote in Congress: You don’t see Democrats bringing things to the floor and not getting them passed because we don’t have party unity.
Look at issues like gun violence: Twenty years ago, the Democratic Party wasn’t unified on that issue. Support for reproductive freedom: Twenty years ago, there were more members who were pro-life. You look at those core priorities and what stands out is how much commonality there is.
Disagreement over policy is really different from, “I can’t do that because it would make this group mad,” or “I can’t do that because those corporations were getting angry.” If there is a divide, that’s what I think it is. This crosses party lines.
It’s corruption that’s broken Washington. That’s what I’m focused on.
When it comes to working with your Republican colleagues, is there something that has surprised you, or challenged your assumptions about how the dynamics work in Congress?
As a newcomer to Washington, I’ve been surprised how few opportunities there are to engage directly and interpersonally with colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
We have a two-week Congressional orientation when you’re a newly elected member. It took a long time for me to win my race, so I missed a chunk of it. When I got here for the last day of the first week, there’s a Democratic bus and a Republican bus. Both buses go to the Capitol, what difference does it make what bus we get on?
One of the things my colleagues have said is that we should have meeting spaces to hang out in that are non-partisan, instead of a Democratic cloakroom and a Republican cloakroom. You need to have a place to talk to your Democratic colleagues and to strategize, and Republicans need that too, but we also need some places to hang out together and to build those friendships.
There’s all this research in the private sector on the value of the open workspace versus the cubes —
— an open floor plan for all of Congress!
I think that we should think about that.
After orientation, you told Politico about being a single mom: “Congress wasn’t built for members like me.”
I stand by that today. I mean that not just as a single mom, but as someone who represents a district that is 3,000 miles away, three time zones away. Congress is not set up for people from moderate means, much less working-class means.
There’s this phrase that sometimes pops up, “personal funds.” Let me give you an example. The State of the Union is coming up. You can’t use your official taxpayer funds to bring a guest to the State of the Union. So I was like, well, what do I do? They go, “Use your personal funds.” I was like, “I don’t have any personal funds.” There’s this constant, “You can’t do that, but you can use your personal funds.” We should not be expecting people to come into this job with substantial wealth.
As we make Congress younger, more economically diverse, and more diverse along class lines and racial lines, I think some of these structural things that are built into the place become more and more apparent. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
You’ve had quite a few breakout moments questioning witnesses during committee hearings. Do you prepare differently when you’re talking to somebody like Jamie Dimon versus Ben Carson? Do you feel like you have different responsibilities when you’re questioning private sector employees versus the public sector?
Regardless of which party called the witness, regardless of the topic, I think about the exact same thing: What information do my constituents need to be able to understand this issue or to make progress on this issue?
I also think the American people would like to see cooperation between Congress and those who are testifying. When it’s clear that witnesses are not giving answers, or are saying one thing in Congress and saying another thing in courts or in corporate boardrooms, that’s hypocrisy. The American people deserve to have that called out.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: What did you do with the Oreos that Ben Carson sent you after he misunderstood your questioning to him at a hearing about foreclosure properties last May?
Oh, we didn’t eat them. It was sort of weird, we got lots of Oreos delivered that day to us. Nobody wanted to eat the Ben Carson Oreos, so I don’t know what eventually happened to them.
You know, I appreciate a sense of humor. I try to have one. I think I could have accepted the Oreos more gracefully if they had been accompanied by a sincere commitment to working on the issue that I raised. To this day, we still have not heard productively from HUD about the issue that I raised. And I said before: I want answers, not cookies.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.