With a tactical legal mind and a mother’s savvy Rep. Katie Porter is keeping the country’s corporate and political figures in check.

By Sarah Cristobal
May 01, 2020 @ 10:08 am
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Credit: Rep. Porter calling via FaceTime from her home in Orange County, Calif., on March 27, 2020.

Just try to sidestep Rep. Katie Porter (of California’s 45th District) and see how it goes. Before taking office in 2019, the graduate of Yale and Harvard Law (where she studied under Sen. Elizabeth Warren) spent nearly two decades as a consumer protection attorney fighting big banks on behalf of working-class families. A tenured law professor at the University of California, Irvine, Porter is skilled at probing for answers. In March, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, publicly capitulated to the whiteboard-wielding congresswoman’s argument that the CDC should pay for coronavirus testing for uninsured Americans. (The literary site McSweeney’s even wrote an ode to the office staple entitled “I’m Representative Katie Porter’s Whiteboard, and My Girl and I Are About to Kick Your Ass.”) Most impressively, Porter is a single mom of three, whose minivan is touted in her Twitter bio. This interview took place over FaceTime while she was home sick and quarantined with her kids. Her mood was ebullient, determined, and a tad defiant. The raised fist was her idea, by the way.

You had a coronavirus scare, got tested, and the results came back negative. How are you feeling now? I’m feeling better, which is the most important thing. But the doctor said that roughly 10 to 20 percent of negatives are false negatives, so that’s actually a lot. If you think about other serious viral diseases, like HIV, you would never rely on just one test. And even with pregnancy, we don’t rely on just one test! This is not a new problem, but we haven’t really grappled with it in the coronavirus context yet. Then, of course, every time you leave your house, you’re at risk.

Which makes proper testing all the more important, as you’ve stated. You had a bit of a showdown with Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC. Can you describe how that win felt? I think sometimes we don’t hear men acknowledge [the concept of] teamwork. There was a lot of preparation from both my staff and the staff on the oversight committee, like “What’s the most important question on the minds of the American people?” Our goal was to get him to a “yes” [to free testing]. Then it becomes a personal interaction when you’re doing that kind of questioning. It’s about how you carry yourself, the voice you use, your facial expressions, the sequencing of the questions — it’s all important. I think the fact that I was a professor helps. It’s the difference between trying to prod the lazy student who didn’t work versus trying to help the student who just doesn’t get it despite really trying.

Do you tend to stage run-throughs beforehand?

We think about the ways the witnesses will obfuscate and dodge. I call it the “special-interest playbook.” There’s the “That’s someone else’s fault” or “That’s not my department.” There’s the “I don’t know — I’ll have to look it up” and the “That’s actually the fault of the consumer or the patient.” And my least favorite, because it’s very gendered, is “You’re just being mean.” But we know those answers are coming, so what are we going to do about it? I think there’s a lot of analogy to parenting, to be perfectly honest with you. [laughs]

I was going to ask about that.

My kids are 14, 11, and 8, so I’ve been at this parenting thing for more than 14 years. When you ask your children, “Did you put on sunscreen?” you don’t just say, “Great.” You get in there and find out. There’s an element of recognizing that sometimes people want to give answers to make you happy but they’re not going to actually follow through. Parenting requires that follow-through. When my kids were little, I would ask them to do something, and they would say no. So I just quit asking in that same way.

And now you apply that logic to adults.

It’s the same kind of thing. I’m not begging or pleading with my children to do their chores; I’m reminding them. And in some ways I wasn’t pleading with or wishing for Dr. Redfield to offer free testing, I was reminding him, “You have this authority. You have no excuse. Will you do what you have promised to do?”

Credit: Porter with her whiteboard at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing with the CDC’s Dr. Redfield on March 12, 2020. Photo: PBloomberg/Getty

Did Dr. Redfield say anything to you after you wrapped up?

No. But we followed up with him. The thing is that even in the best of times, we’ll wait two weeks for Congress to pass legislation. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Congress is supposed to be deliberate, so it’s not well designed for these kinds of emergency moments. But you know what is well designed for these emergency moments? Doing your goddamn job. If people in the administration would do their jobs, Congress wouldn’t have to be doing all this work that we’ve been doing.

Are you feeling a sense of relief now that the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package has passed?

Yes, because we really needed help. It will take a bit of time to distribute the billions of dollars for hospitals, unemployment insurance, and in particular the Small Business Administration. But let’s be clear, there are some big disappointments in this bill too. Neither party benefits when corporate special interest is able to control a $500 billion slush fund. It hurts every American taxpayer and every American family if that money isn’t directed toward the businesses that are most in need. There are only two accountability measures built into this $500 billion Treasury fund. One is a special inspector general, and the other is a five-member congressional oversight commission. It’s really important that that commission have strong voices on it who are going to hold [Treasury] Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the whole administration accountable. We shouldn’t be oppositional, but we need to have answers.

Can you be on that panel, please?

I would love to. Part of the panel’s job is going to be to explain to the American public what’s happening to that $500 billion. And it’s pretty clear that, for better or worse, Secretary Mnuchin doesn’t seem to have the kind of vernacular of the American people. That’s just putting it gently. So, if there was ever a time for the whiteboard to come out so we can talk through where this money is going…

The whiteboard needs to come back. What keeps you grounded?

I have really great kids. One of the hardest parts of this job is when I’m away from them, I lose my footing. They’re there for me. I also try to create that sense of family with some of my female colleagues and with some of my staff. The most important thing is to get enough sleep. It’s also the hardest thing. My mind does not turn off quickly.

Did you ever think that you would be in this position where you’re effecting change on this level?

No, this wasn’t my dream job. I was not one of the navy-blue-blazer-wearing dudes in the College Democrats. When I was in college 25 years ago, it didn’t feel like there was a space for someone like me in those organizations. But when I went to Congress, as with everything I’ve done my entire life, I went to do a good job. When I was a professor, I didn’t walk into my classes and say, “Hope someone learns something today.” I was like, “These kids are going learn it, even if I have to drag them through it 100 times.” [laughs] It’s the same kind of thing.

Credit: Porter speaks to supporters during election night in Irvine, Calif., on November 6, 2018. Photo: Kevin Sullivan/Getty

You seem pretty unflappable in that way.

I think it’s about having a sense of determination. A sense of agency. A sense of believing that if you use the skills you have, you can make a difference. I do bring that kind of passion and commitment to getting things done every single day of my job. And I do feel that that energy is different from that of a lot of my colleagues. That said, being able to read people is a skill that I use, but when the chairperson says, “The gentle lady from California is now recognized,” my heart is definitely going at 100 miles per hour. I am nervous, but not about me — I’m nervous about the stakes.

Where do you think we’re going in the next few months, and what can we do to stay buoyant?

A lot of the work in this pandemic is going to fall on the shoulders of women. And that’s true in a couple of different ways. The frontline professionals like retail grocery clerks and service workers in hospitals and pharmacies are predominantly women. There’s the physical work but a lot of emotional work too — explaining everything to the kids, figuring out how to do the homeschooling, figuring out “What meal can we make out of these seven ingredients that we have left today?” So, this is really a moment for women to ask their partners to step up. It’s important to strive for equality and try to create partnerships.

Which goes back to your original point about parenting and following through. I love that your Twitter bio says you’re “a minivan-driving mom,” like someone who is really not to be messed with.

Oh, yeah, and some people are like, “Do you really have the minivan? What’s your other car?” And I’m like, “I’m a single mom. There’s no other car! I can only afford one car!” [laughs]

For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 22.