Wearing a poppy-red top and a turquoise beaded necklace, Rep. Katie Porter materializes in Zoom gallery view alongside two dozen childcare professionals from her home district in Orange County, California. It’s mid-January, 10 long months since COVID-19 upended operations at day cares and schools, and pandemic fatigue casts a shadow over the group.
But not on Porter. Yes, she’s been mostly at home with her three kids, and yes, they’re driving her crazy—how hard is it, really, to put a dirty plate in the dishwasher? Still, her energy and optimism at this listening session today, fueled by a steady stream of Diet Dr Pepper mini-cans, pierces the virtual gloom. As the attendees recount their challenges—quarantined teachers, cleaning supply shortages, Paycheck Protection Program bureaucracy— Porter listens attentively.
Kimberly Goll, president and CEO of First 5 Orange County, a public agency charged with improving early childhood outcomes, is among the last to speak. “Currently, in Orange County, we have 6% of our families that are eligible to access subsidized childcare [who are] actually receiving that care,” she says.
Porter switches to high alert and leans in, eyebrows raised. “I want to make sure I understand this,” she says. “You’re saying that of the people who are eligible for Head Start care, we have 6% enrolled?”
“Not just Head Start,” Goll replies. “All eligible subsidized childcare.” There aren’t enough seats, her organization has found, and the income guidelines are complicated to navigate.
For Porter, this statistic, a woeful illustration of inept government, is like a shot of adrenaline. “Just a sec,” she says. “I think I’d like to blow this up.” The listening session is about to turn into a teachable moment for her constituents and colleagues, on one of Porter’s favorite topics: government failure. And more specifically, government’s failure to design solutions for busy, working families, who play a critical role in economic growth. Business, in her view, should share the blame. After all, no piece of legislation gets through Congress these days without corporate lobbyists’ fingerprints all over it.
“I’ve seen this so many times: We pass a law, and we assume that whatever we created is working perfectly, that there’s 100% take-up, that companies are following the law,” she tells the group. The reality is never so simple, and Porter—who spent the early part of her career as a law professor focused on bankruptcy and consumer protection, and is herself a divorced single mom with childcare needs—knows it better than anyone.
Porter entered politics in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, notching a surprise win in the Democratic primary for California’s 45th congressional district. In the general election, she upset a GOP incumbent in an area long considered a Republican stronghold (at school, her kids were teased for being “liberal commies”). Against the backdrop of a president who had been repeatedly accused of fraud, Porter centered her 2018 campaign around the idea that nobody likes to get ripped off, least of all by the government. It was a deft bit of positioning, allowing her to appeal to all voters. She won the general election by 12,523 ballots.
On paper, Porter looks like a relatively conventional candidate. She has the Americana origins (a struggling family farm in Iowa), the prestigious degrees (Yale undergrad, Harvard Law), and the high-profile mentors (Senator Elizabeth Warren). But her adherence to a certain mold of political leader ends there. Other politicians weave homespun stories of regular people into their speeches. Porter, who speaks in frank, sometimes profane language about topics like mom guilt, prescription-drug sticker shock, and family camping trips (she owns five tents), simply draws from her own experiences.
“She’s so . . . normal,” says Goll, who spent a Saturday morning with Porter last year loading personal protective equipment into the trunks of childcare workers’ cars. “She’s just like your average person, but with a brain the size of a small continent.”
That combination of relatability and intellect has made Porter, who is less than a year into her second two-year term, something of an unlikely breakout star. She has found a way to hold business leaders accountable using the meager five minutes allotted to each House member during committee hearings. Most freshmen in Congress are lucky to nab a headline or two; Porter, thanks to her knockout-punch questioning of political appointees and executives, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, has quickly become a viral video tour de force. (A March 2020 clip of her pressing Robert Redfield, then the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to commit to making COVID-19 testing free— which he did—has been viewed a million times on YouTube.)
These days, the only thing that seems to unite Americans is a shared frustration with corporations so powerful that they effectively write legislation for politicians to rubber-stamp. Porter, equally fed up, has become our proxy. In stark contrast to many of her colleagues, she refuses to accept corporate political action committee donations. Yet she is currently fundraising at a furious pace, one that reflects Democratic donors’ optimism about her prospects, which could take her to the U.S. Senate or the California Governor’s Mansion. In the first quarter of 2021, she was one of only five House Democrats to raise more than $2 million, putting her in the same league as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Investing in her is investing in the future, the same as when Kamala Harris was running,” says Andrea Dew Steele, founder of Emerge America, a recruitment organization for Democratic women interested in getting on the ballot.
Porter says that she used to feel conflicted about her career ambitions when her sons and daughter were younger. “I internalized this idea that things I did to advance the causes I care about, the work I did, was hurting my kids,” she says. But she’s no longer hounded by “this sense of constant trade-offs.” Running for office, despite its challenges, has crystallized for her the importance of making the case that expanding support for childcare so that parents can work is “an economic investment that benefits every American.”
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