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Rep. Katie Porter is standing up to corporate America — one whiteboard at a time

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

You may know Katie Porter as the congresswoman and former professor who comes to hearings with her whiteboard in tow. It's her preferred tool as she explains complex topics and dresses down CEOs and government officials. And those moments often go viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE PORTER: I'd like for you to please explain to the American public why you and four other executives deserve to pay yourselves tens of million dollars each year. I've got an empty whiteboard ready to take down your justifications.

SUMMERS: Porter, who is now one of several prominent Democrats running for the Senate in California, is out with a new memoir. It's called "I Swear: Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan."

PORTER: This particular moment has been messier than usual. And I think some of our institutions, including Congress, haven't adapted to what people need in the modern age.

SUMMERS: In the book, Porter talks about what it's like to work on Capitol Hill as a mom with three young kids who's also single and has a cross-country commute from Orange County to Washington and how, when she was looking for support from fellow members of Congress, the least helpful voices were those of older women. When I spoke with Porter, I asked her why she thought that might have been.

PORTER: I think that people who came into Congress after their children were in college, who came into Congress because their husband was in the seat or they're from a political family, had a different journey to get there than me and a lot of my colleagues who were elected in the last handful of years. A lot of us came from other professions. And when we got to Congress, we expected it to work more like a modern workplace, with policies that realize people have families and that accommodating people's childcare and family needs is part of how you have a productive, happy, effective workplace. And what we found was a Congress that, in many ways, is clinging to traditions that I don't think serve it or the American people well anymore.

SUMMERS: So what do you tell people who - I'm assuming you have this conversation with your constituents or during your campaign quite often. What do you tell people who come up to you or write to you and say that the institution that you work in, one that you hope to keep working in if you're elected to the Senate, they don't have any trust in it?

PORTER: I think we have to take that concern seriously and not dismiss it as someone who is uninformed or, quote, "just doesn't understand." And I think we also have to be careful not to assume that that is a partisan position. That was certainly what happened to me as a child during the farm crisis - watching the bank and my town close, people losing their farms to bankruptcy. And for all of the political clout of Iowa, where I grew up, Washington didn't deliver the help.

And I think the same thing happened to a lot of people during the foreclosure crisis in 2008, 2009, 2010. Where was Washington? Where was the help? And so I think when someone doesn't believe in Congress, the most important thing you can do is to ask them why. What has happened in their life where Washington wasn't there for them?

SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit about that Iowa upbringing, if you can just talk a bit about what growing up in Iowa was like, what it taught you about the business and the work of politics.

PORTER: Iowa is definitely a state, because of the presidential and because it's a small state, where people have an expectation that their politicians, the candidates will absolutely take their questions, shake their hands, come and sit down at their dinner table. And so I think California has a very different political tradition. You can't shake 40 million hands, but you can't let the scope and size of California's politics excuse you from having any voter engagement. In other words, you can't shake 40 million, but it's not OK to shake zero, either. And I think our Congress and our politics would work better if every elected official had been through that kind of face-to-face grassroots campaigning.

SUMMERS: You know, this book touches a lot on politics, but it's also intensely personal, including one part, to me as a reader, that felt really painful. It's the story of what you describe as the only thing you have done in politics that you're ashamed of and that's speaking out during your campaign about how and why your marriage ended back in 2013. And you shared your own experiences of domestic violence in your marriage with a reporter to head off attacks from political opponents. I'm curious, why is that something that you felt ashamed to do?

PORTER: Talking about the end of my marriage was painful for my children, and I did it because of the political need. And it came with a real cost - a cost to my relationship with my ex-husband, who's still, of course, the father of my children; with my children. They're still angry and resentful. So I very much want the story to be honest about what was hard and what was painful but also to see that we came out on the other side of it, that those were conversations that my kids and I ultimately probably needed to have and that I think it means something in Washington when we fight for better-trained, better-equipped resources and law enforcement to deal with intimate partner or domestic violence; that we have people who have stood there and had a conversation where a police officer said, don't call us again or we'll take away your children. It's exactly - it's because I've had that experience that I think I fight so hard to make sure that others don't.

SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit about your Senate campaign. You announced back in January that you were planning to run, and now you've got some company. Two of your House colleagues - Congressman Adam Schiff and Congresswoman Barbara Lee - are now also in this race. I want to ask you, why do you want to be in the Senate? What would be different for you than serving in the House as you do now?

PORTER: In the Senate, I think you have the opportunity to have a voice that is statewide, that looks at how people and communities fit together in different ways. California is a huge, amazing, diverse, incredible state. The pocket of it that I represent in Congress, in Orange County, my home, I love. But what works in Orange County doesn't always work in rural California. And so I think the chance to think about, what are policies that can deliver for all of these diverse communities; what are policies that will help us with the real building blocks of our economy - I think that's the appeal of the Senate - being able to do more of this work for an even bigger population, a more diverse population.

SUMMERS: You have this ability to go viral due to your exhaustive, extensive grilling of witnesses at congressional hearings. I mean, I guess I'm curious, what do you say to those who might argue that some of this feels performative or attention-seeking?

PORTER: Well, sometimes the goal is to draw people in, and that's certainly true in a hearing. Hearings are moments of performance. You are there to get an answer out of a witness. That's my job. And I think that for people who say, well, oh, you know, it's performative, don't you want the American people to see you, to hear you and, most importantly, to hear the answer from that witness, to hear that Big Pharma CEO admit that they have no answer for why they are paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for a drug that isn't getting any better, for pharmaceuticals that aren't saving more lives? So I think that when we think about a hearing or a speech on the floor, those are moments where we should be thinking about our audience, and our audience is ultimately the American people.

SUMMERS: Congresswoman Katie Porter is the author of "I Swear: Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan." Congresswoman, thank you for talking to us again.

PORTER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAE STEPHENS SONG, "IF WE EVER BROKE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.