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Rep. Katie Porter is a watchdog — and a single mom — at the same time

San Francisco Chronicle: Rep. Katie Porter is a watchdog — and a single mom — at the same time
By Joe Garofoli

California Rep. Katie Porter is a rising star in the Democratic Party, and the coronavirus pandemic is providing her an even greater opportunity to shine, starting with the viral video of how she persuaded the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month to provide free coronavirus tests for all Americans — live on C-SPAN.

Porter is a single mother of three trying to figure out this new world of working from home while her children adapt to learning from home, concerns that plenty of other Americans are dealing with.

The first-term member from Irvine is trying to figure that out while her day job becomes more intense. Porter will be a key person to watch after the House approved another $484 billion Thursday in pandemic relief aid, upping the total to $2.7 trillion Congress has spent fighting the virus. Porter is a rare combination in Washington: She is both an experienced watchdog who isn’t afraid to call out anyone — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and someone who is living a life that is closer to what many Americans are experiencing.

Porter, who was a state-appointed watchdog for California during the housing meltdown a decade ago, sees dangerous parallels to that time. She’s worried about how $500 million in federal aid went to at least 100 publicly traded companies that have other access to capital, according to the New York Times, rather than tiny mom-and-pop businesses that don’t, like people who provide day care in their homes.

Her empathy lies in how the mother of three school-age children is more relatable to many Americans than most members of Congress, where half of the members are millionaires, according to Open Secrets. Porter, a former law professor, isn’t starving on her $174,000 congressional salary, but the 46-year-old is wrestling with the same questions other working parents face.

“I’m doing fine. I’m getting tired of my children, but I think that’s to be expected at this point. I think they’re tired of me,” Porter told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast while seated in her minivan parked in the driveway of her home. Her kids were making too much background noise, so she walked outside mid-interview to be heard.

Like many parents who are now working from home, it is often hard to find space to work.

“I booted my daughter out of the kitchen desk that she had and gave her a card table up in her room so that I could have a desk from which to continue working for my constituents,” Porter said.

One word that Porter doesn’t use when describing how she helps her children is “homeschooling.”

“I’ve heard some of my colleagues say that they’re homeschooling. And I never say that because I think it discounts all the incredible efforts that I see from my kids’ teachers every day to even make it possible for me to assess my kids with the learning” they are doing, Porter said. “I’m not homeschooling. I am helping my kids distance-learn.”

Porter is that kind of straight shooter. And she also possesses a finely tuned hypocrisy detector.

That is why then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2012 appointed her to be the state’s monitor of the National Mortgage Settlement, overseeing the $18 billion that large lenders promised for homeowners who were losing their houses or were underwater.

Porter sees parallels to the financial crisis of a decade ago, when many in Washington cared more about bailing out big banks than small businesses.

“My biggest concern is that oversight simply won’t happen,” Porter said. “And the reason I say that is because to me oversight is an active, real-time activity. It’s not about looking back and say, ‘Gee, three years ago, we did this and it didn’t work.’ Oversight to me has an active, engaged aspect to it.”

That would seem to make her a natural to be appointed to the just-created five-person Congressional Oversight Commission to oversee the trillions spent on COVID-19. But instead, Pelosi chose as her appointee Rep. Donna Shalala, a first-term Democrat from Florida who was the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.

Shalala, who doesn’t have the level of fiscal oversight experience that Porter does, will remain on the commission even though she admitted this week that she failed to disclose stock sales last year when she took office under federal financial disclosure laws.

Porter, who openly expressed her desire to be on the panel, has played the loyal soldier, saying in a tweet that she would “continue to speak truth to power and call out corporate abuse” whether she served on the commission or not.

Let me be clear: I will continue to speak truth to power and call out corporate abuse, regardless of whether I serve on the Congressional Oversight Commission.

But she wasn’t so silent about another disagreement she had with Pelosi and other House leaders. Six weeks ago, she wrote a letter to them asking to allow Congress to vote remotely as a public health safety precaution during the pandemic. This week, Congress established a commission to study the matter, which in Washington-speak is often translated into, “Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen.”

“We have lost valuable time to identify technology, address security issues and train members,” Porter said in a statement Thursday. “By kicking this farther down the line and avoiding stepping up to meet the challenges of the pandemic, we are letting our constituents down.”

Part of the problem, Porter said, is that a lot of her fellow House members aren’t tech-savvy. The concern she hears most often on conference calls with other Democrats: “I think you need to unmute yourself,” Porter said wryly.

She said the second most-often heard concern on the calls is “Where are the (coronavirus) tests?” followed by “Where is the PPE?” and “Where are the stimulus payments?” But none have been as pressing, Porter said, as “‘I think you need to unmute yourself’ or ‘Unmute yourself.’ That’s the number one thing that we discuss on these calls.”

Porter said Congress has to be able to do what it is asking the American people to do: be flexible and learn new skills — just as teachers and everybody else is doing right now. And she has little time for congressional leaders who don’t want remote voting because they prefer “the personal touch,” she said.

“My daughter likes the personal touch of seeing her second-grade teacher every day,” Porter said. “But that’s just not safe right now, and so I think it’s important that we are an example of how to practice good public health measures.”