And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
Fair to say that Katie Porter has done for white boards what Michael Jordan did for gym shoes. The California congresswoman's whiteboard aided withering committee interrogations of financial executives, captains of industry and government officials have made her a viral sensation, a progressive favorite, and now a leading contender for the US Senate. I spoke with her recently before a crowd at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Here's that conversation. What a what an enthusiastic group for a Saturday morning. My goodness. Congresswoman Katie Porter, welcome.
Great to be with you. So you you've written this terrific book, "I swear, Politics is Messier than my Minivan." And I feel like the appropriate first question is, just how messy is your media, if your minivan?
So when I when the book came out, a news station wanted to come and do an interview in my home and my they said, please tell her, don't clean your minivan. I was like, Oh, well, you don't have to worry about that. Like, so it was it was embarrassing. They opened up all the sliding doors and they were filming what's on the floor and the the juice box and the cereal and the library book that has still not been returned.
And now those were authentically there, right?
Yeah. So it was it's pretty messy. Yeah. So the fact that politics is messier, it tells you something about the baseline we're working with.
And as between Congress and the minivan, which is easier to drive?
Oh, definitely the minivan. The minivan.
So. You've done more for the whiteboard. I mean, you're like to the whiteboard what Michael Jordan is to gym shoes. And so I thought to make you feel at home. I started with a whiteboard and I'm not I'm only going to use it once because my handwriting is bad. This was done by one of my trusty team, but this is what it says.
This is the most fame Lorimer, Iowa has ever had. All 149 people are super proud in this moment.
But it is kind of a through line in your life that's reflected in the book and in your history. Talk about growing up in this little farm town in Iowa. You grew up, I guess, in the house that your great grandfather built the farmhouse. So talk a little about that because your family sounds like a cross between the Waltons and The Hunger Games.
Yeah. Yeah. So I grew up in Iowa, as he said, I'm a sixth generation Iowan, and I tell this funny story in the book about my very first day in Congress in January 2019, January 3rd, 2019, and in the elevator. And there's just a scrum of people were going to go be sworn in and there's a members only elevator. And that's that feels intimidating. And I'm herded into that. And there are a couple of older gentlemen in there I don't recognize. So I assume they're Republicans. And they they say to me, Where are you from, miss? And I said, Iowa. And then I realized I represent California. Like I just kissed my political death certificate on the very, you know, the very first day. But, you know, growing up, when you ask someone where you're from, what you mean is where are your people from? Right. And so I grew up in Iowa on a farm. I was a nine year 4-Her. And one of the things that is very true about growing up in Iowa is that you have a strong sense, even as a child, you can't vote of being politically important. And when I got to Orange County after moving around several times, it was it was immediately apparent that regardless of party people in Orange County, particularly Democrats and independents, basically understood in their minds they thought that their vote didn't matter, that they were not important to democracy. And every Iowan, whether they whether they are or not, thinks that they are.
Yes, I got to spend some time there. I love Iowa.
Yeah. So part of what I tried to do, I think part of how I've approached campaigning, part of how you've approached doing the job of Congress is with kind of a much more grassroots retail politics commitment. Even though I'm doing it in a state where there is virtually none of that tradition, I'm trying to single handedly bring back both big hair to politics and grassroots politicking, which I think outside of kind of Iowa and the presidential and New Hampshire's has kind of disappeared a little bit from political life, replaced somewhat by digital communication, replaced by TV and cable. And I think it's really important and I think my roots are kind of where I got that that sense of it.
One fun fact is that you once were an intern for Chuck Grassley. What what did you learn from that experience?
This was 1994. And at that time, Senators Grassley and Harkin were the two senators from Iowa. And keep in mind, you know, Democrat, Republican, they voted the same something like 75% of the time, which is something that it's very hard, even half a generation later, to imagine having happen. And at the time they did something, I think very, very innovative, which is that they paid their interns. This is the mid-nineties, but they took turns. So Harkin would pay one semester. The Grassley folks would work for free. Then they'd flip it the next semester. So I applied to both. I got both jobs. Harkin was not his turn to pay. It was Grassley's turn to pay. And I needed the money to be able to have the experience like do most of the young people that we try to hire. And they learned a couple of things from Senator Grassley. One I would say is his commitment to responding to every constituent. So we write back to everybody who writes to us. And that is true about Senator Grassley. It is also true about my office. I thought naively, that that was like a rule, but like you had to write back to everybody who wrote you, But it turns out you don't, and many elected officials do not. And so that was something that was really important to him. And, of course, people have heard about the full Grassley, where he visits all 89 of Iowa's counties. And so I think that kind of commitment to being present in community. The other thing I took from Senator Grassley, and I wish he would go back to doing more of it and less judiciary work, is that in this period in particular, Senator Grassley was a huge champion for oversight. So you might remember the Pentagon toilet seat right that was exposed
As costing so much money?
And so there really is a commitment there to kind of thinking about taxpayers making sure that government money is being spent well. I would say Senator Grassley and I do not agree on what is worth spending on, but I think there is a shared commitment and evaluate took from him in making sure the tax dollars are spent wisely. And I think that's something that Democrats need to champion. It's extremely important as a progressive to show that government works effectively. And you can't do that if you if you write the check and never look back to do the oversight work.
I want to return to your growing up. I'm tempted to ask if showing hogs at the four age events was good preparation for college at the trough. But what I really want to ask is about the period of time in which you were growing up because it was a very kind of convulsive time in the economic life of your community, and it touched your family and all the other families and tell me about that and how it helped frame your worldview.
So, you know, and then in the late seventies, early very beginning of the early eighties, when I was a young child, the agricultural economy was booming and farming, planting more sort of fence row to fence row, right. You know, investing in modern agriculture, buying bigger and better equipment, taking out more loans was all part of our Cold War strategy. So to be a good American, not just to be a good farmer, meant investing and growing and expanding rapidly. And when all that came screeching to a halt in the mid 1980s and 1985 and 1986, my family was caught in the middle of it, as were all of our neighbors. And and whether you were a farmer or not. And we were the small towns that really made up Iowa. So the bank in my small town closed. And I remember being on the school bus and we had a little town square and the bank was the, you know, the fanciest building I had ever been in, had like a crystal chandelier and gold carpet. And the bank with were bus came to a stop. There was a line of pickup trucks and we were a traffic jam in Afton, Iowa. At 3:00 in the afternoon and the kids were all yelling, Let's go, let's go. And some wiseass who might have been me. You know, the school bus driver was like, Well, the bank is closed. And they remember, you know, we shouted back, of course it's closed. It's 3:00. Right back then, banks closed at 3:00 to process their transactions on the East Coast. And the bus driver said back, no, the bank is closed. And none of us as kids really knew what that meant. But it was very clear from the tone in her voice that it was a serious problem and the bank did reopen, but the town never was the same. And so one of the things I saw sort of very visibly was that the government kind of rescued the bank, but not necessarily the farmers. So, you know, all of these important guys in suits came in black cars. They really do drive black cars. The FDIC, you know, they came on a Friday afternoon and they got that bank reopened. And believe me, that helped our town. It prevented it from being worse. But this was, you know, then in 1988, when we're having the election, I think everybody in Iowa was very, very ready to be done with Ronald Reagan. He's a Californian. He doesn't understand us. He doesn't understand agriculture. And this is the election in which famously Michael Dukakis suggested that Iowa farmers needed to innovate and grow Belgian endive, and that when asked about agricultural policy, the other candidate, George Bush, said that he was running for president, not secretary of agriculture, and went on after he won to appoint a private equity hedge fund manager as his secretary of agriculture. And so I think I had this juxtaposition of feeling like politicians wanted things from Iowans. They wanted us to anoint them right as a presidential frontrunner or as a as the president. But then when we needed them, they were nowhere to be found.
And just personally, your dad had to, he was a farmer, but he had to take a job at a bank during that period to keep the farm going to support your family.
Yeah. So what happened is my grandfather, who was over 60 at the time, kind of kept doing what he could do without my dad. And my dad went to work at a bank. My mom went to work teaching high schoolers and, you know, she started commuting and eventually got a job at Better Homes and Gardens. And she had, you know, a 60 mile commute each way to and from work. And my dad went to work at this bank. And I don't think he's ever been the same person. It's not that he's not a happy person, but he's never been the same person after that. And we were lucky because my parents had college educations. They had gone to Iowa State, they had the ability to go and get work in in town.
But the work was pretty grim when he took that job because he.
He was literally telling his former colleagues, farmers, that they couldn't keep their farms. So, you know, he would come home. And I just remember him getting out of the car every day and just sort of sagging. Right. And a year or two before, you know, a year before. Right. He would pull up in the pickup truck and he would jump out and, you know, he would take off his his seed cap and there'd be a little baby bunny that he had caught when he was mowing hay or whatever. And so it was just never the same. And so we did what a lot of people did. We were very fortunate. We did not have to declare bankruptcy. We didn't get foreclosed on, but we we rented morale, we sold pieces off, we didn't repair things. And then when my grandfather died a few years later, that was it.
You went from this little town to prep school at Phillips Andover, where the aforementioned bush, both Bushes attended and five Nobel Prize winners. And it was a long way from you must have been like Dorothy looking around, saying this isn't this ain't Iowa. So tell me about that, because that must have been an incredible sort of cultural and you talk about it, but the sort of cultural transition.
So I wound up in Andover because of our town newspaper, The Des Moines Register, who over the years, and I don't quite know how this came about. I assume someone who then was in the family that owned it, it's now owned by a conglomerate, but at the time gave a scholarship for a paper boy in the time they were all boys back in then in the fifties and sixties to go to Andover. And I had been part of a program at Iowa State to basically attract guinea pigs for their psychology research on gifted kits. So in the morning we got to take. This class and the afternoon they did psychology experiments on it. So for example, they I don't remember consenting to any of this, but I'm sure I did. But for example, they did like a whole battery of occupational tests on us. And my top career choice came back vending machine repairman. So whenever people ask like, What are you going to do if you don't win this election or that election, I'm always like vending machine repairman. But so I was part of this gifted program at Iowa State, and it was transformative, right, for me. And it was free, it was funded by grant research, right to get the the guinea pigs. And so they followed up with us this a longitudinal study and they sent us information about opportunities for gifted kids. So I got those pre-stamped postcards that don't even have a stamp on them. They're like pre-stamped. And I wrote, you know, please send me information. Rural Route one, Box 127, Larimer, Iowa. To every everything in the book that said financial aid available because that was one thing I knew if there wasn't financial aid it wasn't going to be for me. And so it turns out if you write a postcard like that to Andover, I thought I was applying to like a summer camp, like I just wanted to go have another summer. But they sent me information for the school and my mom had known one of these paper boys in her town, Decorah, Iowa, who had gotten the scholarship and had gone off to boarding school. And so was the only place I applied to. The admission officer told me not to worry. You know, he was sure I would miss, you know, the farm. But they had the animals like squirrels. And by the way, when I got to campus, like campus squirrels were terrifying because they cut way too close to you. Like in Iowa. If an animal comes too close to you like that, you shoot it because it has rabies. Right. And so these campus squirrels really get up in your in your business. So that was really but I remember lying there the very first night and my and thinking the night before classes started, you know, please let me pass. I guess I just wanted to be able to stay and I was able to and I ended up liking it a lot. It was very, I think my parents, to this day, my dad still lives in Iowa. I think to this day my dad would tell you that he didn't see why I had to go. He didn't think, he thought I could have just waited, hung out in high school and then be taken, were taken more industrial arts and whatever there was to take. My mom thought it was really important that I find a community of people want to have peers. And so to this day, you know, I don't know that they they feel the same way about it. But the rumor around my town, my dad was on the school board at the time. So that's really popular when you send your kid away.
Yeah, he got reelected easily. And the rumor around town was that, you know, the only schools people really knew about that were boarding schools were like those Missouri military academies. So the rumor around town was that I was pregnant, and then I was being shipped off to a Massachusetts sort of military academy for pregnant girls. And that was the rumor.
By the way, you mentioned squirrels. I grew up in New York. We used to show squirrels that are 4-H.
Just put them on little leagues.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axw Files. And now back to the show. Your journey. I mean, it was unusual in that you went to this elite prep school, and that must have had its challenges as well as the opportunities. I want to ask you about that, but I also want to ask you about leaving Iowa. And I want to ask you about the experience of small rural communities, of small towns. And it's partly a political question and partly it's in your wheelhouse. What happened to these communities that so alienated them from the Democratic Party? You talked about Republicans letting them down in the eighties. But your hometown, I think, voted for Donald Trump with 75% of the vote. Now it's, how many people live there now?
Yes. But nonetheless, that was pretty typical of communities like that. What what's driven rural and small town communities away from the Democratic Party?
Yeah. I don't know that there's just one answer, as you can imagine. But I do think that when people are in need and they need help from their government and government doesn't deliver for them, it it breeds a kind of contempt of government that I think the last few decades has been very much in line with what the Republican Party has been espousing, which is that, you know, government can't do anything right. They're just wasting your money. They're not going to be there for them. You can't trust them. And so I think, you know, when you think about, you know, Trump's kind of Make America Great Again slogan and you look at the counties and the towns like the one where I grew up, where there is now tremendous addiction problem, no economic opportunity. The only way to survive is to move to Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Iowa City. You know, those, make it making it great again to that group of people has resonance, right. Even as well for what some of us here is, is racist dog whistles and other things. And so I do think that this is a lesson in what happens when you and you're not there for people politically. And I'll just give you another context in which I saw this. So I when I arrived in California for the second time, I taught at Berkeley for a year, and then I came back to work at the University of California, Irvine. Then Attorney General Kamala Harris asked me to be the monitor for this big nationwide mortgage settlement to make sure the big banks quit cheating people as they took their homes mean they cheated. A lot of people getting into those homes and then they were cheating them on the back end, foreclosing on them. And one of the reasons I said yes to that job and worked so hard at it is I know what happens when you hear an elected official and in this case, President Obama, I think, you know, he went to Pheonix and he said there's going to be 2 or 3 million homes saved in the first year. And the first year there were something like 40,000 homes saved. And when you have that gap between the press conference and kind of what's really happening in people's lives, it erodes confidence in government and erodes trust. And not just in one party, I would say, but in the larger institutions of democracy. But I think the Republican Party has capitalized on that in a lateral way that we as Democrats don't, because we actually believe that government can and is a force for.
Referring to a pro government party. And government is seen as failing people as in those communities. They may feel that way. That's a big problem. That's a big problem. I'm going to you jumped ahead and so I'm going to jump with you in your life's story. I'm going to skip over the fact that in between you went to Yale, which is also about in Iowa, and you and and and then you took some time off and you taught in Hong Kong. I'm going to skip over the fact that you were some sort of costume designer for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Were you designing for people or for the floats?
So for everybody so everybody from Santa Claus to the people who hold the balloons, the entire thing. So, I mean, it's sad to say, but it's true that Congress is not even close to the coolest job I've ever had.
Yeah, I kind of peaked early.
Yeah. I mean, wow. And then you went to Harvard Law, and I want to talk about a sort of a fateful interaction that you had with someone. All these folks know, Elizabeth Warren, who was a professor at the time, but late in your, you were obviously interested in these issues all the sort of lately your but your college thesis was the effects of corporate farming on rural communities. But you got interested in her work on bankruptcy, took a course from her, answered the first question that you were asked by her and. Basically flubbed it. And went and threw yourself on the mercy of the court. And thus began began a really the formation or relationship in your sort of professional and maybe your personal life as well. Talk a little bit about that.
I mean, the interaction, I'll never forget it. And Elizabeth actually tells this story in her book, "Persist" in the chapter of the section of the book that's about her being a teacher. And and so I don't fully recount it in my book. I sort of refer to it. But, you know, my strategy, Elizabeth Warren, was it's safe to say, long before there were white boards, there was being Warrened in law school. And so she was very stern. And so my strategy was to sit in the front row and look very prepared. And this, by the way, this is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg tried to do when he came to Congress. He when I walked in, he was like and I was like, that's not going to work, right? So so I sat in the front row and I thought, well, you know, maybe if I volunteer, she won't call on me. Right? So I had done the reading. I was really prepared. And she asked a question and I raised my hand and, Ms. porter and I gave like I really knew my material. I gave, I thought, a great answer. And Elizabeth said to me, come on, Mr. Porter, think, think. And they remember tears welling up in my eyes. And I remember, "I was thinking" and I went to see her after class. And, you know, as she tells the story, you know, I basically went and said, don't give up on me. Right. And she you know, she says, most people who come to see her, they come and say, you know, you, you, you know, today's lingo. The kids would say that they're, don't use my past traumas against me or whatever, but, you know, don't call on me again. I get nervous. I get anxious. This is not how I learn. This is not my learning style. But I basically went to Elizabeth and I was like, I can do this. Don't give up on me. Like, I'm really interested. I really want to do this. Like keep calling on me. And that was apparently not what's typical. I came to learn later as a professor myself. That's not typical. And so we began really a long term partnership relationship working together. She's been a mentor and a friend. She helped me guide me kind of into law teaching. And when I was ready to make the jump into politics, I remember telling her right after Trump was elected, I had brunch with Elizabeth and I was saying to her, I was supposed to be on the Hillary Clinton transition team.
All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Oh, I bought winter clothes, like, like tights, right? Things that you just don't need in California. And I, you know, I took all that back to Nordstrom and I, I remember like I just rolled it right in, in the suitcase. I packed it in, you know, and I put it, I said I want to return it.
And I thought this was going to be an entry into being a government official. You didn't think that you weren't thinking about running for public office?
Never running. I really I was excited about being on the transition team. I did want to be in government. What I really, really wanted to be was a bureaucrat. And I mean that in the best possible way because I spent my career working on consumer protection issues. So when you write those rules in a way that actually lets people enforce them, when somebody actually picks up the phone at the agency and investigates, when you get cheated, it really, really matters. And I just kept being told, you're too experienced, you're not experienced enough, you don't have enough political experience. We picked the dude, whatever it was. And so I was really excited when I had this opportunity with with Secretary Clinton and to do the transition team. And it didn't happen. And so I told the Nordstrom lady, I want to return all this. And she said, this was like the day or two after Trump was elected. She said, Didn't. Didn't anything work out? And I said no, because that was really the feeling I think we all had in 2016. And so I went to see Elizabeth and I told her, you know, well I'm not going to be doing this Clinton thing. I've been teaching quite a little, quite a long time, and here are my ideas. And I had three ideas, and I cannot remember for the life of me what the first one was, but clearly not memorable. And the second idea I had was to try to become a law school dean, because I really believe in legal education. I think we we do not have too many lawyers. We have too many lawyers in the wrong places. Okay? And law school education can do a lot about that. And I told her I want to become a dean and Elizabeth said, oh, terrible. What? What a truly, truly. Never speak of that. A terrible idea for you. So I screwed up my courage. And I said, well, or I was thinking I could run for Congress in Orange County. There's a Republican in the seat. And I you know, I'm not sure if I can win, but I think I could try. And she said now that that is a good idea. And she told me two things I've never forgotten. One is that she said she would be with me every step of the way. And she has been I mean, she's still with me every step of the way in my political journey. But the second thing that she said I think is even more important was that she said, as a candidate, you will learn something every single day. You will learn something about yourself, about what you're good at and not good at, because the public will let you know. You will learn something about part of your community that you never saw before, right? You think you know the town that you're in, but it's different when you're representing it. You'll learn about an area of policy that you never thought you were passionate about. And that has really been I think, the greatest joy of this job is that there's stood up for those who want to do the work, who are curious, who want to pick up and learn about policy, the problems, then the challenges and the breadth of kind of what Congress works on is is unbelievable. And that's my favorite part of the job.
This, so having said all that, this book is not exactly a love letter about politics or about Congress, for that matter. I mean, it's brutally honest. It's sometimes a little cutting and sardonic. Absolute proof that you wrote this book yourself. So we know it wasn't ghostwritten, but you had some brutal experiences as a candidate. Social media about your about your your weight. You wrote something. You said if you gave a choice between this is what you took away from it. If you if you're given a choice between two excellent candidates who share your values, vote for the fat one or the ugly one or the short one or the bald one. These folks will stay humble because social media will keep them that way. First of all, I want to thank you for a friend of mine for including the bald thing. And then more seriously, I mean, that's serious. And we can have a whole discussion about what social media does to kids. Yours. You've got three, but your family was involved. Your opponent, as happens sometimes in politics, made a public issue of a very personal period in your life where you got divorced, had to get a protection order, and your kids are exposed to all of this. Were you prepared for that?
Um, no, I mean, I, I really thought that this I didn't do anything wrong. And I called the police and got help. And that's exactly what you're supposed to do, not just as a matter of the rules, but as a mom. Like, there's no more fundamental thing that you need to do is to keep your family safe. You know, I think it kind of was it was not my opponent per say. It was sort of a supporter of my opponent. And it was, I think, whispering around in the ecosystem. And so I ended up having to sort of, you know, as they would say in your line of work, control the narrative. And I had to sit down and sort of tell the entire story of the end of my marriage of my husband being my then has her being arrested. He was put on a suicide watch. He was he was sick and the end of the marriage, he was not stable and he needed help and I needed safety and my kids needed safety. And so I had to tell this whole story. It was painful, it was raw. I just wanted to leave it in the past. But the most painful part of all of it was how angry my children were at me. And they are still furious about this. And they, you know, they feel-
This was their personal story and they didn't want to say their father-
It is their story. And it is none of everyone else's business.
They had a concern about you writing this book.
Oh, yeah. I had to show them. I showed them this chapter. And one of the really the angle I took out on the chapter because I was like, I'm not doing this and I am not play by playing this raw, painful, personal thing again, right? Like the whole goal of of the divorce and of all of this was to move on, to be safe, to to be happy. And we anchoring back in this to to sell books. I just was not willing to do it. And so what I wrote about in the book was that having to tell this story, knowing that if I didn't tell the story. And to allow people in the political sphere to weaponize it against me. And having to make that choice, Do I tell the story or do I allow it to be weaponized and win? Or do I allow it to be weaponized against me and lose? And I chose to tell the story. And to be honest, it's the only decision in six years of campaigning that I am somewhat ashamed of. And interestingly, you know, in three tough Republican campaigns with super PACs spending millions of dollars, this never comes up in the Senate race. It is coming up again. So I am again having to address all of this. And so my children are older. They are no less past about this.
That's part of getting older.
Yeah. And so, you know, it is it is very hard on them. I think it's you know, it's one of the reasons that people don't run good, talented people don't run as they fear situations like this. And so I think it's important on the one hand to to show that this is something that happens to people, whether it's their own mental health struggles, whether it's a situation with, you know, domestic partner violence, whether it is having a relative who's been incarcerated. These are real life experiences that we have as Americans, and they are directly relevant to having a representative Congress. And so, on the one hand, I feel very righteous about telling the story, about using it to advocate for the Violence Against Women Act funding. And on the other hand, as a mom.
I never wanted my children to get questions about this to be asked about this. And they were largely, I think, in the chapter the chapter is really to them. It is an apology, an explanation to them about why I talked about it. And then I see and feel still the pain and harm that it caused them. And what was what was the the reason, the positive, the need to do it.
And you think the tradeoff is worth it?
I don't know. I mean, I think that's why I say I'm not I'm not unsettled about it. Right. I mean, I think it is. And this is something a politician's the correct answer to. This is it was absolutely right. I mean, I think this is where I may be-
Every time you referenced the B.S. nature of politics, you look at me. I don't know why that is.
I'm just naturally facing you. I'm going to look over at these lovely people.
But you know what? The answers you just give us, why this book is worth reading, because it's a very honest book. And the first chapter was actually about the day that one year or so into your time in Congress, you thought, I'm done, I'm out. Talk a little bit about that.
The first year was incredibly hard and and I think this may even be the opening of the book is, you know, I say I thought the hard part would be getting there. Right. So I was so focused on winning this campaign and the rough and tumble nature of of campaigning that I, I thought once I was in Congress. Right. You see those, you know, relaxed looking people with their blow dried hair and they're striding confidently into Congress. And I was like, that could be me. And it turned out it can't be me, because, you know, I'm, I was a single mom, still am. At the time my kids were about seven- let's see, about about when I started, they were roughly six, seven, eight and about 10/11 and and flying back and forth were in the middle of a government shutdown that we have an impeachment. Like the schedule was like, nobody knows. Are we leaving tomorrow? We don't know. And I remember saying to the majority leader, who's a wonderful man, is Steny Hoyer, a wonderful man. And I remember saying to Steny like, I need to know when we're voting so that I can tell my child care provider when I'm coming home, like I am an employer, too, Right? And he said, you know, we can't run your situations just so-
Only single mother in Congress.
Yes. Yes. And so of young children, there are people who have been single mothers and then have run later in life. And Barbara Lee, for example, is one of them, my my friend and Senate competitor, and has a very powerful story about her life as a single mom. But she entered Congress after that experience. And so, you know, the comment was that we can't run Congress on your schedule. Just obviously true. There were 435 of us. That didn't bother me. That was a good reminder that I'm I'm just one of 435. But the second part really stuck in my call, which was, you know, your situation is just so unique and there are 10 million, give or take. Half a million single parents or single grandparents in this country. The only place in which that perspective would be unique is in Congress.
You make that point- I'm sorry to interrupt, you make that point in many different ways. That Congress really isn't a representative body. Some of it has to do with the fact that you've got the majority of your colleagues are millionaires. They don't have experiences like the one you describe described. Does that how does that impact on policy making?
So I think the way that it plays out is this phenomenon that I describe, as did you know, and this is when on the House floor is it's very loud, it's very chaotic. This this again, I didn't think about it's it's basically like a Chucky Cheese kind of environment. Right. Like noisy people pushing and there's little buttons, red and green. You're hitting them. Yes. No. Yes, no. And and I hate that kind of environment. Right. I was a professor. Like, I could not think of something more different.
You don't even get pizza.
Yeah. No, you don't even get pizza. The cloakroom has like tuna fish sandwich like a very 1940s menu. And so but it's this did you know phenomenon. So on the House floor someone will come up to you. And I want to say at the outset, I'm saluting these people in this story who are saying, did you know? Because it's much better than the alternative, which is that they don't know, but they'll come up to you and they'll say, Did you know that child care costs more than college? Yes. Yes. Because my daughter, Betsy's preschool at UC Irvine, costs them more than it would have been for for her to be an undergraduate on an annual basis. And that's true in about half of all states, by the way. Did you know that the price of of milk, eggs is going up? Yes, because I I buy the eggs. Right. And so I think some of it is if you don't and I'll give you another example. If you don't write the bus, then how do you really understand the challenges and threats and violence and challenges that our transit workers are facing? Right. And so there's a lot of cures for this. No one person, no one body can ever be perfectly representative. And, you know, given the state of our country, I'm not sure I would want it to be. But you have to really lean into what experiences you don't have. So if you are not from a family of immigrants, then you better make sure that one of your top priorities is going to the border and meeting with immigrants and talking with talking with your caseworker about how cases are going, where people are trying to get visas. This sort of did you know, I mean, a lot of the answer to what my colleagues were learning about, you know, I was experiencing. So the kind of moment for this that really drove home is people, you know, and people started talking about, did you know that the pandemic is really hard on parents? And, I mean, the day I started praying for schools to reopen was the day Gavin closed them, right? Like, I mean, that was not something that I heard about, like literally in my own life were yelling at each other to get off and on the Zoom. So we have enough bandwidth that we can get a connection.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You almost quit. You felt you were not measuring up as a member of Congress or you were not measuring up as a mom and you were really stressed and you decided to hang in there. And then this thing happened, which is the Financial Services Committee. You started asking these probing questions and that's when where is it? That's when this thing came into play. I think this white board of yours is the only weapon that members, Republican members of Congress would be willing to ban. Well, so. But talk to me about this because in a sense, what you have been doing is asking these powerful corporate leaders, government officials and so on, who come before your committees, the did-you-know, questions. And oftentimes they don't. I mean, Jamie Dimon was an example who did not know what his tellers or something, his core sort of grass roots workers made as compared to the cost of living. Talk to me about how this all became a thing because it's made you a big star.
Well, I think part of it was that Congress is a place particularly and this is a policy choice. It's not you know, it's a decision. Democrats in the House have a very seniority driven system. Republicans do not. They have a kind of rotating band of characters. Democrats have this, you know, 20 to 30 years to become a committee chair kind of system. And so there's a lot of you know, I would have ideas of things I wanted to work on. And people would say, well, you know, you can't. That's my bill. I've had it since 1994 and you want to say and it hasn't passed so maybe we should, you know. And so part of it was that one of the things that is most egalitarian in Congress besides your vote, that each vote is equal, is that every member of the committee gets 5 minutes to question. And so I decided that I was you know, I just was like, this is one of the only times I get to even speak in this body. And so I'm going to use it. And so, you know, the white board for Jamie Dimon was really about generation, you know, reteaching classroom after classroom of students where you would ask the question and then you would be like, Ms... you know, Mr. Roose Zachary. And he would say, can you repeat the question? Witnesses are coached by highly, highly paid thousand $500 an hour lobbyists to say stuff like, can you repeat the question? Just stonewall and count down the 5 minutes. I have never heard anyone talk as slowly as Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO. You know, he was: "I. Am. Delighted. To. Testify." I mean, it just- and so you really have to think about how-
Are we got a clock here ourselves.
Exactly. So, like, how are you? That's what it was like sitting there, though. Like, how are you going to get an answer? Right. And so the goal by the whiteboard was I wanted to sort of lay that budget out both so Jamie Dimon could follow along. And I didn't get the can you repeat the question, but also so that when people were watching this, they could see it, right? So hearings, just like speeches, just like townhalls, are opportunities to get answers. Yes. But also to show the American people that we are doing what they sent us there to do. And so the whiteboard is is just a tool to do that. I've used other props and other things sometimes. And it's so it's there's nothing magical about it. People call it the white board of Justice. It just comes from Target. Okay? Like you have to bring the justice yourself. And one of the you know, one of the my favorite chapters in the book is how a little section of the book that's on how to white board anyone about anything. And I sort of walk through having two white board my son who was trying to negotiate a raise for his chores. Needless to say, he still makes 750 a week.
You know, as I mentioned earlier, you you talk about sort of the class distinctions in Congress and so on. And, you know, you talk about Nancy Pelosi, who was speaker when you were there as kind of a a ferragamo's shattered spectral figure. And talk to me about her and your relationship with her, how you viewed her as leader and talk about the new leadership.
You know, Nancy, Speaker Pelosi is an incredibly talented woman. I mean, an incredible political talent. But, you know, not just once in a generation. I mean, once in a century kind of political talent. And one of her talents is that she is able to get this kind of large, chaotic diverse caucus to get their act together and agree. And that isn't always easy. I'm sure, as part of the problem, I would like to apologize in advance. You know, apologize to her. I mean, you know, but she's she is powerful. And, you know, people will say to me, you're fearless. And I'm like, I've hidden in the bathroom from Nancy Pelosi. Like, I literally took that vote and went running straight to the women's restroom. And, you know, I when I got there, by the way, there were a couple other people there, and I said, what are you doing? And they said, hiding from Nancy. So I've now, you know, she's now she's no longer speaker, so I'm not revealing our trade secret. And Hakeem can't come in the women's restroom so. But, you know, I think it was it's an interesting moment for the House, for the Democratic Party, we're in the minority. And so this is a real opportunity for our new leadership. Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clarke, Pete Aguilar I think to kind of figure out how they're going to lead. I think that, you know, they really work as a team. They're more collaborative. They they have different life experiences. And so I think it's an exciting time for the House. I think it is. We are going to come out of this in 2024, I think, really ready to hit the ground running as a as a House caucus.
Although if you have your way, you won't be part of it.
Correct. Because, look, I mean, if you want to talk about an institution that needs some truth telling and some reform, I can think of no better place than the United States Senate.
There's nothing wrong with a well turned political applause line, let me say. But there is a Democrat in that seat right now. Senator Feinstein, you've been you've been asked and you've discussed, but talk about that and the awkwardness of this situation. She's 89 years old and she's been ill. She hasn't been in that in the Senate for some months. Issues related to the Judiciary Committee and her absence from it and the ability to move judges forward and so on. Do you think she should resign? Because if she does, that's not particularly good for you politically, is it?
So there's a lot there. So let's back up. So and I know, I'm cognizant of time here, so let me give you the the 90 second version here. First. Every person who cares about gun violence prevention, who cares about oversight of things like our our commitments to international human rights law and torture at Guantanamo. Who is a woman in politics? Owes something to Senator Feinstein, who was a trailblazer. And one of the things it means to be a trailblazer and I think we sometimes lose this. It's not just that you get to your destination. It is that you blazed a trail making space so that it is easier for the people who come after you. And I am one of those people. And for that, I am grateful. Senator Feinstein has been ill for about six weeks, I think. I'm not sure of the exact time frame she got chuckles, which is terrible. And she and she had a bad piece of shingles and she's still recovering. For me, the bigger point here is an institutional one. And I don't want to lose this moment to make the institutional point, which is the Senate Rules of Procedure don't work. You are going to have people who are going to be out. We just had John Fetterman out for eight weeks getting health care that he needed. And that is terrific thing to see. We're going to have colleagues who are going to have children. We are going to have people I mean.
Well, it's the second oldest Senate.
It's the second oldest Senate. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say we're going to have some more shingles cases. Yes, right. Like is going to happen. And so we need to have rules that accommodate this and that think about this. Every other workplace has had to think about how do we retain people who need to take family and medical leave. My colleague, Colin Allred had a baby. His his family, his wife had a baby. And Colin decided to take paternity leave. In the House of Representatives. So do you know what the procedures he had to go through to do that? He said, I'm taking paternity leave because there was no there's no policies. There's no way that, you know, he had to literally craft that for himself. And it was incredibly brave and courageous, by the way, of particularly for him as a father. I really admire that he did that. But so the Senate, you know, they have a lot of rules that don't work. We all knew about the filibuster. Now we're learning they have this rule that doesn't allow the Democrats to replace people on committees with other Democrats. So I hope Senator Feinstein is able to return soon. This is not the end that she wants. This is not the end, I think, to anyone's political career.
So you don't think she should resign?
I don't I don't know because I don't know what her health situation is. So I don't know if she's one day away from being able to come back. But I would have said the same thing about John Fetterman, like I wasn't I don't know what his health situation was. And he's back and he's terrific. And so I just don't know what the situation is. I do think that when we elect people to office, we have to think about what are the what are was the term of the office, what are the demands?
Don't run out the clock on me here. If she if she does resign, the governor would replace her. The governor has said he would appoint an African-American woman to the seat. If he did do that, would you still run for the Senate in 2024?
Yes. So Governor Newsom has said that he will appoint a Black woman to the seat. I assume that that is a commitment that he will keep. I think it depends a little bit that he made this promise in March of 2021. So about the more than two years ago. So I think it depends a little bit on how close that vacancy might be to the election, because I think California, we've had a lot of appointments, because we've had a lot of people who've gotten other jobs. So we have, you know, Alex Padilla, our other senator, was appointed, our attorney general. Rob Bonta was appointed, our secretary of state. These were all appointed in the last couple of years. So I think the timing matters a little bit. I don't know who Gavin would appoint, but there is no doubt. But the basic principle that Gavin is is evincing, which is that we need to have a representative Senate. And that means we need to have Black men and women and particularly Black women. But we need more Latina women. We need more women, period. And so my I think this is very important that this is decided by the voters of California. And so I am in it for the long term to earn this position. And I think my competitors are, too. And I think it's going to be an amazing and fun and important race. And if we do it right, we will drive turnout up and down California in a way that helps us win the 4 to 6 seats in California that we need to deliver the House majority.
We're we're we're out of time. But I just have to ask you this as we go out. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you. You seem like a perfectly nice person. Why is it that why is it that people say that she's got a lot of hard bark on her, you know, staff and all of that stuff. I'm sure that irritates you. But why is it?
I mean, look, people are going to, we know just from looking at where these comments go and who gets lauded with this, that there is an element. We saw this in teaching evaluations, right, that women and people of color are more likely to get tagged with this kind of, not tough but mean. Right. That said, look, everybody has to take the feedback. It actually doesn't upset me. I think it's important to hear it. To talk with your staff about it. To make sure that you're trying to create the most productive, positive working environment that you can have. What it means to be a leader isn't to dodge and hide from difficult news. It's to hear it and learn from it. And that's what I've tried to do with this experience. But, you know, make no mistake about it, I don't think anybody who watches my hearings and watches what I had to say to a pharmaceutical CEO would would not would mistake that I am working really hard to deliver for the American people and I want my whole team to be doing that. And I am really, really proud of them. And the book is dedicated to the staff and volunteers because I think when you read most of these political biographies, there is no mention of the staff. Every great idea just came right to the elected official, right? And that's not how it works.
Used to tick me off when I was on the staff.
Yeah. So every one of the one of my favorite chapters in the book is one in which I got really I had a flub. I made a mistake. I went back to my staff. They were like, It wasn't my fault. They were all kind of trying to figure out what to do to make it better. And I. I tell that story from the staff's different perspectives because I am really trying to show people that that it is a struggle. We are a team. We have the same challenges that you all have. I mean, one of my work colleagues is Marjorie Taylor Greene. I mean, the struggle is real and I am I think that, you know, you have to stay in that struggle. And that means being willing to own where where you need to do better and where you need to improve. And it is okay to demand that the American government work better. But you have to do that in a way that keeps everybody in on the team and moving forward in a positive way. And that's really my commitment.
Well, let's give a hand to all I was going to say. I first was going to say, let's give a hand to Congresswoman Porter's staff, so. The book is "I Swear Politics Is Messier than My Minivan." A great book, well worth reading. And I so enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Fender Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald, and special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uhicago.edu.