One busy morning last summer, Rep. Katie Porter timed her flight back to Washington with one to Oregon so her three kids could visit their father, whom they had not seen in months.
As she shepherded her children through the metal detector at Santa Ana’s John Wayne Airport — peeling off jackets and separating iPads — a woman in line at the checkpoint asked to take a photo together. Porter politely declined.
After surviving the airport gauntlet, Porter was buying her kids snacks for the flight when the same woman found her and asked again.
“I’m sick of people trying to take their photo with me,” an exhausted Porter recounted later while speed-walking through the halls of the U.S. Capitol’s Cannon Building — late for a committee hearing.
The fan had caught Porter at the confluence of her dueling lives — as a single mother to three and a social media superstar Senate candidate.
Porter’s three terms as an outspoken Democratic member of Congress holding down a competitive Orange County district have been defined by her blunt demeanor, professorial intellect and sometimes polarizing behavior. Those traits tend to stir things up inside both the U.S. Capitol and her four-bedroom home in Irvine, which she shares with a college student who helps take care of the children while Porter is away. Her decision to run for the U.S. Senate has put all of it on full display.
Porter’s three kids sit in the foreground of her campaign against fellow Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, as well as Republican and former Dodger Steve Garvey, in California’s 2024 Senate race. Her fundraising appeals and stump speeches are peppered with recipes for the frozen dinners she makes them and mentions of her 2010 Toyota Sienna minivan and their family vacations to national parks.
“What I’ve never been able to pull apart is how much of what’s hard about my life is because I’m in Congress, and in competitive races, and how much of my life is hard because I’m a single parent,” Porter, 50, told The Times. “Those things are absolutely wedded together in a way that I can’t always tell which it is.”
Before each of her congressional campaigns, Porter’s family sat down and talked through the merits of running. This Senate race was no different. She appreciates their ambivalence — a mix of pride for their mom but also a teenage desire to avoid the spotlight.
Her son Paul, 15, preferred a Senate run because those happen once every six years, while House members run for reelection every two years.
“The actual campaign is the worst part of the job,” he said before offering his thoughts on the film “Barbie.”
Betsy, 12, had a slightly different view — and it was unclear whether she was joking.
“I really hope she loses so we can get a cat.”
Luke, 18, had zero interest in sharing his thoughts with a reporter.
The Senate candidate likes to say that she does “Congress differently,” which tends to elicit eye rolls from colleagues who see that as bluster. Since taking office, Porter has helped pass legislation aimed at lowering drug prices and has used her committee assignments to loudly skewer Trump administration appointees and corporate executives.
When Democrats retained control of Congress in the 2020 election, that combativeness didn’t stop.
She’s blasted members of Congress, Democrats included, for funding pet projects in their districts through earmarks. She’s accused those with lucrative stock portfolios of being in the pocket of Wall Street. She lambasted her party’s leaders for how they made high-profile committee appointments, and in doing so crossed powerful members like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco — who has endorsed Schiff in the Senate race.
Pelosi said that she respects all Democrats serving in Congress, that all of their votes are pivotal, and that members who feel they’ve clashed with her “flatter themselves to think I was butting heads with them.”
“I didn’t agree with the characterization that congresswoman Porter presented about Congress not doing this and that and the other thing,” Pelosi said in a recent interview on L.A.’s Fox11 News. “I was disappointed in how she’s diminished what Congress has done rather than taking pride for any role that she may have had in it.”
Porter has alienated many members of California’s 52-person congressional delegation. Just one has endorsed her.
“What can I say on the record that does not insult my colleague Katie Porter? I think what I can do is talk about Adam Schiff’s strengths, which includes his collaborative approach to the work he does,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) told The Times last year.
In her book, “I Swear: Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan,” Porter lashed out at former Orange County Rep. Harley Rouda, calling him “Representative Rich Guy” while recounting an instance when he asked her to get his car from the valet after a local fundraiser.
In a recent Orange County Register opinion piece, Rouda fired back, saying that he never asked Porter to get his car and that she was “no better than a bully. A bully with a white board who is in this for power and her ego.”
Rouda, a fellow Democrat who hasn’t endorsed anyone in the Senate race, also criticized Porter for living in a home that she purchased at below market value with help from UC Irvine as an example of how she has “had more choices and more privilege than virtually everyone else.”
She lives in a development for university faculty and staff. The homes are sold at below-market prices determined by the Irvine Campus Housing Authority, a nonprofit that was set up in the 1980s by the regents of the University of California.
And since she went on leave as a law professor at the school to enter Congress, she’s been able to stay in the home. Porter has said she followed all of the university’s procedures. A UC Irvine spokesman told The Times in 2022 that Porter’s case was unique because the school had never had a faculty member elected to Congress.
Porter’s demeanor may be grating to some colleagues, but it resonates with a wide swath of Californians — many of whom feel disillusioned by government and politics. During her 2022 reelection campaign, Porter raised more than $25.6 million in contributions — the second-most in Congress, behind only Bakersfield’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who was then the House Republican leader. Pelosi and Schiff followed closely behind her.
She said her lack of chumminess with colleagues is the price of doing business her way, and stems in part from how little time she has after toggling between her kids and her job.
“I’m more willing to call out the nonsense and the bull—,” she told The Times in one of several interviews in recent months.
The Irvine mom’s 2018 election represented a seismic shift in how female candidates presented their kids on the campaign trail, said Fresno State University political science department Chair Lisa Bryant, who has researched how being a mother influences congressional members’ votes.
For female politicians of earlier generations, she said, motherhood was often a liability.
Women more typically ran for office after their kids were out of the house, and only in the last decade has being a mother of school-age children been seen as a political asset.
Bryant cited the late Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, who was first elected in 1972, and during her campaigns “had an infant and a toddler, which was really weaponized against her. People who ran against her criticized her ability to govern.”
“Porter is trying to show her voters and constituents: I’m like you and I understand what you’re going through,” Bryant told The Times.
The late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom Porter wants to succeed, appeared keenly aware in a 2014 interview of the cost her job did have when it came to raising her daughter, Katherine.
“I think the key is: Can your spouse take it? Can your children handle it? Do you feel that you are giving enough with what you can give? Because you cannot, I think, give everything and work 12-14 hours a day, virtually every day. You just can’t do it,” the senator told NBC.
It’s even tougher for Porter, who is divorced and lacks the wealth Feinstein and many other members of Congress have had.
Porter’s story begins in small-town Iowa, where she was raised by a father who was a farmer turned loan officer and a homemaker mother who later found fame in the world of quilting.
Porter came of age during the farming crisis of the 1980s; neighbors and friends lost their homes and livelihoods as the price of farmland plummeted. The experience shaped her skepticism of the banking industry, which she says often cares too little about customers and the health of the American economy.
While growing up, Porter watched her mom transform a hobby into a massively successful business. What started as teaching quilting in the late 1970s led to books, mail-order classes and a nationally syndicated television show, all based out of a storefront in Winterset, Iowa. By 2004, the business she ran with a partner had annual sales of more than$1 million, according to an article in the Des Moines Register.
“I remember as a kid people stopping us and saying: ‘Is that you, Liz Porter?!’ And I remember as a kid being like, ‘Oh, my God — let’s just go.’ And that same thing happens now to my kids when people are like, ‘Is it you, Congresswoman Porter?’” she said.
A bright student, Porter attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., then Yale University and Harvard Law School, where she met a bankruptcy professor who would become her mentor: Elizabeth Warren, the now-senior senator from Massachusetts — a fellow Democrat who has endorsed Porter’s Senate campaign.
“She spends her minutes in D.C., fighting for the people who get no voice here. That’s what she sees as her job, and if she’s here, that’s the work she’s doing — not schmoozing with a bunch of people,” Warren told The Times.
When she’s not spending time “in California meeting with workers trying to unionize or teachers struggling in the classroom, she’s trying to keep her family together,” the senator added. “Katie uses every minute she’s got towards being effective.”
In 2012, Warren recommended Porter to then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris to be the independent monitor over a $25-billion settlement of mortgage lenders. By then, Porter had become a tenured law professor at UC Irvine.
When she exited the role of independent monitor, Porter continued to teach, and parlayed the experience into serving as an expert witness in class-action cases and doing consulting work — sometimes for organizations that the state attorney general had investigated.
One example was her work for Ocwen Financial Corp. and Ocwen Loan Services, which in 2013 agreed to pay a $2.1-billion settlement to multiple states and the federal government. Porter served as an advisor to the companies in 2015 “regarding regulatory policy and consumer communications,” according to a 2016 version of her resume filed in court.
This work — a rare foray into corporate America for a politician who’s fostered a populist image — was scrubbed from her resume when she first ran for Congress, a story first reported by Politico.
At a recent debate, Porter said her role with the Ocwen companies was “a short-term engagement to address and improve how they contacted and communicated with Californians.”
It was in Irvine during this period that her marriage began to fall apart. Porter and her husband, Matthew Hoffman, became entangled in regular screaming matches, according to court records.
In early 2013, she sought a divorce, court records from which contain vivid descriptions of the couple’s fights.
Graphic details of the breakup have been splashed across news pages and websites, including an incident when Porter threw hot mashed potatoes at Hoffman. According to court records, both Porter and Hoffman sought help for anger management.
Hoffman did not respond to calls, text messages or emails from The Times seeking comment for this report.
Porter often talks about the pain of seeing these legal filings resurface during political campaigns, and worries about the impact they may have on her children.
“Who wants to have to go into their closet and find that box with all the divorce documents, and revisit all of that. It’s painful, and it’s hard,” she said. “Every time this comes up in the press, it’s a problem for them with their relationship with their dad, and I feel for them.”
With her ex-husband living out of the state, Porter is the main caregiver for the kids, which creates a balancing act of fitting middle school plays and water polo matches in with her congressional and campaign schedules. Most weeks she leaves Monday at 5:45 a.m. for the airport and races back to California after the House votes on Thursdays.
“Before I ran for Congress when I was a single parent, and I would miss stuff, I felt like people were: ‘Well, you should have thought about that before you got a divorce,’” Porter said. “Now, when I miss stuff, people are like, ‘Well, she’s serving our country, I’d be happy to pick Betsy up.’”
Still, her dual responsibilities have led to some oddball moments, she said.
Betsy once used a stamp of her mom’s signature from her congressional office to sign school permission slips. Luke told Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell that he didn’t understand the powerful regulator’s job. Once, while standing on the House floor during a heated debate over federal spending, Porter received a text from Paul, telling her they had no milk.
Masu Haque, a college friend and lawyer who doesn’t actively practice so she can spend more time with her kids, said Porter wishes she had more support: “I don’t think she wants to be me. I think she wishes she had a me.”
Porter’s dual roles may be unusual for a member of Congress. But she knows that many of her constituents are also juggling parenthood and work.
One day over the summer, she laid out a blue-checkered blanket and situated herself on the edge of a pool in Irvine. Nearby, Betsy’s water polo team prepared for its second match in as many days.
While other parents chatted in the bleachers, Porter sat with her campaign manager. They were preparing for an upcoming interview with a major labor union in hopes of winning its endorsement.