Katie Porter battles right-wing Republican in California’s Orange County
Katie Porter | Eric Gordon/PW

IRVINE, Calif.—“I’ve lived in Orange County 35 years,” says Cherie Rabideau, waiting with her wife Michelle Evans for the University Synagogue’s Friday evening service to begin which would introduce us to speaker Katie Porter. “And Mimi Walters is the worst thing that’s ever happened here. She’s mean. And you can quote me on that!”

Former investment banker, Republican U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters was elected to Congress in California’s 45th CD, which was then a more safely Republican district than it is today, a sign of how much Orange County has diversified and changed. Today the district has only a 38 percent Republican registration. This is the area where Ethiopian immigrant Tefere Gebre made his mark as executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, and where he earned such success in transforming labor’s profile in the county that he was lifted up as executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO.

Back in May of this year, Politico reported that Walters was “upbeat about surviving the much-predicted Democratic wave,” even though Hillary Clinton had carried her district in 2016. She points to the fact that she won 37,000 more votes than Trump. But this year’s engaged voters in Orange County are looking at her record, and many do not like what they see.

On issue after issue Walters has embraced unpopular positions. Even back in 2008, when she served in the state Assembly, she voted to support the infamous Prop 8, declaring same-gender marriage illegal in California. Prop 8 narrowly passed, and was not overturned until 2013.

In Congress Walters opposes women’s reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood. She has a “D” rating from NORML regarding her voting record on cannabis-related matters. She endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 and voted against requiring the release of his tax returns. She votes consistently to increase military spending and is proud of her reputation as a staunch gun rights advocate. She voted for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Walters voted with her fellow Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the costly and weak Trump health plan. She speaks out forcefully against single payer. Of course she voted for Trump’s tax plan to further enrich the rich. On environmental issues she has voted as a reliable climate change denier, opposing a government role in regulating the nation’s waters, repealing limits on carbon dioxide emissions, favoring offshore drilling. Only after some of her constituents approached her with the wisdom of finding “market-based” solutions to global warming, and after Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, did she join the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus.

There’s much more—but in short, according to the FiveThirtyEight political analysis website, Walters ranks at 98.9 percent voting in line with Trump’s polarizing agenda.

In California’s open primaries Walters ran against one independent and four Democratic candidates. As the incumbent, and only Republican, Walters secured 51.7 percent of the vote. Katie Porter, a renowned consumer advocate and law professor at UC Irvine, came in second, with 20.3% of the vote, thereby advancing to the general election on November 6.

As voters become more familiar with Porter, her ratings go up. In June Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved her race from “leans Republican” to a “toss-up.” Earlier on Fri., Sept. 7, the day of Porter’s appearance at the Irvine synagogue, internet sites announced that Porter was now leading polls in the district by 3 percent. However, truckloads of GOP money and a solid pounding of TV advertising may yet influence voters.

Whoever can protest…

The evening began with a short Sabbath service led by Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, with readings, songs, prayers and commentary from the podium. To those present who might not have understood that Katie Porter’s talk would follow the religious service, he assured them to be patient and enjoy it: “It won’t hurt.”

The rabbi’s sympathies toward professor and candidate Porter were evident, though he stopped short of making any formal endorsement. In fact, the talk, “Tikkun Olam: Improving America, the World and Ourselves” (tikkun olam is Hebrew for “healing the world”), was meant to be an exchange—perhaps a debate—between Porter and Walters, but Rep. Walters declined to participate, never responding to multiple requests. No one I spoke with Fri. evening could recall if Mimi Walters had ever held a town hall meeting.

The tone for healing and change was set in some of the readings chosen for the service, such as this from the Talmud, a commentary on the Bible which also has the force of Jewish law:

“Whoever can protest and prevent his household from committing a sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if she could protest and prevent her fellow citizens, she is accountable for the sins of her fellow citizens; if the whole world, they are accountable for the whole world.”

In a following reading a Hasidic parable is retold: “A tzaddik (a wise and holy person) was going to warn the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that they should turn from their evil ways. A man mocked him: ‘But your words will never change their ways.’ ‘I know,’ replied the tzaddik, ‘but my words will prevent me from becoming one of them.’”

In other words, there is a sacred obligation to protest and to prevent impending harm.

A formative lesson in farming

Porter received her undergraduate degree from Yale, and a J.D. from Harvard. She specialized in issues surrounding financial instability, bankruptcy, foreclosure and consumer protection, and came to see how much federal law banks consistently broke and got away with. Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris reached out to Porter for help, as the state’s independent monitor of banks, in securing billions of dollars in compensation for customers bilked by mortgage fraud in the housing crisis and by illegal Wells Fargo practices. “The banks did exactly what the politicians let them get away with,” Porter maintains.

She is the author of the textbook, Modern Consumer Law (Wolters Kluwer 2016), a co-author of The Law of Debtors and Creditors (Wolters Kluwer 2014), and editor of Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class (Stanford Press 2012).

She came by her concern for working families early in life. Porter grew up in a small farming community in Iowa. There she saw how farm families suffered with every decline in prices. Having invested in more land and taken on new debt for equipment, their lives bottomed out when the payments came due. It was a formative lesson for her to watch the banks getting bailed out—because they had lobbyists and friends in Congress—which regular working people did not have. Lost farms led to suicides, drinking problems, and dissolved marriages.

“The worst part of it,” Porter recalls, “is that we blamed ourselves.” At every moment of joy in life—the birth of a new child, taking out a loan for the future, enrolling a child in daycare, buying a house, attending college, getting married—people of modest means are burdened by anxiety and fear: How are we going to pay for it? Are we being treated fairly? Individual consumers, more and more, are being asked to bear all the risks, “sucking the joy out of life…. We need to feel good about a bright and secure future.”

Changing how people run and serve

Porter contrasts her campaign fundraising with Walters’s. The incumbent accepts donations from the gun lobby, from the DeVos family foundation, and “dark” money from untraceable Republican PACs. An unnamed spokesman for her campaign was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 9), saying that Walters had requested the National Republican Congressional Campaign (NRCC) not to support her financially: She “believes she will raise sufficient funds on her own to take care of her campaign’s needs.”

Porter—like about half of the other Democratic challengers in this election cycle—has refused corporate contributions. “We are changing the way people run for office and serve in office.” With three children in Irvine public schools, Porter is well aware how public education is under attack by the likes of Betsy DeVos.

Katie Porter supporters in the audience. | Eric Gordon/PW

Porter and her fellow Democratic challengers aim to send an unmistakable message to the nation: “We’re looking to win not 23 seats, but 33—or 43.” She has steeled herself for the worst when she gets to Washington: “If you don’t take courage and a spine with you, you won’t find them in the halls of Congress.”

In her campaign literature Porter promises she will fight for Medicare for All, oppose the gun lobby and work to pass common-sense laws to keep schools and communities safe, protect natural resources and the environment, reverse the Trump tax plan, and “stand up to leaders in both parties.” “We don’t need a Trump ‘yes’ woman,” she says.

“Politically,” Porter says, “the eyes of the nation are on us. I will listen to you, I will fight for you, and I will be accountable to you…. And yes, we will have town halls.”

The following day, Sat., Sept. 8, President Barack Obama kicked off his nationwide campaigning in Orange County. If Democrats need to capture a minimum of 23 seats in the House, California may well supply up to a third of that number, from districts, like Porter’s, that went for Clinton over Trump. Obama told a group of campaign volunteers, on an Anaheim Convention Center stage with Porter and the other Democratic challengers in the state, that if voters do not come out and vote, “things can get worse.”

“But the good news,” he reassured his audience—and the nation—“is in two months we have a chance to restore some sanity in our politics. We have a chance to flip the House of Representatives and make sure that we have checks and balances in Washington.”

Paraphrasing the Talmud, is America not “accountable to the whole world?”


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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