U.S. Senate candidate Katie Porter visited Santa Cruz on Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Katie Porter in Santa Cruz: ‘I went to Washington to write the rules’

Santa Cruz is on the campaign trail with Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in 2024. With the March 5 primary coming up fast, Orange County Rep. Katie Porter got a standing ovation from a crowd of 175 on Sunday in downtown Santa Cruz. With her whiteboard and change-making mantra, Porter brings a generational mojo to the contest. On Tuesday, Rep. Adam Schiff, her main opponent according to polls, meets and greets the local Democratic crowd. Christopher Neely interviewed Porter over coffee at Verve.

Katie Porter might be able to pull a room’s center of gravity toward her simply by entering. Heads seemed to instantly turn when the congresswoman from Orange County, curls bouncing above the shoulders of her Democratic blue dress, strode into Verve Coffee Roasters on Santa Cruz’s Pacific Avenue on a hot Sunday. Several times during our interview at a table along the back wall, it felt as though the bustling coffee shop grew quiet just to hear what she was saying. Confidence, in all its forms, can work that way.

And Porter is confident. She believes that her fierce brand of leadership can elevate her in the March Democratic U.S. Senate primary above Reps. Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee. And she believes she can bring something the two congressional mainstays cannot: a fresh set of eyes willing to disrupt. While Schiff, representing the Burbank area, and Lee, representing Oakland, have sat in Congress for 23 and 25 years, respectively, Porter’s political star appears to be rising less than five years in. In this race, the 49-year-old’s air of someone just getting started contrasts notably, too, to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will be 91 when she vacates the seat at the end of next year.

On her maiden voyage to the city of Santa Cruz, Porter stopped at Verve between lunch at Poke House (“garlic tuna and the Scottish salmon, so it was really good”) and a campaign event at the downtown Veterans Memorial Building, where she spoke to and answered questions from a group of about 175 small-dollar donors. Her visit marked the first time a major Senate candidate stopped in Santa Cruz during a primary race since Barbara Boxer in 1992. Over the past 30 years, meaningful Senate primaries have been rare in deep blue California, where the races either featured an incumbent or a somewhat foregone conclusion.

This year, in fact, Santa Cruz has won a place on the Senate campaign trail. Schiff will make an appearance Tuesday, and Lee is set to visit via Zoom soon, and then in person later this year.

A sign outside the downtown Santa Cruz Veterans Memorial Building ahead of Rep. Katie Porter's visit Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Porter’s top two issues are what many view as California’s (and Santa Cruz’s) marquee issues: housing affordability and climate resilience. However, in our interview, we started by discussing the increasingly hostile political environment. If elected to Congress’s upper house, Porter will need to find a way to make progress in a country where the main political parties are pulling further apart, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination faces four criminal indictments, and a conservative Supreme Court has come down against women’s rights and progressive climate policies.

Where would a progressive Democrat even begin?

“The most effective way to bring people together across party lines, I think, is to emphasize what needs to change in their lives, what needs to change about how Washington works, rather than leaning into that divide and kind of reinforcing it,” Porter said.

Porter positions herself as uniquely qualified to find success in a polarized political landscape. Her victory in 2018 to represent historically red Orange County in the U.S. House of Representatives marked the first time a Democrat won a seat in that region since the 1950s. (By running for Senate, she gives up that hard-won seat.) Through those campaigns, Porter said she found it best to build a bridge around values rather than talk about party preference.

“When I ran in 2018, [my campaign] was very much that Donald Trump is terrible,” Porter said. “But that’s not how I’ve stayed in office. That’s not to minimize the risks that Trump presents, but the corruption in Washington, the prominence of special interests there, the risks of climate change in California, the problems in health care with price gouging and prescription drugs, Donald Trump didn’t create those problems. He did nothing to solve them and made some of them worse, but those challenges are going to be with California post-Trump. So, we need someone who can connect with voters and who voters can trust to take on Trump, but also keep delivering real change after Trump is gone.”

As our interview ended and Porter shuffled across Front Street to her campaign event, a young woman at a nearby table stopped and asked, “That was Katie Porter, wasn’t it?”


As a small group of local electeds and politicos that included Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson posed on stage for a photo inside the muggy and packed Veterans Hall, heads suddenly turned as someone shouted, “Oh my God, Katie Porter is in the building!”

Porter marched up the aisle, waving to the cheering and mixed crowd of supporters and the politically curious. With the late-afternoon sun leaking in through the hall’s merlot drapes, and against the low hum of fans losing their battle to cool the room, Porter approached the microphone and immediately cracked a couple jokes involving her minivan and the three children she is raising as a single mother — two central traits to her identity as a candidate. But the speech, short by stump standards, quickly moved toward a focus on oversight, which she called “one of the most important obligations of Congress.”

U.S. Senate candidate Katie Porter speaking Sunday in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She talked about her whiteboard, which has become a famous accoutrement for the congresswoman, and how it has helped her in House committee hearings to hold corporations, politicians and federal agencies accountable “on behalf of the American people.” The former UC Irvine professor of consumer protection called the whiteboard a “comfortable place,” and she’s used it to show JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon the difficulty tellers in his banks have in making ends meet, as well as the price gouging of the pharmaceuticals industry.

“It tickles me to imagine those really highly paid lobbyists in a conference room getting ready for the hearing and coaching the CEO, ‘Now, if she pulls out the whiteboard, do not panic,’” Porter said. “I’ll confess that I once brought a whiteboard to a hearing with [Meta CEO] Mark Zuckerberg just to kind of screw with him.”

Porter took several questions from the audience, which traveled a wide distance of topics. She called the Supreme Court “captured and corrupt,” and said she was open to expanding the number of justices and committed to the idea of “long but fixed term limits.” When it comes to differentiating herself from Lee and Schiff, she emphasized that she is not a “career politician.”

“I’m not afraid to shake up the status quo and push my own party to do better on things like banning corporate stock trading, protecting Social Security, things that we talk about doing but year after year, even if we’re the majority, we don’t seem to deliver,” Porter said. “I’d be willing to call out powerful people and do Washington a little bit differently. I didn’t go to Washington to play by the rules, I went to Washington to write the rules.”

Among the most relevant local issues raised: housing affordability. Asked how she would address the housing crisis as a senator, Porter called out the federal government for failing to own the crisis, and criticized officials passing the buck from the federal government down to the states, from the state to the counties, the counties to the cities and finally on the private market.

U.S. Senate candidate Katie Porter visited Santa Cruz on Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m running to be California’s next senator. That means I’m going to own the biggest challenges facing the state and there is no bigger challenge facing the entirety of the state than housing,” Porter told the crowd. “The federal government needs to step up and make an investment.”

Porter, as she did during our interview at Verve, offered three concrete housing programs she would push the federal government to fund. The first: fully funded Section 8 vouchers. “It’s an investment that would save us money because the most expensive people in our community are the chronically unhoused.” The second: expand investment in low-income housing tax credits. “We cannot rely on Wall Street to build enough affordable workforce housing. We need this program fully funded.”

For the third, she pushed for creativity. The housing market, she said, is “trapped between two poles,” the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with 10-20% down payment, and the one-year lease with virtually no protection.

“There can be things in between them; imagine the ability to to rent an apartment for four years … and lock in that price,” said Porter, who urged that the federal government needs to be more involved in the housing market. “The only reason we have a 30-year fixed mortgage is because the federal government backstops it. So we are already in the housing market. We’re just in it in a way that leaves too many people out of it.”


As Porter walked off the stage to a standing ovation and the crowd funneled out into a photo-op line, former Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews stood against the wall of the auditorium, greeting passersby. She said Porter had an “amazing presentation” and was “definitely in sync with the issues that Santa Cruz cares about.” Mathews said she remained undecided, but that she was happy to have a good slate of candidates.

U.S. Senate candidate Katie Porter visited Santa Cruz on Sunday August 20.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mary Flodin, an artist and Santa Cruz resident since 1974, came into the event ready to support Schiff but that might have changed, she said, after hearing Porter talk about her willingness to challenge her party and her personal campaign policy to not accept corporate donations.

“I was surprised at how absolutely on fire she is,” Flodin said. “I feel like out of the three candidates she might be the one that might make the greatest difference.”

Jenni Veitch-Olson, vice chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee and a Watsonville resident, said Porter would be a “fantastic senator” but she has not decided who will earn her vote in the March 5 primary.

“I’m supportive of her as a congressmember, and I’m so glad that she’s there and she flipped a seat that has been really hard [to flip],” Veitch-Olson, a lifelong Democrat said. “She’s doing good work, and I want her to stay there. So, I want to support her, I just haven’t decided yet who I’m going to support in this race.”

Out on the sidewalk in front of the hall, Kalantari-Johnson, who introduced Porter at the start of the event, said she thought Porter was “incredible.”

“She’s super-inspiring,” said Kalantari-Johnson. Her introductory speech lauded Porter, calling her a courageous champion who is effective, results-driven and embodies integrity. “I’m pretty dead set on supporting her.”

Gabrielle Gillette contributed to this report.

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