The way Liz Porter, Katie’s mom, tells it, they only managed to save their farm because Katie’s dad, Dan, who has a degree in economics from Iowa State, took a job at the local bank, where he found himself in a different kind of hell, having to deny lines of credit and loans to his friends and neighbors. “It was a tough time,” Dan says, an audible crack in his voice.
Meanwhile, the quilting club that Liz and a neighbor started blossomed into what would become a wildly successful business. Dan and Liz believed their opportunities were made possible by hard work, but education was critical. So that’s how they raised their three kids, starting with their eldest. Her parents knew Katie had intellectual gifts, and largely due to Liz’s advocacy, they enrolled her in a gifted program. For her junior and senior years of high school, Katie attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
“I remember lying in bed that first night,” Porter says. “Andover has a grading scheme from zero to six. Six is an A-plus, a five is like an A. I remember thinking, Please let me get threes, please let me get threes, because I didn’t want to fail out. I just wanted to stay.” Culturally, it was another world. “The first break when I was there, I went home with a friend. It was around Christmas. I went to this giant house; inside they were playing classical music. And the thing I really remember is they served fresh creamed asparagus at dinner. I was like, Who lives like this?”
Porter didn’t fail out. She graduated with honors and was accepted to Yale, and then Harvard Law School. Her intention was to be a teacher, to communicate that there was more to learning than what’s in textbooks. “I wanted my students to learn that sometimes things happen beyond someone’s control, not because of anything someone did or didn’t do. And sometimes people just need help,” she says. “I wanted to teach because teachers changed my life.”
When Porter says teachers changed her life, it’s a given that she’s including Elizabeth Warren. The two met in the fall of 2000, when Warren taught at Harvard Law and Porter took her bankruptcy law class. Warren’s class was early. Many of her students would come in heads down, ginormous coffee cups in hand, take a seat, and try to avoid being called on. “Not Katie,” Warren says. “Katie was bright-eyed and ready to go. Head up, watching everything going on and ready to jump in.”
Warren says she called on Porter on the first day of class. In her words, Porter’s response was “Okay, but not great.” Later, Porter came to see Warren during office hours. Warren was used to students’ whining: I was terrible, I get nervous, please don’t call on me; I promise I’ll do my work. Professor Warren had a speech prepared about how the class is rooted in the Socratic Method, much of a student’s grade is based on class participation, yada, yada. But Porter defied the norm. “I know I was terrible today, but don’t give up on me,” Warren recalls her saying. “Please keep calling on me. I am going to learn to do this.”
Warren was impressed. “It was her recognizing that she fell down and scraped her knees,” she says, “and wanting to make sure I didn’t go easy on her. She wanted me to be tough because she wanted to learn how to be tough.”
At Harvard, Porter spent hours in bankruptcy court learning the machinations, but also observing how the courts and banks treated Americans in the system. Simmons, her childhood friend, visited her and once skimmed her notebooks. “I said, ‘Katie, this has to be emotionally exhausting. Why dig into what can only make you relive the pain of your past?’ She laughed it off.”
True to her plan, after graduating Harvard Law magna cum laude, Porter taught—for a while at UNLV, then at the University of Iowa, until the University of California, Irvine, offered her a tenured position. Not long after she arrived in Orange County, Porter got a call from her mentor, Warren, then another from California attorney general Kamala Harris. In 2012, Harris won a major victory. She extracted a settlement of about $18 billion from the nation’s top banks for their predatory lending practices that caused the 2008 mortgage crisis, which devastated the economy. By the end of 2011, some 700,000 California homes were in or near foreclosure.
As hard as the fight had been to get the banks to pony up—their original offer for California was $2 billion—ensuring that recipients who qualified for relief actually got it was a massive undertaking. The California settlement was part of a national framework that specified an “independent monitor” would make sure the banks complied. Harris decided she would also appoint her own monitor. But who? She went to visit Warren at her home in Cambridge.
Warren told her she needed to meet Porter. “Kamala asked me, ‘Does she have experience? Has she done this before?’ ” Warren says. “No, but nobody does. No one has done anything like this since the Great Depression. I said, ‘Kamala, you need someone who can walk into a room with high-powered lawyers from banks who are billing thousands of dollars an hour and are quite sure they will be able to run circles around the person representing the families who’ve been screwed.”
Harris called Porter, and shortly thereafter offered her the monitor role. Porter accepted, which on its face was insane. Porter had never run anything besides a classroom. She hadn’t faced off against a single high-powered attorney, let alone an army of them. Oh, and she had zero political experience.