Not on the Ballot
I thought the hard part would be getting there.
My campaign for Congress began the night that Donald Trump won in 2016. And every day after that, I fought and worked to win. On a cold, blustery day in early January 2019, I was sworn in as the congresswoman for the 45th district of California.
After a two-year struggle, I’d made it to Congress. And yet, I continued to struggle just to show up for the job. I got lost in the byzantine tunnels of the Capitol that sent me in circles past industrial deep freezers and haphazard stacks of abandoned walnut furniture. I sat trapped on runways unable to physically fly to Washington. I arrived hot and sweaty, and always late, to press conferences, only to find myself straining on my tiptoes to be visible as men crowded in front of me.
On an overcast December morning, not quite one year into my first term, I managed to arrive at the correct location, on time, and draped in respectable fake pearls. In between residential townhouses just east of the Supreme Court, the empty French bistro was the kind of place that women gather for long, chatty lunches about their ski vacations and personal trainers. Normally closed to business at the early hour, it was open privately for one of the most powerful women in politics.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, had arrived early too. After working directly on campaigns for years, Stephanie turned to mentoring hundreds of pro-choice Democratic women running for office. She smiled brightly and sat down across from me. The table was set for six, with four other recently elected congresswomen coming to the breakfast to join us. Stephanie ordered coffee and asked how I was doing as my first year in Congress neared its end and I geared up for reelection in the coming November.
“I am not on the ballot,” I told her. She nodded mindlessly as she reached for a croissant. Then, realizing what I had said, she froze with her hand midair.
“What. Do. You. Mean?” she asked. Big Sister Stephanie, the cheerful mentor, was gone, replaced with Campaign Operative Schriock, hardcore party boss.
As the leader of EMILY’s List, Stephanie was a salesperson, championing the need to elect more women, and her optimism and encouragement in the face of those challenges were legendary. But at this moment, she reverted to her former self, a warrior whose sole mission was winning elections for Democrats.
Her eyes locked on mine, and she repeated herself. “What do you mean, ‘not on the ballot’?”
I took a deep breath and burst into tears. I told her that my staffer’s plan to have me sign the declaration of candidacy in the presence of a notary in Washington, D.C., would not suffice to qualify me for the California ballot. The deadline was tomorrow, I was 2,670 miles away from the Orange County Registrar of Voters, and I needed to file in person. I would not be a candidate for reelection in 2020 unless I got there in the next twenty-seven hours. But what I didn’t say was that the administrative mistake my staffer made with the ballot deadline felt like a divine sign that I did not belong in Congress.
Stephanie peppered me with logistical questions: What time was my flight to California? Were there any alternative flights if I missed my connection? How did this happen? Why didn’t this get taken care of earlier? Whose fault is this? Never mind, we’ll figure that out later.
“You can do this. You can still make it,” she said, her peppy demeanor returning.
“No!” I said, swiping at my tears. “I don’t want to! It’s just too hard!” Writing this, I realize I sounded like a toddler. But I felt like a toddler, powerless against forces that were stronger than me, and out of solutions except rage.
Stephanie reminded me how hard I’d worked to get there and told me I couldn’t give up now that I had finally won. Reelection every two years is just part of the process, she counseled. She told me that I was doing a great job and recounted a few stories of my success in congressional hearings, holding powerful men to account. I appreciated the flattery, but I was not having it.
I told Stephanie that I didn’t care if I was good at being in Congress. I did not want to “find a way” or “juggle” or “get creative.” I was so tired that I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t want to hear that I’d “laugh about it later” or that “maybe yoga” would help me relax, or any of the other cold comforts that get offered to working moms on the brink of ugly choices.
I escalated my voice, as much as appropriate, given our fine dining surroundings. “Listen to me: I’m beyond exhausted, my kids are suffering and angry, Congress is frustrating and broken, and I don’t fit in here. I cannot do it.”
During my first year in Congress, people had asked me almost every day, “How do you do it?” While I successfully deflected with phrases like “Don’t look behind the curtain,” and proffered platitudes like “One day at a time,” I screamed on the inside. I was angry with Congress as an institution, and I was angry at myself for signing up to work in a system built for the benefit of old, rich, white men. While my colleagues marveled at sitting in the same chamber as our Founding Fathers, I was seething that those men not only had wives but servants, or even slaves, to do their bidding while they endlessly debated in Washington, without any worry about their children getting to bed on time or doing their homework.
“But you can do it, Katie,” Stephanie countered.
I then asked Stephanie the question I had asked myself every day for that year: “Oh yeah, then why am I the only single mother of young kids to serve in Congress?”
But I didn’t give her the chance to answer. I knew why and I had finally said it out loud: It was just too hard.
When Congresswoman Donna Shalala arrived, she was oblivious to the tension in the room as Stephanie and I stared each other down. Donna, always happy to talk about herself and her accomplishments, diverted Stephanie. I retreated to eating my breakfast, having gotten the last word.
Sharice Davids and Susan Wild, also newly elected freshmen, arrived next, giving me sympathetic looks when they saw my puffy red eyes and smudged mascara. Both had their own challenges and hardships that year, but they seemed to me to be hanging on, if not bustling around importantly like Donna.
At the end of the meal, Stephanie held me back as the others departed. She was pointed: “Will you promise to fly to California this afternoon?”
I agreed to get on the plane, departing in just five hours, after I attended a hearing. But I still had an off-ramp. Stephanie had made me promise to travel to California, not to sign the candidate paperwork for reelection. The ballot fiasco felt like a confirmation that what I felt most days was true—being a single mom of young kids in Congress was not possible. Something had to give, and now I had failed at the most basic task of a politician: to run for reelection.
The first warning that Congress and my life were at odds was literally an alarm. My phone beeped, alerting me that a vote was taking place in the House of Representatives and counting down the fifteen minutes I had to make my way to the U.S. Capitol to be my community’s representative in Washington.
That same January morning, I was sworn in on the House floor and then voted to elect the Speaker of the House. After, I departed the Capitol to celebrate. Not only was this my first day as a congressperson, but January 3, 2019, was also my forty-fifth birthday. People had traveled to celebrate both occasions, and we rented a room and ordered a cake. I could not wait to hug my family, enjoy the moment with campaign staff, and catch up with old friends.
I was filled with relief as I entered the party. I was ready to take off my heels, have a piece of birthday cake, and relax away from the Capitol, where the expectation of being a “member” was heavy. I found my children devouring snacks, and I started to give hugs and shake hands. It was one of the best moments of my life—while it lasted.
Copyright © 2023 by Katie Porter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.