From left, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee.
Photo: Sinna Nasseri
Last spring, Katie Porter wanted to trade recipes for the kinds of dishes that parents who travel for work sometimes make and leave for their families to eat while they’re away. Porter, 50, is a divorced mother of three who every week commutes between Irvine, California, and Washington, D.C., where she represents Orange County in Congress. She sent me directions for how to make her Crock-Pot beef with beer and pickled peppers (very tasty); in turn, I sent her my recipe for chicken parm (also delicious).
I found the recipe thing slightly awkward. I am a political reporter; she was working me, and we both knew it. It was also just wackadoo enough to be endearing. Until I realized that she was sending these recipes out in email blasts to her supporters, at which point I just felt like a fundraising crash-test dummy.
“Those recipe emails are one of our most successful fundraising emails,” she told me in December over coffee a few blocks from her congressional office, where we could not meet because of the care candidates must take to keep their campaign efforts — in Porter’s case, running for the open Senate seat in California — separate from their day jobs in Congress. She also claimed that before she left home that week, the kids had requested my chicken parm.
Katie Porter is a character. And she plays one in Washington. She’s the real-talk harried Instagram mom who puts greedy corporate executives on a rotisserie, basting them in their own juices. Often cuttingly funny, sometimes heavy on the coffee-mug aphorisms (her memoir is titled I Swear: Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan), Porter’s whole shtick is brash, relatable, and frequently foulmouthed.
In her short time in the House, she has earned national recognition thanks to viral clips of her fisking gun-industry lobbyists, health-care CEOs, and big-bank chiefs, often making use of her trademark whiteboard. In 2019, she leveled JPMorgan Chase head Jamie Dimon by asking him to figure out a monthly budget for a single mom who works as an entry-level employee at Chase for $35,070. “I don’t know; I have to think about it” was all Dimon could repeat, helplessly, as she reminded him of his $31 million salary.
She can also get gimmicky. In a July hearing on Pentagon spending, Porter forced Department of Defense officials to play JeoparDOD, in which they had to say things like “I’ll take ‘Enablers’ for 100.” It was too cute by half, yet she had officials answering “A review that every agency has passed except the DOD” with “What is an audit?” and “A program that is $183 billion overbudget and ten years behind schedule” with “What is the Joint Strike Fighter program?” A lot of people feel a lot of ways about Porter’s style, and two of the competing views were summed up first by Texas Republican Pat Fallon, who slagged the stunt by commenting, “I think we all know who’s running for the U.S. Senate,” and then by Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, who responded that in five minutes, “she did more to penetrate American public consciousness than 15 years of hearings on this subject.”
Porter is sensitive to critiques of her theatrics and the risk of perpetuating the idea that “Congress is a circus,” she said. But she wants people to pay attention to the corrosive impact of corporate influence on our government. Like Elizabeth Warren (one of her law-school professors, for whom her daughter, Betsy, is named), she draws on her years in a classroom, teaching bankruptcy and consumer-protection law, when she considers how to get the public to focus.
“I taught the Uniform Commercial Code,” Porter told me, deadpan. “And that is every bit as sexy as it sounds. You have to make it come to life for them. Any good teacher deploys an element of performance, of being aware of your audience and how you engage them.”
She realizes, she said, that “nobody wants a know-it-all and nobody wants to be talked down to.” Yet Porter’s combination of DGAF disarray and combativeness has so far worked for her; she has retained her seat in conservative Orange County through two tight reelections, experiences she sees as central to her chances of winning this statewide race against two Democratic competitors who have long represented comfortably blue districts.
The Professor: Porter, seen here with her trademark whiteboard in 2020, has raised her profile in Congress by grilling corporate executives and government bureaucrats.
Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Porter’s rivals are her House colleagues: Representatives Barbara Lee and Adam Schiff. The Democrats who have thrown their hats into the ring for the seat that belonged to Dianne Feinstein — who died in office at 90, her three-decade Senate career embodying her generation’s refusal to cede power — are, from one angle, a dynamic trio, solid liberals who will almost always vote the same way but nonetheless represent a distinct segment of their party.
There’s Schiff, the former federal prosecutor and Blue Dog turned progressive who has represented parts of Los Angeles since 2001; he became a darling of resistance audiences while running the first Trump-impeachment inquiry. Lee, from Oakland, is a legend to many young progressive legislators, having held down the left edge of her caucus for more than 25 years. She memorably cast the lone post-9/11 congressional vote, out of 435 House members and 100 senators, in opposition to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been used ever since, to mostly disastrous effect, to justify American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. Her politics, forged in the civil-rights and women’s movements that reshaped the nation, prioritizes the most underrepresented Americans. Then there’s Porter, an energetic standard-bearer for the economically progressive wing of the Democratic Party unofficially headed by Warren.
What a choice; what a bench; what an embarrassment of Democratic riches!
Until you turn away, take one calming breath, and look again. Like the image of the old woman who is also a young girl, an entirely different view emerges in which every one of these candidates is ablaze with dysfunction: Porter does not always play well with others in her own party — including Nancy Pelosi, the fearsome éminence grise of both California politics and the U.S. House — and has been accused by multiple former employees of being a tough, perhaps even abusive, boss. Lee is a beloved hero of the left who has not participated in a competitive election in years and at 77 is a dicey choice to fill a seat recently vacated by a woman in possession of the philosopher’s stone. And Schiff? Schiff is fine if you want a warrior on behalf of the meager gruel of status quo politics, a candidate handpicked by the previous generation of Democratic leadership to further its dubious legacy.
So far, Schiff has been in the driver’s seat. With 25 percent support in the polls, he is handily leading his competitors in the run-up to California’s March 5 “jungle primary,” in which all candidates from all parties are on the ballot; the two top finishers will battle the rest of the way to November. This means the race for second place matters a lot.
Former Los Angeles Dodgers first-baseman Steve Garvey, a Republican, is neck and neck with Porter for second, with both polling around 15 percent, creating a tantalizing possibility for Schiff: that he might draw a Republican general-election opponent, all but guaranteeing him a seat that, in a navy-blue state, is essentially tenured — a seat that, as Feinstein showed, one can occupy for a lifetime. Furthermore, if Schiff runs against Garvey, some in his party have suggested, he could give his considerable war chest away to California’s Democratic candidates running in critical House races. But in a blue state, a race like this also offers those on the left a rare opportunity: to choose between different strains of Democratic leadership without fear of handing over a seat to the Republicans.
In February, Schiff released an ad featuring only himself and Garvey, describing them as the “two leading candidates for Senate,” making no mention of Porter or Lee and drawing the fury of Porter, who called the ad “brazenly cynical” and accused him of “boxing out qualified Democratic women candidates and boosting a Republican candidate to do it.”
The increasingly open animus between Porter and Schiff reflects a sharpening dynamic in the race: Should Porter (or, less likely, Lee) nip past Garvey in March, Schiff could find himself in a much tougher two-person fight for the seat — a fight that reflects the divides of a party rived by the war in Gaza, which has pitted younger, more progressive voters against a hidebound Establishment. And while a Senate race in California is certainly not going to turn on Israel and Palestine alone, the issue — which represents far bigger questions about what the Democratic Party has been and what it will stand for as it sits on a generational precipice — could prove crucial in determining what Democrats want in their future leadership.
The Dissenter: Lee was the lone lawmaker in Congress to vote against the AUMF, now widely seen as one of the most disastrous foreign-policy resolutions in American history.
Expressively, Barbara Lee could not be further removed from Katie Porter. Lee has labored long and hard, over her 26-year career in Congress, to work cooperatively within an institution she has also never stopped pushing to reform. She smiles. She is unfailingly polite. She fastidiously abides by the rules. She does not curse. It is hard to imagine Lee banging around like Porter, who rages against the system with an emotive freedom more available to white women. Black women — especially leftists like Lee, who has so frequently pushed back against the moderation of her colleagues — are too quickly read as angry, even when they are not; and when they are angry, their fury is too often received as disruptive, threatening, and thereby disqualifying.
Lee, for example, would never have declared her Senate candidacy as Porter and Schiff did, before Feinstein had announced her intention to retire. “I waited till she made that public announcement because I considered it disrespectful,” Lee told me in December at the Democratic Club in Washington, where she had asked to meet for our conversation, citing the rules prohibiting her from doing campaign business in her House office. “Again, that is the lens and perspective of a Black woman, which is a difference.” Lee said she had called Feinstein in advance to discuss her thinking on running for her seat: “I remember she said, ‘Barbara, it’s really very classy of you to call me and talk to me about this.’ ” Lee noted that she had had a warm relationship with the late senator. “Right after 2001, when I was the only one to vote against the authorization, she sent me a painting she’d done of an orchid,” she said. “She knew I loved orchids. She knew I was under all these threats and what was going on with me.”
Lee’s courage in the face of intractable hostility has been a hallmark of her career and her life. When she was a 15-year-old at San Fernando High School, she wanted to be a cheerleader. Black girls were not permitted to audition, so she waged a battle to be considered, bringing in the NAACP as backup. When she became pregnant at 16, her mother helped her get to Mexico to have an abortion performed illegally. Lee keeps her private life deeply private, and her decision in 2021 to speak publicly for the first time about that perilous procedure, she said, was “as hard as anything I have ever done.” By the time Lee was a student at Mills College, she was a single mother of two doing organizing work with the Black Panthers. She saw New York representative Shirley Chisholm speak as part of her 1972 campaign for the presidency and immediately signed up to work on Chisholm’s California campaign. After Chisholm’s bid ended, Lee went to work for Oakland representative Ron Dellums, eventually winning his seat after his retirement in 1998.
When Barbara Boxer announced she was retiring after nearly a quarter-century in the Senate in January 2015, California’s then–Attorney General Kamala Harris announced her intention to run for the job; Lee did not challenge Harris, who became only the second Black woman elected to the Senate in history. When Harris was elected vice-president, lawmakers and women’s groups pressured Governor Gavin Newsom to choose another Black woman to fill her seat; he instead chose Alex Padilla. But Newsom made a promise that should another seat open up, he would choose a Black woman; the two on his list were Lee and Karen Bass, who has since been elected mayor of Los Angeles.
When Feinstein died, Newsom was again under pressure to appoint Lee, but the governor announced he wouldn’t choose any of the three declared candidates and would instead make an “interim appointment.” The idea was so offensive that Lee publicly pushed back on “the idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box.” Newsom backed down from the interim arrangement. Instead, he named Laphonza Butler — a former consultant to Uber who had worked at EMILY’s List and for labor unions — who quickly announced that she was not interested in keeping the seat beyond the end of this term, leaving Lee a long-shot candidate against Porter and Schiff, both fundraising powerhouses. (Schiff had raised about $28 million for the election as of January, to Porter’s $14 million and Lee’s $4 million.)
Lee told me she has had multiple supporters say to her, “‘Barbara, we love you, but Adam Schiff just looks like a senator …’ These are liberal white people. I guess they’re right because, since 1789, there have been three Black women serving a total of ten years.” While Lee’s observation is accurate — after the first debate between the candidates at USC in January, Pelosi declared on television that “Adam was very senatorial” — the dynamics in California aren’t quite so straightforward: After all, if elected, Schiff would be the first white man to represent California in the Senate in more than 30 years. But however much a crude identity-politics frame may not apply here, it’s true that the white man has secured the most cash and endorsements.
Even while trailing her peers, Lee has made a huge impact on the campaign, perhaps especially when it comes to the issue of Israel’s relentless ground offensive in Gaza. In the hours after Hamas’s violent attack on Israel on October 7, both Schiff and Lee immediately hit their marks — Schiff in his unreserved support for Israel and Lee in her instantaneous call for a cease-fire. “When I called for a cease-fire,” she said, “I condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization. I believe in Israel’s right to exist and in Israel’s security. What is taking place is counterproductive to Israel’s security. I still believe in a two-state solution. When you have a path that leads to more anger and violence, how in the world will there ever be peace and security and justice for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people?”
Her message has resonated with younger Democrats: A January poll showed that California voters under 30 supported a cease-fire by 55 to 18 percent. (Among voters over 65, the numbers were nearly reversed, and overall a slim plurality of voters, 41 percent, supported a cease-fire.) At the Democratic Club in December, Lee and I were interrupted by 28-year-old Justin Jones, one of the “Tennessee Three” ejected from his state legislature and then reinstated last year after a battle over gun control. Jones, an Oakland native, had been an intern in Lee’s California office before taking office in Tennessee and is one of the many young Democratic politicians who have endorsed her. He was in Washington to attend White House meetings about gun violence.
“Young people have a lot of moral clarity,” Jones told me. “That’s why you see a lot of support for Congresswoman Lee from young people: because they want someone who has been consistent. I was just telling people about that lone dissenting vote in 2001” — a vote taken days after Jones turned 6 — “and I spoke to a group of Jewish Democrats and I told them the congresswoman has said, ‘Let us not become the evil that we deplore.’ ”
At California’s state Democratic convention in the fall, when much of the debate was about Israel, Lee secured a plurality of delegates’ votes, 41 percent to Schiff’s 40 with Porter lagging behind at 16.
The poles occupied by Lee and Schiff on Israel have left Porter in a no-man’s-land. She first offered a wishy-washy call for “a pause that will allow for the conditions to be set for there to be a cease-fire.” Foreign policy, she said, “is an area where I have done a great deal to educate myself and to learn to engage.” She told me of how she had traveled to Israel, read a lot, talked to rabbis, attended a town hall at her local mosque, and taken a meeting with the Islamic civil-rights group CAIR Los Angeles, in which she explained to them why she would not sign Cori Bush’s cease-fire resolution (because it did not call for the release of Israeli hostages). “It was not an easy meeting,” she said, “but it was very, very helpful.”
When we met in December, she was clearly working through some internal conflict on the issue. When I asked her which voices had been making an impression on her, she abruptly replied, “Young people.” Activists? “My children,” she said. She then described a devoted constituent who has “knocked on a trillion doors for me” but at the convention in the fall voted for Lee. “She’s been a peace advocate her whole life; she protested the Vietnam War. And Barbara’s position feels important to her in this moment,” Porter said.
I asked whether hearing from that longtime supporter made her reevaluate her own position. “I would say, Rebecca, that I ask myself that question about most issues most every day,” Porter said. “It’s not enough for me that this is what leadership tells me to do. It’s not enough that this is the caucus that I’m in. I literally try to think about that every day. And I think that is actually what we want in our representative right now.”
A week after our conversation, Porter altered her stance in a 400-word statement calling for the U.S. to pressure Israel and Hamas to create conditions that would enable a “bilateral cease-fire.” Critics, including the conservative Orange County Register, said her position was confusing, while Politico wrote, “The change of heart also calls attention to how undefined Porter is when it comes to foreign policy, especially compared to Lee, an antiwar icon,” and “Schiff, who has a well-established profile as a centrist on national security.” Lee’s campaign dinged Porter, posting, “A conditional cease-fire is not a cease-fire at all” and “We need leaders who set the pace for change — not half-heartedly follow along when it’s politically expedient.”
At the USC debate, Porter was screamed at by protesters, one of whom described her “bilateral cease-fire” statement to me as “word salad.” The protest’s leader, Estee Chandler of the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, told me, “Some people understand people want to hear the word cease-fire, so they put out a really terrible statement with the word cease-fire in it.” I asked Chandler if she deemed Porter’s statement terrible. “It was insufficient,” she responded. Porter still has not signed on to Bush’s resolution, and the Working Families Party, which has been tracking members of Congress who have called for a cease-fire, has not yet added her name to its list. And while her position has changed, she has not framed it as corrective of her former stance; rather, she regularly insists, “the conditions on the ground have changed.”
All that said, should she make it to the general against Schiff, without Lee to her left, Porter’s move could prove crucial to distinguishing herself from him on an issue that may, should the onslaught continue, prove determinative.
The Prosecutor: Schiff is best known to MSNBC watchers and beyond for managing the first impeachment hearings against Donald Trump in 2019.
Photo: Senate Television/AP
In December, I visited Schiff’s congressional office. His staff chatted kindly with me while I waited for him to return from a vote. I kept wanting to say something about the location of our meeting, about how I didn’t think we were supposed to be having it at his office. But I am not his mother, so I acted chill and marveled at what it must be like to have such assuredness. Enough assuredness that you don’t worry about whether you’re allowed to conduct an interview about your Senate race in your House office. I mean, come on, what was I gonna do? Tell someone?
Talking to Schiff was so different from talking to his Democratic competitors. Where Lee and Porter both worked to adjust their tones throughout our conversations — always conscious of how they might sound, laboring in their own distinct ways to make sure I understood their passions and criticisms — Schiff just talked, effortlessly, in a tone that neither rose nor fell, that did not speed up or slow down; his was the kind of voice that takes up public space, the kind whose angers are rationally received as righteous and whose calm is heard as reassurance and that never hits an off note because actually it hits very few notes at all. It is just a neutral baseline, the face it emanates from round and familiar. Schiff was like a cough drop in human form: soothing, sweet, beige; he offered temporary relief, if nothing particularly medicinal.
“For me, it’s all about where I can add the most value,” Schiff, who is 63, told me when I asked why he was running for Feinstein’s seat but had not run for Boxer’s eight years ago. “When Boxer was retiring, I’d just become the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and had an opportunity to play a leadership role in the House. And I’m very glad I stayed. I had some important work, as it turned out, to do.” Schiff didn’t have to specify what that important work was. It’s impossible to understand his broad appeal outside the context of his prosecution of Trump in the first impeachment inquiry in 2019, in which he became a spokesman for a strain of resistance liberalism whose adherents hung on his every word on cable news.
Schiff grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, where his dad worked, he said, “in the shmatte business.” His family moved to California, and he attended Stanford and then Harvard Law. After six years as a federal prosecutor, Schiff served in California’s state senate while teaching political science at Glendale Community College. He was elected to the House in 2000, where he has served on the Foreign Affairs and Appropriations Committees and was the chair of the Intelligence Committee until being thrown off by Republicans last year as retribution for his tussles with Trump. While I was in Los Angeles, two of his constituents told me Schiff was “a real mensch.”
This race has exposed him to some of the problems plaguing his state as a whole, such as undrinkable water in the Central Valley and the lack of access to broadband experienced by millions outside his relatively affluent district. I asked if he blamed any of that on his own party, which has run his state for decades. “A lot of these areas in California are represented by my Republican colleagues,” Schiff said, pointing to recently ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy. “He’s from the Central Valley, he could have done a lot about these things, but I never heard him talk about the water problems or young people growing up with asthma because of the air quality.”
When I pushed him on whether Democrats had a role in failing these communities, he spoke of Trump’s appeal to struggling people who had become “receptive to a demagogue promising he alone could fix it” and suggested that, for Democrats, “it has to do with how you speak with people. The question I ask everywhere I go in the state is ‘What can I do to help?’ I don’t go there saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do for you.’ ”
Schiff spent his first decade in Congress as a conservative Blue Dog Democrat and is still a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. Last year, as he embarked on his Senate run, he attempted to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus — the farthest-left group in the House, formerly co-chaired by Lee and where Porter has served as a deputy chair — telling Politico at the time that the group is “his natural home” and “where his voting record has been.”
After years of being wary of progressive policy ideas, Schiff in the past few years has come out in support of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, ending the filibuster, and expanding the Supreme Court. In this race, he has forsworn corporate PAC money — a big change, as Porter likes to point out, from his years of accepting millions in corporate donations.
Just as Porter’s slide on a cease-fire is a sign of the power of the movement for Palestinian freedom, it is a tribute to the force of progressive politicians like Lee and Porter, and the ideas they have long championed, that Schiff has felt the need to move in their direction, away from the moderate climes he has inhabited for most of his career. “The circumstances of the nation have changed profoundly,” Schiff said in December of his leftward shift, prefiguring the very language Porter would use some days later to explain her altered position on Israel.
“If you had asked me ten years ago would I support expanding the Supreme Court, I would’ve said ‘no,’ ” Schiff told me. “But then I would’ve never imagined that a Senate leader would withhold an appointment from a Democratic president. I’m now one of the leading advocates in the House for not only expanding the Court but for term-limiting the Court and enforcing a code of ethics on the Court.”
Where Schiff has not moved, and where he represents an Establishment that is drifting ever further from younger, more progressive Democrats, is in his utterly unwavering support of Israel. He attended a Capitol Hill screening of the 45-minute video of footage of the October 7 attack gathered by the IDF, which he described as depicting “a grotesque, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around level of violence. No country could fail to respond to that or allow the terrorist group that committed that to continue governing next door. So Israel has to defend itself, and we should support Israel in its effort to defend itself. At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to see the loss of life among civilians in Gaza.”
Schiff has not called for a cease-fire, he said, “because I don’t think Israel can permanently allow Hamas to control Gaza, nor permanently allow the hostages to be kept hostage. But I have supported humanitarian pauses in the fighting or truces or temporary cease-fires to facilitate the recovery of hostages and to get more aid in and more civilians out.” On the day we met in December, I had just seen some photographs of men — purported to be Hamas militants but looking more like middle-aged shopkeepers — who had been stripped by the IDF, blindfolded, and told to kneel at gunpoint for cameras. The images reminded me of what I had seen of Abu Ghraib.
Schiff said he hadn’t seen those photos, but “I have seen, certainly, the images of the hospitals in Gaza, of the rubble in Gaza, and of grieving parents and grieving children in Gaza. It’s horrifying, and it’s heartbreaking. And similarly, to hear the stories of the hostages and what they went through — the accounts of gang rape and murder are horrifying.”
I asked Schiff whether the mass demonstrations on behalf of a free Palestine have shaken his faith in the U.S.’s ongoing support for Israel. “There has been a quite overwhelming reaction to the war in Gaza,” he said. “A big part of it is mass protests calling for a cease-fire, and a big part of it is an unleashing of very plainly antisemitic behavior. The pinning of swastikas on the synagogue where my daughter went to preschool. The assault of people or harassment of people who are Jewish. There has also been a horrible rise in Islamophobia and a stabbing death of a 6-year-old child, the shooting of Palestinian college students. It’s all horrifying. My perspective is you try to figure out the right approach to an impossible situation and then you just deal with whatever comes. That’s all we can do.”
At the January debate at USC, the Republican Garvey was a disaster, serving up a garbled mess of baseball metaphors and vague enmity for Joe Biden. Lee challenged Garvey to be frank about whether he planned to support Trump’s reelection bid, and Garvey’s evasiveness provoked the Democrats into tag-teaming him. In one excruciating moment, Garvey, asked about homelessness, described his visits to “the inner city,” where he met unhoused people and “went up to them and touched them and listened to them,” to which Lee actually snapped, “I just gotta say, as someone who has been unsheltered, I cannot believe how he described his walk, and touching, and being there with the homeless … Come on!”
Porter was forceful, funny, and passionate onstage. Schiff was calm and authoritative. Lee, perhaps the most inexperienced at debates and thus the most nervous going into the event, persuasively asserted that she had been correct for decades about the AUMF and that she was correct now about Israel: “It will spiral out of control, like I said it would after 2001, and it did.”
It was so easy to look at that stage and again see the picture of three terrifically strong Democratic candidates.
In a spin room afterward, the three stood separately, answering questions from knots of reporters. Lee appeared visibly relieved; she was grinning and relaxed. Porter was laughing, sweating under the heat of the television cameras; it looked as though a fake lash on her left eye might be falling off. Schiff was cool as a cucumber as David Dayen from The American Prospect asked him about Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent rejection of a two-state solution. “The relationship we have between the U.S. and Israel is important,” Schiff said. “It is a state-to-state relationship that needs to transcend who the prime minister is at any given moment. But there’s nothing incompatible with supporting a state’s right to defend itself and also calling for a state for Palestinians.”
I hadn’t planned on asking Schiff a question in this setting, but something about his answer pulled words from my mouth: A state has a right to defend itself, but aren’t there supposed to be limits to how it does so? What if it is destroying hospitals and places of worship and wantonly killing children? What of those who argue that Israel is committing war crimes?
“Of course there are limits,” Schiff responded, the tiniest flicker of impatience flashing on his face as if he were explaining something to a very stupid child. “States need to abide by the international law of war and also by a moral code and make every effort to reduce civilian casualties.” Dayen followed up, asking whether Schiff would sign on to Bernie Sanders’s proposed resolution asking the State Department to initiate a study as to whether or not war crimes were being committed in Gaza. Schiff smiled and — confusingly — nodded as he replied, “No. No, I would not.”
Schiff has often been asked what sets him apart from his Democratic opponents and has been offering variations on the same answer. In the debate, he said, “When our country was threatened by a would-be dictator in the Oval Office, one of us stepped up to the middle of that fight.” To me, he was more pointed in the comparison he drew. “The particular difference is leadership and effectiveness,” he said. “We’ve been through some of the most difficult times in our democracy, and I was in the middle of that fight. I don’t think my colleagues would say the same. And there was no reason why they could not have played a very prominent role also.”
It makes sense that this is Schiff’s line, his sales pitch. His role in the first impeachment is what landed him here, cruising toward a first-place primary finish and then perhaps toward a powerful Senate seat he may well hold for decades. But there’s something just a little off about it.
What seems off probably depends on how you understand what a fight for democracy might entail.
When I relayed Schiff’s analysis of their differences to Lee, she paused for a moment as if to absorb what I had told her. “I’ve been in a big fight since I was 15,” she said finally, returning to how she became a cheerleader. “There was a selection process, and I had to organize and get them to dismantle that, okay? And I tried out. And I won. And I was the first Black cheerleader at San Fernando High and then other girls of color also became cheerleaders. That was a big fight.”
Back in 1972, Chisholm had to scold her into even registering to vote because, as a young person, Lee had felt so alienated by the Democratic Party. “I registered so I could fight within that party,” Lee said. “So that it would become more democratic and more inclusive.” Fifty-two years later, she has led the CBC and the Progressive Caucus. The whole way, she said, “I have fought the party to make sure young people have a seat at the table. I fought to establish a peace caucus in the California Democratic Party. I helped to establish the poverty caucus.” Lee didn’t just vote against the AUMF in 2001; she has pushed to repeal it ever since. (It finally passed the Senate last year and is awaiting a House vote.) She almost single-handedly battled to get her party to step up against the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion inaccessible to poor Americans long before Dobbs. “Democrats, everyone, opposed that fight. But we finally kept it out of the appropriations bill, and I have a bill to totally end the Hyde Amendment. These are fights within the party and within the country, fights that I have led. I am pushing the envelope for people who have been shut out. Those are big fights.”
Lee was on a tear now, remembering the 1990s, when she and Schiff both served in the California state senate and when she worked to limit a three-strikes law that meant that anyone with a third criminal offense, “even for stealing a pizza,” would get a conviction of 25 years to life. Schiff voted against her bill.
These kinds of fights — between partisan allies — are what have hindered Lee’s rise. She has a history of being screwed out of leadership posts, culminating in 2018 when she spent the summer and fall campaigning for the position of caucus chair, which was about to be vacated by New York representative Joe Crowley, who had been defeated in a primary by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just before the election, Hakeem Jeffries, a Pelosi protégé who was being groomed to replace her as leader, challenged Lee for the job. A false rumor spread that Lee had helped the progressive newcomer Ocasio-Cortez in her efforts to oust Crowley, some votes changed, and Lee lost by ten. Jeffries is now minority leader.
For Porter, who grapples in her loud, messy way against corporate interests in politics, health care, and defense spending, the fight for democracy is not just about sticking it to the other side. Far more than the minivan and the Crock-Pot beef, what’s relatable about Porter is her jangling frustrations with both parties’ deference to corporate influence, which she does not work to conceal, whether she’s quizzing a smug CEO on his corruption and immorality or clashing with caucus leadership over governing practices she views as broken.
“It’s actual real thinking I’ve done over my whole career to understand where things aren’t working,” she told me. “It’s not like I get up in the morning and I wear a purple shirt and so I’m spicy. No.” Her “spiciness” is provoked by “corporate Wall Street money and politics with Democrats ceding the economy to Republicans every damn cycle. It has a lot to do with the lobbyists and the revolving door. It has to do with the distance between the typical congressman’s life and the typical American’s life.”
She rejects a partisanship that pits Democrats against Republicans — or, even more perniciously, just against Trump — in part because she thinks simply battling bad guys distracts from the project of having to fight the good guys to do better: “Democrats are losing enthusiasm from the very voters that have built our party — Latinos, working-class whites, younger voters. It’s not enough to just say, ‘Are they going to Trump?’ I don’t give a shit. We cannot fix things like climate change and 50 to 70 years of lack of investment in housing or 50 years of money in politics by winning once. We have to win all of the elections, all of the years.”
Porter expressed to me the vexation she felt at members of her own caucus, at one point growing so angry that she teared up. “We’re in the minority, and they’re all bitching about it,” she said. “So many members of Congress treat election results as something that happens to them, rather than as something that they did. You think it happens to you? What the fuck do you think it is like to be pregnant in Texas right now? You think the Republican majority is hard on us in Washington? What do you think it’s like to live next to a fucking oil derrick, knowing that a bunch more are going to come in and your kids have asthma?”
Pelosi has not taken kindly to Porter’s airing of internal dirty laundry. In a television interview after the debate, Pelosi responded icily to a question about the two having butted heads by asserting that some members “flatter themselves to think I was butting heads with them” but added that she feels “disappointed in how she diminished what Congress had done rather than taking pride for any role she may have had in it.”
Nothing about how Porter fights is contained or modulated or measured. And everything about how Lee has expressed her fury has had to be constrained and polite. So Lee’s remarkable forward-looking influence has been dismissed, and she has been leapfrogged by the leadership of a party she has labored to pull leftward, the same party that slaps back at Porter’s balder style of critique.
In early February, after the kerfuffle over Schiff’s Garvey ad, Boxer reversed her decision to remain neutral in the primary, lashing out at what she called Porter’s suggestion that Schiff is “against women.” According to Boxer, Schiff “has been what we call, as women in politics, a Sir Galahad, side by side with us every step of the way.”
Her endorsement was another sign that, as the primary approached, leadership ranks were closing around Schiff, perhaps from a desire for a quick, clean outcome that would not show off the ever-deepening fissures in the party. Schiff, after all, had been the boss’s choice from the start.
Pelosi, a bullheaded and still potent manager of her party’s present and future, is terrifically precise in how she wields her authority. She rarely makes endorsements, and she backed neither Harris nor Sanchez in 2016. The current field in particular should have been a complex calculation for Pelosi: All three Democratic candidates work in the caucus she headed for 20 years, and this is her state. A lifelong friend and neighbor of Feinstein’s, she goes back ages with Lee, has clashed with Porter, and mentored Schiff.
But as soon as Schiff announced, Pelosi came out fast and hard in her endorsement of him, detonating a political bombshell that has had a huge blast radius. Her early support — along with fundraising and ceaseless arm-twisting in California and Washington — was key to how he has piled up his heap of political and union endorsements.
“She had a right to endorse who she wanted to,” Lee says quietly, shrugging. Pelosi, with whom she has always had a warm relationship, did call her in advance to let her know. Lee smiled at me, a smile that has become familiar in the years that she and I have been talking about politics and power and representation, a smile always meant to convey the thing I’m too young or too white or too comfortable or too naïve to just know. “What can I say?” Lee continues, holding my eye. “What can I say? This is how power works.”
And the way that power works gets to the other thing that’s a little off about Schiff’s assertions that his fight against Trump sets him apart from Porter and Lee. “We all know the facts about how the impeachment managers were chosen,” said Porter. “They were chosen by Speaker Pelosi. There was not an application process or a committee structure for that. I certainly would have been delighted to serve if asked.”
Maybe it’s the way Schiff phrased it to me — the part about how there was no reason his two rivals couldn’t have played as prominent a role as he had against Trump. There is a reason his rivals couldn’t do it, and that is that they began the fight for Trump’s impeachment earlier and more forcefully than Schiff did and that, in doing so, they defied cautious Democratic leaders, Pelosi chief among them.
Lee called for impeachment in May 2019, Porter in June, and Schiff not until September. Even now, Lee is lead plaintiff in a lawsuit aiming to hold Trump, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers accountable for January 6. Porter remembers some of her colleagues warning her, “‘There goes your seat; enjoy your one term in Congress.’ It wasn’t easy, and that’s why it mattered that I did it.”
Schiff, by contrast, was one of the very last House members to concede in 2019 that perhaps there was no choice but to proceed with impeachment hearings, a reluctance that paced Pelosi’s almost perfectly. When he did come around to the idea of impeachment, he talked about it privately with the Speaker, rather than making any statement that would give the appearance of publicly crossing her.
According to the impeachment chronicle Unchecked, by Politico’s Rachael Bade and the Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Schiff not only resisted both impeachment proceedings but clashed with Jamie Raskin and Jerry Nadler on the first inquiry, fighting to limit its scope and keep it tightly focused on Ukraine, rather than expanding it to include investigations into Trump’s emoluments violations, self-dealing, and financial misconduct. (Schiff’s spokesperson disputed the reporting in Unchecked, saying, “It is not accurate to say he resisted either the Ukraine or January 6th impeachments.” When asked about the use of his House office for an interview on his Senate race, the spokesperson said that they couldn’t recall which office we had used and that “the discussion was mostly focused on his past and current legislative work,” which is not true.)
We are still living in a universe in which one kind of fighter gets credited with being right so long after the fact that she’s grown old, and another kind gets portrayed as messy and attention seeking, all while a third politician — compliant with leadership, slow to battle, and just as attention seeking as anyone else — nonetheless enjoys a reputation as a righteous warrior, a mensch, Sir Galahad. It’s a reputation that may secure Schiff a seat with influence over his party well into the future, one that looks deflatingly similar to its past.
What can I say? This is how power works.