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'My dad was a small-town banker': Why one of Congress's toughest questioners of the big banks says they aren't all bad

Jen Rogers and Ben Werschkul

During her two years in Congress, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) has made a name for herself as one of the banking industry’s biggest critics – outside of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

But she doesn’t necessarily think all banks and their CEOs, whom she’s relentlessly questioned, are bad.

“Oh heck no,” she responded during a Yahoo Finance Presents interview when asked if bankers are just bad.

“I have a lot of respect for what banks do” she said. “Capital and access to capital is really, really important. It is the building block for opportunity in a capitalist economy like ours.”

‘My dad was a banker’

Growing up, Porter got to see firsthand how the wheels of capitalism turn. “My dad was a small-town banker in Iowa. He was a loan officer in community banks,” she said, adding that some of her early memories are actually of repossessing cars with her father.

It’s the outsized importance of banking and bankers that Porter says leads to her holding them to account. “Banks matter. And that's why I hold those bankers to such a high standard, is because they are such an important part of creating opportunity for all Americans,” she said.

WASHINGTON, DC -- APRIL 03: Rep. Katie Porter engages other members of the caucus during the meeting. The "Moms of the House" caucus, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and includes a number of freshman congresswoman who are also moms to young children/teens. The group meets monthly and supporThe "Moms of the House" caucus, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and includes a number of freshman congresswoman who are also moms to young children/teens. They support one another in their day to day reality as working moms. The group met for a breakfast at the Library of Congress.. (photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -- APRIL 03: Rep. Katie Porter engages other members of the caucus during the meeting. The "Moms of the House" caucus, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and includes a number of freshman congresswoman who are also moms to young children/teens. The group meets monthly and supporThe "Moms of the House" caucus, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and includes a number of freshman congresswoman who are also moms to young children/teens. They support one another in their day to day reality as working moms. The group met for a breakfast at the Library of Congress.. (photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

That most important thing, she said, rests on the ability to have competition. “There's nothing, per se, wrong with larger banks versus smaller banks, it's what are they doing with their size.”

She applies the same standard to tech companies as Washington prepares for a possible antitrust suit in the coming weeks against Google, and more actions expected against other technology companies like Facebook.

“We have a system in which we have fewer and fewer competitors, and more and more risk of monopoly power. Capitalism is premised on things like consumers being able to choose, make information-based choices,” said Porter.

After growing up in Iowa, Porter attended Yale and then Harvard Law School, where Elizabeth Warren was one of her professors. Like Warren, one of her close political allies, Porter studied the financial industry before running for Congress. Porter wrote in 2007 about how “mistakes or misbehavior by mortgage servicers undermine America's homeownership policies for all families trying to buy a home.”

[Read more: Trump would be hard to question because he's 'simply not truthful': Rep. Katie Porter]

Porter remains a tenured professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. She is still listed on the faculty there and is described as “on leave.

‘I really wanted to make him think’

One of her 2020 campaign ads discusses “big banks, drug companies, Washington liars, cheaters and scam artists,” and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is among the 8 pictures that flash. The CDC director, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also feature in the ad.

During a tense hearing in 2019, Porter confronted Dimon with a line of questioning he clearly wasn't expecting: How is a hypothetical entry-level JPMorgan Chase worker supposed to make ends meet?

Using an actual job listing, local apartment rates in her district and things like a cost of living calculator, she laid out a potential budget for a single mother that ended with a $567 shortfall and asked, "how should she manage this budget shortfall while she's working full time at your bank?"

"I don't know, I'd have to think about that," Dimon responded during the back and forth.

“I really wanted to make him think,” Porter said. “Part of a job of a CEO is also to shepherd and to safeguard their employees, right?”

In 2019 Porter also had a tense exchange with Timothy J. Sloan, then the president and CEO of Wells Fargo (WFC). Using a Wells Fargo court filing that called some of the company’s promises “corporate puffery,” she asked him if he was “lying to a federal judge or are you lying to me and this Congress right now?”

“Neither,” he responded.

This year, she wrote a letter to Wells Fargo accusing the bank of passing along the costs of their scandals to third parties.

Porter is expected to cruise to reelection this fall and continue her role as a thorn in the side of big banks in the coming years as her seniority grows on the all-important House Financial Services Committee.

Jen Rogers is an anchor for Yahoo Finance. Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

Read more:

How back to school is going for Congress’s only single mom

Trump would be hard to question because he's 'simply not truthful': Rep. Katie Porter

Katie Porter, AOC among House freshmen making their mark by grilling witnesses

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