Katie Porter Touts Clean Campaign Cash. Her Record Isn’t So Spotless.

Katie Porter Touts Clean Campaign Cash. Her Record Isn’t So Spotless.

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In her campaign for U.S. Senate in California, Rep. Katie Porter has worked intently to sell voters on the impression that she is a rare type of politician: one with clean hands.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has never taken a dime from corporate PACs and doesn’t take money from federal lobbyists or executives at Big Oil companies, Big Pharma, or Wall Street Banks,” Porter wrote in one September fundraising email.

During her first congressional campaign in 2018, Porter “pledged not to accept contributions from corporate PACs, Big Oil, Big Banks, Big Pharma, and other special interests who have used their bottomless resources to stack the deck against the American people.”

A staunch progressive who has made her career as an anti-corporate, good-government crusader, this language—echoed in countless fundraising emails and social media posts over the years—channels a key part of Porter’s brand to appeal to California voters who will decide a fiercely fought Democratic primary election.

The record of political purity that Porter is pushing, however, has holes that don’t match up with the unambiguous statements she has made as a candidate for office.

Most glaringly, Porter has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of contributions from powerful people with influence at the highest echelons of Wall Street, according to federal campaign finance disclosures.

One is billionaire investor Seth Klarman, a Republican megadonor turned anti-Trump independent, who donated a total of $13,900 to Porter’s three congressional campaigns. Another is Donald Mullen, the former Goldman Sachs executive who spearheaded that firm’s effort in the 2000s to profit off subprime mortgages, immortalized in the book The Big Short. He donated over $8,000 to Porter’s congressional campaigns.

Ari Zweiman, the founder of New York hedge fund 683 Capital, gave $2,700 to Porter in 2018, while two other officials at the firm have combined to contribute nearly $20,000 to Porter, including a maximum $3,300 contribution from its “head trader” for her 2024 Senate bid.

In June, Porter accepted a $1,000 check for her Senate campaign from a vice president at the lending company LendingClub. Although it offers personal and business loans, the California-based company has shifted to institutional lending and has acquired several banking entities, making it functionally more like a “Wall Street” player than not.

The language in Porter’s messages is sometimes narrow enough—specifying she does not accept money from “big bank CEOs”—that these contributions might technically be passable. On their ActBlue online fundraising page, Porter’s campaign requires potential donors to certify, among other things, “I am not an executive of a big bank.”

Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing


Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing

Michael McCoy/Reuters

At other points, however, Porter has said she refuses money from “Wall Street executives”—even though several of her big donors clearly meet that criteria.

It is true that Porter has taken serious steps to limit corporate influence on her campaigns. Overall, she has relatively paltry support from corporate or special interest-linked entities compared to her colleagues—or her lead opponent in the Senate race, Rep. Adam Schiff, who has sworn off corporate PAC donations for this Senate race but has taken millions from those sources during his 20-year career, as well as from special interests like Wall Street.

A recent Politico investigation found that early in Schiff’s congressional career he steered federal dollars through the earmark process to companies whose PACs or executives had donated to his campaign.

In response to questions for this story, the Porter campaign affirmed the candidate’s record on the issue but did not answer why these substantial donations from Wall Street figures were allowed, given her consistent public commitments.

“Katie Porter is proud of the fact that she is the only major candidate in this race to never have taken a single corporate PAC check and the only candidate to swear off lobbyist donations,” said Porter campaign spokesperson Mila Myles. “Washington works too well for powerful corporations and powerful special interests that can afford high priced lobbyists, and there’s a clear difference in the records of each of the candidates in this race.”

In deep blue California, the Democratic candidates vying to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein are all looking for ways to prove their own liberal bona fides over the others. Campaign finance rules offer contentious ground for Democrats to fight out who is the most adversarial to interests like Wall Street, fossil fuel companies, and the pharmaceutical industry.

But few candidates for any office, much less the Senate seat in California, have sought to make their special interest purity as core to their appeal as Porter has.

A law professor who studied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and specialized in consumer financial protection, Porter has anti-corporate credentials stretching back decades. In 2018, when a wave of Democrats ran for office promising to clean up the swampy Washington politics of the Trump era, Porter was at the vanguard of fusing campaign finance promises to a broader good government message.

In 2018, 2020, and 2022, Porter won difficult races in a purple Orange County district, with pledges of her total independence from special interests at the core of her campaigns. In 2024, she is turning to the same playbook; during the month of September alone, Porter’s campaign sent four fundraising emails in which she touted her pledges to refuse various sources of cash.

“Now that Katie is running to be California’s next U.S. senator (go Katie!), it’s notable that she’s the only candidate in the race who doesn’t take money from corporate PACs, federal lobbyists, or executives from Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Wall Street banks,” one email read.

“Katie Porter is one of just eleven Members of Congress who rejects federal lobbyist money, and she’s the only candidate in this race to do so,” said another.

Phrases like “Wall Street executives” can be conveniently ambiguous for the purposes of pledges like Porter’s. It is true that no big bank CEOs have contributed to her campaign, but some of Porter’s donors are also emblematic of the very practices she has publicly denounced as a politician and is ostensibly trying to distance herself from through her pledges.

Mullen, the former Goldman Sachs executive, is one. After the 2008 financial crisis—sparked by the subprime mortgage fiasco Wall Street tried to cash in on—the actions of Mullen’s team were scrutinized by congressional investigators.

In one internal email from Mullen, unearthed by a Senate committee that probed the crisis, he said “it sounds like we will make some serious money” after one of Goldman’s bets against particular mortgage-backed securities seemed to be panning out. In 2010, Goldman paid what was then the largest federal fine in history—half a billion dollars—for misleading investors over its subprime loan investment products.

After leaving Goldman, Mullen founded Pretium Partners, an investment firm at which he remains CEO. The firm has faced considerable public scrutiny for its practice of buying up foreclosed homes and charging high rental rates to low-income tenants, often while failing to conduct basic maintenance.

One of Porter’s most ironclad promises—having “never” taken so much as a dime from corporate PACs—is one she has abided by, but that doesn’t mean she has a purely clean record on special interest cash.

When Democrats pledge not to take corporate PAC money, they are committing to a specific set of rules devised by the outside group End Citizens United. For the purposes of the pledge, a corporate PAC is one that certifies on Federal Election Commission paperwork that it is affiliated with a corporation.

But big business interests can push their influence in sneakier ways. It’s on that front where Porter’s record gets more complicated than the one she conveys to voters.

In 2019, Porter accepted $5,000 from the PAC for the American Crystal Sugar Company. Technically structured as a cooperative, not a corporation, American Crystal Sugar is still a powerful business entity—it supplies nearly 15 percent of all sugar consumed domestically—with a formidable lobbying practice and political donation strategy it uses to help shape federal agriculture policy in its interests.

Robert Maguire, Research Director at the nonpartisan ethics group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, expressed surprise that Porter had accepted support from the sugar lobby.

“That’s not something you’d want to see in the campaign of someone who’s made those commitments,” he said.

On several occasions, Porter has also accepted contributions from trade group PACs—like the American Council of Life Insurers or the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers—which typically “function as a shield for individual corporate donations,” said Brendan Fischer, executive director of the watchdog group Documented.

Although the corporate PAC pledge has been far less central to Schiff’s campaign messaging, he has also taken donations that might undermine the spirit of the promise, if not necessarily the letter.

For instance, Schiff has also taken $5,000 from American Crystal Sugar, as well as other industry trade group PAC donations. Most notably, Schiff took a $2,500 contribution from the PAC for the Motion Picture Association of America—the trade group for the Hollywood studios—in the middle of the writers’ and actors’ strike in which Schiff portrayed himself as a staunch ally of workers.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who is polling behind Schiff and Porter, has also pledged not to take corporate PAC money in the Senate race, but she has taken money from those sources in her past campaigns.

Experts note that, in today’s political landscape awash in corporate cash, it’s nearly impossible to stay totally clean. Even if Porter herself pledges not to take any corporate PAC money, her coffers are full of donations from other PACs or colleagues’ committees who raise much of their money from corporations. Maguire commended Porter for taking the steps she had to limit the influence of special interests in her campaigns.

Voluntary pledges, like the no corporate PAC commitment, are “mostly symbolic,” said Fischer. “They’re a way for a candidate to signal to supporters that they care about the role of money in politics, and they aren’t accountable to wealthy donors,” he said.

Ultimately, in the race to amass campaign funds to compete in what will be an expensive California primary, these pledges may not ultimately affect Porter and Schiff’s bottom lines, given that they both draw considerable support from online small donors.

“Very often, especially for a progressive Democrat, refusing corporate PAC money is not going to be a huge financial hit,” Fischer said.