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Is that Katie Porter or Katie Hill? New California congresswomen keep getting mixed up

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That’s Katie Porter (D-Irvine) on the left and Katie Hill (D-Aqua Dulce) on the right.
(Los Angeles Times)

The 2018 election sent a record number of women to Congress — including two named Katie from Southern California.

One is a mom and former professor who has made a career of consumer advocacy. The other, more than a decade younger, has a history of fighting homelessness.

They look nothing alike, yet Washington can’t seem to tell the difference between Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Rep. Katie Hill (D-Agua Dulce).

Political donations for Porter have gone to Hill’s campaign office. Congressional staffers conflate them in meetings. Reporters mix them up in the hallways and in their stories.

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Social media is where most mistakes manifest. The Victory Fund, a group that supports LGBTQ lawmakers like Hill, who is bisexual, has tagged Porter — who is straight — in social media posts so many times that she jokes that she hopes the group might endorse her, too.

Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) isn’t immune. From the dais on the House floor, she mentioned Hill when she meant Porter on swearing-in day in January.

“It’s constant,” Porter, 45, said during an interview in her congressional office. It got so bad their staffs discussed producing a social media video to help Washington tell them apart.

“Why is this so hard?’’ Hill, 31, said in an interview, recounting how she felt when the confusion first began on the campaign trail. “We don’t look anything alike. She’s a mom. I feel like we’re running on pretty different messages and in totally different places.”

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As more than 100 freshman lawmakers begin to compete to make names for themselves in Washington, Hill and Porter are still struggling to make sure people simply keep their names and faces straight.

The women expressed a combination of frustration and bemusement about why Capitol Hill can’t tackle a problem most elementary schools deal with each year. Katie P. and Katie H. say they have learned to laugh off the confusion, nicknaming themselves the “Katie Caucus.”

Hill expressed empathy with her colleagues, noting that with so many new faces, it is hard to learn everyone’s name in the early months.

“I can’t keep track of other members, so I’m a bit sympathetic to that,” Hill said. “There are plenty of the older white men.… There is no way I would know who [is who]. Please don’t quiz me!”

At the same time they wondered whether subtle sexism was at play.

There are 15 men named John in the House and 14 who go by James or Jim. But it’s the two Katies who keep getting mixed up.

Porter believes it stems from the familiarity many Americans have with using the first names of female politicians, pointing to how often first names are used to speak of Hillary Clinton or 2020 presidential contenders Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“These people have last names. Katie Hill and I each have last names,” Porter said. “This confusion around first names strikes me as a uniquely feminine problem.”

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Porter acknowledged that the confusion at times has been unsettling. “Being constantly confused with another member, it deepens the sense of dislocation and ‘Do I belong here?’” she said. “When you walk into a room and someone says, ‘Katie Hill’s arrived!’ it sort of makes you feel like: Do I not count? But I know it happens to her on the other side, too.”

The problem was particularly acute in 2017, when both Porter and Hill were putting together upstart campaigns to challenge Republican incumbents. They and other Democrats in Southern California began appearing at joint fundraising appearances, putting the two Katies side-by-side at events.

“I think I probably got a little bit more annoyed by it during the campaign because I was, like: How are people going to” remember which one to vote for? Hill said.

There are similarities that compound the confusion. They are both Democratic women from Southern California who ousted incumbents in districts long held by Republicans. They’re both high-profile members with progressive values, such as not accepting corporate PAC money.

But Hill has a more moderate streak than Porter. She’s a member of both a progressive Democratic coalition and a pro-business group. And though they’re both from Southern California, their districts are nearly 90 miles apart.

Their styles are different, too. Porter calls herself a “middle-age, middle-class, minivan-driving mom.” Hill is a millennial and more casual.

Each has become a force in a freshman class with many big personalities.

Porter has developed a reputation as perhaps one of the toughest questioners on the House Financial Services Committee, demanding that the CEO of Wells Fargo explain why his statements contradicted what the company’s lawyers argued in court; and that the CEO of JP Morgan explain the disparity between his salary and his lowest paid workers. She has also spoken out about her own history with domestic violence and on the challenges of raising three kids as a single mom.

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Hill has carved a niche as a party leader of the sprawling freshman class and as the vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, a high-profile perch that has put her near the center of the House’s investigative arm. As a member of Pelosi’s leadership’s team, she’s helped bridge the gap between moderates and progressives in the freshman class.

And they’ve begun working together on policy. Last week, the House approved a bill to reform the IRS that included a provision that would permanently prohibit the agency from creating a system to allow people to file for free, a proposal that could benefit large tax companies such as HR Block and TurboTax. Shortly after ProPublica published a story outlining the fallout of the provision, Hill flagged the article to Porter and they considered gathering support among House freshmen to defy Democratic leadership and block the measure. Ultimately, they settled on a promise from Democratic leaders to help them develop legislation to undo the ban on developing a free filing system.

They’re not the only women in Congress who run into this problem. Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) often find themselves misidentified on social media and in newspaper articles.

“Only on the phone,” joked Baldwin, who is white. Duckworth, an Army veteran, is Thai and uses a wheelchair after losing both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

Katie isn’t even the most common name among the women in Congress. There are five women named Susan (including one Suzan and one Susie).

Like Hill and Porter, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) is a freshman, but she said she hasn’t been mistaken for the other Susans, even her Washington roommate, Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego).

“I’m glad there were no other Susans running in my state when I ran,” Wild said. “I don’t know what the confusion is over Katie and Katie.”

There are examples of men who get confused over their last names. Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), who is close with both Porter and Hill, has been mistaken for Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, another freshman Democrat.

It could have been much worse for the Katies. They might have had to serve alongside the only other Katie ever to serve in Congress: Katie Hall, who represented the 1st District of Indiana in the early 1980s.

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