Meet the Rising Political Star Behind the Historic Flip of O.C. Congressional District

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Erica Kwiatkowski. Photo credit: Jason Wallis

Erica Kwiatkowski was a driving force behind Katie Porter’s historic flip of California’s 45th Congressional District—and the 29-year-old rising political star is just getting started.

Born and raised in California’s Central Valley, Kwiatkowski began her career with an internship at the State Department in 2009. “Everyone in my bureau was coming in as a recent political appointee in the brand-new Obama administration. Everyone was very excited and fresh-faced; they’d done campaigns for most of their careers. One guy told me, ‘I haven’t officially interviewed for a job in 10 years.’ He’d just gone from race to race.”

While working for Ace Smith’s San Francisco-based firm, then known as SCN Strategies, Kwiatkowski helped tend to clients such as then-Gov. Jerry Brown, then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and then-Attorney General Kamala Harris. “Because I was the only young person in the office, I did a lot of the hands-on work.” Libby Schaaf came to the firm when she decided to run for mayor of Oakland, and Smith gave the project to Kwiatkowski. They won the race, beating out the incumbent. “I spent a lot of time working with her campaign manager on the ground, but I also did a lot of administrative work within the firm, like learning how to do media buying.”

UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter was also a client of the firm and needed a campaign manager. She asked Kwiatkowski to consider applying. “I was in a position where I was in the dream job, but I wasn’t necessarily fulfilled. So I made a drastic decision and moved down to Costa Mesa within two weeks.”

Her game plan? “You start by evaluating the landscape, getting a feel for who the players are, and mapping out your plan. It’s an execution game. Once you set the strategy, you shouldn’t be going off course unless there’s a very explicit reason why.”

Kwiatkowski says she loves managing a budget and figuring out the best uses of people and resources. “A lot of it is personal therapy. Many people have that ‘West Wing’ idea of working in politics, but there’s also the HR grind of doing payroll and processing employee paperwork—the basics of making sure people are happy and healthy, because ultimately, you’re responsible for them.”

She describes Porter’s district—which includes Irvine, Anaheim Hills, Mission Viejo, and places in between—as “the heart of where Orange County families live. People feel safe, they know their neighbors, and it’s very community-driven. There was a lot of talk about health care and the tax bill. They were also interested in campaign-finance reform. It wasn’t about party; it was about standing up to powerful special interests, from pharmaceutical companies to big oil.”

After the campaign ended, Kwiatkowski’s goal was to make sure everyone who worked on it ended up where they wanted to be. “Most people are looking at the next campaigns they’d like to be on, and that’s where I’m heading, too—toward a 2020 race.”

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