What the Katie Hill Saga Tells Us About Power

Democratic congressional candidate Katie Hill (CA-25) smiles while meeting supporters at a campaign Halloween carnival on Oct. 21, 2018 in Lancaster, California.

Source Mario Tama/Getty

Why you should care

The California congresswoman's fall isn't about sex — or sexuality — but the abuse of power.

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The term “abuse of power” gets tossed about in Washington with growing frequency these days, but in the case of Katie Hill, it’s a label fitting for just about everyone involved.

It applies to how the 32-year-old freshman congresswoman, who announced her resignation Sunday, treated subordinates in her (admitted) sexual relationship with a campaign staffer and her (alleged but denied) relationship with an official staffer. It applies to whoever leaked explicit photos of Hill — she’s pointed the finger at her husband, Kenny Heslep, whom she’s in the process of divorcing. And to the media outlets like the British tabloid Daily Mail that published leaked nude photos for the world to see. For the first member of Congress to be tripped up by new rules put into place for the #MeToo era, there’s abuse as far as the eye can see.

Her resignation — Hill was unclear when it would take effect — sidesteps an ethics committee investigation into the alleged relationship with a staffer in her congressional office. Such relationships were banned in 2018 after a slew of House members and senators were forced to resign for inappropriate sexual behavior. But it also ignited a new debate about double standards, amid a focus on how Hill was treated differently for being bisexual and in a polyamorous relationship.

“I made this decision so my supporters, my family, my staff and our community will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives,” Hill said in a video posted by her campaign.

A Texas native, Hill grew up in California and began her career as a policy advocate for a nonprofit focused on homelessness in California (CNBC has reported that Hill’s husband also worked at the organization, where Hill held senior positions, according to documents in the divorce proceedings). In her first run for office, she knocked off Republican incumbent Steve Knight, becoming an instant star as part of the female-led wave leading Democrats to take the House in 2018. She became one of the leaders of the freshman class and netted influential committee appointments. She was a magnetic star on the rise from the state that dominates Democratic politics.

Her fall was incredibly swift. Earlier this month, intimate photos with a campaign staffer emerged in the conservative news site RedState and the Daily Mail. The woman was at the time a recent college graduate, according to the Associated Press (she has remained anonymous). RedState also released text messages it claims were exchanged between Hill and the campaign aide in an article titled “CA Rep. Katie Hill Allegedly Involved Female Staffer in 2-Yr ‘Throuple’ Relationship.” Hill has acknowledged that she had a polyamorous relationship with her husband and the campaign aide.

Hill has pointed the finger directly at Heslep, who filed for divorce in July 2019. Hill has also said the photos are “revenge porn” — the distribution of sexually explicit or intimate images without that person’s permission — which is illegal in Washington, D.C. Hill has contacted the Capitol police, who are investigating. One GOP operative has claimed to have more than 700 photos and other pieces of evidence.

Hill could have fought this out and had plenty of backers — including from unlikely corners.

As the situation unfolded, Hill saw that it was best to “get on the off-ramp” and resign quickly, says Bob Mulholland, a Democratic campaign strategist in California. Making this move quickly means that the special election for her swing seat outside Los Angeles could take place on the day of the presidential primary in March, likely meaning a strong turnout for Democrats, Mulholland notes. Hill’s actions show that she prioritized the fate of the party in California and her district over her personal career, he argues, in contrast to San Diego-area U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who’s been indicted for misusing campaign funds but has refused to resign.

Hill could have fought this out and had plenty of backers — including from unlikely corners. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who is one of Donald Trump’s chief congressional allies, offered public support last week.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, praised Hill after the freshman’s resignation, but added that her actions “made her continued service as a member untenable.”

The political chatter and media coverage of this whole incident has disproportionately called attention to Hill’s sexuality. “Throuple,” “photos,” and “uncensored,” were top Google search phrases associated with Hill’s name, as Madeleine Aggeler pointed out in The Cut.

But if the #MeToo movement has taught us nothing else, it’s that in these kinds of situations you need to look at what sex serves as a proxy for. Like most everything else in Washington, this is about power: Who had it, who misused it and who will pay for it in the end.

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