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She's captivated millennials. But can 31-year-old Katie Hill capture the seat in this Republican stronghold?

She's captivated millennials. But can 31-year-old Katie Hill capture the seat in this Republican stronghold?
Congressional candidate Katie Hill, center, with husband Kenny Heslep, left, and Evangelina Garcia, of Palmdale, at the Hellenic Center in Lancaster on Sept. 10. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Predicting how well a candidate will fare in an election by the number of supporters she turns out at a debate with her opponent is probably a fool’s game.

But sometimes, you just get a feeling.

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When I arrived at the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce-sponsored congressional debate on Thursday, the line outside the Chimbole Cultural Center was about 250 people long and growing.

People wore Katie Hill T-shirts. They wore Katie Hill campaign pins. It seemed like everyone who had turned out on this mild-September evening in the high desert was there to cheer on Hill, a telegenic 31-year-old who has captivated such millennial-obsessed outlets as Vice, and legacy media like the New Yorker.

Hill has run a homeless services agency, is married to a man, identifies as bisexual, and it appears, has a good shot at unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, a former LAPD officer who is a generation older and speaks in the flat vocal tones of Sgt. Joe “Just the facts, ma’am” Friday. (During the debate, he even used the phrase “1-Adam-12” to describe his law enforcement background.)

As I walked along the line, I asked, “Is anyone here for Steve Knight?”

People shook their heads.

If Hill and other Democrats in a handful of California’s traditionally Republican districts win this fall, the House of Representatives will change color.

If Hill wins, she will not just be the first Democrat in a quarter-century to represent her district, she will be the first woman, ever.

So maybe things are changing.

Then again, reading the headlines, maybe not.

::

I’m not in the habit of quoting Yogi Berra, but is there a woman alive this week who did not get the feeling that when it comes to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it’s déjà vu all over again?

So much has changed in the past quarter-century, since Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testified before an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had hounded her and sexually harassed her when she turned him down as a romantic partner.

“Tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all these instances,” then-committee Chairman Joe Biden asked.

“In fact, he never did ask you to have sex,” said then-Sen. Arlen Specter. “How reliable is your testimony … on events that occurred eight, 10 years ago?”

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“Are you a scorned woman,” asked then-Sen. Howell Heflin. “Do you have a militant attitude? … Do you have a martyr complex?”

Hill was impossibly calm. “I guess one really has to understand something about the nature of sexual harassment,” she told the senators. “It is very difficult for people to come forward with these things.”

Buoyed by outrage, women entered Congress the following year in unprecedented numbers. Why, in the Senate alone, their number tripled! (Sounds great, except when you do the math and realize they went from two to six.)

The past two-and-a-half decades have seen a steady increase in female representation in our Congress. And hey, a majority of American voters chose a female candidate as their commander-in-chief in 2016.

These days, there are four women on the Judiciary Committee — all Democrats. This week, we will get a chance to see how much has really changed, when the Judiciary Committee will once again hear testimony from a woman charging a Supreme Court nominee with sexual misconduct.

But I can tell you, from all the commentary and craziness that erupted after Christine Blasey Ford came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were in high school, the #MeToo movement has failed to educate the people who need its lessons most.

Anyone who asks seriously why it took so long for Ford to step forward is being disingenuous or hasn’t been paying attention.

::

Inside the Palmdale auditorium, Hill and Knight stood onstage, behind lecterns. Antelope Valley Press Publisher Mike McMullin moderated what had been advertised as a debate, but which in reality was a series of questions and answers, with almost no interaction between the opponents.

Hill provided the only lively moment, when, horrors!, she tried to rebut Knight out of turn.

“During these two debates,” Knight told Hill. “I have heard a lot of things about ‘Republicans are bad, Republicans have done this.’ Remember Republicans are about 40% of who you will be in charge of if you are elected.”

“I am not talking about Republicans,” Hill interjected. “I’m talking about Republicans in Congress.

“Please don’t interrupt,” said McMullin, foreclosing the possibility of anything approaching conflict.

So, Knight was able to paint a rosy view of the 25th Congressional District where, he claims, the economy is booming and there are “more jobs than people to fill them,” which elicited gasps in the hall. “Where?” I heard one person exclaim.

Unchallenged, he was able to portray himself as a champion of bipartisanship, a believer in Roe vs. Wade as settled law, and a proponent of healthcare and immigration reform.

In fact, he is avidly anti-abortion, having voted to outlaw the procedure after 20 weeks. He voted to repeal Obamacare, and to penalize so-called sanctuary cities. He once described Social Security as a “bad idea.” When he was asked how to curb gun violence, he suggested that more attention be paid to mental health, and that gun owners must learn to be more responsible.

Hill, for her part, had a grimmer view of the Antelope Valley, where 1 in 5 live below the federal poverty line, unemployment is twice the national average, and more people are still underwater on their mortgages than anywhere else in Los Angeles County. (The district also includes parts of Simi Valley.)

Onstage, Hill was as personable as Knight was buttoned up. She disclosed that she had become unexpectedly pregnant at 18 (by the man to whom she is now married). She planned to keep the baby, but had a miscarriage. At any rate, she said, the government has no business interjecting itself into a woman’s decision.

I could not help but think there was some subconscious bias in McMullin’s questions. For instance, he asked Knight to name his proudest achievement in Congress, then asked Hill, who ran PATH, a $50-million homeless-services organization, why anyone should vote for “someone who has no experience in Congress.”

And then it hit me: A man with no experience is an outsider.

A woman is just a greenhorn.

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Later, Hill told me she thinks questions about experience are “gendered.” I don’t disagree.

In the moment, though, she answered gamely: “I think we can all see that Congress isn’t working. Do we really want people who have that kind of experience to continue to go back and do a bad job? I mean, I think that speaks for itself.”

The audience, which wasn’t supposed to, erupted in cheers.

Cheers are not dispositive. But I just have a feeling about Hill.

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