Column: Katie Hill woke up a new generation of voters. How will her resignation affect them?
On the eve of the 2018 midterm election, Melainey Foerster, a student at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, was on her way to canvass for then-candidate Katie Hill when her car was T-boned by another driver.
Melainey spent the rest of the day at the hospital, with a severe concussion and some nerve damage to her neck. She was released after midnight. Instead of going home, she asked her parents to take her to Hill’s headquarters.
“Weren’t we supposed to do door hangers tonight?” she asked her mom.
At the campaign office, she was given a lollipop and told to go home. She was still in her hospital gown.
This was the kind of passion that Hill inspired in the 25th Congressional District, which encompasses Simi Valley, Santa Clarita and the Palmdale area. Hill ended up whomping her opponent, veteran Republican Rep. Steve Knight, by 9 percentage points, becoming the first openly bisexual woman in Congress.
A favorite of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hill also became one of the most high-profile members of the blue wave that inundated the House of Representatives last year, flipping it from Republican control to Democratic, and, in the process, making possible the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
Then came a divorce filing, leaked naked photos and texts about her drinking, an admission about a relationship with a female campaign subordinate, an accusation of an affair with a male congressional staffer, her resignation and a painful goodbye from the floor of the House on Thursday that was both apologetic and righteous.
Hill is the victim of revenge porn, of slut-shaming and of the double standard that often forgives men for consensual sexual transgressions but makes women pay.
“We will not be broken,” Hill said. “We will not be silenced. We will rise and we will make tomorrow better than today. … I yield the balance of my time for now, but not forever.”
I was sad to see her go, but happy that she left with her head held high.
I’ve spent the last couple of days talking to a dozen or so of Hill’s constituents and campaign volunteers about the impact her scandal and resignation have had on them.
They are angry and heartbroken.
“We won on ideas,” said Bonnie Nikolia, 34, a mother of four and nursing student. “We didn’t try to dig up dirt on the other opponents, or do smear campaigns.”
Dana Harris, 50, an advocate for children with special needs, said she was stunned by Hill’s resignation, but has been able to use the moment to talk to her 12-year-old son about the perils of the digital age. “I’m preparing him for the fact that girls might send provocative pictures, and you can’t keep that on your phone,” she said.
Elise Levine, 52, a Hill volunteer who lives in Westwood, said when she read that there were hundreds more photographs of Hill, “the only sensible thing” was for her to step down. “I think she was completely railroaded by Republican men,” said Levine, who was disappointed that Pelosi did not fight for the congresswoman. “I don’t think a septuagenarian Catholic like Pelosi could stomach a polyamorous bisexual woman.”
Melainey, who at 17 is still not old enough to vote, was in class at Sonoma State last week when news about Hill pinged on her phone, something about nude photos and texts. She left class and called her mom, who told her what was happening.
“I felt my whole heart drop out of my chest,” Melainey said. “I can’t even describe how upset and sad I was to hear that was happening to her.”
I imagine there are many young women out there who watched Hill’s extraordinary rise, thinking maybe they could even run for public office one day.
“I remember thinking if a young woman from a small town, her first time running, could do something so big, then I could do something like that,” said Melainey, who estimated she knocked on 3,000 doors for Hill.
Now, though, there is every reason to worry, or to be terrified, that behavior that seems normal to teenagers and young adults these days — sending naked selfies, say — could come back to haunt them if they seek careers in the public sphere. All it takes is an angry ex, a sleazy political operative or two and a willing partisan website.
There is a silver lining in this mess: Hill’s fans are determined not to lose the seat to a Republican. Democratic California Assemblywoman Christy Smith has announced she will run in the special election to replace Hill. And so have a bunch of Republicans, including George Papadapoulos, a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, who spent 12 days in jail after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.
“Katie had a gray-area relationship,” said Arcadia elementary school teacher Meghan Curry, 30, who canvassed for Hill. “But literally someone who has been in jail is going to run? Give me a break.”
Marcie Kraft, 60, a Ventura County child custody mediator, has volunteered for both Hill and Smith. “Christy is Katie 20 years from now,” Kraft said. “She’s got the wisdom, the poise, the experience.” Like Hill, Smith is social-media savvy; she has already trolled Papadopoulos with a video posted on Twitter.
“Hey George, welcome to the race,” says Smith, standing in front of a map. “Hey guess what? This is California, and as soon as you can identify my district on here, you let us know.”
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