California Rep. Katie Hill is learning there are risks and rewards that come with being seen as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new favorite.
Every few years, Pelosi (D-San Francisco) takes a promising new member under her wing and provides them with opportunities not given to most rank-and-file members.
This year, that appears to be Hill, 31, an openly bisexual former advocate for the homeless who is now among the most powerful freshmen House members thanks in part to Pelosi’s support and perceptions that the Agua Dulce Democrat is a younger version of the speaker being groomed for bigger things in the party.
Hill has leveraged it into a coveted position among House leadership, a spot on the whip team and the vice chairmanship of the powerful House Oversight Committee. She’s a regular on cable TV news, often tasked with providing a moderate “new member” perspective on the news of the day. Pelosi has tapped Hill to fill in for her at official events.
In an interview, Hill said she was flattered and humbled by the comparisons to Pelosi.
“She, even more than I ever thought, has become a huge role model to me, and so I definitely take that as a great compliment and something that means there's a heck of a lot to live up to,” Hill said.
At the same time, Pelosi’s mentorship also means Hill has tied herself to one of the nation’s most divisive leaders, a gamble considering Hill will need to get reelected in a once heavily Republican district.
The millennial representative guaranteed herself a spot on the speaker’s radar in November by giving an impassioned defense of Pelosi in the days after the 2018 midterm election, when some Democrats were moving to replace her. When a more senior representative urged new members to vote against Pelosi for speaker, Hill effectively shut down the conversation. She urged her fellow newcomers, including many who had distanced themselves from Pelosi during the campaign, to put aside the “internal strife.”
The moment was a catalyst. In the days following, dozens of freshmen joined Hill in publicly saying they would support Pelosi. “Everybody was like, OK, she [Hill] is going to be a force to be reckoned with,” recalled Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), a Pelosi ally.
Hill solidified a position in Pelosi’s circle by proposing, jointly with Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), to add a second leadership post to represent the unprecedentedly large freshman class. The pair were later elected to those posts.
“You don't wait for somebody to give you something. Then it's not going to happen,” said Hill, who ran one of California’s largest homelessness nonprofits in her mid 20s.
Pelosi was struck not only by Hill’s loyalty — which came before the women had become close — but her leadership skills, those in her circle said.
“Taking initiative is rewarded by Nancy Pelosi,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin). “Katie's just a doer. She doesn't see obstacles where a lot of us might. That's part of her effectiveness. And that sounds a lot like Nancy Pelosi.”
As the only freshman invited to join Pelosi in visiting world leaders at NATO headquarters and the Munich Security Conference in February, Hill was repeatedly introduced by the speaker as part of the next generation of Democratic leaders.
“She likes to tell everybody that she got to Congress the same year I was born, and so it became a total joke on the Munich trip,’’ Hill recalled.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who was on the trip and is a trusted Pelosi lieutenant, said the special dynamic between the women was noticeable.
"It was wonderful to see the interaction between the two, and to see how much the speaker looks at Katie like a younger version of herself," Schiff said.
But the spotlight cuts both ways. Added attention to Hill means greater focus on any missteps, including the usual fumbles of a new member.
“Any mistake you make is going to be much more noticeable,” Hill said. “If I screw up then everyone's paying attention and I'll hear about it.”
For example, part of her duties on House Oversight are to help Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) outmaneuver Republicans on parliamentary procedure. It’s a complex enough job for someone entrenched in the normal operations of Capitol Hill, and one that has occasionally left the freshman floundering to say the right words at the right time under the glare of dozens of television cameras.
At a hearing with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Hill was so eager that she began making motions before Cummings had formally brought the committee out of recess, causing titters in the room.
“Sorry, I’m really excited about my motions,” Hill said with a laugh.
Comparisons to Pelosi — the highest-ranking female politician in the country — only increase the pressure.
“She's the most successful woman, like ever, so I feel like if that's the trajectory people see me on then I've got a lot of work to do,” Hill said
The mix of idolization and intimidation was apparent in November when the incoming lawmaker — exhausted and makeup-less during a layover — bumped into Pelosi at the airport. “I just ran into @NancyPelosi while looking like this,” Hill tweeted, including a photo of herself with a mortified look. “I respect the women who paved the way for me more every day. (Leader Pelosi looked flawless, by the way.)”
Being seen as having Pelosi’s favor also can spur jealousy or resentment from other members. Some privately call Hill “Erica Swalwell,” a reference to Swalwell’s reputation as an earlier Pelosi favorite.
And back home, Hill’s 2020 Republican challengers are already portraying her as too willing to vote in lockstep with Pelosi. In announcing a bid for Hill’s seat, Lancaster City Councilwoman Angela Underwood-Jacobs called Hill “one of Nancy Pelosi’s most strident supporters in Congress.”
Hill says holding leadership positions on Capitol Hill gives her the chance to make sure her constituents’ issues are being heard loudly.
“When I need something, I have the direct relationship to ask for it,” Hill said.
But Pelosi’s support only goes so far. She doesn’t fawn over Hill in public. She opens the door and largely steps back, said former New York Rep. Steve Israel.
“She’s going to facilitate getting you into the room, but she’s not going to dictate the terms or babysit once you get in there,” he said.
Pelosi declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a statement that Hill's district and Congress "are both strengthened by her strong presence at the decision-making table."
It’s an opportune time to be on Pelosi’s bench. After 17 years leading the Democratic caucus, Pelosi agreed last year to step down by no later than December 2022, allowing a new crop of leaders to move up.
As a liaison to leadership, Hill has tried to bridge the divide of the fractious Democratic Party by joining both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the moderate New Democrats Caucus. She’s earned respect and trust in a variety of factions within the party, especially among fellow freshmen, giving her an early start on building the coalitions she would need one day if she wants to lead the party.
Hill acknowledged that she’s interested in moving up into the top ranks of leadership one day. She said she wants to start by seeking the third-ranked position of Democratic whip.
Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s how Pelosi began her rise in leadership.