Elected just a year ago, Rep. Katie Hill quickly became one of the highest-profile members of a celebrated freshman class led by Democratic women.
The 32-year-old Santa Clarita Democrat, who was elected to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-San Francisco) leadership team, knew her rapid political rise would mean she was under a microscope: “Any mistake you make is going to be much more noticeable,” she said in an interview with The Times in March.
The harsh glare caught up with Hill Sunday when she stunned her peers in Congress by announcing she would resign. The statement came amid allegations of affairs with a campaign aide, which she confirmed, and a House staffer, which she denied, as well as the release of several intimate photos, which she blamed on her estranged husband and “the brutality of hateful political operatives.”
Hill’s resignation is the first by a woman in Congress in the wake of the institution’s reckoning with the national #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which prompted a new rule last year banning relationships between members and staffers.
She is also the first female member to publicly confront the troubling phenomenon of “revenge porn” —the public release of compromising material by a former partner.
Her decision to resign — just days after vowing to fight on despite a congressional ethics probe — was partly prompted by fears that her husband might have taken other compromising photos and would release them, according to a person close to Hill who did not want to be identified speaking about the matter.
Whatever the reasons for Hill’s decision to call it quits, she had few defenders on Capitol Hill, even though some columnists and pundits opined that she should have held on longer and was being treated unfairly. Hill’s gender and sexuality — she identifies as bisexual — raised immediate questions about whether a double standard is being applied to a female lawmaker.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), whom Hill endorsed for the presidency, said Monday that Hill’s gender is playing a role in the scandal. “Let’s also speak the truth that men and women are not held to the same standards,” Harris told BuzzFeed News. “I mean, look at who’s in the White House.”
Pelosi — who had taken Hill under her wing and helped mentor the millennial lawmaker — on Sunday praised Hill’s contributions to Congress in just 10 months, but also put a strong punctuation mark on her support for Hill.
“She has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a member untenable,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.”
Other Democrats praised Hill for deciding that she needed to step down, contrasting her with Republicans who are still in office amid similar allegations.
Hill “acknowledged her errors in judgment and is resigning because she values integrity, decency, and accountability. I can’t say the same about several of our colleagues,” said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach), who like Hill flipped a Republican-held seat in Southern California last year.
Given that her husband might have more photos, she concluded her best option was to leave office and hope the resignation would disincentivize further releases.
Her husband, Kenneth Heslep, has not responded to requests for comment.
Hill informed Pelosi of her decision to resign on a phone call on Sunday. Sources in both camps said Hill notified Pelosi only after her decision was made and that the speaker did not pressure her — and both described the conversation as markedly sad.
“I would have hoped that she had stayed a little bit longer…. But she had made her decision and that was it,” Pelosi said in an interview with a small group of columnists on Monday. “She just made her decision that whatever was coming at her, she decided that she was going to be leaving.”
Pelosi and Hill had developed a close relationship over the last year that began with Hill defending the speaker to the freshmen class amid calls for new House leadership. Several members have told The Times that Pelosi saw herself reflected in Hill’s tenacity and willingness to volunteer for leadership.
But rank-and-file House Democrats speculated Monday that if Hill hadn’t come to the decision to resign, Pelosi or other Democratic leaders might have encouraged her, given the party’s tough line on sexual harassment allegations.
On Monday, Hill portrayed herself as a victim of “revenge porn” and vowed in a 4-minute video posted on her social mediaaccounts that her new cause would be preventing such attacks on other women.
“My fight is not over,” she said. “I will fight to make sure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced.”
“I’m hurt, I’m angry. The path that I saw so clearly for myself is no longer there,” she said, appearing to grow emotional as she apologized to her constituents. “I never thought my imperfections would be weaponized and used to try to destroy me and the community that I have loved.”
Hill has indicated she is cooperating with U.S. Capitol Police to investigate the release of the photos, a potential violation of California law. The person close to Hill said the lawmaker has “extremely strong” evidence that Heslep was behind it, but declined to share details.
Hill’s video may be an effort by her to control the messaging around why she is resigning, California GOP strategist Mike Madrid said, making the scandal about a spouse releasing embarrassing photos, rather than about an alleged inappropriate relationship with an employee. Resigning her office also ends the House Ethics investigation into whether Hill had a relationship with a staff member.
News of a female member of Congress having a relationship with a subordinate, especially a member of leadership, would divert attention from the impeachment inquiry and undermine the idea that the House has addressed its sexual harassment issues, Madrid said.
“Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership do not need that distraction right now. The stakes are much higher than the CA-25 district,” he said. “Unfortunately this poor woman finds herself humiliated on the national stage and she’s expendable to leadership that can’t afford to lose either of those fights.”
On Monday, Hill retweeted a post from a CNN reporter that a GOP operative has more than 700 nude photos of the congresswoman, but added no comment of her own.
Times columnist Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this report.