- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Rep. Katie Hill’s colleagues were uniformly shocked and saddened by the collapse of the freshman star’s political career. But that’s where their agreement ends.
A stark generational divide among Democrats has emerged over what, if any, responsibility Hill should assume for the firestorm that led to her resignation this week, as well as whether the same standards would be applied to a male lawmaker. Some Democrats are also worried about the potential chilling effect on efforts to recruit younger candidates, particularly millennial women.
“This doesn't happen to male members in the same way — revenge porn in this respect. It’s horrific,” said freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), adding that “of course” it will deter some younger women from running for office. “I don't think we’re really talking about how targeted and serious this is. We're talking about a major crime... being committed against her.”
Hill’s situation is complicated.
The California Democrat vehemently denied an improper relationship with a congressional aide, allegations that prompted a House Ethics Committee investigation. But Hill acknowledged an “inappropriate” relationship with a separate campaign staffer. And she faced a barrage of nude photos published on conservative websites — allegedly at the hands of an “abusive husband” — and the threat of hundreds more to come.
Some senior Democrats, who came of age long before the proliferation of cellphone cameras, have privately suggested that Hill should have been more careful. Others have refused to comment on the issue, with some visibly uncomfortable when asked about Hill’s private life.
Democratic leaders have not directly addressed the circumstances of Hill’s resignation or the smear campaign against her to the full caucus since Hill made her resignation announcement. Her departure did come up at a weekly gathering of senior Democrats, which Hill used to attend as the freshman leadership representative.
In the closed-door leadership meeting Monday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflected on what happened as she told senior Democrats that it was Hill’s decision to resign.
“Our darling Katie. It's so sad,” Pelosi said, according to two Democratic sources with knowledge of the meeting. “It goes to show you, we should say to young candidates, and to kids in kindergarten really, be careful when transmitting photos.”
Several other older Democrats, most of whom refused to be quoted, suggested the same advice when asked by POLITICO.
But it’s a starkly different response from many of Hill’s younger colleagues, who are rallying to the defense of one of Congress’ first openly bisexual women as she deals with a vengeful husband who appears to have found a megaphone on conservative blogs.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the few lawmakers publicly declaring support for the embattled freshman, said it stems from the “baby boomer era of judgment” looming over Capitol Hill.
“Frankly, I think it’s a generational issue,” Gaetz said in an interview. “A lot of these baby boomers I serve with don’t understand that millennials, by virtue of having smartphones, have shared stupid moments and regrettable moments for a substantial portion of their lives.”
“We cannot adopt an ethic that some bad thing or embarrassing thing that you’ve done, released through the inflamed passions of an ex, somehow impairs your public service or fitness as a candidate,” said Gaetz, a conservative bomb-thrower who rarely aligns with Democrats.
Hill, who has so far missed votes this week, will give her final floor speech Thursday after the House votes to affirm its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Hill's resignation will take effect Nov. 1, her office announced Wednesday night.
Rank-and-file Democrats have universally mourned the loss of the fast-rising freshman, who was not shy about her aspirations to climb higher in leadership and initially vowed to remain in Congress and cooperate with the Ethics Committee investigation.
But the details of the scandal — leaked text messages about being in a “throuple” and intimate photos where Hill also appeared to hold a bong — were taboo in a body where the average age of lawmakers is 57.6 years and the caucus’ top three leaders are all near 80 years old.
The lack of public support for Hill has frustrated some of her younger colleagues, who argue that other lawmakers have been too quick to cast judgment because of the existence of the private photos and other details of her life, like being in a relationship with a man and a woman simultaneously. Some believe Hill should not have resigned at all.
“I’ve only been here for 10 months, but it’s unbelievable, the kind of scrutiny and double standards that I’ve seen,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), said in an interview, adding that it is particularly difficult for a woman or a person of color.
“This place can be extremely defeating. You’re coming as your unapologetic self. You’re coming as a real person,” Tlaib added. “They’re not ready for people like Katie and I, for people who are different... We needed Katie here and I hope she changes her mind.”
Hill herself warned that younger women may now rethink the possibility of pursuing elected office in an emotional video announcing her resignation this week, as she vowed to “take up a new fight” against the kind of revenge porn-driven attacks she faced.
“There is one thing that I know for sure. I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office. For the sake of all of us, we cannot let that happen,” Hill said in the video, which has been viewed nearly 200,000 times.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of House Democrats' campaign arm, however, is not worried about such a chilling effect. “I don’t have any concerns over it,” the Illinois Democrat said.
Some Democrats say they simply don’t know what to think about the circumstances that drove Hill to resign or whether Hill actually violated congressional ethics rules.
“You know what, I’m not going to talk about that. It’s too personal,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said when asked about Hill’s decision to leave Congress.
Her colleagues might have been more eager to defend Hill against her husband’s smear campaign, if not for accusations that she had a relationship with an aide in her congressional office — a blatant violation of the rules that Democrats passed this year in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
And some have privately questioned why Hill would resign just days after the Ethics panel announced it was launching its investigation, arguing that she could have kept her seat if she did not fear what the committee would uncover.
Hill maintains she did not violate House rules outlawing relationships with subordinates and instead said she chose to resign due to the fear “of what would come next” from this “unprecedented brand of cruelty” at the hands of her husband and the conservative news outlets that published the intimate photos.
This isn’t the first time Congress has dealt with a nude photo scandal. Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.) had nude photos of her and her husband stolen and published by two former aides, both of whom were later indicted. And Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) decided to retire after nude photos he sent to women became public.
But this is the first time lawmakers have had to juggle a nude photo scandal of this magnitude: potentially hundreds of photos that could be disseminated at lightning speed via conservative outlets and spread on social media.
While Hill’s circumstances may be extreme, it is the kind of situation that could become more commonplace as more lawmakers arrive in Washington with an extensive digital footprint, lawmakers and aides say.
Some Democrats also pointed out the contrast between Hill and her fellow Californian, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has refused to resign after he was indicted for using campaign funds to help fund at least five extramarital affairs, including allegedly with congressional aides.
“I would hope that people such as Duncan Hunter, as an example, might follow, and do the right thing in resigning as well,” freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) said of Hill’s decision to leave.
Rouda, like most Democrats, declined to say specifically whether he thought there is a double standard for female and male lawmakers in terms of their private life affecting their political career.
“I’m not sure I would call it a double standard,” he said. “I would call it two standards: The Democratic high standard and there’s a Republican low standard.”
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.