Rising Democratic star, Katie Hill, resigned from Congress this week after allegations of two improper relationships with staffers. Hill had denied being in a relationship with a male congressional staffer — an allegation which sparked an ethics investigation into the Representative. However, she had admitted she had been in a polyamorous relationship involving a female campaign staffer. In a resignation statement she said her heart was “broken” over the issue and, put blame onto her “abusive husband”, who is widely believed to be responsible for the circulation of ‘revenge porn’ of Hill.
Few deny that Hill was wrong to be in a relationship with a staffer, however more egregious than Hill’s conduct is the way the press have treated the scandal as well as the blatant double standards shown by Hill’s most fervent critics.
More egregious than Hill’s conduct is the way the press have treated the scandal as well as the blatant double standards shown by Hill’s most fervent critics
As a millennial, bi-sexual, women, Hill has faced a triple burden of discrimination; under-valued by the political ‘old guard’ due to her young age, facing heightened prejudice due to her sexuality and, being the victim of a crime — ‘revenge porn’ — which disproportionately impacts women. A quick look at political figures from both sides who weathered a range of scandals shows how those without marginalised identities find it so much easier to overcome scandals; from Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump — who overcame allegations of sexual misconduct, to Ralph Northam (who wore black face but remained as Governor of Virginia) and, Duncan Hunter (a sitting Representative who was indicted in 2018 on conspiracy charges), it’s hard to look at these examples and believe that Hill wouldn’t have had an easier time dealing with her scandal if she’d been a straight man.
If America wants less career politicians it will have to accept that it’s new politicians aren’t going to have perfect records or behave in a consistently polished manner.
Hill had been seen as a rising star within her party, being a member of the ‘Big Six’, described by Politico as, “the highest-ranking freshman Democrats”, who were likely to “rise in leadership” — indeed, some had speculated that Hill — an idealistic and optimistic congresswomen — might one day become House Speaker. However, when Hill was no longer an obvious political asset to the party, she was seen as expendable by a party leadership that can be, at times, unable to appreciate it’s ever-changing base of supporters, which is increasingly young, female and racially diverse.
Clearly, there was consensus among Democratic leadership that Hill needed to resign, with Pelosi saying (following the resignation) that Hill’s position had been “untenable”. Such abandonment of Hill by the party fuels concerns by the it’s frustrated base of supporters that Democrat’s often lack political courage. And, as this issue has unfolded, it has seemed as though Hill’s biggest defenders were not within her own party — indeed, Republican Representative, Matt Gaetz (an avid supporter of the President) offered far more vocal support for Hill than many within her own party.
Gaetz said of Hill that, in spite of their disagreements, she was “always well-prepared, focused and thoughtful” and argued that she was being investigated because “she is different”, in an apparent nod to her polyamorous relationship and bi-sexuality.
The unforgiving attitude of political elites towards Hill reflects their wider misunderstanding of the role identity plays in politics. While many Democrat’s obviously believed the electorate to be unable to look past Hill’s personal life — even as, election analysts continued to rate her 2020 re-election race as ‘likely Democrat’ following the scandal — a wider narrative, formed in no small part by the media, that the electability default is a straight, white man meant that Hill’s position was always going to be more fragile than many of her colleagues.
However, Hill’s 2018 election confirmed that out-dated notions of electability were incorrect. Gendered notions of electability have become all too common in the 2020 Presidential race, with a common sentiment following Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss being that a women can’t beat Trump. However, women politicians have long showed their ability to win competitive races. Former Senators, such as, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill and Mary Landrieu were all able to win statewide races in deeply Republican areas in the era before politics became hyper-partisan. Meanwhile, in the 2018 midterms, Democrat Kendra Horn was able to beat a Republican incumbent in a district Trump carried by double digits and that few thought would very competitive.
Hill’s 2018 election confirmed that out-dated notions of electability were incorrect
Hill, herself, had an impressive performance in 2018, out-fundraising her opponent and, pulling in an outstanding $3.8 million in the three months to September — a figure many multiples of that of her opponent. In November of that year, she went on to win her historically-Republican district by nearly double-digits. She showed Democrat’s that you can be a young, bi-sexual women and win competitive elections and, she showed that embracing your identity can be a strength not a weakness.
Again, few are denying that Hill shouldn’t have been in a relationship with a staffer, however, if America wants less career politicians it will have to accept that it’s new politicians aren’t going to have perfect records or behave in a consistently polished manner. That Democrat’s couldn’t offer a more robust condemnation of the ‘revenge porn’ released of Hill by conservative outlet ‘Red State’ is an affront to their core supporters; many of whom, like Hill, have marginalised identities that makes them disproportionately likely to be a victim of such a crime. Hill, while suffering a clear blemish on her record, was a promising, rising star within the party, who generated much excitement among her constituents, and as much as her departure is a personal loss for her, it is also a loss for Congress and the Democratic party as a whole.