Congresswoman Katie Hill’s communications director called as I was driving back to L.A. from Palmdale following my second meeting in two months with the 25th Congressional District’s freshman Democrat. It was a weird call.
Why, the press person wondered, didn’t I ask Hill more policy questions? This puzzled me. I told her that our conversation had been largely about the issues and that I’d have dug deeper into the congresswoman’s record and policies if Hill’s staff had been less parsimonious about the time they’d allotted for the interview. With my spin-alert radar buzzing ever-so-slightly, I said I’d be eager to talk again about whatever Hill wanted.
That was in late August, a few days after Hill’s 32nd birthday. Her office didn’t exactly keep my phone vibrating. I filed the story—a combined profile of Hill and Katie Porter, Southern California’s other freshman congresswoman.
Then, in mid-October, “throuple” pole-danced into the political lexicon. Hill had become entangled in an updated version of an old-fashioned sex scandal. These, of course, have bedeviled American politicians at least since the husband of Alexander Hamilton’s mistress blackmailed him in the 1790s to keep the affair secret. This time there was a photo, of Hill, sans clothing, gently brushing the hair of a 22-year-old campaign aide who sits between her legs on the floor. It was apparently shot by Hill’s estranged husband and partner in the threesome. Then there was his allegation, which Hill denies, that the congresswoman was having an affair with her young, male legislative director.
Hill has not responded to my messages and calls since the sleaze began oozing, but a spokesperson said in an email that the congresswoman was “informed by many sources that there were 700-plus more personal text messages and photos provided to local Republican operatives. Since many of the photos already released were not ones she even knew existed—they were taken without her knowledge or consent—it became impossible to determine what was coming next, and clear that this coordinated attack was too much of a distraction given all of the critical work that needs to be done.”
Hill resigned on Sunday, October 27, less than a year after her election. On Thursday she gave a fiercely defiant, apologetic speech on the House floor, saying in part: “I’m leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.” Her departure left the door open for the Republican opponent she narrowly defeated to hint that he might run again, and leaving her constituents to rethink just what it means to live in a “swing district.”
Southern California’s freshman congresswomen, already known in D.C. as “the Katies,” had jet-skied the 2018 “blue wave” into Congress, defeating incumbents in two disparate Republican strongholds on Los Angeles’ outskirts. Porter had already captured my interest by publicly de-swaggering such dissimilar Big Dogs as JPMorgan Chase’s Jaime Dimon and talk show host Bill Maher. I was also curious about Hill because I wanted to understand why some of my Los Angeles Democrat friends had been so eager to get her elected that they repeatedly schlepped up the 14 freeway to Lancaster to help her take the traditionally conservative district away from incumbent Republican Steve Knight. Porter and Hills’ similarities and differences intrigued me. What fascinated, though, was the question of what it must be like for such political neophytes to seize power at such a strange moment for democracy. A first term is always going to be disorienting. For the 116th Congressional class it’s been a tumble through-the-looking glass into a realm of unparalleled peculiarity.
On the right hand, Donald and family run the country like a reality show directed by Salvador Dali. On the left, three initials and her social media-savvy “Squad” fist-pump for an insurgency that befuddles many old school Democrats. Theirs is the first congressional class to take office in the wake of a presidential election compromised by foreign meddling. They are the first freshmen to try to run a country amid a 24/7 Twitter mudslide of Mueller-gates, family separation-gates, Ukrainian Whistleblower-gates, abandon-the-Kurds-gates, G7-at-the-Trump-Doral-gates, and whatever other-gates the administration has sprung upon America since this story posted. And, if you can remember back that far in their time-warped tenure, Hill and Porter started their new jobs during the lengthiest federal shutdown in history.
On that desert-hot August afternoon I had asked Hill what it was like to try to learn to govern amid such upheaval. We were sitting in a back room of her new Palmdale district office, in a strip mall that looks across a busy thoroughfare to open acreage swarming with Joshua trees. There was a framed photo of a fighter plane on the wall and a Monster energy drink at her feet.
“This,” Hill said with a smile that in retrospect may have been more wistful than whimsical, “has been the longest shortest year that you could ever have imagined.”
Born in Abilene, Texas, Hill grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley town of Saugus. Her dad is a police officer; her mom an RN. She graduated from local public schools, went to community college and on to earn a BA in English and a Master’s in Public Administration from Cal State Northridge.
The 25th Congressional District ranges from the cop-haven tract home suburbs of Simi Valley through the rugged horse-ranch terrain of Agua Dulce—where Hill had lived with her husband, Kenny Heslep—to the tumbleweed-strewn Antelope Valley whose residents, while gradually tilting Democrat, are still more likely to own Glocks than gelato makers.
When word got out that the young director of a homeless-advocacy non-profit was running for a seat held by incumbent conservative Steve Knight, Trump-obsessed Democrats from Santa Monica and La Canada, who’d only passed through Lancaster on the way to snowboard Mammoth, scribbled checks and stampeded up the 14 freeway to join the crusade against one of the last Republican representatives in L.A. County.
Hill, who came out as bi-sexual in high school and chose the online site PopSugar to confide that after a miscarriage she’d “started sobbing with simultaneous tears of relief and sadness and guilt,” lead her campaign with youthful exuberance. And confidence. A VICE “documentary” crew shadowed the LaCroix-chugging Hill team’s effort. In one scene, Hill says, with the faintest vocal fry, that hers is “the most millennial campaign ever.”
The 2019 class has more women and people of color than any in history. Hill quickly persuaded its 67 members to elect her its co-leader, giving her a regular seat at leadership meetings with the likes of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, (D. Md) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Hill described herself as close to the center of the Democratic spectrum, between representatives from districts in which Trump won hugely and representatives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and her Squad of high-profile progressives: Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
In a moment of conversation that now sounds like foreshadowing—as if Hill sensed Pandora’s box was about to spring open—she wrestled with my teasing question about whether she’s jealous of the attention those also newly minted Congresswomen receive.
“It’s very easy to vilify someone when they’re objectified.” —Katie Hill
“It’s tough to be in the spotlight like that,” she said. “It’s very easy to vilify someone when they’re objectified. The right wing did it to Nancy Pelosi for years and years and years. They did it to Hillary Clinton and now they’re doing it to the Squad. That’s just what they do. For me, I don’t want to be that person, because I actually believe that not having that spotlight front and center allows me to get more done. You’ll see me jumping to their defense because I know them as humans.”
As part of her crash course in negotiating the changing world she was helping to govern, in August Hill traveled through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and then to the border of Mexico and the United States, where so many immigrants from those countries head. Where the U.S. imprisons children separated from their parents. But the stories that lodged most deeply in her mind were the tales of rampant violence and malfeasance and officials who ignore or encourage it. She heard one word in the context of this corruption so often that it stuck in her mind: “Impunity.”
“I couldn’t help but think about it in the context of our own government,” she said.
Hill’s grilling of Michael Cohen, as vice-chair of the House Oversight Committee, helped pin down Trump’s former attorney on the president’s role in alleged coverups. Her membership on the Armed Service Committee, she said, gave her a closeup view of the tumult caused by the incessant turnover of political appointees the president has fostered. For much of her term she refused to call for Trump’s impeachment, saying “we’re only going to have one shot at this and have to get it right.” Then word broke of Trump’s calls to the president of Ukraine. On September 24, Hill issued a statement calling the impeachment investigation, “what the Constitution, my constituents and my conscience demands.”
History was in the making but votes are in the district, and Hill was seen as a “frontliner” whose reelection in 2020 was far from guaranteed. Hill’s congressional website proudly boasted that “constituent support” was her biggest accomplishment. “Maybe you’re not going to be able to pass sweeping health care reform in your first year in Congress,” Hill said. “But you can help someone with a social security settlement that’s going to change their life…That’s pretty cool.”
In June, I had watched her and her posse of young, female staffers hustle from a military scholarship ceremony at Antelope Valley College to a graduation awards event at Quartz Hill High School. At one point, a local deacon intercepted her and seemed hurt that she couldn’t instantly pick up a line of conversation that began months earlier on the campaign trail. “Remind me,” Hill said. “I spoke at lot of churches last fall.” The pleasant but dutiful response fit with a mental note I’d made watching Hill’s interactions with veterans, students, and others. She seemed chipper and determined but not particularly warm. I wondered if she thought dropping her guard would make her seem vulnerable. Which made me ponder the differences between Hill and Porter.
If Katie Hill grabbed a political opportunity and—with a major investment by California’s progressive establishment—rallied support around her youth, Katie Porter, who turned 45 on her first day in office, seems to have been born into a storyline that in an odd way leads slowly but inexorably to the surprising chapter she’s living.
On a summer morning in Irvine, Porter invited me to ride in her minivan from one event to the next. “Gotta move these flip-flops,” she said, tossing a flimsy pair over her shoulder into a middle row that had not recently been vacuumed. As she wheeled out of the parking lot, the car in front of her 2008 Toyota Sienna planted itself in the exit lane. Porter started to do what any Southern California carpool mom would do. Then balked.
“One of the things you don’t think about when you become a member of Congress,” she said, “is that you can’t honk at people anymore, no matter how much they deserve it.”
Porter’s 45th district covers a booming swath of south-central Orange County. To the northeast it runs along the chaparral foothills that developers have covered with look-alike McMansions and the big box shopping sprawl that follows. To the southwest it parallels the Pacific shoreline without ever touching it, from parts of Santa Ana to Laguna Hills.
Porter’s first stop on this summer visit to her district was with the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. She got started by showing about fifty business types a video from her growing catalog of famous confrontations. In this particular hearing in May, Housing Secretary Ben Carson inexplicably confuses one of the financial terms she’s grilling him about—Real Estate Owned-properties (REOs)—with creme-stuffed cookies: “Oreos.“ Snark and visual memes flooded the Internets.
Porter’s sudden fame among those addicted to political theater probably has much to do with her demeanor. There is nothing threatening about this political newbie and former Girl Scout leader, who still speaks with an occasionally squeaky touch of Midwestern twang. Until there is.
Watch as she sets up a question at one hearing. The scene she creates is of a hypothetical single California mom seeking a quick loan because her car has broken down and she needs it fixed to get to work. It’s only natural that Kathy Kraninger, a perfectly put-together Beltway insider who runs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, should offer a condescending little smile at the demure Porter’s simple question: “What’s the APR gonna be?”
The bureaucrat, of course, is determined not to answer. It appears that she, like so many Beltway pros, might get away with running out the clock with rambling spin.
Porter’s not having it.
Chin down, eyes beseeching as if over bifocals, Porter twice attempts to interrupt the witnesses’ smug obfuscation. The third time her still-soft voice conveys such blistering authority that it’s impossible not to grimace; hard not to pity Kraninger—and every opposing counsel or sluggish student who ever faced this constitutional law professor in a courtroom or classroom. When the director finally blanks on the question, Porter raises the consumer law textbook she authored and offers to send her a copy.
If there were an IMDb for viral video political stars, Porter’s credits would include:
- Stole show at congressional hearing by grilling JPMorgan’s Dimon, asking the highly compensated executive how he would balance the monthly budget shortfall of a hypothetical single mom who makes a wage of $16.50 an hour at his bank.
- Stole show at congressional hearing by demanding that Equifax CEO Mark Begor say whether he would reveal to the representatives and a C-Span audience the sort of information that his company’s attorneys had recently said posed no risk following a security breach that exposed such information of about 150 million of its customers (his answer was “no”).
- Stole show, in October, by pummeling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his apparent hypocrisy in guarding user’s privacy – although she also tested the line separating tenacity and grandstanding by browbeating the head of a company that earned over $5 billion in the last quarter of 2018 and employs more than 33,000 people about whether he would commit to spending an hour a day of his time monitoring his platform for disturbing content.
Porter’s June appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher led to what Rolling Stone called “a pure mic drop moment.” First Porter adeptly mocked Joe Biden’s fumbling over his early endorsement of the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment. Then she went after Maher himself when the host confided that his mother had almost aborted him. “Well Bill,” she said sweetly, “your mother made the choice and we are here with the consequences of that choice.”
Porter seems discomfited by questions about where she got the acerbic sense of humor that distinguishes her in this age of “that’s not funny.” She can also just as effortlessly deploy disarming empathy. Listening to a staffer at Children’s Hospital of Orange County describe the facility’s approach to emotionally disturbed children, she abruptly drew the woman in for a hug, tears flowing. Later, she said that her family—like many—has not gone untouched by mental illness. Acknowledging personal suffering is a political asset, not a flaw, she said, adding that she’s perplexed by congressional colleagues who seem oblivious to people’s basic problems.
“I haven’t had every struggle, but I have gone through some things and being willing to share those things and draw on those experiences is important.” —Katie Porter
“I don’t know what sparkly star they walked under their whole life that they have never had to struggle or that they have forgotten what that felt like. I haven’t had every struggle. I don’t know what some of my constituents are going through. But I have gone through some things and being willing to share those things and draw on those experiences is important.”
She ties her transparency to being a sixth-generation Iowan.
“There’s a great deal of retail politics that I grew up seeing,” she told me. “You don’t win Iowa without shaking the hands of farmers, of seniors, of high school kids in the FFA. I come from a background where you have to look people in the eye and make a connection with them and tell them a story.”
Hers begins in Fort Dodge, Iowa, a farm town that today has about 25,000 residents—fewer than lived there when it was still a meatpacking nexus and her father was a farmer-turned-banker. When she was a toddler, her family moved to a farm south of Winterset, Iowa and raised cattle and grew corn and soybeans, but never had a lot of money, she said. So her mom drove 120 miles a day to and from Des Moines to work for the publisher of Better Homes and Gardens. Her dad did most of the hard work on the farm, leaving her to tag along with her grandfather. She enjoyed bottle feeding orphaned calves and counting the 100 or so cows in the herd: “I used to love to use the sharpies to write the number on the cattle tags.”
School, on the other hand, bored her. In 7th grade she took the SAT and “did better than most high schoolers.” As a result, she got into a program at Iowa State University where she received “enriched” schooling in exchange for being a guinea pig in experiments on gifted children. That led to a scholarship to Andover and the prestigious East Coast boarding school proved a springboard into Yale and then Harvard Law, where she became Elizabeth Warren’s teacher’s pet. Along the way Porter taught 8th grade and eventually went into law, ultimately taking a teaching job at UC Irvine.
When political seers began to suggest that the 45th Congressional District might not be the GOP stronghold it had always been, she jumped into the primary. Then — note the resonance – details of Porter’s estrangement from her husband leaked, including the fact that she’d obtained restraining orders alleging domestic abuse. The two are now divorced and living far apart in what sounds like a stable truce. During another cramped ride in the backseat of a staffer’s car, a photo of a tanned, bare-chested surfer popped up on Porter’s phone. “Oh that’s my boyfriend,” she said, adding with a smile and no explanation: “He’s frustrating.”
No relationship, however, can be as frustrating as the one she has or doesn’t have with the man who is arguably the most important in her life: Donald Trump.
In July, Porter told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that Trump’s assertion that he has “the right to do whatever I want as president,” would earn him “an absolute F” in her classroom.
In our rolling conversations she easily cited a litany of ways in which she thinks the president has abused his power and defiled the prestige of his office. But it’s what she characterized as his undermining of the rule of law that that seems to bother her most. Many Americans, she said, are so confused by Trump’s actions that they don’t even realize that the balance of powers between their government’s three branches is wobbling dangerously. “That’s why this [moment] has this looking glass quality, she said.
“People felt passionately about the Iraq War or the Gulf War but they didn’t have this kind of anxiety, this kind of fear, and it’s because the institutions of democracy are being attacked,” she added. “I’m trying to help my constituents and the American people understand that. We’re talking about how the fabric of American democracy hangs together.” In June, Porter, who sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, came out in favor of an impeachment investigation. She said she would welcome the committee joining the inquiry, “and the opportunity to conduct aggressive fact-finding.”
Witnesses must be squirming.
Just before my August meeting with Hill, I Googled upon a story on a conservative website reporting that Hill and Kenny Heslep were getting a divorce. Hill’s campaign materials had featured vertigo-inducing images of the seemingly happy couple, roped in and scaling cliffs, apparently in the famous Vasquez Rocks area of her district. In campaign interviews Hill had discussed a massive hospital bill that hit her healthy-looking rock climber husband when he was between insurers, calling it one reason she became passionate about health care reform. They seemed to be in love.
I asked what went wrong.
“There’s nothing that can put more strain on a relationship than running for office,” Hill said. “We got together when we were very young. I’m grateful for the great parts of our marriage.”
“I feel creepy having to ask,” I said. “Amicable parting?”
“I think divorce doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in people,” she said. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a peaceful parting.”
It was anything but.
Hill has publicly blamed a vengeful Heslep and right wing media for the swirl of events that flushed away her success. Weeks after the divorce story surfaced, another conservative website, RedState, released the photo of Hill with her young campaign staffer and the allegation that the representative had had an affair with her young legislative director. The story was written by the site’s deputy managing editor, a woman who, in an egregious breach of mainstream journalistic ethics, is also a consultant who’s worked for GOP politicians.
Still, Hill had a problem. If an affair with a campaign subordinate ten years younger was improper, the alleged affair with a government staffer was, if it had occurred, a violation of congressional rules put in place at the peak of #Metoo. The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation. Hill adamantly denied the affair but acknowledged the throuple. “I know,” she said in a statement, “that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgement. For that I apologize.”
Soon, though, other outlets posted compromising shots of Hill—including one of her nude and holding a bong—along with alleged screen grabs of tweets and texts suggesting that she and Heslep had once practiced quite the polyamorous life together. Hill was under siege. “Having private photos of personal moments weaponized against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy,” she said. “It’s also illegal, and we are currently pursuing all of our available legal options.”
And still, she resigned. And hired a powerhouse PR firm she’d used during her campaign. In her final seven-minute speech on the House floor, made just after she cast her historic vote for impeachment, Hill railed against “the dirtiest gutter politics I’ve ever seen….A large segment of society that fears and hates powerful women have combined to push a young woman out of power. Yet a man who brags about his sexual predation, who has had dozens of women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault…sits in the highest office in the land.”
California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter is still in office, even as he and his wife face 60 criminal charges.
Progressive commentators have been quick to pick up on Hill’s messaging and rally to her defense, decrying her resignation as the result of a “homophobic, slut-shaming” travesty and a sickening reflection of America’s sexist double standard. They have a point. California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, for example, is still in office, even as he and his wife face 60 criminal charges, including allegations that he misappropriated money to fund affairs with five women.
Others, and not just on the right, wonder how Hill could have been so politically naïve; how she can set herself up a victim’s victim after violating such a key piece of progressive dogma: That a subordinate can never truly offer consent.
In our conversation in August, Hill said that only “men of a certain age” were concerned about perceived excesses in a woke culture that increasingly seems addicted to shaming. She extended that to include women of a certain age when I brought up liberal backlash to Democratic Senator Al Franken’s defenestration following the leaking of an old photo of the sometime comedian pretending to grope a female performer on a flight back from a USO tour.
Hill, while campaigning, had supported efforts to push out Franken and remained firm: “I felt very strongly that as Democrats…we should be holding ourselves to the same high standard that we’re holding people we disagree with,” she said.
Nancy Pelosi’s statement about Hill’s resignation was similarly high minded. Hill, she said, “has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a Member untenable. We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.”
The speaker may also have been thinking pragmatically about the looming 2020 election. In a sign of the times, Hill, who represented the most diverse freshman class in history, was already being hunted by what is almost certainly her district’s most diverse group of GOP challengers: an African American and two Latinos. In a sign that the world is wobbling on its axis, one-time Trump aide George Papadopoulos, who did jail time for lying to the FBI, also filed to run after Hill’s resignation. Meanwhile, the RedState editor who surfaced the sleaze has already been tweeting support for a Republican candidate for Hill’s seat.
On the Democratic side, the vacancy instantly inspired State Assemblywoman Christy Smith to jump into the race and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was reportedly thinking about giving it a shot but later announced he would not seek the seat.
Katie Porter, too, faces challengers. Since June, the GOP has been firing off online ads linking her to “socialist Democrats in Washington” and saying she is “willing to thumb her nose at her constituents, the majority of whom oppose impeachment.”
2020 will be Porter’s first reelection bid, but there is no shortage of female politicians in her life to offer advice. Before running for office she had anticipated working as an advisor to the nation’s first female president. But Hillary Clinton lost. Presidential primary candidate Elizabeth Warren was, as noted, Porter’s mentor at Harvard Law School and in 2012 California Attorney General Kamala Harris appointed Porter as an independent monitor to oversee a complex, $25 billion mortgage settlement. Both Harris and Warren endorsed Porter in 2018, and amid the current swirl of primary debates and town halls, political types have relentlessly pestered the congresswoman to reveal which of her friends she’d endorse. In late October, Porter finally came out in support of Warren.
During my day with the Porter in Orange County, I had posed my own endorsement question. We were in a UCI parking lot when I brought up those two names. When you run for president in 2024, will you pick Harris or Warren as your running mate? For a moment the question confused Porter. Then she gave a modest moan, turned away in annoyance, and headed for the minivan, her lingering grimace softened by the wisp of a smile.
If I were to pose the semi-hypothetical question again now, I might ask Porter a follow-up: “Should you become president, what are the chances you’d help out a once-rising star whose questionable judgment was exploited by truly nasty villains, ending an amazing rise to power with an almost Shakespearean fall from grace?”
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