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Katie Hill is Trying to Move Forward

If Katie Hill were a different person, she might have gone away and found religion. Perhaps she would have tearfully apologized, a dutiful husband by her side, and vowed to do better. Maybe she would have checked herself into sex rehab, hiked the Appalachian Trail or flat-out denied anything untoward had occurred.

But Ms. Hill, the former Congresswoman from California whose polyamorous affair with a campaign staff member was exposed after nude photos of her (taken without her consent, she said) began circulating online, did none of those things. She resigned, less than two weeks after the photos became public and less than a year into her term.

And so, on a recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., while her former colleague and friend Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was delivering a rousing speech about sexism on the House floor, Ms. Hill was at home alone, with eggs and Heineken in her fridge, wrestling with an old Samsung laptop.

“Seriously, this doesn’t make any sense to me,” Ms. Hill said, exasperated. She was in leggings and a tank top, hunched over the computer, which was propped on a wobbly kitchen table. “It didn’t used to have that problem. Now it does.”

Ms. Hill, 32, was trying to record an interview with Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for President Barack Obama who had been an adviser to her, for a new podcast she is hosting. In previous times, she might have had an aide to help her, or perhaps some sort of government office to call for tech support. But these days it’s just her and Archie, a yellow tabby cat who likes to walk across her keyboard as she types — not that this was the problem here.

It was decided that Mr. Burton would record the audio from his own computer. Ms. Hill was relieved.

“OK,” she said into the mic. “Welcome to the first edition of ‘Naked Politics With Katie Hill.’”

“You are the ultimate insider,” she told her guest, “and can tell us the scoop on how politics is disgusting, right?”

Depending on how you view it, Ms. Hill may be the perfect case study for that premise. Or you may think she has contributed to it.

Once considered a rising Democratic star (a favorite of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, whose daughter gave her Archie), Ms. Hill made headlines in 2018 when she flipped a Republican district blue. Vice proclaimed she had run the “most millennial campaign ever” and documented her race as part of a surging wave of female candidates. She was one of very few openly bisexual elected officials.

ImageMaking strides: Ms. Hill (right) with (from left) Reps. Jahana Hayes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lauren Underwood, part of a class of Democrats who flipped the House in 2018.
Credit…Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Associated Press

But her term ended almost as quickly as it started, after photos of her naked — in one, she was holding a bong; in another, she was brushing a woman’s hair — were published by the conservative website RedState and later by The Daily Mail.

Ms. Hill believes the photos were leaked by her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, who she said was abusive and had threatened to “ruin her” if she left him, which she had, five months before the leak. Through a lawyer, Erin McKinley, Mr. Heslep declined to comment for this article. He has denied releasing the photos, saying his computer was hacked.

But the source of the leak was for a moment overshadowed by what the pictures revealed: that Ms. Hill and her husband had been having a relationship with a young member of her campaign staff, a subordinate.

The relationship, which she acknowledged, did not violate House rules — updated amid the #MeToo movement — because it happened during the campaign, not after Ms. Hill was elected. But RedState reported that Ms. Hill had also had a relationship with her legislative director, which would have. (Both she and the legislative director have denied this.) An ethics investigation was opened into her conduct.

That investigation was never completed, though, because Ms. Hill stepped down, even as Ms. Pelosi and others encouraged her not to. In a resignation speech, delivered in a bright red suit (she has called it her “battle uniform”) and lipstick (“war paint”) she apologized for her conduct but said that she was resigning, at least in part, “because of a double standard.”

“I’m leaving. But we have men who have been credibly accused of intentional acts of sexual violence and remain in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, in this very body and, worst of all, in the Oval Office,” she said.

Credit…Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Nine months later, Ms. Hill is still grappling with her capitulation. “I still have a lot of unreconciled feelings about my decision,” she said. “But I’m here and I’m going to make the best of it, I guess.”

She was sitting on a small suede couch in her apartment, a sparse one-bedroom she is still settling into a few miles from her former office, and the first place she has ever lived alone. Recently, she has been sorting through her closet, organizing her old Congressional suits into piles for charity.

“My mom bought all of these for my campaign,” she said. “These ones” — she pointed to a small section of reds and blues — “are likely to have some usefulness at some point outside of Congress.”

Ms. Hill remains embroiled in a messy divorce with Mr. Heslep. With Carrie Goldberg, a prominent victims’ rights attorney, she also plans to file a civil suit related to the unlawful distribution of the images, which will name him, as early as the fall.

And the photos remain on the internet, and probably always will, a reality Ms. Hill is getting used to day by day.

“I guess at a certain point you just kind of have to accept it: People who want to see me in very, you know, uncomfortable, awkward, non-flattering, naked positions can,” she said. “They can see it, they probably have seen it.”

She herself continues to see it: in her replies on Twitter, where she has 175,000 followers; in a Yelp review of her sister’s tattoo business in California, quickly deleted.

“Those images are seared in my brain forever,” she said. “And they’re not even good photos! Like, that’s what I keep going back to. I’m like, ‘God.’”

Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

It is often thought that the best way to bury your most horrifying internet result is to do something new. Ms. Hill is trying.

Using leftover money from her re-election fund, she recently started a political action committee, HerTime, which is devoted to supporting younger women and women of color.

She is at work on the “Naked Politics” podcast, an interview series she plans to introduce on Anchor later this month, and whose title, she said, is an attempt to “take ownership back.”

And on Aug. 11, she will publish a book, “She Will Rise,” a memoir-meets-manifesto that tells the story of her time in Congress, as well as gives policy recommendations, in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders to elect more women. It will be released, along with seemingly every other female-centric title, in time for the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The book skims over a lot of things. It is full of platitudes about shattering glass ceilings, women as “warriors” and what it’s going to take “to claim our rightful seats at every leadership table.” But honestly, you may forgive her for this: The book was written in three weeks. If you think you’ve had a hell of a year, you have not lived Katie Hill’s 2020.

The book begins in the days after the photo leak, which was technically late 2019, when, as she writes, she spent days “curled up in my bed with my mind in the darkest places it’s ever been.” She contemplated suicide.

Back home in California, someone had sent a suspicious powder to her former office, forcing an evacuation. In her hometown, Santa Clarita, there were posters of her Photoshopped in a Nazi uniform with the hashtag #WifenSwappenSS — a reference to an iron cross tattoo on her lower groin that, now that everybody had seen her lower groin, some thought resembled a Nazi symbol. Her father, a police captain, went through town tearing them down. (Ms. Hill said the tattoo, which she got after a sexual assault when she was a teenager, had long since been covered over.)

Shortly after her resignation, Ms. Hill prepared to move out of the apartment she shared with another congresswoman. In spite of everything, she said, was excited about living on her own.

But before she could move into her new spot, her mother, a trauma nurse in Los Angeles was hospitalized. She needed to have urgent brain surgery.

Ms. Hill flew home immediately.

Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The surgery was on a Thursday. On Friday, Ms. Hill, her sister Kristin Sterling, 29, and her brother Danny Bennett, 20, got to see their mother, who was doing well. Ms. Hill and Mr. Bennett, who was training to become a Navy SEAL, stayed up late that night talking. They were extremely close, she said; he had struggled with drug abuse and had lived with her for a year during high school.

The next morning, when she came downstairs from her bedroom at her mother’s home, she found him unresponsive. He had died of a drug overdose: cocaine laced with fentanyl, according to the coroner’s report.

“I was by myself when I found him. I did CPR, 911 came and everything,” Ms. Hill said. She was sitting on the couch, fidgeting anxiously with her hair. It was raining outside, and sheets of water were splashing onto her tiny balcony, which overlooks a Little League field.

“They tried to resuscitate him for almost an hour. The time of death that they ended up giving was 20 minutes before I found him.” She began to cry. “I have not even come close to dealing with the guilt I have around that.”

In the aftermath of something so devastating, it would be understandable to be paralyzed by grief. “We’re all still reeling,” Ms. Sterling said in a phone interview. And yet somehow, a little over two weeks later, Ms. Hill found herself back on a plane to attend President Trump’s State of the Union address. It was the last time she would see most of her colleagues.

“It felt important for me to be there, just to be like, ‘I’m not going to go hide away,’” she said. “I got this pin for life, you know?” She was referring to her Congressional pin, which grants lifetime membership to the Capitol. She keeps hers in a jewelry box in her towel closet.

“I know I have so much that I just have not touched around the Danny stuff that I haven’t been able to, because I have other things I have had to get through,” she said.

Credit…Courtesy Katie Hill

That sharp focus — and, perhaps, ability to compartmentalize — has mostly worked in Ms. Hill’s professional favor.

“She is extremely driven,” said her friend Nicole Brener-Schmitz, a political strategist who is working with Ms. Hill on her PAC.

From the time she was 12, Ms. Hill said, she worked multiple jobs: at a horse ranch, babysitting, as a dog groomer, saving up to buy a horse. She grew up in Rosamond, Calif., on the border of Los Angeles County, and then Santa Clarita, near Six Flags, shuttling between her divorced parents.

She graduated from high school a year early, and met Mr. Heslep shortly after, when she was 16 and he was 21. By 23, she had graduated from college, was married and working full-time at a nonprofit, People Assisting the Homeless. By 27, she had earned a master’s degree and been promoted to executive director of the nonprofit.

“And then I went straight to running for Congress,” she said.

Looking back, Ms. Hill said, there were warning signs of what was to come of her marriage: She writes in her book that her husband was “unpredictable” and “incredibly controlling.” Her sister described trying to intervene seven years ago, and it exploding into a fight. “We didn’t talk for a while,” her sister said.

As she campaigned, “I pretended everything at home was fine and I looked like a successful candidate about to win an election and make history,” Ms. Hill writes. “But my life was held together by a thread.”

These last two months, at home in Washington, have been the longest period of uninterrupted time Ms. Hill can remember without a deadline, a campaign, a school assignment or a job. “This is the most sleep I’ve gotten maybe in my whole life,” she said.

Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

She has been slowly decorating her apartment and bingeing shows she never got around to seeing, like “Mad Men” and “Sex and the City.”

“It’s weird, I had this whole sort of young person’s life envisioned when I moved in here,” she said, looking around her apartment. “I never really had that. But obviously when you’re 33 it looks different from when you’re 23. When I was 23 I was married and in a management position working full time — I was a very old 23-year-old. So I just like skipped my 20s. And now I feel like, I may be going backwards.”

Women seem to have a harder time recovering from scandal, at least in the political world where they were so long outnumbered. It took Monica Lewinsky two decades to redefine herself on her own terms. Paula Broadwell, a once promising military scholar, struggled to find her footing in the wake of her explosive affair with David Petraeus.

A rare exception may be Helen Chenoweth, a former congresswoman from Idaho, who in the 1990s — after decrying President Clinton’s affair with Ms. Lewinsky a “sordid spectacle” — admitted that she, too, had had an affair. (She said hers was different, though, because it happened when she was a private citizen and “I’ve asked for God’s forgiveness, and I’ve received it.”) She won re-election that year.

Ms. Hill is amused by that story; less so the plentiful recent examples of men being forgiven.

Such as Alcee Hastings, whose decades-long relationship with an aide prompted an investigation in the wake of Ms. Hill’s resignation, but was dropped after he revealed he had married the aide. (House rules bar relationships with staffers but allow the employment of a spouse.)

Or Joe Barton, former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who, after nude photos and explicit text messages sent to a constituent appeared on social media, said he would not seek re-election at the end of his term. He was the longest-serving Texan in Congress.

“He retired, but nobody ran him off his seat,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida. Mr. Gaetz served on the House Armed Services Committee with Ms. Hill, a fellow millennial, and was one of few people who defended her publicly when the photos were released. “I still wish she would have stayed,” Mr. Gaetz said.

And then there is Chuck Rocha, a former adviser to Bernie Sanders, who was convicted of union embezzling, and, Ms. Hill grumbles, is now promoting a new book.

“Nobody cares, apparently,” she said.

“I mean, probably if we’ve learned anything from Trump and some of these others is that a scandal isn’t a death sentence,” she said later. “But we have not seen women re-emerge from scandal — from political scandal — yet.”

Many in her own party were stunned when Ms. Hill resigned. Why not simply apologize and hold her head high? Wouldn’t withdrawing before the ethics investigation was complete just make her look like she had something to hide? Wasn’t she, in part, allowing the double standard to stand?

“I was among those who texted her saying, ‘don’t quit, don’t quit.’ Go to therapy, go to something, get yourself into recovery,” said Christine Pelosi, daughter of the House Speaker, who chairs the Woman’s Caucus for California Democrats. “But she chose the path that she chose.”

In her book, Ms. Hill describes it as a spiral.

“I was completely overwhelmed by everything — how many people had seen my naked body, the comments, the articles, the millions of opinions, the texts, the calls, the threats,” she writes. “I would start shaking, crying, throwing up.”

“It felt insurmountable at that moment,” she said.

Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

“She wasn’t in a mental space to keep going on,” said Mr. Burton, the podcast guest.

Who would she let down by staying? she wondered. By leaving? What kind of liability would she become to members of her party? To the legacy of the history-making freshman class?

And wouldn’t staying in office — after speaking in support of #MeToo, and calling for Al Franken to step down after he was accused of groping women he’d worked with — make her the worst kind of hypocrite?

“It was a clear error in judgment,” Ms. Hill said of her relationship with the young woman. “That was my most crucial mistake, failing on setting the boundaries between my staff and myself.”

And so, she did what she thought would minimize the harm done.

“If I didn’t have a responsibility to other people, including my constituents and people who cared about me. …” She trailed off. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

In some ways, she is freer now. There is no re-election to worry about. No party leaders to offend. She can see whom she wants, date whom she wants, and the Covid-era mask has the nice perk of allowing her to blend in.

“My marriage lasted twice as long as the Confederacy, and I’ve already taken down all the monuments,” she recently tweeted.

Another: “Yes we all know about the naked pictures of me. Hence the joke.”

“I grew up with cop humor and E.R. nurse humor,” Ms. Hill said, recounting how her mother, days after her resignation, joked: “So when are you going to start your hairbrush line?”

“It’s dark, you know?”

And yet guilt, she said, still lingers.

Guilt for the young woman she said she loved, and to whom she has apologized “so many times.” “She doesn’t want to hear from me now, and I get that,” Ms. Hill said.

Guilt for what she has put her family through, and her former staff, some of whom lost their jobs.

Ms. Hill feels the most guilt, she said, for her district, which flipped Republican again in the special election to replace her.

With her therapist, she said, she has been working on self-compassion — and that Brené Brown theory “where you might have done something bad, but you’re not a bad person.”

“That’s one of the repeating questions I struggle with. ‘Am I a bad person?’ And I guess I’ve had to decide, I don’t think I am a bad person.”

Not that being a good person is a prerequisite for a political career. Or for rebuilding one.

“Right now it’s hard for me to imagine running again,” Ms. Hill said of a potential future in politics. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a scenario where things line up.”

And she has not entirely retreated.

During a recent muggy evening in Washington, she and Ms. Brener-Schmitz sat outside at the National Democratic Club, a drab watering hole and membership lounge near the Capitol where political types hang out. She ran into Brendan Boyle, her former Congressional office neighbor, and exchanged numbers with an aide to House Speaker Pelosi.

“Is that Tim?” she said, as Tim Ryan, the congressman from Ohio, passed by in a T-shirt and flip-flops.

“Joe, it’s Katie Hill,” she called to Joe Courtney, Democrat of Connecticut, with whom she’d served on a committee. “So, you in town?” Mr. Courtney said.

“Yeah, I live here now!”

Walking away from the Capitol afterward, trying to find a restaurant with outdoor seating, she accidentally turned toward her old office.

“Whoops,” she said, laughing.

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