Update: Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation on Sunday night, amid the scandal discussed in this piece).
Editor’s note: The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Rep. Katie Hill, a star of the Democrats’ red-to-blue class of 2018, had a sexual relationship with a congressional aide, in violation of House rules. The controversy began with stories in right-wing media sites, which also published intimate photographs of Hill. She's denied having an affair with a congressional staffer, but acknowledged one with a woman who worked as a campaign aide. We asked leaders of SPARC, an SB community organization that strongly supported Hill, for their thoughts on the matter.
Here’s the thing: it’s too soon to make a proper evaluation of Rep. Katie Hill’s sexual relationships and alleged actions with a congressional staffer.
Katie Hill is part of the new guard that generated the blue wave in 2016. She ran as openly bisexual and she is a millennial, a generation where three-way, “throuple” relationships are more commonplace.
Obviously, she is the target of a politically motivated hit, as Republicans are using homophobic tropes to frame the issue. On the other hand, Rep. Hill may have violated rules for elected House members. At the very least, she used poor judgment.
In this context, Democrats have some values and afflictions with which we must contend.
The battle of false equivalence. For years, Democrats have been victims of political false equivalence arguments, and of the adept abilities of Republicans to move the legal goal posts when it serves them. Somehow Hillary Clinton’s emails came to bear the same weight on the scale of public opinion as: “grab ‘em by the pussy,” porn star payouts, POW insults, “good” neo-Nazis, children in cages, obstruction of justice and soliciting foreign governments to interfere with our elections.
Oh, and let us not forget that at least 25 women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct since the 1970s.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brazenly side-stepped constitutional process by blocking Merrick Garland as President Obama’s rightful appointment for Supreme Court Justice. Brett Kavanaugh got the seat instead despite the four women who came forward with sexual assault charges.
In San Diego, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter maintains office notwithstanding the 60+ felony fraud indictments hanging over his head, while Democrats were quick to oust (perhaps rightfully so) Minnesota Senator Al Franken based on accusations of sexual harassment.
Now we have Katie Hill, a capable and strong representative, and 2020 re-election candidate, whom we may lose because of a consensual relationship.
We may lose Katie Hill because we still are a party that cares for accountability.
In maintaining the moral high ground, are we also losing?
The price of accountability. An understandable reaction at this point, would be to fight fire with fire.
Rules be damned, why not sacrifice candidate accountability for party wins, like the other side? It’s pretty tempting.
Perhaps accountability needs to matter because if you fight fire with fire, you risk scorching the earth.
If Katie Hill had a consensual relationship prior to her election, we would revisit our ongoing efforts back her. If she violated House Ethics rules, and lied about it, she will likely be forced to resign.
In the meantime, Democrats and all Americans need to establish some clarity in the grey areas and blurred lines in sexual conduct.
We are still reckoning beyond the initial force of the #Metoo movement. The fast train of the conversation's evolution makes nuance difficult. Those of us who were “West Wing” junkies rooted for a Josh & Donna romance.
Now we are revisiting those power dynamics and view these relationships through a different lens.
It would be helpful for Katie Hill to have that conversation as part of the Ethic Committee’s investigation. Not details of her love life, but an understanding of the power dynamic and how that was handled.
(This piece was written by Erinn Lynch, Jill Fonte and Meredith Reeback, co-founders of SPARC (Sparking Political Action Response and Change), a group of Santa Barbara-area women and men who were spurred by the 2016 election to protect our democracy, environment, and civil liberties. The group hosts speaker events where they learn from experts on relevant topics - and during elections they adopt candidates to support. In 2016 SPARC raised funds, wrote postcards and canvassed for Katie Hill, who now represents California's 25th Congressional District).
Images: Rep. Katie Hill (Emily's List); Hill during 2018 campaign; SPARC co-founders Meredith Reebach, Erinn Lynch and Jill Fonte with former Rep. Lois Capps at a Katie Hill fundraiser in SB in 2018.