Who’s to blame for Katie Hill’s downfall? We all are.

What we do going forward determines whether we’re part of the solution or whether we remain part of the problem

17 mins read

Full disclosure: I live in California’s 25th Congressional District. I voted for Katie Hill for Congress in 2018. I volunteered for her. I donated to her campaign. And I blogged about the contest at DemWrite Press, the precursor site to DemCastUSA.

So, yes, I am distraught that Hill’s promising Congressional career has come to a screeching halt.

I’m also a lifelong feminist and advocate for women in public office. As such, I’m equally distraught over the blatantly obvious double standard still being applied to women and men – and to Democrats and Republicans – in American politics today.

And yet…

What I am about to say here is likely to be disagreed with, on one point or another, by just about everyone who reads it. Because I believe that everyone involved in the Katie Hill takedown, including Hill herself, is to blame for where we find ourselves today in California’s 25th…and in American politics writ large.

Here’s what I think

First things first: Hill screwed up. She knew House ethics rules – if not when she began her campaign, likely by the time she participated in freshman orientation, and certainly by the time of her swearing-in this January.

And she knew House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would insist that members of her caucus obey those rules, which had been strengthened just last fall to decree that House members could not have an intimate relationship with anyone on their House staff.

The first clause of those beefed-up ethics rules also declares that members of the House “shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

Hill failed to honor that expectation. She resigned. And as much of a strategic loss to Congress and my own community as her decision represents, I think it was the right thing to do. Whatever a House Ethics investigation might have determined, I’d already talked with other CA25 Democratic activists before her resignation, about how hard it was going to be to knock on doors for Hill in the aftermath – no matter how a particular campaign volunteer or potential voter might feel about the accusations.

And yet…

If obeying the rules, if doing the right thing, is to be the behavioral standard for elected officials in Washington, that standard has to apply to everyone. All the time.

But as facts clearly illustrate, it doesn’t.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) still sits in the House, although he’s facing trial for felony misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses – expenses that included family vacations; and meal, hotel and travel bills for his dalliances with two congressional staffers, one of whom served on his staff. His wife Margaret, who served as his campaign manager, already pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against him.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) still serves there, too, despite being credibly accused by a number of former Ohio State University wrestling team members of knowing but doing nothing about their molestation by the team doctor when Jordan was assistant coach. No ethics reprimand for him.

Sixteen U.S. Senators and Congress members – six Republicans and ten Democrats – have been investigated by their respective ethics committees since 2008 for an assortment of accusations involving their own inappropriate sexual conduct or that of people on their staffs. Of them, two of the six Republicans (33%) were allowed to remain in office, while just one of the ten Democrats (10%) kept his job.

The GOP “survivors” are Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who kept a male staffer on the payroll without assigning him any duties after other staffers accused that individual of sexual harassment; and former Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, against whom charges were dismissed by the Senate Ethics committee because his alleged hiring of prostitutes occurred before his Senate term began.

Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings was the lone Democratic “survivor,” against whom charges of sexual harassment and employment retaliation were dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Credibly accused rapist, sexual assaulter and “I like beer” bro Brett Kavanaugh sits today on the Supreme Court of the United States.

And, of course, no discussion of sexual assault and harassment by individuals holding political power today can be complete without a reference to the biggest still-surviving elephant in the room: a certain Donald John Trump.

But Katie Hill gets cyber-trashed for private sexual behavior by an angry soon-to-be-ex-husband who actively participated in said behavior (and gets help from a possible GOP conspiracy: read on), and her political career is over.

And she leaves while Guam’s Dem. House Delegate Michael F.Q. San Nicolas continues to serve, despite the opening one week ago of a House Ethics investigation into accusations that he has engaged in a sexual relationship with a staffer, converted campaign funds to personal use, and accepted improper campaign contributions.

There’s a clear-cut double standard for women and men in Congress. That reeks.

Plenty of blame to go around

I’ve acknowledged Hill’s responsibility for the situation in which she found herself. But there are a number of others whose reprehensible actions deserve far more severe condemnation.

There’s her soon-to-be-ex-husband Kenny Heslep, who may have given explicit photos of Hill and her lover to RedState and the Daily Mail. (Hill’s lover, a young woman on her campaign team, was also Heslop’s inamorata; Hill and Heslep acknowledged some time ago that theirs was an “open” marriage, and a threesome was excitedly alleged in right-wing social media threads.) 

National political columnist Seth Abramson offered an alternative possibility in a lengthy Twitter thread on Oct. 29, positing that “700 pictures being dumped to the media all at once doesn’t exactly sound like an ex-husband running the show…This feels like a wholesale…hack of a cell phone…”)

Then there’s Santa Clarita, Calif., right-winger Joe Messina, a racist, sexist local radio show host and William S. Hart Union School District Board member who Playboy correspondent and freelance journalist Alex Thomas named on Twitter as the initial marketer of those 700 photos. Messina was first to blog about the photos’ existence on Oct. 17, a day before the RedState story, including several images, was published.

The Daily Mail ran its own story, with additional compromising photos, a week later on Oct. 24.

Publishing nude or otherwise sexually compromising photos without the permission of the individuals in those photos is against the law in 46 states, including California, and in the District of Columbia. (FYI, the “Nazi-era tattoo” that the Daily Mail claims Hill sports may actually be a skateboarding logo; this writer refuses to look, so readers can view for yourselves if you wish.)

Next up: the National Republican Congressional Committee, which Messina told on Oct. 16 about the photos, and which we should assume was searching for a California House district for the candidacy-to-be of George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide and convicted felon.

Papadopoulos told The Hill a week after his release from prison in December 2018, where he served time for lying to the FBI about Trump’s “Russia thing,” that he was looking for “a little Republican enclave” in California where he could launch a 2020 House campaign. (CA25 voter registration is now +5 Democratic, so his port in a storm seems a somewhat dubious choice. Guess there are no other open seats to pursue.) The NRCC is said by reporter Thomas to have been offered the photos “and tried to connect multiple reporters with the man who did have them [Messina].” 

And Papadopoulos seems to have developed an oddly prophetic awareness of the troubles about to befall Katie Hill – tweeting a day before the RedState story broke that CA25 is “for the taking.”

Then there is RedState deputy managing editor Jennifer Van Laar (who’s more GOP political operative than reporter). Although her RedState piece failed to identify her as anything other than a staffer, Politico later reported that “the RedState writer who published a nude picture of the congresswoman has a long history of supporting Hill’s opponents.”

Politico’s Michael Calderone also reported that “Van Laar’s views, like RedState’s leanings, are no secret: She’s worked in Republican politics and the site is conservative, as is its owner, Salem Media Group. But Van Laar’s shift from reporting on Hill, and publishing what some have deemed ‘revenge porn,’ to promoting Republicans for Hill’s old job is a blurring of roles that would be unacceptable in mainstream newsrooms.”

Van Laar also briefly served as campaign manager for Republican Suzette Valladares, a CA25 resident who announced this spring she would run against Hill in 2020 but dropped out of the House race to run in the California Assembly District 38 contest instead.

Van Laar in fact tweeted on the evening of Oct. 27 – hours after Hill announced her resignation:

She then suggested, the Politico piece went on, that she’d support former Congressman Steve Knight, on whose 2014 campaign she’d worked, if he chose to seek the seat he lost to Hill in 2018. She wrote that Knight “has integrity, cares about the individual, and is a policy wonk.” (All of which would be energetically disputed by the majority of voters in CA25 who booted him out last year.)

And finally, there’s Mike Garcia, the GOP candidate to whom Van Laar has seemingly thrown her support. He emulated Van Laar’s attack journalism on Oct. 30 by sharing a post from the conservative site Townhall.com that reported on “The Coming War Over Kinky Katie Hill’s Congressional Seat.” Local Democrats roundly criticized him for repeating the slur, with one asking other members of the 25th Congressional District Election Watch Facebook page, “What kind of man does this?”

“A Republican man,” is my answer.

Here’s what we need to do

And that’s what has to end, folks.

It is not okay, not the littlest least bit okay, for anyone in any political party to weaponize images from an opponent’s private life against her (or him). As 2018 Congressional candidate and video game developer Brianna Wu tweeted on Oct. 28:

I agree. And I’m betting Katie Hill does too. She’s announced that she will be pursuing legal action, and that her personal (and perhaps professional?) cause will now be preventing the cyber-shaming of American women and girls.

In her final speech on the House floor Oct. 31, Hill declared, “I’m leaving but we have men who have been credibly accused of sexual violence and remain in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, in this very body, and worst of all, in the Oval Office.”

All of us – whether Democratic, Republican, libertarian, Green, independent or anything else – must actively support that cause. We all must demand that our candidates and our elected officials do the same – and that they and their campaign teams, supporters and media-based advocates focus on issues and substance, not trash-talk, revenge porn or cyber-bullying, in stating their case against their opponents.

As Speaker Pelosi said on Oct. 31, in response to a reporter’s question about Hill’s resignation, “Regardless of any errors in judgment that anyone may have made, it’s shameful that she’s been exposed to public humiliation by cyber exploitation, and I caution everyone that they, too, may be subjected to that.”

The investigation of Katie Hill’s behavior belonged in the House Ethics Committee – not online.

This crappy behavior must end.

American voters can help, by condemning any individual, candidate, campaign or political operative who behaves as Kenny Heslep, Joe Messina, RedState, the Daily Mail, the NRCC, George Papadopoulos, Jennifer Van Laar, Mike Garcia, Townhall.com, and who knows who else, have behaved. Do not reward gutter tactics like theirs with your support or your vote. Find another campaign, organization or publication to support, join or read.

As the late First Lady Nancy Reagan might have offered in this circumstance, “Just say no!”

Winning isn’t everything. It isn’t the only thing. And if “winning” means abandoning decency, ignoring morality, dismissing ethics, defiling one’s own honor or betraying one’s oath of office to take down an opponent, it eviscerates all that America once stood for – and can stand for again.

If you insist on “winning” that way, you’re not the only loser.

America loses, too.

N.B.: Our editorial staff has chosen not to link to the Red State or Daily Mail pieces. If you need to verify their authenticity you can find them via Google.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Blogger Marcy Miroff Rothenberg writes on politics and women’s issues. Her book – Ms. Nice Guy Lost – Here’s How Women Can Win– offers a comprehensive recap of the attacks waged on American women’s rights and opportunities by Trump and the GOP since 2016, and a to-do list for fighting back. It’s available from store.bookbaby.com and at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and Goodreads.com.

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