On Sunday, Representative Katie Hill announced she would resign, days after it emerged that she and her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep had been engaged in what she describes as a consensual relationship with a woman who had worked on her campaign. That relationship became public as part of a pretty disgusting exposé by the rightwing publication RedState, a series of stories which were much less interested in examining an improper relationship between Hill and her campaign staffer than they were in humiliating her through leaked nude photos and describing her bisexuality and sexual conduct in lurid detail. In her responses to the stories, Hill has heavily implied that the photos are part of a smear campaign led by her estranged husband, with whom she is currently engaged in an acrimonious divorce, meant to discredit and shame her.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country,” Hill wrote in her statement on Sunday, adding, “This is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation.” (Hill is also the subject of a House Committee on Ethics investigation, after her husband alleged that she had also been in an improper relationship with her legislative director, Graham Kelly. It’s a charge that that Hill has repeatedly denied and stems from an allegation made in a Facebook post by her estranged husband.)
The question of Hill’s resignation feels tricky, largely because it looks as though Hill didn’t resign over an inappropriate relationship with a campaign aide so much as she was driven out by a revenge porn campaign led by a deeply conservative, misogynistic website.
California Representative Duncan Hunter, after all, is alleged to have had numerous affairs in recent years, including with a member of his staff, the aide of another Republican member of Congress, and several lobbyists. These romantic and sexual relationships came to light when the Justice Department charged Hunter with illegally using campaign funds to pay for everything from his vacations to his boozing habits and found that he had spent thousands to finance his affairs. Yet despite these both ethical and criminal violations, Hunter, whose federal trial will begin next January, remains in office.
When men like Hunter (not to mention our current president) remain in office, it’s easy to see that there’s a double standard at work here. Hill, if her Twitter account is any indication, seems to agree, retweeting the Human Rights Campaign staffer Charlotte Clymer’s observation that “women in elected office are held to entirely different standards than their male colleagues.”
Yet there’s something else at play here, too, and it’s what makes the what if it were a man arguments coming from different political journalists feel a little empty. Hill was forced to stepped down not only because of her relationship with her campaign staffer—an improper if not strictly illegal relationship that skirts the boundaries of ethical behavior—but for exactly what RedState was hoping to achieve in its string of articles about Hill, which attempted to paint Hill as perverted, indecent, not the right kind of woman. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had once championed the first-time representative as one of the most exciting new members of Congress, notably did not mention the rightwing campaign against Hill in a statement on Hill’s departure, only noting her “errors in judgment” that made it “untenable” for her to remain in Congress. Pelosi added, in a telling line, “We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.” The smear, it seems, has worked.
Hill, as she herself has described it, was in an “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate who worked on her campaign, a relationship that cannot be defended if one believes that there are lines that should not be crossed between a boss and a subordinate employee, especially when the boss is a future member of Congress. That Hill is a woman, and that her subordinate was also a woman, shouldn’t matter. A man engaging in such behavior would be rightfully criticized, and would likely draw calls for him to resign. While Hill’s relationship, which appeared to occur during her campaign, doesn’t violate House ethics rules established in 2018 that bar relationships between members of Congress and staffers, it clearly violates the spirit of the law.
Which makes all of this feel so ugly. It’s easy enough to say that Hill fucked up, but the campaign against Hill wasn’t really about those things. Her poor judgment, or the potential abuse of power involved in sleeping with a campaign subordinate, isn’t really what she’s being punished for.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated Charlotte Clymer’s work affiliation. We have updated the story.