Katie Hill in her new apartment in February.
Photo: Jeff Brown
“Any chance you could grab us a bottle of wine or something? Lol,” former California congresswoman Katie Hill texted. We settled on rosé. Hill and I had never met, but she was in the midst of a professional and personal crisis. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and she would be going live on air with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that night. “ROUGH day,” she wrote. I brought wine as well as a bag of pretzels to Hill’s Manhattan hotel room. Wearing leggings and a hoodie, she took the wine and glanced down at her phone. An editor at the New York Times had questions about an op-ed the 32-year-old Hill wrote about contemplating suicide, one that’s set to publish the next day; they’d been going back and forth for hours.
This was in early December as Hill scrambled to form a new life after photos of her — some of which she said were taken without her consent — were published online in mid-October. One shows Hill nude, brushing the hair of a junior female campaign staffer, Morgan (referred to here only by first name), in a hotel room. In others, there is Hill naked, holding a bong, with a tattoo of an iron cross — a Nazi-associated symbol used by white supremacists — near her groin; Hill and Morgan kissing. The articles accompanying them include private text messages among Hill, Morgan, and Hill’s estranged husband, Kenneth Heslep, detailing a three-way romantic relationship, as well as a claim by Heslep from a since-deleted Facebook post that Hill had had an affair with her male legislative director, Graham Kelly.
Hill released a statement denying the relationship with Kelly and accusing Heslep of spreading the rumor. The House Ethics Committee soon announced it would investigate the allegation related to Kelly (who also denied the relationship). If true, a relationship with Kelly would have violated a Me Too–era rule prohibiting members from having sexual relations with congressional staffers. Immediately after, Hill then released another statement admitting to an inappropriate relationship with Morgan. “I had to admit that, yes, I had this relationship with a campaign staffer,” Hill told me. “So, you know, I’ve admitted to that. And once you’ve admitted to that one thing, then it brings everything else into question.”
When Hill decided to run for office in early 2017, she was part of a surge of first-time candidates who felt a new and urgent pull toward politics. Her ascent in particular was a great American story: Daughter of a cop and a nurse wins long-shot congressional race, becoming unlikely star in Washington. But some of the same aspects of Hill’s personality that propelled her as a candidate — the risk-taking, the unfilteredness — were now at the center of a scandal that felt both ultramodern and like the oldest story ever told.
It was nine days from the publication of the first photos to Hill’s announcement of her resignation — she’d heard there was a Google drive with roughly 700 images being passed around by political operatives. She was afraid that the photos would be released drip by drip. “I knew so much was still coming,” she said. “The ethics thing, it was going to pull our office in, and specifically my staff in, in a really fucked-up way.” And then there was the political risk to other House Democrats; she was confident that the scandal would be used against vulnerable colleagues running for reelection.
Hill recognized from the beginning that her relationship with Morgan, which spanned the majority of the campaign and her first months in office, could be problematic in her new role. Yet she did little to protect herself, failing to tell her chief of staff about the indiscretion. The photos and what they revealed about her personal life would have been damning for any politician but had the potential to be especially harmful to someone like Hill — young, female, openly bisexual. Having no plan in place put her at an immediate disadvantage. “You know, honestly, it was one of those things where it was like, Well, I’ll just deny it,” Hill told me. “Morgan is not accusing me of anything. She doesn’t want it to come out any more than I do.” Plenty of politicians lie, but it’s rare for one to tell a reporter it was her game plan.
In Santa Clarita in 2013.
Photo: Courtesy Hill
There is a story Hill’s mother, Rachel Stevenson, likes to tell about her daughter. When Hill was a toddler, “I would ask her if she wanted to do things the hard way or the easy way, and she would look straight at me and say, ‘The hard way,’ ” Stevenson says. Hill later told me the same story, not knowing I’d already heard it, and it became clear that this anecdote wasn’t simply family lore but a point of pride — a foundation on which she had constructed both her personal sense of self and her public image as an underdog.
Hill spent most of her childhood in Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita, a mostly middle-class enclave just north of Los Angeles. She told me she had a happy childhood, one spent riding bikes with her younger sister and other kids in the neighborhood, who sometimes pushed one another down hills in barrels. Hill credited her parents with allowing her to be independent: “They really did foster in me … that confidence in knowing I was able to do anything I set my mind to and being willing to take a risk. The risk piece is a big element of this.”
She was seemingly always on the fast track. “As a freshman, I was like, High school is dumb, and my closest friends were older than me,” she continued. It pained her to think of being left behind, so she took extra courses in her sophomore and junior years in order to graduate by age 16. “I looked down on people who had to study,” she said.
Looking back, Hill said she was perhaps too eager to rush through childhood. “If I were to say I have regrets, it would be that I was trying to grow up so fast,” she told me. Behind the façade of the brilliant self-starter was a young woman with depression, a fractured family, and the aftermath of what she described as many sexual assaults. (The precise number changes. In two separate interviews in December, Hill recounted to me being sexually assaulted three times. In February, at the Makers Conference in Los Angeles, she told another reporter she’d been sexually assaulted four times “before I even graduated high school.”)
Hill told me the first assault happened when she was 8 years old. “It was child on child,” she explained, adding that she later found out the other girl, slightly older than she, had herself been molested. Hill didn’t tell her parents. “I thought I would be in trouble for having a sexual kind of thing too young,” she said. She can’t remember if that’s when the depression kicked in or if it was more around the time her parents divorced, a year later. Hill’s mother remarried relatively quickly — which meant moving an hour away and transferring schools. Hill cried at the wedding, sitting with a female friend whom she now thought of as her first love.
At 15, Hill said, she was assaulted during a trip to France, by a man more than ten years her senior, while she was camping in a park with a friend. “[He] started making out with me and stuff like that. I was drunk, I was kind of like, whatever. But then he got much more handsy, and the other girl who was with me pulled me out of that situation,” she said. “Later he came into the tent and got on top of me … We were able to unzip another zipper [on the tent] while I was fighting him off, and we ran.” A year later, Hill said, she was sexually assaulted at a party she attended with people she knew from an after-school job. At the time, she perceived it as a consensual encounter, even though she was 16 and she said her attacker was in his early 20s. “I was blackout drunk, and he was a lot older, too, and yeah. It’s funny because I say ‘we’ had sex, but I guess it’s not — ” Her voice trailed off. Hill told me that the fourth assault also occurred when she was 16, just months before the incident with her co-worker. She was taking an EMT class after school, and, she said, the 20-something-year-old teacher’s assistant touched and kissed her by the lockers. She ran away and said she was so shaken up that she got into a car accident afterward.
Later that same year, she went to Cancún with a friend, and they decided to get tattoos. Hill chose what she thought was a symbol of independence — a thick black cross that looked like the logo for the skater brand Independent Truck Company — and had the tattoo artist drill the symbol into her groin. “I was just stupid, drunk, and traumatized,” she said. “There was a self-harm element to it that was, you know, marking this as my space.”
Shortly after returning from the trip, she took a job at a Barnes & Noble, where she met Heslep, who was then 20. Even though Hill was going off to college soon and Heslep’s future was more of a question mark, they fell in love. His dad was also a cop, and he and Hill bonded over their mutual love of books. (Heslep did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
At the end of the summer, she started college at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, where she had been accepted to study nursing. One night, she was volunteering at a hospital when a teen gunshot victim was rushed in. “I ended up holding his hand while he died and comforting his sister afterward,” said Hill. As she recalled it, the moment shook her into realizing that there were social problems she couldn’t tackle as a nurse; it’s a story she would eventually tell often on the campaign trail. Hill took a semester off to work, enrolled in a community college, and later transferred to nearby California State University, Northridge, where she earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in public administration.
In 2010, Hill and Heslep married. They’d already been active on websites for people seeking alternative relationships, and Hill said Heslep years before had introduced the idea of engaging in threesomes. “I was like, Well, if I’m in this committed relationship that I might be in for the rest of my life, like, how else am I going to be able to [be with a woman]? It never seemed like an option to me to have a separate relationship with a woman,” said Hill. Not long after exchanging vows, Hill and Heslep entered their first three-person, long-term relationship with a woman they’d met on OkCupid. Heslep had also been posting intimate photos of Hill on various websites, which Hill said she knew about at the time. Her face wasn’t visible, she said, and she wasn’t thinking about any future consequences. “I was a fucking college student, you know? And it was like, Okay, well, I’m down to try, right?”
Hill began a career in the nonprofit sector, first working at an organization that helps at-risk youth, then at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), where she was employed for eight years. Hill worked her way up to executive director, managing a $50 million budget and earning $174,000 a year. Heslep briefly held a job as an EMT and also worked at PATH in a role Hill said wasn’t under her purview. But from 2014 on, he was unemployed. They bought the small ranch where Heslep grew up, and while Hill worked, Heslep tended to their dogs, goats, and chickens. The couple tried to have children, but Hill said she was diagnosed with endometriosis and had to have an ovary removed.
Hill never thought about a career in politics until President Trump’s win. But she did have relevant experience: At PATH, she’d worked on a $1.2 billion bond measure to provide homelessness relief in the Los Angeles area, which gave her a taste for legislating. She had management chops and genuine roots in the district. At the Women’s March, among pink hats and feminist signs, she saw an opportunity. “I knew there was going to be an advantage to being the first one in the race,” she said, “and generating excitement as the young woman running.”
To kick off her campaign for Congress, Hill, then 29, organized a meeting at a local Chili’s with family members and close friends to talk strategy. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think anyone thought that it was ever going to happen,” says Stevenson. Hill not only made it through the primary but went on to defeat the Republican incumbent, Steve Knight — in a district that had been represented by a Republican for more than two decades — by 9 percentage points.
Even in the earliest weeks of her campaign, Hill proved to be a charismatic natural, able to position herself as both progressive enough for the resistance and palatable enough for moderates and independents. She was openly bisexual but married to a man. She supported gun-safety legislation but owned a gun herself. Hill sold herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” the scrappy daughter of a Republican who would cut through the bullshit in Washington and work across the aisle.
To talk about the opioid crisis, she wrote a piece for a local paper about her 17-year-old half-brother’s drug use, detailing how she’d helped him recover. To address her views on health care, she wrote a story for BuzzFeed about how Heslep’s lung had collapsed on the day of her bridal shower, putting the couple $200,000 in debt. In reaction to Knight’s voting for a 20-week abortion ban, Hill posted a video to Facebook, detailing how she’d had an unplanned pregnancy at 18. In the video, Hill, who is pro-choice, says she contemplated having an abortion — only to suffer a miscarriage while deciding whether to continue the pregnancy. (It’s a narrative that also doesn’t alienate either side of the abortion debate.) When #WhyIDidntReport began trending on Twitter, Hill shared a video about surviving sexual assault. On World Suicide Prevention Day, she tweeted that it was the second anniversary of a friend’s death from suicide by gun.
“I guess it was a conscious decision in the beginning when I decided to run. I wanted to share the stories I felt like people needed,” Hill told me. “At some point, people were like, ‘She’s just got a story for everything,’ and it feels a little ridiculous, but this happened to me, and it just keeps adding up.”
Hill’s team was young and ambitious and had a tendency to run fast and loose, with messy results at times. Before the primary, a senior Hill staffer posted on Facebook that California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom (later the governor) had endorsed one of Hill’s primary opponents over her because “Hill won’t sleep with [Newsom]. I know this for a fact.” The staffer posted an apology about the false accusation the next day, writing, in part, “I’m an alcoholic and have a long and troubled history with addiction.”
But such missteps were overshadowed by the campaign’s strong fund-raising and ground game. Hill began building an army of volunteers and came close to matching both her (male) primary opponent and Knight in early fund-raising. From there, excitement around what she called the “most millennial campaign ever” snowballed. She earned endorsements from major groups like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood as well as support from celebrities (Kristen Bell, Alyssa Milano) and politicians (from local lawmakers to President Obama). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, impressed more by the candidate than her team, sent resources and staff. She went on CNN and The Late Late Show With James Corden. Vice sent a documentary-film crew to follow her around as part of a series on women running for office. She appeared with other first-time female candidates on the cover of Time. Hill’s campaign eventually raised an impressive $8.4 million.
She went all in on women’s empowerment; after all, maybe for the first time ever, being a young, female candidate was an asset rather than a detriment. She denounced the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh and stood publicly with local GOP consultant Jennifer Van Laar, retweeting an interview in which Van Laar said she had been sexually harassed by a Republican assembly candidate who’d defeated Van Laar’s candidate in a primary. “Believe Women,” Hill tweeted. “#TimesUp.”
In defeating Knight, Hill became part of the historic group of women who flipped the House from red to blue in 2018, and only the second openly bisexual woman ever to serve in Congress. She seemed like the future, and quickly became a power player in Washington. Hill’s freshman House colleagues elected her to represent them at the Democratic-leadership table, a role that would groom her for even more prominent positions. She was also named vice-chair of the prestigious House Oversight Committee and had the ear of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Former members of Hill’s staff tell me they’d eagerly hitched their wagons to her star, figuring their career paths were set for the next ten, 20, maybe even 30 years. Hill might be a senator one day, they thought, or House Speaker.
At her swearing-in with Heslep.
Photo: Cliff Owen/AP/Shutterstock/Copyright (c) 2019 Shutterstock. No use without permission.
Hill and Morgan first met at a community event early in the fall of 2017. As Hill tells it, they got into a conversation about politics, and she mentioned her campaign was looking to hire someone to manage her schedule and help with fund-raising.
Morgan (who declined to be interviewed) accepted the offer as the campaign’s third employee. “She was hired as my body person, my person who was literally with me all the time,” said Hill. “Part of it was talking. We both identified as bi, right? That was one of the things that drew her to the campaign. And she was also younger than me and hadn’t had as much experience being a bi woman. I ended up revealing that I’d had a [three-person] relationship before.”
“I can only account for my feelings, but we fell in love. I don’t think there’s any way for it not to come off as bad,” Hill said. “But whatever. We developed feelings for each other, and even from day one, it was like, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this; this is a bad idea.’ But [we] did anyway, and hoped that it was just not going to come out.”
Hill said she’d been unhappy in her marriage for a long time but didn’t recognize Heslep’s controlling behavior — like listening in on her phone calls — as abusive. Stevenson expressed concern but says Hill would pull away when she did. “It was devastating to watch our daughter fall into this pattern with him,” she says. The marriage wasn’t open, so a relationship with Morgan required bringing Heslep into the fold. The three of them hung out together rock-climbing, watching Breaking Bad, playing video games. They told their families about the relationship. They spent holidays together.
A tenet of the Me Too movement is that a person can’t fully consent, not really, anyway, to someone who wields power over him or her. During her campaign, Hill often tweeted about Me Too issues of harassment and abuse. As the candidate, she was inarguably at the top rung of her campaign team. Yet she said she didn’t feel like she was in charge, not when she was barely 30 and most staffers were in their 20s. “We joked about this a lot. Morgan was way more my boss than I was hers,” said Hill, “because she got me to places on time. So yes, I recognize that I had power, but also it just wasn’t like that at the time … I was a fucking person that was a few years older than her, and we got wrapped up in this movement of trying to do something, and I happened to be the face of it. But to me, she was just as responsible for it, you know?”
Early in their relationship, Hill, Heslep, and Morgan traveled to Alaska together, where Heslep took the photo of Hill nude, brushing Morgan’s hair. In the picture, Hill is staring down and Morgan is looking toward the lens. Hill said she didn’t know he was taking the shot, which appears to be candid. There is another photo of Hill and Morgan, also in the hotel, both clothed and smiling at the camera. She said she knew about that one but not another image that appears to have been taken just moments before or after, in which the two women are kissing. “I don’t think I would have been okay with that,” she said. “Well, I definitely wouldn’t have been okay with that.”
While only a few senior campaign staffers officially knew about the relationship, “it started to become more and more of an open secret,” according to one former team member. “People started to connect two and two together: [Morgan] is not a senior staff member; why is she at Katie’s house?”
As Hill became a viable candidate, there was a discussion about whether Morgan should step away. Hill said she doesn’t remember who initiated those talks, just that Morgan was invested in the campaign and didn’t want to leave. But Hill was also heavily leaning on their relationship, calling Morgan “a vital, vital support … There’s so much about having survived that last year and a half of my marriage and having survived through the campaign that I don’t know what I would have done if she weren’t in the picture,” she said.
During this time, Hill said, Heslep’s controlling behaviors escalated, a reaction to her not being around very much. While working at PATH, she’d been home most nights for dinner and rarely traveled. The campaign created a new reality — long hours, often seven days a week. The Vice series depicts a tight-knit group cranking out fund-raising calls, liquor bottles lined up on a shelf in the closet, and Hill joking with staffers. She suddenly had an entire life separate from her husband. “There were fights where Kenny was kind of like, ‘Choose me or the campaign,’ ” she said.
According to Hill, Morgan pointed out Heslep’s abusive behaviors. “One of the things I feel guiltiest about was, even then, I was like, ‘No, no, no, this is fine, this is normal,’ ” she said, adding that Heslep eventually began verbally berating Morgan, too. “Sometimes I told him, ‘You can’t fucking do that to her.’ ” By October 2018, Hill said, her relationship with Heslep had become unbearable. “For hours and hours and hours, he would just scream at me. He wouldn’t let me sleep.” The smallest trigger could set off an explosion — if Hill didn’t text Heslep enough throughout the day, if she forgot to bring him a fork at dinner. “It would turn into total belittling, like, ‘You are completely selfish, and you’ve got a God complex, and this whole campaign thing has completely gone to your head, and if anyone really knew you like I know you, there’s no way that you would be able to do this,’ ” she said. (Heslep’s lawyers released the following statement in response to Hill’s public remarks regarding the abuse: “Ms. Hill has made no allegations of abuse in her Petition for Dissolution. Mr. Heslep denies any allegations of abuse or wrongdoing outright.” Heslep, not Hill, filed for the divorce, and California is a no-fault state that does not require either partner to prove wrongdoing.)
The breaking point was a few weeks before the election. Hill was having suicidal thoughts. “I tried to talk to him about that, and he basically turned it around to be my fault and said to me, ‘Well, if you really feel that way about us and about everything, then you should go do it,’ ” she said. “He kept trying to hand me a gun and told me, ‘Well, if you go up in that corner, then no one will hear you.’ ”
The suggestion was even crueler because of a past incident: The friend whose suicide Hill talked about on the campaign trail had shot herself on Hill and Heslep’s property, where she’d been living in a yurt with her husband. Los Angeles County detective Marcelo Quintero says the 25-year-old woman was found near a car, next to a .22 rifle, with bullets in her pocket and a gunshot wound to her head, after she and her husband had gotten into a fight and she made an ominous phone call to her parents. County records show her body was not found for several hours after her death. “Sometimes in these areas, it’s feasible that you’re not going to hear a shot,” Quintero says.
The night of Hill’s confrontation with Heslep, she called a campaign staffer and asked him to pick her up at 6 a.m., before Heslep was awake. She loaded her belongings into his car, and Hill later drove to her mother’s house. Stevenson says Heslep called her that night. As she recalls, “He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about her political career, I will destroy her. She needs help.’ ” (Hill’s stepdad overheard the threat, and a campaign staffer who was present also confirms it.)
Heslep sent flowers and cards, and a couple of weeks before the election, Hill went back to him. It was easier to pretend things were okay. “I knew at that point I was going to leave. It was just a matter of time,” she said.
Winning the election provided Hill with a clear exit: She moved to D.C. without Heslep or Morgan and got an apartment with fellow House freshman Lauren Underwood of Illinois. For the most part, she returned to California only on weekends for short trips packed with work events. By May, she had decided to end the relationship with both Heslep and Morgan. Now that she’d been elected, “I knew I can’t be in this relationship with Morgan,” she said. “And I also knew I needed to get out with Kenny. I think one of the things that Morgan is probably — in fact, I know one of the things she’s most upset by — is that by the end, Kenny was also taking out a lot on her, right? I left her in a really bad situation.”
By mid-2019, Hill was thriving in her new role in Congress. She’d begun a romantic relationship with Alex Thomas, a political writer she met in D.C. In August, they went on a beach vacation together. “There was this overwhelming sense then that, like, this is perfect,” she said. “I feel so happy and I feel like I’ve accomplished so much and I’m doing this important work. And, like, it can’t really get better than this, and maybe this is the point that I should just check out, right?” She said she stared at the ocean and thought of The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, a feminist novel from the turn of the 20th century in which a dissatisfied wife and mother commits suicide by drowning.
Hill said Morgan eventually broke up with Heslep but remained on the campaign team in California. “It’s not like I could fire Morgan,” Hill said. “That’s part of why it’s problematic, right? You can’t promote somebody without it being a problem. You can’t give them a raise. You can’t fire them.”
Heslep had filed for divorce in July, and tensions were heightening around the issue of alimony. “I knew he had everything he needed to ruin me,” said Hill. “The relationship with Morgan alone was enough.”
According to screen grabs of private Facebook messages sent to Santa Clarita news podcaster Stephen Daniels, Heslep had been shopping around what he called “the whole story” about Hill very early in the morning on September 27. Daniels, who had hosted Hill on his show, declined it. “I assumed he just wanted to air dirty laundry about the divorce,” he says.
Heslep sent Daniels a long response that ping-ponged between smiley-face and sobbing emoji, in which he accused Hill of “fighting even basic spousal support” and of draining their accounts. Next, Heslep posted on Facebook an accusation about Hill having a sexual relationship with her legislative director, Kelly. On October 10, a writer for the conservative political blog RedState, published a story based on Heslep’s claim. Local political operatives soon had their hands on information about Hill that they were sharing internally.
Seven days later, conservative radio host Joe Messina — a self-described “Right-wing, Bible-thumping, White guy” and former campaign adviser for Steve Knight — wrote on his blog that he’d received “over 700 images, pictures, texts, and notes on the escapades of one Katie Hill” and that he’d seen photos of her “in sexual situations” with a female campaign staffer. The next day, Van Laar — the GOP consultant Hill had supported in her Me Too accusations, now a writer for Red State — published the first article to include intimate photos of Hill as well as her private texts.
Hill and her staff used feminist messaging. “The fact is I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” she said in a statement. “I am disgusted that my opponents would seek to exploit such a private matter for political gain.” While Heslep has not talked to the press about the photos, his father, Fred, told BuzzFeed that his son says he was hacked and that he denies playing a role in disseminating the photos. Hill said Heslep also issued her a warning: “He was like, ‘You’re going to want to stop with this abusive-husband stuff, because that’s not going to age well.’ ”
Initially, Hill said she would cooperate with the Ethics Committee and forge ahead with her work in Congress. RedState was a right-wing blog with a relatively small readership. But on the morning of October 24, she woke up to news that the British tabloid the Daily Mail, one of the most-read news outlets in the world, had published a story featuring additional explicit photographs. Hill turned to Thomas and said, “It’s over.”
After her resignation speech.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images/2019 Getty Images
Hill went into crisis mode, calling her chief of staff, lawyers from the high-powered firm Perkins Coie, and consultants who’d worked on her campaign — including Lindsay Bubar, who’d been a senior adviser, and Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for President Obama.
Alone in her D.C. apartment, Hill opened a bottle of wine. She started reading articles about herself and “just got more and more depressed,” she told me. She ran a bath and lit candles. As she soaked in the water, she said, “I had this wave of I just want this to be done.” She got out of the tub to find a box cutter, then settled for a knife. Back in the tub, she held the knife up to her wrist but then thought about what it would mean for her family. “And then I thought about, well, what if I try and somebody stops it — [if Thomas] comes in and he’s worried and he has the super open [the apartment] for a wellness check, and then I get 5150-ed [involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility] and go to the fucking hospital and my family has to fly across the country?,” she said. “So I was just like, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. And I stopped and put the knife away.”
As Hill told it, shortly after, Thomas pounded on her apartment door. (He says the door was open and he walked in to find her in the bathtub. There are multiple inconsistencies in their details of the night.) He’d been out with friends, watching the Nationals play in the World Series. “I guess I’d been texting in a way that had him worried,” Hill told me. Thomas says he grabbed the knife from the edge of the tub; she’d scraped her wrists with it. After hiding the knife in a closet and putting on “some inane TV show,” he says he went out to get junk food. “I thought, What do you get someone to eat after they just tried to kill themselves?,” he says.
Thomas called a member of Hill’s staff, relayed the situation and said that Hill needed to step down. “My emotional bandwidth was fried,” he says. (Thomas later published information about the dissemination of the photos on his personal newsletter, unaffiliated with any of the outlets he writes for, and tweeted about his investigation on the matter. He didn’t reveal his relationship with Hill.) Hill soon started writing her resignation speech. She sent her finished draft to Bubar, who Hill said edited out the long list of apologies she planned to issue. Hill put them back in.
“I am leaving,” she said on the House floor, “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.”
Afterward, Massachusetts Democratic congresswoman Ayanna Pressley handed Hill a T-shirt that read, IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION. Pressley and Hill had become friends early on, when Hill — having learned that her office had once belonged to Shirley Chisholm and that Pressley wanted it — insisted they switch.
Many of Hill’s Democratic colleagues remained silent. But plenty of those who didn’t publicly stand by Hill did so privately, attending a farewell party Underwood threw on the roof of their apartment building. Until then, the silence on social media had been excruciating. “As a fellow politician, I understand why this is messy, and you can’t explain it in 280 characters, and everyone from your comms team is telling you, ‘Don’t touch this.’ But I’m here, and I feel so alone,” Hill said, tearing up. “When they showed up, I was like, Thank God.”
In a video posted online a few days before Hill left Congress, she vowed to “take up a new fight” against what’s commonly called revenge porn. She began talking with lawyers and came across an article about her case by Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer in Brooklyn who specializes in victims’-rights law and cyberexploitation and is often featured in the media. Hill called Goldberg, who came to D.C. the next day. The legal battle will likely be long and messy, and so far, the GoFundMe to help cover Hill’s fees has raised more than $29,000. In the meantime, the photos remain online.
Hill was the first member of Congress to be investigated under the House rule against relationships with staffers, approved in February 2018. She is also the first female member to resign amid allegations of her own misconduct. But since the dawn of the Me Too movement in October 2017, four men in Congress — including representatives John Conyers, Trent Franks, and Pat Meehan as well as Senator Al Franken — resigned after admitting to or being accused of various transgressions. In November, the Ethics Committee announced a second probe under its new rule, this time into an alleged longtime romantic relationship between Florida congressman Alcee Hastings and a congressional aide whom he’d reportedly paid more than his chief of staff for a decade.
Hill said there were rumors swirling around the halls of Congress about plenty of lawmakers that nobody was acting on. “You know that so-and-so is banging their staff … You know, it’s very common,” she said. “Look, it’s not confirmed, so I can’t say. Whatever.”
When I ask Pressley if she agrees with Hill that a double standard was at play, she emphatically says yes. There’s a long pause before she speaks again. “Are you kidding me?”
At the 2020 State of the Union address.
Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images/2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.
The apartment that Hill and Underwood shared until late January had the feel of a modern corporate rental or an Airbnb that nobody actually lives in — a place to sleep and shower on your way somewhere else. Hill’s congressional wardrobe still hung in her closet like a museum exhibit, reds and blues and tweeds from some other period. There was no rug, no photos on the wall. The closest thing to décor was Underwood’s framed poster of Chisholm leaning against the wall and a stack of books sent by Hill’s agent: And Then We Grew Up, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Rage Becomes Her, Unscrewed, and Why Does He Do That?
Hill said she was tens of thousands of dollars in debt from her divorce’s legal fees, and her last congressional paycheck was deposited on December 1. So she was wasting no time in launching her comeback. Hill is simultaneously writing a book, appearing regularly on TV, taking paid speaking gigs about women’s empowerment, and starting a political PAC with money from her war chest.
Some of her former staffers have distanced themselves, at least publicly — scrubbing Hill’s name from their social-media bios and, in the case of at least one senior staffer, removing their time with her from their LinkedIn page. In the immediate aftermath of the photos’ release, someone in Hill’s hometown put up posters of her in a Nazi uniform with the hashtag #WifeSwappenSS. Her mother received texts with those same images. A man with a camera began parking his car outside Stevenson’s house and trailing her and her husband when they walked out their door. A suspicious, but ultimately innocuous, white powder was sent to her district office.
Hill said she feared that what happened to her will deter other young women from running for office, and her experience has shaken some of her former colleagues. Underwood, at 33 the youngest black woman ever to serve in Congress, tells me, “There is extreme risk in me doing this interview with you right now.” (Multiple Democrats contacted for this article, either directly or through their press offices, declined or never responded to repeated requests to be interviewed.) “There is an entire political party armed with millions of dollars willing and ready to spend to clip these quotes that I’m giving you right now to be used for my political peril. And I didn’t even do anything.”
In December, Hill went home for the holidays. “There’s a lot I have to heal from,” she told me before leaving. “There’s also three years of lost time — like even phone calls I didn’t have time for, to talk to my friends.” But the trip wasn’t a respite. Her mother underwent surgery to relieve a buildup of fluid around her brain. Then, on the morning of January 18, Hill found her 20-year-old brother dead on her mother’s couch from what Hill describes as an apparent overdose (the toxicology report has not yet been completed). They were both at home because Stevenson was still in the hospital recovering. “I was with him the night before,” said Hill. “I saw him in the morning, like two hours, probably, before it happened.” She said she did CPR but to no avail. “The night before, we hung out. We talked about our plans for the future … I was recording our conversation, because I was, like, I just thought it was an interesting conversation. I was like, ‘Do you mind if I record this? I feel like I might use this for something someday.’ And it was from the fucking night before.”
Hill crowdfunded the funeral and shared a link to donate on Twitter, raising more than $15,000. (She deleted the tweet weeks later.) After her brother’s death, she couldn’t bear to be at her mother’s house and instead went to Malibu to stay at a home owned by one of her former donors.
“I hate pity more than anything else, and the last several months have led to a lot of pity,” said Hill. People ask if she’s okay, and her family worries about her mental health. “After my brother died, my mom and sister made me make a pact that I would never actually do something like that, and I was like, ‘Of course not,’ ” she said. “It was starkly clear to me once my brother died that that was totally off the table.”
Hill flew out to D.C. for the State of the Union address, just over two weeks after her brother’s death (members have lifetime invitations to attend). Wearing suffragette white, as she had the year before, as well as her congressional pin, she walked down the halls of the Capitol with her former colleagues, passing reporters on the way. This seemed to have been the point. Hill was highly aware that her new path hinged on remaining relevant. “The easier thing is definitely not showing up, right?,” she told me the next day. “For me, personally, it feels really fucking shitty. Going there and being the person where it’s like, you’re not a member anymore, what are you doing here?”
Hill’s book advance allowed her to move into a one-bedroom apartment in D.C. — for the first time in her life, she had a place of her own. She pointed out the balcony and the washer-dryer. She couldn’t wait to pick out a rug. Red is her favorite color, but she was thinking gray and white — a Scandinavian vibe, something calming. It had the feel of a fresh start. “Being out of office is so much easier than being in office,” she said. “This year, I’m going to make a lot more money. I’m going to have a bunch of vacations. I’m going to have a lot of downtime.”
There’s suddenly a lot of freedom in her life. She has a new girlfriend. “Let’s put it this way: I’m new at being single, and I’m seeing a few people,” she said. It mattered less what people say or who they see her with. And while she hadn’t ruled out a future run for office, “I’m not going to live my life planning to run.” In a year when she thought she’d be campaigning for her reelection, she has thrown her weight behind California assemblywoman Christy Smith. It’s shaping up to be a political circus, with 13 candidates seeking her seat, including Knight and former Trump campaign adviser and convicted felon George Papadopoulos.
Sometimes, as we were talking, I could see Hill calculating what she thought I’d respond to and how. She texted me a link to Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect” and said there’s a line that stood out to her now: “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” But when the narrative shifted from the story she wanted to tell, so did her tone. After letting her know in person that a detail she’d omitted came up in my reporting, she sent me a series of increasingly agitated texts. On the phone, she choked up and yelled, saying that unless I promise her it won’t be included, anxiety would hang over her. “So you should know that,” she said. A week later, even though I told her I couldn’t promise not to include it, she texted to apologize for getting so emotional. She had a couple more TV spots lined up, she said. She was going to be on Good Morning America and The View.
Only hours after Hill appeared on The View on February 21, happily tweeting a photo of herself in a pink blazer outside the green room, news broke that the FBI had arrested a hacker connected to her campaign: Arthur Dam, who is married to Hill’s campaign fund-raiser and later district director, Kelsey O’Hara, was tied to a series of cyberattacks that had temporarily shut down the website of one of Hill’s Democratic opponents in the lead-up to the 2018 primary, just before the start of an important debate. The target was Bryan Caforio, a lawyer who had once been considered the Democratic favorite. He lost to Hill in the primary by a little under 2,700 votes. (A senior staffer for another primary opponent, Jess Phoenix, says hacking attempts were made on the campaign’s computer systems and staffers’ social-media accounts, but nothing was breached.)
Cafario tells me he’d had his suspicions when Hill’s website was never targeted. “Of course, after the 2016 election, everybody in the world is worried about Russia and interference. But I’m sitting there thinking, Would Russia really care about little old me in a primary against a congressional candidate?,” he says.
Daniels, the local-politics podcaster, who’d also moderated a 2018 primary debate, says many Democrats in her district had been forgiving about the relationship with Morgan and shown sympathy for the circumstances under which Hill resigned. Her continued popularity was so strong that Smith’s campaign had gladly and publicly accepted her endorsement and fund-raising help. But now, Daniels says, the tone among people he knows — many of whom knocked on doors for and donated to Hill’s campaign — has changed. “Honestly, it’s ‘Fuck her. Go away, Katie. You’ve disappointed us all,’ ” he says. “There are people who are just like, ‘I can’t believe we worked so hard to get her elected and all this crap is coming out about her.’ ” As one Democratic strategist said, “At the end of the day, the buck stops with the candidate,” he says. “If she didn’t know, she should have.”
There are rumblings that there’s more to come, and just over a week before the primary, Smith’s campaign appeared to be distancing itself from Hill in light of the FBI complaint. “Hacking, phishing, cyber-attacks, or any other illegal interference — foreign or domestic, from either side of the aisle — cannot be tolerated. I’ve read the latest reports, and they are deeply troubling,” Smith said in a written statement. Smith has, however, publicly been endorsed by Hill’s PAC. Endorsements come with a $2,000 donation and an email list, which Smith didn’t return.
Hill’s reinvention as full-time feminist champion has relied almost entirely on people both liking and trusting her. Her forthcoming book, She Will Rise, will be both a memoir and “about how women ultimately shift power,” Hill said. (It will be released on August 18, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.) And on the purple-and-pink website for Hill’s new PAC, HER Time, she pledged to help women running for office, making amends for what she called “this unreconciled dynamic around what happened with Morgan.” The possibility that Hill’s campaign had cheated does not fit well with the image she’d assembled, especially not when some voters are frustrated that Hill didn’t funnel her war chest back into the district. Bubar, the senior adviser who also handles Hill’s personal publicity and is helping with her book, was paid $10,000 in December from PAC funds. That same month, Morgan and at least two other campaign staffers were paid for “administrative services” related to the campaign closure, according to a Federal Election Commission report — and Morgan declined to comment for this article through Bubar.
Hill denied being involved in the hacking and said that the news of the FBI complaint came “as a total surprise to me.” While O’Hara was part of Hill’s tight-knit senior campaign team, Hill said she only met her husband a couple of times at events. “It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to ask someone to do this — even if I were nefarious — because it would have such a low impact,” she said of the hackings. Hill said her lawyers had advised her not to have contact with O’Hara. “I really feel like this is not something, like, in any way that would have been worth the risk,” she said. Hill paused. “Kelsey, I don’t even think she would have known … I think she would been the same way, like, ‘How would shutting down the website for any period of time help us when you are seen as interfering in an election?’ ” Hill issued a formal statement, but “the side reaction I had to it was like, Fuck,” she told me. “This is a scandal I had nothing to do with … you’re like, What the hell, does it ever stop?”
As news of the hacking arrest spread on Twitter, Hill posted, “Sometimes you think you’ve hit your lowest low & are on the upswing, starting to feel ok, then something else happens & you slide right back into the mud. You just want to sink all the way in instead of trying to fight your way back up. But you will rise again. #depression.”
Late that night, she shared a photo of herself and a friend out dancing, and soon she was back to tweeting about politics and wanting a pet squirrel. The next week, there were plugs for HER Time in national media outlets, with headlines such as “Katie Hill’s Next Chapter Starts Now” and “Katie Hill Is on a Mission to Get Young Women Elected to Office,” and a New York Times piece about her book that didn’t mention the hacking. Hill seemed to know the news cycle moves fast and that the interest in her, no matter what prompts it, is valuable. “She is an unbelievable political talent,” says the strategist, who watched her campaign closely. “Katie has that quality that people don’t believe negative things about her.”
*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
Katie Hill, After the Scandal