SANTA CLARITA, CALIFORNIA — On a blisteringly hot Saturday morning in June, 10 days after 30-year-old Katie Hill emerged as the Democratic party’s candidate to unseat Republican Steve Knight for California’s 25th Congressional district, dozens of her supporters gathered at the campaign’s cramped headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita to prepare for a massive voter registration drive. This last remaining GOP bastion in Los Angeles County (the district also includes parts of Ventura County) is high up on the list of priorities for Democrats hoping to turn the district from red-to-blue in November.
Hill’s campaign had run an aggressive, highly effective ground game, bolstered by social media, in the weeks leading up to California’s “jungle primary,” with hundreds of volunteers canvassing the district and eventually knocking on 80,000 doors. As the campaign looks to the midterms, capitalizing on that momentum is crucial to unseat an incumbent who, Hill believes, is out of step with his constituents.
Volunteers at Hill’s Santa Clarita campaign office listen as she speaks. (Courtesy, Katie Hill for Congress)
“I don’t believe Steve Knight is representing our values … He’s dependent entirely on the [Republican] party because he hasn’t been able to raise money on his own,” Hill told ThinkProgress.
Knight was first elected to Congress in 2014 and is the latest GOP representative in more than two decades of Republican leadership in the 25th district. The area was one of seven historically red districts in California that voted for Clinton in 2016, a reality that could tilt the scales in Hill’s favor. Though Knight was re-elected by a slim 6 percent margin in 2016, Hill and her team think the district’s growing Democratic population (Democrats now comprise 38 percent of the 25th’s registered voters) gives them a good chance of flipping the seat.
“We actually have the registration advantage,” said Steve Pierson, Southern California field director for SwingLeft, which has thrown its organizing muscle and money behind Hill. “There’s a large number of independent voters who demographically, in years past, would have been leaning Republican. But they [unaffiliated voters] represent a lot of young people that have recently registered on college campuses and are increasingly more liberal than before.”
SwingLeft presents a donation check to Katie Hill. (Courtesy, Katie Hill for Congress)
Hill garnered slightly more than 20 percent of the total number of ballots cast in June’s primary, well-behind Knight’s 53 percent share of the votes, but she has proven to be an effective fundraiser, outpacing Knight for two consecutive quarters leading up to the primary. The latest Cook Political Report ratings list the race as a Republican toss-up.
“The numbers are there. It’s all about turnout,” Pierson said.
“This is a part of my identity”
Knight, an Army veteran and former law enforcement officer, served as a city council member in his hometown of Palmdale and in the California legislature before being elected to Congress. In many ways, Knight followed the career trajectory of his father, Pete, who served a two-decade career in politics. While in the state Senate, the elder Knight authored “Proposition 22,” a ballot measure approved by voters that banned same-sex marriage and was eventually struck down by the California State Supreme Court as contrary to the state constitution. The younger Knight, too, has voted for initiatives against the LGBTQ community, most recently a proposal to allow federal contractors to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Hill identifies as bisexual (she married her husband, Kenny Heslep, in 2010) and has made LGBTQ rights a central part of her campaign. If elected, she would be the second openly bisexual member of Congress.
“A lot of people told me I should be quiet about being bisexual and not say anything, but for me this is a part of my identity, said Hill. “We have a Republican Congress that wants to restrict LGBTQ rights and a Supreme Court that could overturn gay marriage.”
Hill added that she was surprised by the number of people who questioned whether she was actually bisexual or surmised that she was merely claiming that she was bi because she wanted to garner support within the LGBTQ community or beef up her liberal credentials.
“Anyone who knows anything about coming out knows that this is something you would never do for the support and a small check from a random organization,” she added.
Hill takes a selfie with volunteers. (Courtesy, Katie Hill for Congress)
It hasn’t been easy. While Hill said she hasn’t experienced homophobia, she has dealt with a great deal of sexism and gendered criticism on the campaign trail — from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“I’ve had men grab my butt,” she said. “It’s like, how are people treating me like this? I hadn’t experienced this as a professional in any other setting. You’re opened up in terms of scrutiny from every level. Even from high up in the Democratic party. You’re asked if you’re strong enough to stand up to Steve Knight. You’re questioned on your experience in comparison to the male candidates even though if my resume went with a man’s name, then objectively it would totally overshadow my male counterpart’s experience.”
Hill’s honesty about her identity and her experiences has resonated with her supporters, who advocate for her fiercely. Her list of endorsements is long and includes big celebrity names, such as Kristen Bell and Chris Parnell.
“I’ve been supporting Katie Hill almost as long as she’s been in this race and I see the same passion in her to do what’s right and she really cares about her district,” former Congressional candidate and CA-25 resident Tracy Van Houten told The South Pasadenan earlier this year. “I’ve unlocked a lot of my network to her and I support her as part of that wave that’s going to take control of congress in 2018. I’m one of her biggest fans and I will knock on doors for her and phone bank and whatever it takes.”
The community has responded well largely because Knight has done a poor job of addressing their key concerns, including on issues of health care and income inequality.
“He’s taken the votes he has against health care even though the vast majority of people in this district did not want him to take that vote,” Hill said, referring to Knight’s vote in favor of the wildly unpopular Republican health plan. “He’s voted to raise taxes on people in this district. He could have not voted that way and the tax bill would still have passed and he would have been better suited for this election.”
Katie’s mother, Rachel Stephenson (L), and her mother in law Kathy Heslep (R), help with phone banking. (Courtesy, Katie Hill for Congress)
It’s not surprising, then, that Knight was continually met by jeering constituents throughout his district almost every time he came back from Washington. The groundswell of negative opinion was so great at one town hall meeting in Palmdale last year that Knight had to be escorted to his car by a number of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
It was at one such public meeting that Hill grilled Knight on his stance on the GOP health plan, asking the incumbent “why you didn’t stand up to Paul Ryan and the rest of your party to protect us from that horrible piece of legislation?” Her question was met with cheers and applause.
A “pragmatic progressive”
Hill never aspired to hold public office. Like many of the women currently running for office throughout the country, she felt empowered by the 2017 Women’s March. On the heels of the protest, a number of colleagues, mentors, and friends urged her to get more politically involved and challenge Knight.
Though she hadn’t imagined public service in her future, Hill was no stranger to policy. As the former executive director for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a non-profit agency that develops affordable and supportive housing for people in need, Hill helped craft legislation and eventually implemented large federal programs at the local level, including those dealing with veterans issues and Medicaid.
Hill considers herself a “pragmatic progressive” and says traditional labels don’t apply to her campaign.
“There will be times that I’m not in line completely with the Democratic party because I don’t think that’s in the best interests of this district. There is no comparison to me and Nancy Pelosi. On most of the issues I’m going to be more progressive, but I’m going to look at it from the lens of what is best for my community,” she said.
A group of Hill volunteers prepare for a voter registration drive. (Courtesy, Katie Hill for Congress)
Trying to bridge an ever-widening divide among Republicans and Democrats by taking a more moderate position worked effectively in Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) campaign earlier this year, especially on issues like gun control — and it appears to be part of Hill’s strategy, as well. Like Lamb, she is a strong advocate for Second Amendment rights, which is as significant an issue in the 25th district as it was in Lamb’s. Her position on gun legislation has been a bone of contention for many left-leaning Democrats in the area. Hill’s father is in law enforcement and she grew up around guns. She, herself, is a gun owner and understands the vehement opposition to any form of regulation in some corners of her district. Still, she advocates the implementation of sensible gun laws.
“There are already regulations in place in California. My framework is to take them to a national level. Background checks, ensuring people who are domestic abusers are unable to purchase weapons, banning bump stocks and high capacity magazines. That kind of consistency won’t take away people’s Second Amendment rights,” said Hill.
“I think Katie is exactly where the people are, not just in the 25th district, but across the country,” said Angela Kuefler, vice president of research at Global Strategy Group, who has been overseeing issue engagement for EMILY’s List in a number of congressional districts across the country, including California’s 25th. EMILY’s List endorsed Hill early in her campaign.
“You can firmly believe in your right to own and bear arms and you can also believe there are things we can do to stop the carnage. People are far more willing to see that there is a moderate and middle ground than anyone really gives the public credit for,” Kuefler said.
Many of her supporters agree.
“I’m far more left-leaning than Katie but I would much rather have someone who is progressive and doesn’t agree with me on all the issues, but will be honest with me when we disagree,” Ryan Skolnick, a college student from Simi Valley and a delegate to the California Democratic party, told ThinkProgress.
“Not someone who will pander to me and betray me in Congress later.”