Tim Whyte | Owned Mistakes and Flawed Political Strategy

By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

So for now, we have no one in Congress.

Ending a two-week firestorm of media attention, Katie Hill, the Democratic congresswoman from Agua Dulce, called it quits rather than enduring additional scrutiny and the potential for more embarrassing leaked photos. 

At that point, I don’t blame her for resigning. Take one look at the video message she posted for constituents after she announced her resignation, and you can tell she’s gone through hell the past couple weeks. I may disagree with Katie Hill on politics, but no one should have to go through what she went through. 

However, that does not mean she is without responsibility for her own situation, and that’s the narrative being pushed by many of Hill’s supporters and national media outlets. To her credit, for the first time really, in her final speech on the House floor Thursday she apologized and acknowledged that she had made significant errors in judgment. I’d been waiting to hear that from her — and in fact, I’d already written a different version of this column before she took the floor on Thursday. I was glad to do the last-minute rewrite.

Is Katie Hill a victim? On one hand, yes. No one should be subjected to anything like the public shaming that emanated from the release of intimate images and text messages, in the media and in social media. 

However, her ability to legitimately play the victim card must be tempered by her own behavior, which was at least unwise, and at worst a violation of House ethics rules. She made significant errors in judgment. Prior to Thursday, she had essentially dismissed them, but in that speech, she said, “I’m sorry,” no fewer than five times, apologizing to groups ranging from supporters to her staff to her loved ones and little girls who look up to her and aspire to become leaders. 

“The mistakes I made and the people I’ve hurt that led to this moment will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Hill said. “Ever since those images first came out, I’ve barely left my bed. I’ve ignored all the calls and texts. I went to the darkest places that a mind can go, and I’ve shed more tears than I thought were possible. I’ve hidden from the world, because I am terrified of facing all the people I let down.” 

She did the right thing by owning her role in the situation. Even Hill’s harshest critics should acknowledge that.

So many people these days don’t “own” their mistakes and take responsibility, and much of the media falls right into lock-step with that. There’s very little public expectation that individuals should be responsible for their own actions and the consequences of them. (Illegal immigration, anyone?)

The leaked images in question depicted the intimate nature of Hill’s relationship with a former paid campaign staffer. Anyone who’s ever taken an employer-mandated sexual harassment course could tell you that was a recipe for disaster. Still unproven — maybe forever to be unproven — is the allegation that she further had a sexual relationship with her congressional legislative director, which a week and a half ago prompted the House Ethics Committee to announce it would be investigating. The legislative director, Graham Kelly, lamented to the New York Post this week that his life and those of other staffers are “ruined” over the allegations. No word from Kelly — who received a $5,100 campaign “bonus” from Hill’s campaign in April — about whether his or Hill’s own actions played any role in the ruination.

I do feel bad for Katie Hill. The publication of those images, and the social media reactions that ensued, were beyond the pale. We haven’t run the images in The Signal, and we won’t. But the behavior — having sexual relationships with subordinates — is not OK. 

And, contrary to the assertions of Hill and her supporters, this is not a double standard because she is a woman. The list of men who faced serious consequences for similar behavior runs back for decades. In the 115th Congress alone (2017-18), Business Insider lists nine members of Congress forced to step down amid sexual misconduct scandals, ranging in severity. Four were Democrats, five were Republicans, and eight out of nine were men.

Men, women, Republicans, Democrats. Abuse of power comes from many corners.

To be clear, I’m not saying Hill’s behavior was inappropriate because of any factor except it was with a subordinate over whom she held power. I don’t give a damn about the rest of the details, her sexuality, the terms under which her marriage operated, or the photos that had so many of her critics foaming at the mouth. Were it not for the question of paid staffers being involved, none of it would be any of our business.

All that being said, looking at it purely from a Machiavellian standpoint, those who pushed the story out really screwed it up, strategically. 

Sure. They got her to resign. Some resorted to sleazy tactics to do it, but mission accomplished, I guess. In politics, all that matters is winning, right?

They may not even get that. Their strategic mistake? They did it too early. 

By pushing the story now, they gave their political opponents plenty of time to mobilize. There’s time for a special election to fill the 25th Congressional District seat before the 2020 general election, and there’s time for new candidates to join the 2020 fray who otherwise would not have run.  

Within hours of Hill’s Sunday announcement, we learned former Rep. Steve Knight — the Republican Hill defeated in 2018 — was considering a run for his old seat. By Monday, Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith already had her congressional campaign in high gear: website, video, online fundraising and a flurry of press releases announcing endorsements. 

George Papadopoulus, a former advisor to President Trump, is running. We already had three Republicans running — Lancaster Councilwoman Angela Underwood Jacobs, former naval officer Mike Garcia and sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Cripe — plus Democratic business owner David Rudnick.

Hill’s seat in Congress isn’t anywhere near cold yet. It’s a crowded field and the fur has already started flying with jabs between some of the candidates.

Get your popcorn ready, folks. 

If Smith — or any other Democrat — wins the seat, then the strategy will have backfired on those who executed it. In last week’s editorial, we suggested that maybe karma was coming home to roost for Hill, a year after she described Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a “serial predator” without proof. 

Here we are again, with more irony. Thanks to the timing, Hill’s political enemies might have just handed the seat to another Democrat. 

And there’s our old friend karma. 

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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