Congress

Katie Hill sees herself as bridge-builder between House Democratic leaders and progressive freshmen

California freshman is already a member of party leadership

UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., speaks at a press conference to introduce ACTION for National Service outside of the Capitol on Tuesday June 25, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Some freshman Democrats in the House have made names for themselves by amassing millions of Twitter followers, leading fiery protests or grilling former Trump officials in the committee room.

Katie Hill, a 32-year-old former nonprofit executive who won a longtime Republican district in the suburbs north of Los Angeles last fall, has made hers by stepping up to leadership roles that allow her to bridge the divides, both ideological and generational, in her caucus.

During her first weeks in Congress, Hill was elected freshman caucus co-representative (alongside Colorado’s Joe Neguse) and as vice chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee. In those roles, she represents a freshman class comprising a quarter of the House at the Democratic leadership table and helps steer a committee playing a prime role in oversight of the Trump administration.

Hill, chatting comfortably in her Longworth office, said she’s always sought leadership roles in her career, but she didn’t think it would happen this fast in her newest job. Clad in a T-shirt and leggings, Hill drew a visual contrast between the authenticity-focused younger generation of female politicians to which she belongs and their heels-and-suit-wearing predecessors.

“I have been very surprised at how I’ve been able to come in and be part of leadership,” she said. “It was always my intention to go in and be as effective as possible — and I knew that becoming part of leadership, in some capacity, was going to be an important way of doing that.”

Hill sees herself as a link between an experienced Democratic leadership team, whose decades in Congress can distance them from the grassroots, and the party’s fervent younger generations. She also hopes to bridge divides between the most liberal end of her party — the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example — and moderate freshmen in swing districts.

“If you’re talking about a tank of gas, I’m right at three-quarters of a tank,” she said of her place on the conservative/liberal spectrum. “And it’s important to me to be able to bridge the entire freshman class and therefore more of the caucus as a whole.”

Hill’s rapid rise to prominence despite her lack of legislative experience is not surprising to Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist based in California.

“The general view is that, coming in as a freshman in the House — all the more so because she’s not previously held elected office — you spend your first two years trying to find the restaurants,” Sragow said. “Times have changed, the world is different, seniority means less as time goes on. She’s been given significant responsibility and visibility from Day One, and that to me means that she’s impressive, that she’s respected.”

In her previous job, Hill operated on the other side of the legislative process — advocating measures to address homelessness, like Prop HHH, a ballot initiative to raise property taxes in Los Angeles to fund housing units for the homeless. It passed the same day Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

Those same issues have motivated her work so far in Congress. Along with two other House Democrats, Denny Heck of Washington and Ben McAdams of Utah, Hill helped found the New Democrats’ Housing Task Force, which aims to tackle America’s housing shortage.

“In the few short months we’ve been here, she’s earned the respect of her colleagues from across the political spectrum and is someone we see as a leader and a unifier,” McAdams said. “She has a bright future in the Congress because of her ability to bring people together and propose solutions.”

Hill is careful to acknowledge the difficulties of operating in a divided government. She refuses to make sweeping promises to her constituents about revolutionizing health care or ending the influence of money in politics, because objectives like that are all but impossible while Republicans hold the Senate and the White House.

She’s happy to tout smaller wins, like successfully offering amendments to the annual defense authorization bill to help California house its homeless population and to extend the legal protections from workplace harassment and discrimination for federal employees to interns and applicants for internships.

“Showing incremental progress, I think actually does mean something to people — it’s often written off because it’s not big and sexy,” she said.

Hill demurs on any personal leadership goals for future terms in Congress, instead citing wider Democratic goals as her own objectives if she’s reelected next year. Reviving HR 1, the Democratic majority’s package overhauling voting, campaign finance and ethics laws, which passed the House in March but has no prospects in the Senate, is her first priority. Then there’s health care, immigration and housing. At a recent town hall, she met a woman who’d been diagnosed with cancer and decided not to treat it because she’d rather pay for occupational therapy for her two autistic grandsons.

“Whatever we do around health care, whatever reforms we’re gonna make in the next ten years, however fast we’re able to accelerate it, she’s going to be dead before we can do something about it,” Hill said. “What I’ve found — and I know this must be the case for many legislators — it’s hard for me to know that I’m never going to get to all of the things that people care about.”

But for Hill, progress goes beyond legislating. It also involves representing people like her — people who have not always seen themselves represented at the highest echelons of government. She’s candid about the work that needs to be done, particularly in a legislative body that once belonged only to white men. Hill’s never felt like older members were telling her to “sit down and be quiet” — but the little moments do add up; for example, the time she joked to a male colleague about his affinity for one-minute speeches and he responded that he could be the “one-minute man or five-minute man or whatever.”

“How can I be a voice for the people who elected me?” she says. “And that’s not just my district, but it’s also young people, it’s the LGBT community, it’s women … it’s people who have not had a voice in politics before.”

Even though Hill represents a district she remembers as “deeply homophobic” while she grew up, she chose to be open about her bisexuality. When state legislatures like Alabama began passing restrictive anti-abortion measures, Hill shared that she had considered getting an abortion when she was 18 before she miscarried. She’s open about not coming from the same financial background as her wealthier colleagues; she shares a no-frills two-bedroom apartment in Washington with fellow freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, an Illinois Democrat.

“I have to be myself, and I believe that people want that,” she said. “They want to see someone who’s real and who relates to them.”

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