This piece is part of The Lily’s Right & Center project. Read the rest of the series here.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) ran what she calls “the most millennial campaign ever.” When she first announced her candidacy for California’s 25th District, at age 30, she was relatively unknown, leading a nonprofit to combat homelessness in California. If she was going to beat Republican incumbent Steve Knight in a solidly purple district in 2018, she knew she had to connect with voters, especially younger voters, in a new way. In a strategy that drew national attention, she filmed a series of Facebook videos — over 100 by Election Day — where she talked directly into the camera, regularly sharing intensely personal thoughts and stories.
Hill believes deeply in the power of vulnerability. It is her responsibility as a congresswoman, she told me, to share her own experiences with the public, especially the ones that are hardest to talk about. I spoke with Hill about how she handles the sexism and ageism that come along with being a millennial congresswoman — and how a little vulnerability could help get things done in the 116th Congress. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Why did you decide to lean into video?
Katie Hill: The very first person I brought on to my campaign team was a videographer. We met for the first time over coffee and got into this philosophical discussion about how politics needs to be about connecting with people and bringing the humanity back. You’re never going to be able to talk to every one of the 750,000 people in your district. But you can make a connection with them on video that you can’t make in writing or through photos.
CK: Some of your videos were deeply personal. In one, you talk about finding out you were pregnant at 19 and your experience wrestling with the decision of whether to have an abortion. How did you decide to share that publicly?
KH: I’ve been pro-choice my whole life, but when I was actually faced with that decision, I realized how profoundly hard it was to make the decision to have an abortion. I’m in a pretty pro-life district. The guy I unseated voted against abortion even in the case of incest or rape. So that’s what I was up against.
I think there is this misconception that pro-choice people have this flippant attitude around abortion — that they see it as a form of birth control. And that’s just completely false. The only way you can get people who haven’t been in that kind of situation to have compassion around it is to be vulnerable and share. I think [sharing personal stories] is a responsibility of someone in a position of power and influence. I recognize I have a platform.
CK: Have you, or would you, bring up your personal experience around abortion with colleagues on the Hill?
KH: Oh, absolutely. Because now I have these relationships, even with Republican members of Congress. You have at least some degree of rapport with each other: You joke; you can tell they respect you or they like you or something.
CK: Is the House of Representatives still a sexist place?
KH: It’s very archaic. The other day, I had a member who said something that was just so dumb. He said it as a joke, but it was a sexual comment. And I was just like, “You can’t say those kinds of things anymore.”
CK: What did he say?
KH: We were talking about one-minute speeches on the floor. And I called him “Mr. One Minute” or “One Minute Man,” or something. I didn’t even think about it that way, but he was like, “I can also be Mr. Five Minute Man or Mr. Whatever Minute Man You Want.” It was in front of people, and the rest of us were all looking at each other. One of my young colleagues said, “Well, that took a turn.”
CK: It seems like female friendship has been a theme of the 116th Congress. Has it helped to have a network of freshman congresswomen here?
KH: I don’t think it’s just the freshman. It’s a culture we came into. You can tell female members have been supporting each other in a huge way for a long time. There is this one particular group of women, who are all friends, who were instrumental in getting [many of the new congresswomen] elected — Lois Frankel, Katherine Clark, Cheri Bustos … During the campaign, they would text us, “Just checking in …”
We’re a small number here, so you kind of have to stick together.
CK: Lauren Underwood, another young freshman congresswoman, is your roommate in Washington. What has that been like?
KH: This is a hard job. You can talk to your family and friends and your staff, but it’s really a unique thing to be a member, especially a young member. So it’s nice to be able to talk to Lauren at the end of the day. We’ll talk about whatever challenges we’re dealing with in our committees or some random frustration about something that’s going on. I think it’s like what a lot of people have with their college roommates.
CK: What’s uniquely challenging about being one of the youngest representatives?
KH: I think people have an initial tendency to be skeptical. Just today, someone came into my office and wasn’t expecting me to be there … she’s talking to a few of us, thinking that we’re all staff. And she’s like, “I know Katie is really busy …” One of my staff says, “Well, actually she’s standing right here.”
CK: Is it ever hard to get people to take you seriously?
KH: I’ve been in leadership positions from a very young age. Whatever job I was in, I got promoted pretty quickly, over people who were older than me or who I was peers with. So I had to get comfortable owning that and earn respect that had nothing to do with my age or even my experience. It’s something I learned on the campaign trail, too:
CK: Did you ever run into people on the campaign trail who were hesitant to support you because of your age or your gender?
KH: I had several people say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think a woman can beat Steve Knight.” One person said it directly to my face; others said it in email. One of those people was in Democratic Party leadership.
CK: So how do you respond when someone says something like that?
KH: Well I can get sassy about things. So for that one, I said: “Thank you very much. I’ll see you on the other side.”
CK: And you did.
KH: And I did.