STEVENSON RANCH, CALIFORNIA — Katie Hill has been running for Congress for 19 months, and you can tell. Her answers to questions about policy are polished and substantive. She has studies to back up her claims. Her body language tells you she’s at ease, but her resolute gaze belongs to someone practiced at anticipating challenges and personal jabs.
Hill is a 31 year-old executive of a nonprofit, PATH, People Assisting The Homeless, who grew up in Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley. She would be the first openly bi congresswoman from California if she won the 25th Congressional District race. There are almost 14,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the district, according to CQ Roll Call, but nearly a quarter of voters aren’t registered with a political party. The district has been represented by a Republican since 1993, though it’s becoming increasingly diverse, with Latinx people now making up nearly 40 percent of the district.
Hill and her opponent, Rep. Steve Knight (R), are neck and neck in the polls.
Knight is, in many ways, a formidable opponent. He isn’t gaffe-prone. He says he’s pro-life but stops short of saying he wants Roe v. Wade overturned. He calls for strict immigration policies and has supported almost all of Trump’s policies, but he also joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus and tends not to participate in racist dog-whistling and attacks against the press. He maintains the image of a moderate Republican by stepping over an increasingly low bar.
But that won’t necessarily stop his constituents from realizing where he stands on policy issues. Democratic voters are energized over issues such as education, access to health care, Republicans’ tax bill, and affordable housing — none of which Knight has a great record on.
Just weeks before the election, Knight introduced a bill claiming to protect health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, but he had already voted twice against such protections. He voted for the GOP tax bill that benefited the wealthy and grew the deficit, and seems unwilling to seriously address income inequality.
Tom, a Hill supporter who came out to see Hill and Knight debate in Simi Valley last Thursday, said his son has leukemia, and health care is a major concern.
“If it weren’t for the Affordable Care Act, we’d be so much more in debt than we already are because of this illness,” he said.
He added, “I’m a retired educator so I just am really opposed to what I’ve been seeing from Washington, D.C. with [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos privatizing public education, under the auspices of providing some kind of choice when every one of our children has a right to a free public quality education.”
Among the top concerns voters mentioned to ThinkProgress before they watched the debate were health care, education, immigration policy, and gun control. Katie Hill supports Medicare for All, educational equity in public schools, higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and some gun control measures such as a ban on assault weapons and bump stocks. But her views on immigration policy, while not comparable to Knight’s, are not that far left of center.
Steve Knight supporters were also at the debate and they all stressed how well they know Knight personally as a member of the community. Robin, a woman wearing a Make America Great Again cap as she stood in line for the debate, said she appreciated Knight’s support of veterans, and the tax cuts passed last year. But she said she wants to hear from Knight more on other issues, like immigration.
“Immigration is important. I’d like to stop the caravan,” she said, referring to migrant caravan of Central Americans reportedly heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. A number of rightwing conspiracy theories have gained traction since the news was first reported.
Hill sounds most confident when she is talking about issues she understands deeply such as improving mental health care systems and the issues of housing affordability and homelessness. Hill told ThinkProgress that she would look at how much the government is funding housing choice vouchers and the Housing Trust Fund, a housing program that focuses on very low-income households.
During the debate, Hill said the issue of homelessness, which is at crisis levels in the state, is closely tied to the cost of housing and will only get worse over time if politicians don’t act.
“The higher that rents are and lower the vacancy rates, the higher the homelessness will be and we’re seeing it in this community and communities across the state. The best thing the federal government can do is invest and make sure we have the funds and co-occurring investments into housing.”
Hill deftly focuses on the Republican tax plan when discussing the issue of housing. For example, the prospect of these tax cuts meant that federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program credits are less attractive to investors, since the credits are tied to the corporate tax rate.
“There is no replenishing source and basically we have to adjust that in some way otherwise we will have major delays in terms of financing projects we desperately need and we have a shortage of those in California,” Hill said.
Affordable housing developer Bart Mitchell told WBUR that this could mean 200,000 fewer affordable housing units over a decade.
Hill has also been very focused on improving the health care system for people with mental illnesses and said the country is facing a public health crisis. Hill said there is a shortage of mental health care workers from social workers to psychiatrists and that there needs to be some kind of federal investment in expanding the number of these workers.
“One of the things we need to do is address mental health care as an integral part of primary care. People often aren’t able to navigate a separate system, so you see successful models where a primary care physician is able to identify, diagnose, and concurrently help people get mental health treatment who have mental health issues,” Hill said. “Those models work. There is limited funding for them … That’s one of the things that came from the [Affordable Care Act]. There have been investments particularly in California that have personal care models.”
Researchers say that it’s difficult for people with co-occurring disorders to navigate a health care system where mental health, addiction, and physical health care are so separated. One 2012 study found that when people were “referred to a mental health clinician providing on-site access as part of a primary care mental health collaborative care model, a high percentage of patients referred scheduled care.”
Hill supports nonviolent crisis intervention training for police to de-escalate when people may be experiencing a mental health crisis and supports models where social workers are on call to help address psychiatric emergencies. She supports a system where the state health department partners with police so that mental health is not primarily a police matter. Nearly 500 people with mental illnesses were fatally shot by police officers in 2015 and 2016, according to the Washington Post.
Hill’s father is a police officer, which comes through when she talks about how to “bridge that trust again” and “have a national dialogue.” Those demanding police stop brutalizing Black people and committing sexual assault probably believe their distrust of police is well-informed. Still, Hill has ideas for police reforms, such as oversight committees of both police officers and civilians. Hill said there have been weaknesses in all-civilian review boards.
“I think there should be some understanding of the metrics we’re putting in incidents around whether it’s use of force, demographic factors related to arrests, and investing in studies,” she said.
One of Katie Hill’s most progressive policy stances is her support of Medicare for All, which, surprisingly, is attracting a lot of support in her state among establishment Democrats who say there is voter enthusiasm for it.
“My thoughts are to create this public will around Medicare for All. How does that ensure that we’re providing an option for everyone?” Hill said. “How do we make sure we are producing the age for Medicare that makes it possible for someone to get their spouse on to Medicare … I think there are multiple steps on how to get there. The biggest thing for me is to make a real plan that includes a transition over a period of time and that is going to be sustainable.”
Hill has not shied away from saying that the wealthy need to pay more in taxes. When asked how she would pay for a better mental health system by the Santa Clarita Valley Signal, she said, “I think that [the revenue] needs to come from large corporations and the wealthiest people in our country. Right now, they are getting massive tax breaks so if those folks and their entities are paying their fair share, we’re not going to have the revenue crisis that we do and investing in mental health will be frankly, easy.”
What is surely to the exasperation of many on the left, however, Hill’s stance on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency does not challenge its very existence. Inside ICE detention facilities, there have been reports of sexual assault, nonexistent medical assessments, and solitary confinement without hearings. There were inhumane conditions and abusive acts in these facilities long before Trump came into office. Sean McElwee, who helped spread the abolish ICE message, wrote in The Nation earlier this year that “ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture” and that ICE’s tactics are “philosophically aligned with racist thinkers.”
But Hill, like many of her fellow Democrats running in competitive districts in California, doesn’t support abolishing ICE.
Hill told The Signal that ICE “should be focused on keeping drug traffickers, sex traffickers and violent criminals out.” Hill has also said of ICE, “You don’t have an infection on your toe and cut off your entire foot. It shows you the need for more sane politicians — politicians who are committed to fighting for what needs to happen, not just rabble-rousing their base.”
When asked by ThinkProgress how she justifies keeping ICE, Hill said, “Immigration customs enforcement is a role that makes sense. We have to have something that is doing that. I think the department itself was newly formed but that role is going to continue to fit somewhere no matter what.”
She puts the blame on ICE’s activities on its being a new agency without “all the practices processes and regulations to really set up how it governs and operates” because, unlike “abolish ICE” supporters, she doesn’t see the institution itself as born of a racist and xenophobic agenda.
“It has left a void in which the administration is left to use it as a tool for whatever it wants so we have to create legislation to say this is the real purpose of ICE. This is how we should be using ICE and we should not be separating families. There should be humane guidelines around what is actually does, what the purpose of it is and how it’s executed. That’s where I’m coming from on it.”
Hill said she supports legislation on transparency and accountability for ICE.
Hill has indicated that she would work across the aisle if it were in the best interest of her constituents. ThinkProgress asked if she were willing to break with the Democratic party to move further to the left on any policies, such as support for more financial sector regulation and a federal job guarantee. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running for the 14th Congressional District, has advocated for a federal jobs guarantee.
Hill declined to say anything about a federal jobs guarantee or financial industry regulation and said it would be “case by case.”
“Whether you’re looking to the left or the right, it’s hard to guess when you don’t have a sense of what that is going to look like and who the leadership is going to be” Hill said.
“What is important to me is that I’m not accountable to and not controlled by party leadership. At the end of the day, I’m able to make my own decisions according to what’s best for the community and the constituents I represent. It doesn’t depend on what the partisanship is to the right or to the left,” Hill said.
Hill recently displayed this independence by choosing not to appear at an event where President Barack Obama came to Orange County to support Democrats running for Congress. She was the only candidate who did not attend. Instead she went to a Los Angeles County Labor Federation Barbecue.
“What is important to me is that I’m not accountable to and not controlled by party leadership.”
“I think it’s important to keep the promises you make to the community and I made that promise to real workers in this district who were excited about meeting me and who had been planning it for literally months,” Hill said. “I just didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do to say sorry you’re less important than me going to Orange County. I think that was the right decision.”
Hill demonstrates that she has thought a lot about policy that addresses marginalized groups facing economic disparities that affect their health, housing, and overall quality of life. What is less clear is how Hill will address authorities targeting these groups for violence and state oppression. It’s possible that at this stage in Hill’s political career, with the constituents she currently has, that she’s not willing to take a risk and call for ICE to be abolished or challenge the very existence of other powerful institutions in government that have a history of abuse.
But that could change, as it did with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) when she moved from representing the 20th Congressional District to the entire state. Hill may never move further to the left, but she has demonstrated that she has the political skills to make such a maneuver. She went from being a political newcomer whose Millennial status was painted as a liability to a strong and competitive candidate whose supporters gleefully brag about the number of votes they secured while they were out canvassing. If Hill wins in November, she’s a Democrat whose career is worth watching.