EP. 42 Katie Hill, CA-25

NICIE PANETTA: Welcome to another edition of The MidPod, the Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to chronicle the 2018 congressional midterm elections. With our democracy on the ropes, we're looking for candidates and citizens who are ready to fight to fix Congress, our first branch of government. We've got a key candidate interview for you on this episode. But first, if you want to stay up with the latest on the fight for Congress and on our MidPod journey, be sure to subscribe to our new weekly newsletter. You can sign up at themidpodpod.com/newsletter and shout out to our wonderful intern Pascale Bradley for leading this effort. You can also find us online at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TheMidPod, and tell your friends. We've all got long drives and downtime this summer so this is a great time to recommend the pod to others. 

KATIE HILL POLITICAL AD: This can be hard. Not as hard as running for Congress when corporations are backing the other guy. But here, where we're from, we're not afraid of hard work. Before running for Congress, I worked on some of the toughest problems facing our community. When so many of us work hard and struggle to get by, it's time for a change. That's why I'm running for Congress. It won't be easy but I'm up for the challenge. I'm Katie Hill and I approve this message. 

NICIE: That's Democrat Katie Hill. She's running for Congress in California's 25th congressional district. And she released this Internet ad a couple of months ago. It's called Climb and it's worth a look on YouTube, because as she addresses the camera she's literally climbing a vertical wall of rock in one of the canyons in her district. In this episode we want to share with you a serious conversation with Katie Hill about the serious issues we face as a nation and it's also about what politics might look like, sound like, feel like as millennials like Hill rise to power and responsibility. California's 25th stretches across the northern part of L.A. County. You can hear more about the district and the primary race in Episode 27 of The MidPod. It's a key swing district this year in the battle for control for the House of U.S. representatives. The incumbent is Steve Knight. He's got deep roots in the district, but his conservative voting record is less and less in sync with voters in the area. Hillary Clinton won this district by seven points in 2016 and it's rated "tossup" by the Cook Political Report. Having said that, Hill has a serious fight on her hands, as Knight won 53 percent of the vote in the primary versus the total Democratic vote of about 48 percent. Here's our conversation. 

NICIE: It's a tough week right now. Tough time in America. We've had another horrific incident of gun violence at a school. And I'm just wondering how you're processing this right now. You have a family background with law enforcement and I just would love to know your thoughts about how we can come together at this difficult moment. 

KATIE HILL: Sure. I mean, I think the worst part of all of this is how normal it's become and how much - I mean, just since I've been running, which is less than a year, is I've had to respond to so many of these kinds of events, from the Vegas one where so many people within my district were affected. You know we lost three people that lived in our district to the Vegas shooting and many, many more who were injured, at least a dozen who were injured, and that's not counting all the people who were there who were affected by PTSD and everything. So it's hit close to home for us. Thank God there's not been a shooting at a school or anything like that but at this point it's something that we've - my biggest frustration is that we have to come up with a post every single time that this happens and the post is always something along the lines of, "thoughts and prayers aren't enough." But how many times do you have to say that? Like, how many times do we have to just wait around for hours for something to happen? I do think what's encouraging though now is that we're seeing young people step up in a way that we haven't at any other moment, and I think that's what can actually drive a difference. I mean, how can you ignore these kids who are saying, "enough is enough" and that are survivors of a horrible incident like this and are demanding action? 

HILL: So you know, gun violence is something that has touched me personally in many ways. I am the daughter of a police officer and emergency room nurse and I actually was planning on starting - well, I started nursing school. I was planning on becoming a nurse like my mom and both my grandmothers. Was working in the emergency department while I was going to nursing school and ended up seeing gunshot wound after gunshot wound. It was very regular in her E.R. She was in one of the biggest trauma centers in Los Angeles County. And I - one night, I ended up holding the hand of a 17-year-old gang member as he died. The trauma team was working all around me. He took his last breaths and I was holding his hand and I was 17 myself. So it was something that hit me incredibly hard and his teammate, you know his sister who was slightly older than he was told me how, you know, their mom had been a drug addict and how he'd bounced around the foster care system and he wasn't supposed to end up like this. He was the only family that she had. And it was really that moment where it hit me that I was like, this is, you can't treat these kinds of things from the E.R.. This is a place where you can treat people's physical wounds, but the reasons that people end up there are so much more related to the social problems that we have, the much bigger problems that we have. And that's what I want to focus on. 

NICIE: One of the things we were talking about in the car today driving down and we are definitely big believers in the idea of country over party and that has to go both ways. You know, where folks like us who are more in favor of gun control, where's the right line in terms of compromise with Republicans for whom this is just such an ideologically significant issue, I guess? 

HILL: Sure. Well, so this is something for me to because I grew up with guns, I own guns. I've never bought a gun in my life but my husband and I are both cops' kids. Every member - a member in every single generation of my family going back to the Revolutionary War has served in military so we - it's just part of the culture there. All of my family owned guns, we did polling on this, 40 percent of our district owns guns. That's a huge number and that's nothing like what you would see in a place like Los Angeles but it's an issue where the vast majority of gun owners want to see the same kinds of things we do. We want to see stronger background checks. We want to see waiting periods. We want to see, you know, kids under 21 do not need to buy a gun. We don't need assault rifles. We don't need bumper stocks or things that can make it into assault rifles. We need to ensure that across state lines we're able to check on the background checks and we need to ensure that there are ways of putting protections in place for people who are in crisis, whether that's a mental health crisis or, you know, simply just violence and risks, you know, signs that somebody may be at risk of a behavior that's aggressive towards others. And those are not controversial when you talk to gun owners. Those are things that they all want in place because what we were taught from the very beginning is that safety and responsibility are the number one aspects of gun ownership. 

NICIE: The other social issue we really wanted to talk to you about, which also has a huge public health impact and which we have been seeing literally everywhere we go to one degree or another is the opioid epidemic. And I know this is personal for you. We have an episode dropping next week which was revelatory for us to report because we learned from the head of the Public Health School at University of Pittsburgh that, actually, overdose deaths have been on a consistent parabolic curve in our country since 1979, which is when they actually got accurate data. So that was kind of news to us. We had been in our heads blaming it on the prescription pill epidemic but it's actually apparently quite a lot deeper than that. And to some degree a mystery, even to the people that know the most about it. So with that as sort of a long prelude, I wonder where you are on this right now. 

HILL: Sure. One thing to remember is that last year we lost more people to overdose deaths than we have ever lost to gun violence in our country, ever. The worst years ever. More than car accidents, more than we lost in the Vietnam War. I mean, but it's the silent thing that people just don't - I feel we're paying not nearly enough attention to. My own brother has struggled with addiction. He is - you know, we were lucky that we were able to intervene while he was still a minor and frankly kind of force him into treatment and he's doing really well now. He's, like I said, he's 18 years old. He's been in a program. But it's taken every bit of our family's resources. He had a college fund that the family had been contributing to since he was 2 years old and actually maybe even I think before he was born. But it's all gone. It had to go into this treatment because it's not covered by insurance and what is covered by insurance is nowhere near good enough. And you've got these huge waiting lists and the key with somebody who has a substance abuse issue is that the moment that they say that they want help you have to be ready to move because that can pass so quickly and you have to take it at that exact moment. And our capacity as a system is almost nonexistent. 

NICIE: So let's say you're a member of Congress. How would you act? 

HILL: A couple of things. One is we need funding for research so that we really do understand what's going on and how to prevent it. We know a lot. We know a lot about what we could be doing in terms of early intervention and prevention. So part of it is just investing and making sure that we're making that a priority. When we talk about health and, you know, ensuring that we actually have a comprehensive healthcare system for people, mental health and substance abuse have to be part of that and we can't leave those out on the sidelines. And that's something that, you know, the ACA made big strides in. You know, frankly we're in better shape, which is sad to say, we're in better shape on that front than we have been ever before. But we need to do much, much better. So it's a public health crisis and we have to address it that way. 

NICIE: Before we leave opioids, one of the things that's come up in our reporting and connecting with the other journalists who've done amazing work on this is the role that large donations from pharmaceutical companies seems to have played in, let's say, less than constructive governmental responses and wondering where you stand on, say, accepting campaign contributions from pharma companies as part of maybe a larger question about how you think about money and politics. 

HILL: Yeah, that's something I care a lot about. I have said from the very beginning I'm not taking any corporate contributions and I have stayed true to that. I actually got a lot of a hard time from existing members of Congress and some of the, sort of, party establishment. When I said that from the beginning they were like, "you're never going to able to raise the money that you need to if you take that approach." And I just said, "look. At the end of the day the only way that your constituents can trust you and know that you were voting on behalf of them and what you think is right for the district and for the people that you're supposed to serve, is if they know that you're not bought and sold to anybody else.” And even if, you know, I think the typical line is that all you can take money from them and still vote your conscience. It's just - people don't buy it, right? And even if it's true that there's a perception that matters and it's people's trust. And what I would say has gotten us into this political mess that we're in now is that lack of trust and it's the fact that people don't believe in the system and they don't trust the politicians that are supposed to be their representatives and their voice and the people who are working for us. So, you know, we have to change. We have to change that part. And I think money in politics is probably the biggest problem for why we don't make progress on any of these issues because at the end of the day fundraising is hard. I'm not going to lie, we're having to raise one and a half million dollars just for the primary. And then when you look into the general we're looking at five or six million dollars. It's an insane amount of money. The only way we can do this is if we all pitch in and, you know, I know some of the people that were asking for money from? It's a sacrifice. It's a real sacrifice. And that makes you value it that much more and know that you don't let these people down, so. 

NICIE: We definitely want to talk about how you're communicating in this campaign because your style and your approach has been very interesting to us. But before we leave campaign finance reform let's go to the land of rainbows and unicorns [laughs] in which the House goes Blue with a reasonably sized majority. Let's even fantasize that the Senate flips, which we all know is unlikely but possible. 

HILL: Who would have ever thought about an Alabama Senator. 

NICIE: We have literally been wondering. Right. New South rising. We've been wondering whether there's some pledge or pact or program that you all who are running, if you win, you could implement on campaign finance reform. 

HILL: Yeah. 

NICIE: Like, link arms a little bit and just pledge to do it and then it will be easy because you ran on it. 

HILL Right. So there are coalitions that are being formed or already exist in some capacity or another. And the more people who can stand up to it, who say, like, "yeah I did run on this and I won and it is possible," that's how you gain power. And I do think there's - like, I've already said, I mean, to me the biggest pledge that you make is to people that you're trying to get their votes or their support. And that's why I've been out there on videos and in all of our Facebook and our communications saying, "I'm not taking corporate money." And that scared a lot of my team. That was something that they did not want me to say, because they were like, "well, you might change your mind." And I'm like, "No. This is a way of holding myself accountable to it." Because there's going to be a temptation to want it - and there already has been temptations where you can get a 5,000 dollar check from a corporate PAC very easily by comparison to how many times you have to pick up the phone and call people to get those small dollar donations and raise the same amount of money. 

NICIE: Just over lunch we were looking at a video released recently where you talked about a really difficult personal decision you had to make about women’s - about your own health and life. But if you want to talk about that, that would be great but also, I was just struck by the fact that I don't recall hearing a public - a politician talk quite in those terms about the kind of emotional difficulty and how confusing life is and how -. 

HEATHER: And with dignity. 

NICIE: Yes, with a lot of dignity and I think a lot of guts frankly. And so maybe you could just talk us through how you got to the place of wanting to communicate about that story. 

HILL: Well, women's health is a top priority for me. It has been for a number of reasons and for pretty much my entire life. One of the first things that I got active in was volunteering for Planned Parenthood trying to register young voters and facilitate conversations, things like that. But I remember I was in D.C. shortly before we first put out that story in October and I was at dinner with probably, I want to say like eight members of Congress. They were all women and all of them said, "Don't show that video." And I'm like, "But it's real. It's true, and how many women are we keeping - who feel shame about this kind of thing?" They feel shame about miscarriages, they feel shame about ever having had an abortion. I mean, those are the silent things. They feel shame. I've had infertility. The original video was too long but I talked about how much more I was haunted by it because, you know, I did end up having infertility later and that was something that if I'd had to have an abortion, if I had made that choice I can't even imagine how difficult that would have been for me and how much I would have thought that it was my fault, even more so. People who say, "oh well, you know, abortion is bad," like, we've got to humanize it. We have to make it so that it's something that people start to understand, well why, right? Let's talk about our stories and what really goes into all of this. And what I do think people 100 percent need to understand is that that is the most difficult decision that a woman can face. There is not a woman that I can think of that I've ever met that would say, "I want to have an abortion." So if she does it's because she truly had to for some reason or another. 

NICIE: What does a coalition look like for you, a winning coalition? I'm wondering particularly about Independents, Republicans. To what degree do you think some of those voters may be interested in something besides somebody besides Steve Knight? 

HILL: Well, an outside poll, not our own even this time around, showed me leading, so it showed me be beating Steve Knight by 13 points in a general head-to-head match-up but it also - I think some of the more significant pieces about that is that it showed me pulling away six out of 10 Independents and 25 percent of Republicans. And it was a huge sample size. It was paid for by an independent group. We don't even know who is financing it because that's how independent expenditures in Super PACs work. But we know that the data is solid there, right? That's much more than our than any poll that we could have afforded within our campaign. And so that means that, you know, huge numbers of Republicans, which we've been saying anecdotally just based on talking to people, and I know who is supporting me. That's very possible. My own dad, he's a Republican. This is the first time that he's voting for a Democrat ever. But he is rallying all of his Republican friends because most people, and I don't think it's necessarily Donald Trump or Steve Knight individually, but I think that there is a frustration, just a massive frustration with the system as a whole and a desperation for somebody that people feel like they can trust. Our district has a huge number of people who - we have a plurality of people who don't affiliate with either party. 37 percent of people are not Democrats or Republicans. 33 percent are Democrats right now. 30 percent are Republicans. But within those, they'll switch, they'll switch vote. They're not people who are stuck necessarily. So I think that it would be a huge mistake in our district to just say, "oh, we just need to to register more Democrats and turn out the Democrats." That's just not a winning strategy here because we should be wanting to expand our coalition and our base for not just this election but for the future and this is our moment to do it. 

NICIE: And we had a good interview with Ralph Sonnenschein at Cal State, talking, and he had a great image of candidates in this particular cycle at this particular moment in the history of our democracy scrambling over the barricades to run for Congress and other kinds of offices. In contrast to a process that in past years might have been more characterized by listening to party elders, waiting your turn, getting in line [laughs] and you are an example of someone who's jumped into a race which had a credible Democratic challenger last time around who came pretty close. And again, in past cycles perhaps people would have said, you know, wait your turn. Tell us about the process for you deciding to just run anyway. 

HILL: I think that's part of my personality. Even if - no matter when it would have been, if I were ever to do something like this I would not have waited my turn. But I think that was something that I took - there was a certain amount of that even in the beginning of, like, "well, you know we had somebody last time, he's going to run again. Why would you go against him?" And I'm like, "well, he lost last time." And that was a pretty simple thing for me. But also, like, the reason he lost is that he's not from our area. I know so many people that were that were ones who really struggled, including myself, who struggled to vote for him even though he's a Democrat, even though I would never vote for a Republican, I didn't want to vote for him. And I've told him that to his face, but that's something that is - if you're from our community you know that. You know that that's a big deal for us. And I think that that was something that I just came in with, like, that was why I ran, was because I knew that to be able to flip a seat that's been held by a Republican for 40 out of the last 50 years we need somebody who is truly from this community, who understands this community, who this community believes is doing it for them, not for their own political aspirations. Some of the best people who should be representing our communities are firefighters, they're nurses, they're teachers, they're people that we should be lifting up to say like, "this is a leader. This is somebody who would be an amazing leader, who knows our community, who would be the best possible voice for us but who doesn't have a lot of rich friends or family members or the right political connections." And there's a responsible party. This is my honest opinion, is that as Democrats if we are going to be the party of the people we need to have a system in place to lift those people up and to support them to make that possible. 

NICIE: Do you have a story from the campaign trail, from the stump, anything that, you know, you'll remember when you're in comfortable shoes, 40, 50 years from now? 

HILL: I guess it's the sexism in politics that has been really just so bothersome for me. That's the part that I don't think I'll ever get used to. But I had one just yesterday. It was a woman I was calling, a delegate who I'm trying to get their support. She tells me, she's like, "Well I think you're very pretty but Brian [laughs] is who I'm supporting because he's the better candidate." And I'm like, "Can you tell me makes you feel that way?" And you know, you don't get an answer because it boils down to sexism and so you've got to remember that sexism is very much there from women. It's there from Democrats. And it's not even something that people are conscious of but we have a long, long way to go before we're really on equal footing and I think every single day something reminds me of that. Something on the campaign trail reminds me how much further we've got to go and even though I knew it kind of intellectually, that that was what we were going to be up against to a certain extent, but I'm like, "We're in California. It's a different - it's 2018." Oh no, no. There's a reason that less than 20 percent of congress is made up of women. [MidPod theme music] 

NICIE:That was Katie Hill. She's the Democratic nominee in California's 25th congressional district. You can find out more about Hill and her campaign at KatieHillforCongress.com. So that's it for this episode. Next up, a conversation with Jacob Hacker. He's a Professor of Political Science at Yale University. And we're going to be talking about his book, American Amnesia. It's a fascinating and helpful analysis of how it is that we lost our shared understanding of government's constructive role in economic growth and prosperity. He's most concerned with what life is like for young people and kids in our society and the news is not good. Thanks for listening and see you next Tuesday. [music end] 

Eunice Panetta