If the marketing folks at Dos Equis were casting for The Most Interesting Candidate in the World, they’d have to consider 31-year-old Katie Hill. The former homeless advocate is bisexual, a goat farmer, a gun owner, a survivor, and she won her Democratic primary while being trailed by a film crew for Vice News.
One of the youngest candidates for Congress, Hill is campaigning to flip California’s 25th district, an area north of Los Angeles that was once so rock-ribbed Republican they put the Reagan Library there. Her opponent, the incumbent Rep. Steve Knight, is a conservative political scion, son of the state senator who passed the first gay marriage ban in California. The 25th is now a purple district — and went for Hillary Clinton by nearly seven points in 2016. But in Congress, Knight has supported Trump 98.9 percent of the time. According to top handicappers and New York Times polling, the race is a pure toss-up.
To advance to the general election, Hill beat out a seasoned Democratic opponent, building a grassroots movement that energized activists from across the L.A. Basin, including students from UCLA and USC. The daughter of a nurse and a cop, Hill spent the last decade leading and scaling up People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) which is now California’s largest homeless services organization. She cut her teeth in politics by passing a pair of ballot initiatives to alleviate homelessness in greater L.A. — before throwing her hat into the congressional ring as a first time candidate.
Rolling Stone recently road-tripped 800 miles across California to meet Democratic House candidates determined to trigger a blue tsunami in November. When reporting the story, I crossed paths with Hill just after 8 p.m. on a warm evening in Santa Clarita, a commuter town 40 miles north of L.A. She’d just emerged from a Round Table Pizza where she’d met with labor leaders, seeking an endorsement. Her voice was hoarse, but she greeted me with a broad smile and a howdy-partner handshake, before heading home: “I live in Agua Dulce, 25 minutes from here,” she says. “It’s where you can have goats.”
Rolling Stone caught up with her for a full interview later by phone.
How do you introduce yourself to voters?
I spent my whole life in this community; I dedicated my career to serving most vulnerable people here. I’ll tell people what elementary school I went to, what high school. Something like that connects. People care about whether they can like you and trust you.
What’s your advice to other Democrats trying to appeal to millennials?
If you’re trying to appeal to my generation you’ve got to be honest. You can’t put on this face mask that is so typical for politicians. Millennials smell the B.S. If you want young people to actually be excited, to feel like there’s any reason to show up to vote, you have to truly have something for them to connect with. That’s easier for me than for a lot of candidates because I am young. I know what it’s like to be faced with student loans, to have rent so high you don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to save up and buy a home. The issues the people of my generation are going through are natural for me because I’ve lived them, my friends are living them.
For young voters, it’s truly about: Why should they bother? I think it’s a matter of having people who actually get it. Who actually are going to fight for you. That means showing vulnerabilities, showing your flaws. I think that some people were afraid of that — typical campaign advisers and so on — about some of the things we’ve done, the videos we’ve done. The fact that Vice News has been following us around. I’ve opened myself up to exposure in a way that is risky because it’s the real me.
In the age of Trump, if you open yourself up fully, there’s little that can actually take you down. But if you’re trying to preserve the facade, the smallest crack will be the end of you.
It’s one of the reasons I started talking about some of the things that I knew could be controversial. If you come out now, you just own them. What are people going to say?
You’re the daughter of a cop. You own a gun. Is that a bit of a disconnect for your L.A. fans?
We have the highest number of law enforcement officials of any district my country. And we have the second-highest number of veterans of any district in the country. On top of that, a quarter of our district is rural. So people do own guns. That’s how my husband and I both grew up. Forty percent of our district owns a gun or lives in a household with a gun.
I can’t recall writing about someone so challenging to thumbnail. Is it a lot to carry — embodying those contradictions under the scrutiny of a congressional campaign?
What makes people stay on your side is that believability, that authenticity. I think the reason that we can kind of quote-unquote “get away with it” — being a higher-profile campaign — is because we came into the race as a grassroots underdog, and then people started paying attention.
How did you move from homeless advocacy into politics?
PATH is the largest homeless organization California. While I was there we grew from about a $5-million-a-year, local L.A. Basin group, to, by the time I left, a $50-million-a-year group with over 400 staff and dozens of locations across the state. We literally helped thousands of people move off the streets and into permanent homes while I was there.
On the policy side, I was working with elected officials, making sure that PATH was seen as the go-to agency. On the public affairs side, it was getting communities to embrace the service we were providing, to work with us as neighbors, mobilizing all kinds of communities.
Does that experience inform your campaigning?
I’m someone who believes that all political campaigns need to be grassroots-driven. Commercials can only get you so far. Mail can only get you far. You need to have people on the ground talking about you and why they care. When we started we were a longshot campaign. I knew it was going to have to capitalize on the energy that people felt coming out of the Trump election.
Our field program won us the primary. To win an election by two to three points, it comes down to how many doors you knock. We knocked on 94,000 doors in the primary because of literally hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. And that number has skyrocketed even since.
You’ve had luck tapping activists from outside the district. Does that create challenges — people from Santa Monica or students from USC knocking on doors in Santa Clarita?
It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. If you’re passionate enough about a campaign to spend your Saturday knocking doors, that’s the thing about it that matters. A lot of people come up from Los Angeles. People care about the same things: health care, housing, real representation and what our government looks like and what our values are. We know that this is a district that has been held by Republican for 40 out of last 50 years. I’m going to need all the help that we can get to turn out voters to switch this thing around.
How are you activating young people specifically?
Our campaign is run by young people — that’s who’s driving the energy behind this. These are overwhelmingly people have never been involved in politics, and I think hopefully there’s some lessons here for other campaigns. You don’t need to talk about the policy details as much as you should give people a reason to trust you. That’s listening to what they care about. I think a lot of politicians want to focus on the things that make them qualified for the job; the truth is no one’s ready for the job of member of Congress until you’re there. What makes me qualified as a representative of my community is that I am this community.
How’s your relationship with the party — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?
They stayed out of the primary. We were able to develop credibility, so they didn’t feel the need to swoop in and try to take over. They’ve been great partners. We know that we have to have a large investment in the field to win this race and they are helping us. I think that’s different than the experience a lot of people had historically with the D Triple C. We’re having a positive experience with them.
The Republican answer to grassroots enthusiasm this cycle seems to be leaning on a Super PAC — the Congressional Leadership Fund. It has field offices open across the state, they’re phone banking, trying to activate voters. Have you noticed an impact?
They’re doing their own organizing to make sure that Republicans are paying attention, I guess. The move to get the gas tax repeal on the ballot is one of the biggest challenges that all of us Democrats face. Otherwise, the enthusiasm is completely on the side of Democrats. We’re going to have more Republicans turn out to vote [because of it]. The gas tax hits people in our district harder than it does in places like at West L.A. We have people driving an hour-and-a-half each way and they can’t afford Teslas or electric cars.
Your opponent, unlike some Republicans, actually shows up in the district. He’s not a cartoonish villain like Dana Rohrabacher or Duncan Hunter.
He’s a local. He served in the Army. I’m not challenging his public service in any way. But he votes — time and time again — on the party line, what the party leadership tells him to do, and what his big donors, corporations, etcetera, tell him to do. And not for us. Taxes are something that comes up all the time, especially with the Republican tax plan that hurts our community. He voted to get rid of the tax deduction for wildfire victims.
I’m not taking corporate money. I’m doing this because I care about my friends and family members and neighbors. Those are the people I’m going to be accountable to. We need to be thinking about how can we have a democracy that allows people like me — regular people who want to be champions for the community — how can we have a political system that allows that to happen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.