Gender, Scandal, and Exit--Katie Hill's Retirement in Perspective
Authors: Gregory Koger and Jeffrey Lazarus
This Sunday, Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA25) announced her resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives. Formally, she allegedly violated a new House rule banning relationships between members and their own Congressional staff--although expulsion is an unlikely penalty for violating the rule. In practical terms, she was driven from office by revelations from a vengeful ex-husband. He shared hundreds of intimate photos with Republican operatives and alleged that they had a polyamorous relationship with a female campaign staffer in 2018 (which Hill admitted, and was legal) and that Rep. Hill was dating her legislative director (which she denied).
The Sex Scandal Double Standard
Why did Hill resign within a week while Congressmen with worse scandals remain in office? Duncan Hunter (R-CA50), for example, is facing federal charges for spending over $200,000 in campaign funds for personal use, including funding trysts at the Liaison [no, really] Hotel two blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
One answer is that there is sexist double standard for female politicians. One recently published article (ungated) by Tiffany Barnes, Emily Beaulieu, and Gregory Saxton finds that citizens are more likely to disapprove of a sex scandal by a female politician if they a) generally disapprove of women "usurping men's power," or b) see themselves as protectors of women, with protection contingent upon conformity to traditional gender roles. Both dynamics help explain why alleged House-rule-breaker Hill is resigning, while alleged federal-lawbreaker Hunter was reelected in 2018 and shows no interest in resigning.
A second (but not competing) explanation is that sex scandals interact differently with each party's brand. For decades, Democrats have sought to be the more feminist party, and this has only intensified since the Republicans nominated Donald Trump. In the #metoo era, this means a low tolerance for sexual harassment or gender discrimination, and consequently an unwillingness to defend politicians who violate workplace rules and norms. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, are part of the party of Trump. They cannot consistently
condemn sexual harassment or sexual assault without criticizing President Trump, and that could mean the end of their careers.
The Hill resignation is not an isolated incident. Chasing female legislators from office based on their husband's behavior is a bit of a Congressional tradition, as the cases of Coya Knudson and Enid Greene (Waldholtz) suggest.
Case Study: Coya Knudson, DFL-Minnesota, 1955-58
Coya Knudson was a House member from Minnesota in the 1950's. She served for 2 terms, and in that time she sponsored legislation establishing the nation's first student loan program and also started the first grant program for research into cystic fibrosis. It's hard to pass legislation as a junior member, but Knudson got not just one but two programs off the ground in her first 2 terms.
Knudson was a member of Minnesota's Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) party, but she was not the DFL's pick for that seat. They wanted another candidate - a man - in that seat. She also deeply offended DFL leaders when she chaired the state convention and used that position to support Estes Kefauver over Adlai Stevenson for president. Minnesota favorite son Hubert Humphrey had endorsed Stevenson, but Kefauver crushed Stevenson at the convention. Humphrey was embarrassed, as was the entire state party.
After Knudson won the House seat, which the DFL didn't want her to have in the first place, DFL operatives started a whisper campaign alleging that Knudson - who was married - was having an affair with one of her aides. It wasn't true.
Kundson won reelection despite the rumors. Subsequently, DFL leaders approached Knudson's husband Andy. He was chronically unemployed, usually drunk, and physically abusive. In fact, historians speculate the Coya ran for the House in part to put a thousand miles between herself and Andy. DFL leaders approached Andy Knudsen and offered to pay him if he would write a letter to Coya asking her to come home and publish it in the local newspaper. He wrote that letter, and it got published under the headline "Coya Come Home." It read in part:
Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son. As your husband I compel you to do this. I'm tired of being torn apart from my family. I'm sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband. I love you, honey.
The letter was republished in dozens of newspapers and made national news. "Coya Come Home" became something of a meme - everyone knew the phrase.
After the letter, Knudson's political career was through. Her reelection margin had always been razor-thin: she won in 1954 with 51.2% and in 1956 with 52.7%. But in 1958, in the midst of a national Democratic tide, she lost 50.7-49.3 to Odin Langen, a Republican running under the slogan "A Big Man for A Man-Sized Job." The "Coya Come Home" letter probably didn't sway a huge number of voters, but it likely was the difference between winning and losing in a year a democratic incumbent should have been able to defend her seat.
Knudson divorced Andy (who died 10 years later of alcohol poisoning) but never won an elective office again.
Case Study: Enid Greene (Waldholtz), R-UT, 1995-96
In the 1994 elections, the Republicans won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in forty years with the election of 58 new Republicans. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) promoted several of these members to top committees right away to ensure that the freshman class felt represented. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-UT), for example, quickly impressed House Republican leaders and gained a spot on the House Rules Committee, where she helped set the floor agenda for the whirlwind 104th Congress.
Enid Greene had married Joe Waldholtz, a Republican operative from Pennsylvania, in 1993. It was not easy being a single 30-something in Utah, especially when she first ran for a House seat and lost in 1992. When she campaigned for the same House seat in 1994, Waldholtz was by her side as a husband and campaign treasurer. Her campaign spent $2 million, including $1.8 million of her own money.
Except...it wasn't her money. Joe Waldholtz had embezzled $4 million from her father without her knowledge and spent it on the 1994 campaign. That was back when the Federal Elections Commission actually functioned, and the FEC took a dim view of laundering donor money as self-spending. By November 1995, there was a federal grand jury investigation of the 1994 campaign, with Joe Waldholtz at the main suspect and Enid Greene claiming that she did not know what he had been doing. Joe Waldholtz tried to flee but was apprehended after several days on the lam.
Rep. Greene quickly filed for divorce and dropped the "Waldholtz" from her name, but the damage was done. A Deseret News (Utah) poll reported that her constituents were against her running for reelection by a 28% to 57% margin. In March 1996, she announced her retirement at the end of the 104th Congress.
Was Greene blaming Waldholtz for crimes they committed together? Not according to the Justice Department, which formally indicted Waldholtz in May 1996. Waldholtz pled guilty but continued to embezzle money from family and friends while awaiting sentencing. Waldholtz served about two years in prison, then embezzled money from his family again, and served additional time in Pennsylvania state prison.
Greene eventually returned to political activity in the Utah Republican party, but never to elective office. Her Congressional career was permanently derailed by an embezzling husband.
Katie Hill is not the first member of Congress to be chased from office by scandal. As Wonkette points out, she may be the first of many political figures to face revenge porn releases given contemporary dating norms. It is in our collective interest to ensure that the way we evaluate politicians and scandals is consistent with our desire to see talented people run for office, and to ensure gender equality in Congressional representation.
Cover Image: Katie Hill speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore.