Harris County’s first Latina county judge takes the helm

Lina Hidalgo spent much of her childhood running from dysfunctional government.

The 27-year-old immigrant — who will preside over her first Harris County Commissioners Court meeting as the newly-elected county judge on Tuesday — was born in Colombia when the government’s battles with drug lord Pablo Escobar, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries made even going to the grocery store a risk. When she was 5, her father, an engineer, got a job in Peru where things were more stable but corruption still was rampant. The family’s next stop was Mexico, where political corruption also was the norm.

When she and her family moved to Cypress — the sprawling suburb northwest of Houston — it was like a dream to the 14-year-old, filled with tennis courts and science class pig dissections and seemingly limitless opportunities. She was able to secure enough scholarship money and need-based aid to study political science at Stanford University, where she wrote an undergraduate thesis that explored good governance, visited Cairo a year after the Arab Spring to study the political fallout and went to China to compare the Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square protests. Hidalgo graduated with honors in 2013, then moved to Thailand to work for the Internews Network — an international non-profit that trains journalists and advocates for press freedom — just before the country’s armed forces launched another coup.

After she returned to the United States, where she volunteered for the Texas Civil Rights Project and Houston’s county-run public hospital before entering a master’s program at Harvard and New York universities, her disillusionment with the U.S. political system exploded as she watched President Donald Trump move to limit health care access and press freedom.

So she decided to put her graduate degree on hold and run for political office. After speaking with friends, advisers and local political insiders, she settled on challenging County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican incumbent who for nearly a dozen years had presided over the five-member commissioners court.

Now, against all odds, she’s running the most populous county in Texas — the first woman and Latina to do so — after riding a blue tsunami in Harris County that swept away several countywide Republican officials and saw Democrats prevail in every county judicial race.

Hidalgo, who will turn 28 next month, says she wasn’t recruited to run; she simply concluded after extensive research that the county could do a much better job overseeing a massive public health care system and the state’s largest jail.

“I’ve worked with people on the losing side of our broken criminal system and the broken healthcare system,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ve studied these issues. I’ve lived these issues. I know what needs to change.”

‘They don’t want you to be there’

When Hidalgo filed to run in the fall of 2017 as a Democrat, she was considered beyond a long shot. Emmett was perhaps the most popular politician in Harris County — a moderate former state representative who managed to remain well-liked even as his party drifted far to the right and whose leadership during hurricanes Ike and Harvey was widely praised. Before the election, Emmett had championed a historic, $2.5 billion flood control bond sparked by Harvey’s devastating floods that passed with overwhelming support.

Emmett was considered so unbeatable that he faced no serious opposition from either party; Hidalgo also won the Democratic nomination by default.

During the campaign, Hidalgo famously refused to attend a commissioners court meeting. Her public explanation for that decision has evolved, but she said it was “out of principle” because the commissioners court meeting room — on the 9th floor of a nondescript downtown building — is too hard for members of the public to find.

“I had no desire of going at the time because it was part of the inner circle,” she said. “They don’t want you to be there.”

Emmett, meanwhile, focused his attention on the Democratic voters he feared would cast straight-ticket ballots even though they’d supported him in past elections. During the general election campaign, he and Hidalgo debated and appeared together before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

By September, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, the political tides turned as President Donald Trump became increasingly unpopular and it became clear that all county-wide GOP candidates were extremely vulnerable.

Emmett was “the least vulnerable Republican incumbent,” Jones said, but “In the end, the size of the pro-Democratic wave was simply too high for Emmett to keep his head above water, and Hidalgo was swept into office.”

Hidalgo won by about 19,000 votes out of more than a million ballots cast — a razor thin margin. Meanwhile, Democrats at the top of the ballot — U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, in particular — outperformed Republicans by much larger ratios in Harris County, a sign that Hidalgo benefitted greatly from straight-ticket voting.

But she resents people who say it was the only factor that led to her victory.

“Obviously it played a role, but we ran a hard campaign,” she said, noting that she received a half million dollars in political contributions. Her star-studded campaign finance reports show much of that money came from out of state — particularly California. Celebrities ranging from Jennifer Aniston to Isabel Allende sent Hidalgo money.

Hidalgo’s election, along with the election of former Harris County sheriff and Houston City Council member Adrian Garcia, gave Democrats their first majority on the commissioners court in nearly three decades.

Too young, too green?

Hidalgo has faced persistent questions and comments about her age and lack of experience.

One recent magazine profile deemed her a “perma-student” — Hidalgo says that’s misleading because she worked for several years before starting graduate school. During the campaign, a rumor surfaced that she lived with her parents. Hidalgo says she lives with her boyfriend, a Houston civil rights attorney, who “doesn’t like to be talked about.”

But while she is the first Latina and first woman to be elected to the office, she’s not the youngest — that distinction belongs to the larger-than-life Roy Hofheinz, who won his race at age 23 after serving one term in the state Legislature and went on to serve as mayor of Houston.

Several county staffers who requested anonymity because they’re not authorized to speak publicly said county department heads have been impressed by Hidalgo’s savvy and demeanor. And in its ringing endorsement of Emmett, the Houston Chronicle editorial board still lauded Hidalgo for being able to “hold her own” when she and Emmett met with the board together.

“The hand-wringing about Hidalgo’s inexperience is overblown at this point,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “The county judge position is like a CEO in a major corporation in that they set the tone and direction for the county but don’t govern it alone. The county commissioners, who have decades of experience among them, assist the county judge in governing.”

Indeed, Hidalgo will be surrounded by political veterans. In addition to Garcia, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis is a former state senator and Houston councilman and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack has served on the court for 30 years.

But Jones, the Rice political scientist, noted in an email that Hidalgo has already demonstrated her own political savvy — most notably last week when she announced she wouldn’t accept campaign contributions from county contractors.

While that may be an easy sacrifice given all the out-of-state campaign contributions she has received, Jones said it was “a brilliant political move since it has won her support from across the political spectrum from voters and leaders who have long decried the endemic cronyism and pay-to-play politics in Harris County, the City of Houston and [the Houston Independent School District].”

‘A lot of uncertainty’

Hidalgo takes the helm at a time when the county faces numerous challenges and important decisions to make, including a nerve-racking wait for federal recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey and the state Legislature’s efforts to limit how much property tax revenue counties can raise.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, a whole lot,” said Radack, the Precinct 3 commissioner.

The Republican said he has talked to Hidalgo only a few times and that it’s hard to predict how things will go under her leadership, though he said he expected at least “99 percent, probably higher” of the court’s votes to be unanimous, as has been the case in the past.

Hidalgo “has some goals that are highly important,” Radack said, including helping the poor. But he also suggested that many of them may be outside the scope of the county’s powers such as Hidalgo’s proposal to limit development in flood-prone parts of the city and undeveloped areas that can absorb rainwater.

“We only have the authority that the state Legislature gives us,” he said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how [Democrats] try to push things to see if they can maybe get legislation approved to do something different.”

On Tuesday’s meeting agenda, the first item listed under the county judge’s office section is a “request for discussion and possible action regarding flood mitigation and Hurricane Harvey recovery.”

Hidalgo has criticized previous county leaders for underfunding flood mitigation projects and blames failed leadership for making the massive August flood control bond measure necessary, though she says she is “very glad it passed and that we have those funds to make our community stronger and to rebuild.”

She said she wants to ensure that more affluent parts of town are not unfairly prioritized; thanks to community pressure, the bond language included a provision for commissioners to set rules aimed at doing just that, but Hidalgo says they have yet to be written.

Radack said it’s “absolutely not true” that leaders have failed constituents when it comes to flood control, pointing to several major projects approved by past commissioners courts. He added that the county’s efforts before Harvey were hampered by the area’s historically strong anti-tax sentiment.

“Monday morning quarterbacking — that is sometimes not the right way to go,” he said. “Hey, could more money have been spent? Yes, but were people really willing to see their taxes raised? The answer to that is absolutely not.”

Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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