At the Fountain of Praise, a Black church in southwest Houston, senior pastor Remus Wright was preaching to his congregation about the importance of protecting their dreams. In the crowded sanctuary that Sunday morning sat several political candidates with dreams of their own: among them was Sean Teare, a former assistant district attorney who is now the front-runner in a race to unseat his former boss, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg, in the Democratic primary. Teare was there to worship, as he usually does on Sunday, but he was also making his case to voters. After the service, he was introduced to the congregation by influential Harris County commissioner Rodney Ellis, one of the Democrats who has sparred with Ogg over the last four years. Teare, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly coiffed, took the stage in a navy suit and brown cowboy boots and promised he could fix an office that he called broken—a state of affairs he attributed to the incumbent’s mismanagement. “There are a lot of differences between now and 2020,” he told me earlier in the church.”The biggest one being that people know who [Ogg] is now.” 

Ogg has suffered a fall from grace among many early supporters since 2016, when she became the county’s first Democratic DA in decades and its first-ever openly gay top prosecutor. She championed misdemeanor bail reform and implemented a program to divert those who would have been charged with low-level marijuana possession into educational programming. But in 2019, she launched an opposition to a legal settlement that ended cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses, and she spread the line, along with many Republicans and police, that releasing those accused of misdemeanors had led to a rise in violent crime. More recently, critics have noted that the DA’s office, under Ogg’s leadership, saw a precipitous spike in cases that ultimately got tossed for lack of probable cause. Critics have connected her policies to a spiraling jail-crowding crisis that has resulted in those awaiting trial being shipped out of state. 

While Ogg has defended herself against accusations that she is a “Democrat in name only,” Harris County Democratic Party precinct chairs in December issued a formal admonishment, claiming she did not represent the values of the party. She recently received an endorsement from the “C” Club of Houston, a group of business leaders that typically backs conservative and right-wing candidates, including Donald Trump in 2020. Her rivals note that Ogg ran as a Republican in the nineties before switching party affiliation in a county trending more and more Democratic.

Ogg called me on a Saturday afternoon in response to an email I’d sent to her campaign spokesperson. For an hour and twenty minutes, she vehemently defended her record and lambasted her opponents. Regarding her party identity, she said that while her platform includes elements that might appeal to progressives and conservatives, her job is nonpartisan. She added, “I don’t have any identity conflict. I’m just trying to make the right decision in each case, which involves usually looking at both perspectives.”

One of Ogg’s most controversial actions is the criminal investigation her office launched into that of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the highest-ranking official in the state’s most populous county. A grand jury heard evidence presented by Ogg’s prosecutors and indicted three former Hidalgo staffers on charges that they improperly awarded a contract to promote COVID-19 vaccination to a firm run by a Democratic strategist. (They’ve denied wrongdoing.) The investigation, and the question of its legitimacy, has divided Houston Democrats, some of whom have accused Ogg of wielding the power of her office to punish rivals within her party. Hidalgo and the two other Democrats on the commissioners’ court at the time, including Ellis, had spurned Ogg’s requests for additional resources (the two Republicans on the five-member body had favored the requests). Ogg told me that linking the budget dispute to “legitimate complaints” about possible criminal behavior is “completely inappropriate.” But Hidalgo, a progressive Democrat, has accused Ogg of “dirty politics.” 

Teare, a former employee of Ogg’s office, now finds himself endorsed by some progressives and former colleagues as the antidote to Ogg’s reign. Teare worked in the DA’s office for more than a decade, including as Ogg’s head of vehicular crimes. Now he works for a law firm that represents the former chief of staff for Hidalgo in the ongoing criminal case. (Hidalgo has endorsed Teare, who says he has nothing to do with the case.)

Teare told me he believes in “giving people chances” but also removing “the people that prey on the community.” He said he supports the cash bail reform Ogg turned against in 2019, as well as more diversions for nonviolent drug offenders, but he sharply criticized Ogg’s office for losing so many murder cases instead of dismissing flimsy cases earlier.

Most often, his conversation with me returned to the way he would run the office differently from Ogg. “You’ll notice nothing is ever the office’s fault or her fault, ever,” he told me, his tone resolute as he punctuated each word with his hand. “It will always be the judges. It will always be commissioner’s court for not giving enough people or money. It will always be the labs [for] not getting evidence to them in enough time.” 

Ogg’s supporters defend her investigation into Hidalgo’s staff, arguing that the top attorney is simply doing her job by pursuing investigations regardless of party affiliation. “A lot of the left in my party wants to use whatever levers they can to promote their agenda, sometimes without a real understanding of what the actual tools they’re applying should or could do,” said former Democratic Houston mayor Annise Parker, a friend of Ogg who has endorsed her. Parker leads the national LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which backs candidates, including Ogg, who identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Ultimately, argued Parker, Ogg values doing her job above appealing to left-leaning primary voters. “That is not always the best strategy for a primary candidate,” she acknowledged. “But you also don’t want to cater too much to the extremes of your party.” 

Progressives say their concerns about Ogg’s performance run deeper than party infighting and have become more pronounced over the last four years. State representative Gene Wu, a former Harris County prosecutor, supported Ogg when she ran for DA in 2016. Now he views her as engaging in political battles against fellow Democrats and spreading misinformation around bail reform, and he is backing Teare. He wonders what became of the Ogg platform that won his support eight years ago. “Where did it go? Was it just all nice things to say when you were running?” He sighed heavily. “People have been having issues with her but just kept it kind of quiet.”

In our phone call, Ogg described her record as balancing public safety with progressive policies and accused Teare of heading a campaign of “political tricks” supported in part by Jewish billionaire George Soros—the bogeyman of antisemitic conspiracy theories often invoked by right-wing Republicans—whom she claimed “wants somebody far more liberal.” This effort, she said, has been amplified by journalists and polling she suggested was gamed. The Soros-funded Texas Justice & Public Safety PAC recently contributed TV ad buys worth more than $1.5 million to Teare, plus polling help, but his campaign was largely seeded by two friends. (Soros also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect Ogg in 2016, during her general campaign, which received $300,000 from Soros directly and $550,000 from the PAC he funds. In our conversation, Ogg initially denied receiving a large donation from Soros directly, though public campaign finance reports show otherwise.)

When I noted that several Democrats seemed upset about how she had aligned with Republicans on bail reform and other issues, Ogg asked, “Which Democrat are we referring to?” She described her critics as a small group of disgruntled former employees and retaliatory colleagues who are not representative of the party.

Ogg’s election in 2016 was part of the blue wave that crashed over Harris County, even as it failed to rise statewide. She toppled the Republican incumbent, Devon Anderson, by running on a platform of progressive change—the pledges of bail reform and diversion programs were part of that. Ogg excoriated her opponent for jailing a rape victim (Anderson said she regretted the incident). In October, before the general election, Ogg’s campaign reported receiving more than $120,000 worth of fieldwork from the political action committee of the Texas Organizing Project, which supports Black and Latino workers.

After Ogg took office, in 2017, a federal judge ruled that Harris County’s practice of jailing those accused of misdemeanor offenses because they couldn’t afford bail was unconstitutional—the result of a class action lawsuit brought by advocates on behalf of a woman held on $2,500 bail for driving with an invalid license. Ogg placed herself squarely on the side of advocates, first filing a brief in support of bail reform, then praising the ruling when it was handed down. But then came the backlash from police and her more-conservative supporters.

In 2019, Ogg filed an opposing amicus brief arguing that the proposed settlement, which would allow most of those accused of misdemeanor offenses to be released without paying bail, prioritized the rights of defendants over victims and the community. In the brief, she pointed to the case of Alex Guajardo, who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife after being released on bond following misdemeanor charges, including for allegedly hitting her. “Kim went on the offensive for that case in a way that [was] unprecedented for her office in terms of ‘this is a result of bail reform,’ ” said Jay Jenkins, the Harris County project attorney with the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, which seeks to end mass incarceration. Ogg increasingly connected misdemeanor bail reform to violent crime and felony cases, though independent monitors have refuted the connection. The settlement marked a turning point for Ogg. “Kim never could really decide whether she was a progressive or a conservative,” said Tom Berg, a military veteran who served as Ogg’s first assistant DA. In this election, he’s backing Teare. Ogg claims that her position on bail reform never changed and that she has been misrepresented. She says she never supported the release of those accused of crimes involving violence on insufficient bail, even if those charges involved misdemeanor offenses.

Ogg’s hard-line stance on bail falls in line with her overall pitch that she is the law-and-order candidate. That perception could benefit her, said Kathryn McNiel, a Democratic consultant who assisted Ogg in one of her early primary campaigns, pointing to Houston’s recent mayoral race. Mayor John Whitmire ran, and ultimately won, on a public-safety platform, winning over Houstonians who said they were worried about crime (nationally, violent crime has declined since a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic; in Houston, homicides and gun violence declined in 2023 compared to the previous year, while aggravated assault and robberies increased). It’s still “top of mind for so many people,” McNiel said.

But there are stark differences in the two races. The mayoral race was nonpartisan, meaning Whitmire did not have to run in a primary and benefited immediately from garnering support across party lines, including from Houston’s Republican establishment. One could view Ogg’s party rebuke as evidence that she’s “done a good job of representing the average voter in Harris County,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. But, he said, Democratic activists “want to see a more progressive district attorney.” Ogg needs to prevail in a low-turnout primary in which the voters most likely to show up are highly engaged Democrats—such as those who organized precinct chairs to back the resolution against her. “Democratic voters don’t particularly like it when you pick up Republican talking points,” said Daniel Cohen, the precinct chair who authored that resolution. 

Ogg now faces a tougher race than in 2020, when she easily fended off multiple challengers, besting progressive front-runner Audia Jones by some 30 points. This time around, the embattled DA has a single, well-funded opponent in Teare, who is leading by 38 points among likely primary voters, with 20 percent yet undecided, according to a survey released last week from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. He also outraised Ogg in the final round of funding, bringing in more than $1 million in contributions to Ogg’s more than $280,000. Ogg led Teare in fund-raising in January, but even that achievement is being used against her in the primary race. She raised more than 40 percent of January contributions from the bail bond industry, whose money Teare says he won’t accept.

Even as Ogg easily prevailed in her primary and in the general election four years ago, when the county was grappling with the pandemic and rising crime, fractures were already showing. In the primary, she lost her endorsement from the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, though she earned it in the general election. This time around, Ogg—who, in our conversation, accused the caucus of not representing the interests of “truly gay people,” citing its lack of endorsements for “qualified” gay candidates—didn’t apply for the caucus’s endorsement. The caucus has now endorsed Teare. Ogg indicated that she got her materials too late. But with any candidate who doesn’t submit a questionnaire, Brandon Mack, the screening chair for the caucus, wonders: “Are you truly caring about the community enough to actively seek us and our endorsement?”  

At an ACLU candidate forum in February, Ogg—dressed in colorful spring garb, a green blazer paired with a yellow scarf—faced off against her opponent. She made the case that she and Teare share some similar viewpoints, but the programs he wants to implement, such as diverting cases involving juveniles and mental health, already exist. Teare made some sharp distinctions. He wants to overhaul the intake division that was remodeled under Ogg’s leadership, which critics blame for thousands of case dismissals for lack of probable cause. If elected, he plans to revisit the case of Jalen Randle, an unarmed Black man who was shot to death by a Houston cop. Teare also criticized Ogg for refusing to sign a letter pledging not to prosecute those who violate the state’s near-total ban on abortion, a line of attack with which Ogg took particular umbrage. (“He’s a tobacco-chewing, TV-loving, car-chasing self-promoter,” she said of Teare after pointing to her own history of marching for reproductive freedom in Washington.) 

Whether Ogg triumphs again could hinge not only on her policy positions but also on the number of influential allies she has lost. Commissioner Ellis supported her in the 2016 general election and didn’t endorse her primary’s front-runner in 2020. Ogg’s office launched an investigation into allegations that Ellis improperly spent public funds to store a private collector’s assortment of African art. In 2021, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges. Ellis, who called the investigation “ridiculous,” said that his concerns this time are not about Ogg’s investigation of him, but about the impact her tactics have had on others in his community. “That position is one of the most powerful positions in Texas government in any county,” he said. “You have to be careful about who’s put in that office.”