Lina Hidalgo had only a few miles left in her marathon training run one December day in 2018 when a phone call interrupted the music flowing through her headset. A month earlier, Hidalgo had surprised much of Houston’s political class by defeating longtime incumbent Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican, for the position of Harris County Judge—the chief executive of the nation’s third-most-populous county, with 4.8 million residents. The 27-year-old Democrat would take office in January.
Hidalgo, panting from exertion, answered the call. District Attorney Kim Ogg, a fellow Democrat who, like Hidalgo, had come to power as the Harris County electorate turned blue, greeted her on the line. Ogg, who declined a request for an interview, had rung her to continue to press the incoming county judge to make a particular political appointment to an executive assistant position, Hidalgo said in an interview with Texas Monthly. Hidalgo said she ended the call quickly and she wasn’t interested. “It’s pretty obvious when someone is trying to handle you,” Hidalgo told me. “I wanted to make these decisions based on my own judgment.”
That brief phone call would mark the start of a troubled relationship between two of the most prominent elected Democrats in Harris County, and by extension in Texas. Though Hidalgo and Ogg both came to power promising progressive reforms, their differing visions of what that actually means have left the two starkly at odds. More than three years later, their disagreement has devolved into open fighting on Twitter and in press releases, and, recently, into criminal indictments.
Hidalgo and Ogg might have been allies. Though Ogg has an extensive background in law enforcement—she headed an anti-gangs task force in the 1990s and later served as the executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, a nonprofit that provides cash rewards for tips that help solve crimes—she positioned herself as an advocate of criminal-justice reform when she first ran for DA in 2016. Seeking reelection four years later, she boasted on her website that she was “Texas’ most progressive district attorney.” Hidalgo likewise made reform a key theme in her 2018 campaign and during her administration, canceling the building of a new juvenile detention center and increasing defense attorney budgets. The apparently like-minded attitudes of the two women suggested they might work together to achieve common goals on criminal-justice reform—an issue that had not historically animated the county’s leaders.
But only a month into Hidalgo’s tenure, her tensions with Ogg came to a public head on this very topic. During a February 2019 commissioners’ court meeting—one of the first chaired by Hidalgo—leaders discussed the county’s $3.07 billion budget for fiscal year 2019–20. About a dozen speakers commented on Ogg’s request for a 31 percent budget increase that would enable her to hire 102 new prosecutors. Ogg was not present, but a half dozen of her prosecutors told commissioners about enormous, unmanageable caseloads, canceled vacations, and seven-day, seventy-plus-hour workweeks.
A roughly equal number of criminal-justice reform advocates urged commissioners to reject Ogg’s request, arguing that the best way to reduce caseloads was to incarcerate fewer Texans. The reformers prevailed. The five-member court’s three Democrats, Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, voted to approve only a 7 percent increase—a result that the Houston Chronicle called “a stinging public defeat for the Democratic first-term district attorney by members of her own party.”
The stings would continue. Over the next three years, the court’s Democratic majority repeatedly rejected Ogg’s pleas for extra funds. The DA’s budget and those of other county law enforcement agencies have increased every year of Hidalgo’s tenure, although not as much as Ogg and her supporters say was needed. Ogg began to publicly accuse Hidalgo and her Democratic colleagues of “defunding” law enforcement, using an increasingly politically toxic word amid rising violent crime rates in the county and increasing public support nationally for more law enforcement spending.
In late 2021, the feud escalated when Ogg launched a criminal investigation into the controversial awarding of a contract by the commissioners on a 4–1 vote. In April of this year, Ogg secured grand jury indictments of three of Hidalgo’s top aides, one of whom has since left her office, on two felony charges each, alleging that they improperly helped steer an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach bid to a consultant who had worked on Democratic campaigns. Hidalgo and attorneys for those indicted say the probe was motivated in part by budget battles. Ogg has denied this.
Hidalgo has repeatedly said the prosecution is an effort by a fellow Democrat to prevent her election to a second term in November, suggesting it is retribution for her failing to meet Ogg’s budget requests; she’s also speculated publicly that she too might be indicted as part of Ogg’s “political exercise,” defiantly declaring, “I’m not deterred.” On June 1, two defendants in the case filed a motion to disqualify Ogg from the probe based on purported misconduct and conflicts of interest. “Despite claiming to be a Democrat, Ogg has aligned herself with her former Republican colleagues in retaliation against Judge Hidalgo,” the motion states. Ogg, who ran for a judgeship as a Republican in the nineties, had not responded to the motion by publication time, and the judge had not ruled on the request.
Ogg’s spokesman, Dane Schiller, issued a statement on the indictments and investigation in lieu of granting Texas Monthly an interview with the DA: “A grand jury consisting of Harris County residents heard evidence over a five-month period and determined that probable cause existed for six indictments. Our work continues and we will follow the evidence wherever it goes. These indictments are about evidence and the law and we look forward to presenting everything to courtroom jurors. Those who say this is about animosity or a fight between two of the county’s most powerful officials seem terrified of the truth and desperate to distract from the facts.”
Whatever motivated the investigation and indictments, the fight between the two officials presents a picture of disunity within a local Democratic party preparing for a particularly challenging off-year election. And, if Hidalgo loses, it could help Republicans regain a majority on the commissioners’ court in November, bringing a halt to the expansive vision of county government and expanded investment in social services that Hidalgo and her Democratic colleagues on the commissioners’ court have championed.
It’s often said that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but it also produces unlikely adversaries. Ogg and Hidalgo each hold certain distinctions in Harris County politics. Ogg is the first Democratic district attorney in decades and the first out lesbian to hold the job; OutSmart magazine, which focuses on LGBTQ issues, dubbed her “America’s top gay cop” in 2017, the year she took office. Hidalgo is the first Latina and first woman to win the job of Harris County Judge.
Early in her tenure, Ogg drew praise for steps such as reducing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. But many of her early supporters, including some of her former prosecutors, complained that she hadn’t gone far enough to reduce incarceration in her tenure. In Ogg’s first term, a federal judge ruled that Harris County’s misdemeanor court bail system was unconstitutional on the grounds that it discriminated against poor Texans who couldn’t afford cash bail. In 2019, most Democratic leaders in Harris County supported an agreement to settle that lawsuit that would end cash bail requirements for most defendants in misdemeanor courts. Ogg refused to support it, arguing that the deal went too far in accommodating defendants without protecting the interests of victims or the public.
A 2020 analysis by court-appointed monitors concluded that while bail reform resulted in fewer Texans jailed and more being released on cash-free bonds, recidivism rates remained low. Ogg disputed these findings in an analysis of the report: “‘Bail reform,’ as presently practiced in some Harris County courts, will continue to be a driving factor in the crime crisis gripping our community,” she wrote.
A person familiar with Ogg’s thinking at the time, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss sensitive internal matters, said Ogg backed off some of her early positions because she was “getting a lot of pressure” from the court’s two Republican members, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, to shift to a more tough-on-crime approach. (Radack did not seek reelection in 2020; his seat is now held by Republican Tom Ramsey.) During a commissioners’ court meeting in June 2019, Radack told Hidalgo she was “weak on crime. You’re weak when it comes to law and order.” Possibly sensing shifting views from voters, “Kim became very protective and started pulling away” from reform initiatives, the source said.
During the 2020 primary campaign, Ogg lost the backing of progressive groups such as the Texas Organizing Project and the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus. Her stance on the bail reform settlement also alienated some former supporters and moved her further from any kind of alliance with Hidalgo, who strongly supported the deal. At a fund-raising event in early 2020, Ogg said opposition to her criminal-justice policies was driven by “a few people interested in changing out liberal Democrats for even more liberal Democrats.”
None of this criticism did much damage to Ogg’s 2020 campaign for reelection; she won more than 54 percent of the primary vote against three challengers, two of whom had worked for her as prosecutors. She then defeated Republican Mary Nan Huffman with about the same percentage of the vote in the general election. Even though the bail settlement applied only to misdemeanor cases, Ogg’s tough prosecutorial message seemed to resonate with voters amid a rise in homicides, which she attributed in part to a shortage of prosecutors in her office.
Hidalgo, by contrast, proudly touts her record on some of the criminal-justice issues Ogg has distanced herself from. In addition to supporting the cash bail agreement, Hidalgo’s campaign website notes that she and her Democratic colleagues on the commissioners’ court increased funding for the public defender’s office, approved a new system for appointing attorneys for indigent defendants in misdemeanor criminal courts, and canceled plans to build a new juvenile detention facility in an effort to “direct funds at evidence-based criminal justice reforms” rather than “mass incarceration.”
The conflict between the two women reflects stark ideological differences in the party, said Kathryn McNiel, a longtime Houston Democratic consultant not affiliated with Ogg or Hidalgo. “I think there’s a strong philosophical split that represents the two sides of the Democratic party,” McNiel said. “I think differences of opinion in the party is fine. It’s what makes us rich as a party. But it tears the party apart when it gets personal.”
Others suggest the feud is less ideological. As the Houston area faced one disaster after another—calamitous industrial accidents, the coronavirus pandemic, floods—over the course of her first term, Hidalgo’s national profile has risen. She’s regularly appeared on television offering information, advice, and reassurance in two languages, and she was showered with favorable national coverage that rankled some county officials who felt she hadn’t paid her dues. “Kim’s star certainly wasn’t as bright as Lina’s,” said Tom Berg, who was Ogg’s first assistant until he resigned under pressure in May 2019.
Former colleagues and others who know Ogg and Hidalgo characterize them both as strong, ambitious women; those who have worked for Hidalgo say she is an extremely demanding boss, but many accept this because they are willing to work long hours in support of shared goals. Critics say both officials tend to strike back harshly against perceived antagonists.
“Lina Hidalgo has no respect for Kim Ogg,” Radack, the Republican former commissioner, said. She “doesn’t like people who won’t kiss her heinie.” Berg, Ogg’s former first assistant, characterizes the district attorney in similar terms. Scores of prosecutors have left the DA’s office during her term. “She can be vindictive,” Berg said. “There are a lot of us who left with knives in our backs. If you disagreed with her approach, there was generally a consequence. You either went her way or you went out the door.”
Attorneys involved in the contract investigation say it’s unlikely to come to trial before November, which will leave the probe hanging over Hidalgo throughout her campaign for a second term. The county judge and Adrian Garcia, the Democratic commissioner who is also up for reelection this year, want to preserve the control of county government that Democrats achieved in 2018 for the first time in decades.
The indictments charge the three defendants—Hidalgo’s chief of staff Alex Triantaphyllis, policy director Wallis Nader, and former policy aide Aaron Dunn—with two felony counts each: misuse of official information and tampering with a government record. Records of communications among these staffers and others show that Felicity Pereyra, a consultant who had worked for Garcia’s 2015 mayoral campaign, as well as Hillary Clinton’s, was provided with details of the desired services before the three other bidders for the contract. Hidalgo’s team said this was because they believed Pereyra’s work on a separate COVID-19 data analysis project might include monitoring and reporting on the progress of the larger effort to increase vaccination rates in underserved communities. Pereyra’s firm, Elevate Strategies, was awarded the outreach contract in June 2021, but the project was canceled in September at the behest of Hidalgo, who said the controversy was harming efforts to cope with the pandemic.
The contract investigation is one of many factors contributing to uncertainty about Hidalgo’s prospects for reelection. She enjoys the advantages of incumbency and has a strong, passionate base of progressive support. Harris County, like most of Texas’s major urban areas, has voted solidly blue in recent elections. But since Hidalgo’s last election, the state has eliminated straight-ticket voting, which analysts agree helped her win. Many voters’ attention also will be focused on national issues such as the rising costs of gasoline and other economic concerns outside the purview of elected county officials.
Former Houston mayor Annise Parker, a Democrat who has helped Ogg raise campaign funds, said it was “unfortunate that two such high-profile Democratic officeholders are at odds, but if in fact Judge Hidalgo’s people violated policies or laws, that needs to be rooted out.” Parker said Republican politicians across the country often “get a pass” after committing crimes, and “I don’t want to see Democrats doing things that are inappropriate or illegal and not being called on it.”
Still, Parker said, “I don’t think anybody benefits from people exchanging a war of words in the press. The escalating rhetoric seems to be coming a little bit more from Judge Hidalgo.” She said she didn’t vote for Hidalgo in 2018, has not endorsed her in the current race, and hasn’t decided for whom she will vote in November.
A look back at that February 2019 commissioners’ court meeting shows how far the rhetorical jabs have escalated. The wording then was more polite: Vivian King, Ogg’s chief of staff, told commissioners that prosecutors “are tired of working from six a.m. to ten p.m. We want the low-level people to be diverted. We want to get the bad guys. We want to get the people we’re afraid of, to put them in jail.”
In response, Hidalgo observed that “less incarceration means lower caseloads.” She went on to say that “we have to figure out exactly what we need to do not just for the DA’s office, but the criminal-justice system as a whole. We’re facing an important moment, Harris County is. The nation is watching.” She thanked the absent district attorney for her staff’s words. The discussion was a model of civility.
By May of this year, as the contract investigation continued, the two officials had become far more blunt. Ogg issued a statement scolding Hidalgo for her “nearly daily public misstatements” about the investigation. Ogg said she felt compelled to speak out because “failing to do so allows a top county official, in her official capacity, to continue to improperly influence those people of Harris County who will serve on the jury in this case.” Hidalgo fired back with a statement accusing Ogg of “a cascade of leaks about this political exercise.” She said the DA was pursuing a “predetermined, politically motivated outcome parroting the false allegations of my right-wing opponents.”
While general elections can bring out mudslinging among opponents for office, one might easily forget, reading these exchanges, that they came from members of the same party.