By the time candidates began announcing for the 2022 Texas primaries in mid-November, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, chief executive of the county that includes Houston, seemed to have safely weathered a controversy that had dogged her a few months before. In June, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, over which Hidalgo presides, had awarded an $11 million contract to Elevate Strategies, a Houston-based consulting firm, to conduct outreach services meant to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates. In August, the two Republicans on the five-member court alleged that Hidalgo had improperly funneled the contract to Elevate, which is run by a Democratic political operative, even though another bidder rated higher in a review committee’s assessment. After weeks of controversy, Hidalgo urged the commissioners to cancel the deal with Elevate, while remaining insistent that no impropriety had occurred and that criticism of the contract reflected partisan politics. Her “nothing to see here” attitude seemed to work, as public attention to the issue faded.
Then came the subpoenas to the commissioners’ court, issued by district attorney Kim Ogg, on November 12, the day before the filing period for 2022 primary candidates opened. “GREETINGS,” the six-page document begins, before stating that a grand jury of Harris County is “inquiring into certain offenses liable to indictment.” The subpoenas set a December 6 deadline for their recipients to deliver a broad array of documents related to the commissioners’ court vote to award the vaccination outreach contract to Elevate. The deadline was later extended by a week, according to attorney Rusty Hardin, who represents commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia.
Representatives of commissioners Ellis, Garcia, and Jack Cagle confirmed to Texas Monthly that their offices had received subpoenas. Hidalgo’s aides declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the final commissioner, Tom Ramsey, said that she was “not aware of any” subpoena. Hardin said the issuance of the writs directly to officeholders, rather than to their records custodians, was unusual. The subpoenas do not specify what criminal laws might have been broken in the awarding of the vaccine outreach contract, but law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, told Texas Monthly that several statutes might apply: official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor; abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony if more than $300,000 in public funds is involved; and misuse of official information, a third-degree felony. The county paid Elevate Strategies more than $500,000 before the contract was terminated.
Reached Tuesday, Ogg provided the following statement to Texas Monthly: “Out of fairness, it is our policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation until and if a criminal charge is filed, but as you have asked for my thoughts on public corruption, I will tell you, that it should be fought on every front; evidence should always be followed wherever it leads, and government contracts and spending should be designed in the best interests of the public.”
Regardless of where the inquiry leads, it creates a whiff of potential scandal around a young leader widely seen as a rising Democratic party star. Hidalgo, who filed for reelection on December 3, came into office emphasizing the importance of transparency and integrity in government, and has notably refused to accept campaign contributions from county vendors, an extraordinary rebuke to a pay-to-play system that has flourished for years. “She rightfully received praise for that,” said Charles Blain, the president of Urban Reform, a Houston-based conservative-advocacy group. “But once you make such a major pronouncement, everything in your office should be above reproach.” In the case of the vaccine outreach contract, Blain said, “she came into office with this new standard and then fell short of her own standard—and then she refused to own it.”
The controversy over the contract concerns why it was awarded to Elevate Strategies, whose founder, Felicity Pereyra, worked for the mayoral campaign of current county commissioner Garcia, a Democrat, in 2015. Elevate, which had conducted census outreach for the county in 2020, did not have experience with public-health campaigns—although some of the partners in its proposal did. The firm’s services were more expensive and scored lower than those of another bidder, the University of Texas Health Science Center, in an initial assessment by a selection committee made up of three of Hidalgo’s staffers and two county public-health officials. Cagle alleged, without evidence, that the firm was chosen to help Hidalgo nurture relationships with potential Democratic voters. Hidalgo has denied any impropriety, and has said Elevate ultimately prevailed over three other bidders because it offered a more ambitious scope of services and impressed the committee in a presentation after the initial assessment. Elevate has not been accused of any wrongdoing; Pereyra did not respond to a request for an interview.
“Every single thing that has been alleged has been thoroughly debunked,” Hidalgo told me in September. She said she eventually moved to cancel the contract only because the political bickering was dampening public confidence in efforts to get more Houstonians vaccinated. “Basically,” she said, “the well was poisoned.”
This potential scandal is the first for Hidalgo, who has earned praise for overseeing the county’s response to a series of disasters—the failure of the state’s electric grid, floods, a pandemic—during her first three years in office. Hidalgo burst onto the scene at age 27 with a 2018 victory over longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican. Hidalgo, who interrupted her graduate studies to challenge Emmett, had never run for office or managed a large organization. During her brief time in office, the young leader has been showered with favorable attention. Hidalgo “is creating a model for how progressives can govern effectively,” the New Yorker gushed in a June profile. “Lina Hidalgo puts principle above politics at her own peril,” a Houston Chronicle editorialist opined in a February essay. In May, EMILY’s List, the group that works to elect Democratic women supportive of abortion rights, named Hidalgo as its 2021 “Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award” winner.
As Hidalgo begins a reelection effort, her opponents see an opportunity in the controversy. “This is clearly the first tarnish on her political career,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who has written a book about political scandals. “It’ll stay with her regardless of how this all turns out.” Houston attorney Vidal Martinez, one of seven Republican candidates to declare a bid for county judge as of early December, said Hidalgo’s handling of the vaccine outreach contract will be an important theme in the campaign. “Whatever public agency you manage, you must have a fair and honest evaluation process and use those tax dollars wisely,” Martinez said, noting that Elevate Strategies’ bid was millions of dollars higher than those of other bidders.
Most of the half dozen analysts with whom I spoke said Hidalgo would be more vulnerable to a strong primary challenger than to a Republican in the general election. “I don’t think you can beat a Democrat in Harris County anymore, short of an indictment and probably a conviction,” said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein. As of press time, no Democrats had announced a challenge against Hidalgo, but candidates have until December 13 to declare. Should any do so, the criminal investigation is likely to still be underway as voters cast primary ballots in March.
A few analysts said national political forces could work against Hidalgo in November if she survives a primary. Democrats are widely expected to suffer losses in midterm campaigns next year—perhaps even more than usual for the party whose president is in office—and this trend could be felt in local races as well, particularly if the scandal sticks. “Republicans vote to the bottom of the ballot; Democrats typically don’t,” said Rottinghaus.
Jonathan Geldof, Hidalgo’s campaign manager, declined to comment on how the grand jury investigation might play into the campaign, referring me to Hidalgo’s previous statements. Hidalgo, for her part, doesn’t appear distracted by the criminal inquiry; her comments on it have been limited to saying she has obeyed the law.
Hidalgo has continued to receive national exposure, and spoke to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, recounting her 2018 victory over a “grandfatherly establishment figure” and declaring she had “put an end to that good-old-boys’ club that did business behind closed doors.” In the speech, Hidalgo described her lack of experience as “ignorance of limitations.” She was more reflective in our September interview. “Governing is never easy,” she told me. But during a disaster such as the pandemic, she said, “you put the differences aside. And so it’s especially frustrating to deal with what someone is doing because they think it will help them with their base.”