Politics

Lina Hidalgo’s Year of Living Dangerously

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Hidalgo in her office, in downtown Houston.

Photograph by Brandon Thibodeaux

Harris County commissioner Steve Radack leaned into his mic and grinned. It was May of 2016 and the longtime Republican commissioner for Precinct 3 had a fly he wanted to swat. His target was Democratic state senator Rodney Ellis, who had recently announced his intention to run for Precinct 1, the only seat on the five-member commissioners’ court that could be counted on to elect a Democrat. 

Ellis had endorsed, in righteous language, a federal lawsuit filed against the county by activists who hoped to radically reform Harris County’s bail system. Radack read aloud portions of a statement in which Ellis, who is African American, condemned Harris County’s “over-reliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration,” which, he said, had “a particularly devastating effect on communities of color and the poor” and had resulted in “some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates” in the nation.

Radack waved a paper in the air, proving, he said, that many smaller Texas counties had higher incarceration rates. “I think that it’s time Mr. Ellis either shut up or state the right facts,” he said, smiling. It was the kind of trash-talking that’s easier to engage in when the target isn’t in the room.

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

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Hidalgo oversees a meeting of the Harris County Commissioners’ Court in January.

Photograph by Brandon Thibodeaux

The Harris County Commissioners’ Court has gone from being one of the least surprising places in Texas politics to one of its most interesting. That’s partly because the body has enormous responsibilities—five million people live in Harris, and two million of them live in unincorporated areas where the county is primarily in charge. Its purview ranges from indigent health care to disaster preparedness, from parks to criminal courts. But Harris County government is also a case study, a glimpse of what Texas might look like if Democrats ever win real power.

What happens when a place long controlled by one party flips and the outsiders take over? Democrats on the commissioners’ court have spent the past year or so enacting what they say is a progressive agenda and trying to make a clean break from the past—while the Republicans have at times behaved like a stay-behind army in a civil war, using the rules to slow down and obstruct the majority when they can and hoping a backlash will sweep them back into power.

Few expected Hidalgo to win. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Hidalgo moved to Houston with her family when she was fifteen. After graduating from Seven Lakes High School, in Katy, she earned a BA in political science from Stanford in 2013. She then moved to Thailand to work for an NGO focused on press freedoms, before landing in Houston again, where she worked as a Spanish translator for the Texas Medical Center and as a volunteer for the Texas Civil Rights Project. Interested in a career in public service, Hidalgo enrolled in a joint public policy and law program at Harvard and New York University. When she left school to run for office in Houston, Hidalgo had never attended a meeting of the commissioners’ court in person. She ended up a candidate for such a powerful position precisely because no established Democrat thought a long-shot campaign was worth the trouble—or because they liked Emmett too much to do so, as in the case of former Houston mayor Annise Parker.

In the aftermath of her shock victory, there was widespread skepticism that Hidalgo could handle such a huge job. The doubts were reasonable, given that Hidalgo had little relevant experience, but they also reflected the condescension that twentysomething Latinas encounter on the occasions when they step into the halls of power. Since then, Hidalgo has become one of the more visible elected officials in Texas, the subject of profiles by national and international publications, a prominent millennial face in American politics, and the closely scrutinized target of political opponents.

While being interviewed on local TV news during the Deer Park chemical fire in March 2019, Hidalgo slipped into Spanish at one point—a useful skill, given that about a third of the residents of Harris County are native Spanish speakers. But Mark Tice, a commissioner in Chambers County, to the east of Harris, condemned her. Hidalgo was “a joke,” Tice said. “This is not Mexico,” he added. “Speak English.”

There have been other such moments. Was it true, I asked Radack in January, that he had referred to Hidalgo in hearings as “young lady”?

“I sure did,” said Radack, who has been serving on the court since 1989. “And she is a young lady. You could say I’m an old man; she’s a young lady.” It was Hidalgo, he added, who had been insufficiently respectful to him: When Radack was new to the commissioners’ court, he always made sure to show respect to the senior men he served with, something he does not feel the Democrats do. Hidalgo, he says, treats him and other county government veterans with “this total know-it-all perspective that she got out of Columbia University.” (Hidalgo, of course, studied as an undergrad at Stanford and was born in Colombia.)

“When there was four Republicans and one Democrat, there was no bitterness there at all,” Radack said. Now things are “chaotic.” He claims that crime is ticking up (it’s not), and he is worried about the county’s bond rating.

Regardless, Hidalgo has been busy. Apart from the bail settlement, the commissioners’ court has injected more money into the public defender system while rebuffing district attorney Kim Ogg’s request for a large increase in funding to hire more prosecutors. The Democratic majority is also trying to bolster Harris County’s flood planning and strengthen its public transportation network, partly by shifting spending away from wealthier parts of the county to less wealthy ones. And it has undertaken dozens of smaller initiatives, such as the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage Commission.

Hidalgo told me that she has the most pride in what she regards as her success in throwing open the doors to county government. In a rebuke to the Emmett court, she sought to establish “that we don’t need to limit ourselves to sort of a quiet group that meets silently and that deals with technical issues of infrastructure.”

The way things were done before, she said, were opaque. County departments made budget requests with a “one-pager,” and “hundreds of millions of dollars were disbursed without much thought.” For decades, “there was no vision for the county, no master plan, no goals, no metrics,” she said. “From the very start, I’ve been asking for there to be metrics and goals.” Previous courts “were just budgeting according to whatever somebody read in the news or whatever they thought was politically expedient, perhaps.”

Hidalgo is eager to show that the old way of doing business is dead. Sometimes, that’s been occasion for criticism. When Hidalgo came into office, the county had already spent $2 million and several years preparing to build a new juvenile detention center to replace the county’s aging facilities. The Democrats on the court canceled those plans, with Hidalgo criticizing the Emmett commissioners’ court for “tinkering” with a complex problem. Instead, she commissioned the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare advocacy group, and experts from Columbia University to draw up new plans. But the scrapping of the contract means juveniles remain stuck at the current detention centers, which are said to need some $20 million in renovations. “Some of the buildings we have now are deplorable,” Radack said.

In much the same way, Hidalgo canceled Emmett’s proposal to repurpose the abandoned Astrodome as an event center, after $8 million had already been spent on restoration. It’s been left to the rats. Critics also complained that Hidalgo’s public appearances during the Deer Park fire did not inspire confidence. (A representative critique on social media charged that she looked like “a deer in headlights.”) At some point, there will be another hurricane, and although Hidalgo has stepped up preparations to deal with such disasters, it’s unclear whether she’ll perform as well or engender as much goodwill as her predecessor, who served as the reassuring face of recovery for more than a decade.

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Hidalgo speaks with her staff during a break in a commissioners’ court meeting.

Photograph by Brandon Thibodeaux

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

All of which suggests that Hidalgo may be taking more fire as time goes on. She has pointedly declined to say whether she’s running for reelection in 2022, and there are whispers in Houston that other Democrats may start gunning for the seat now that they know it’s winnable. “There’s certainly a lot of policies that I don’t know that we can accomplish in four years,” Hidalgo said, insisting she hasn’t thought very much about a next term. “But I would hate to talk beyond that.” Hidalgo has a future in politics, if she wants it. If she doesn’t, perhaps she could return to her graduate studies at Harvard and NYU: the past few years would make for an excellent thesis.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Lina Hidalgo’s Year of Living Dangerously.” Subscribe today.

Tags: Politics, Bail Reform, Harris County, Lina Hidalgo, Texas Democrats

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