In mid-March, with the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic growing by the day, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo confronted a vexing problem: she announced that she was prepared to halt evictions, but it wasn’t clear she had the authority to do so. Unlike municipalities, Texas counties can’t enact ordinances, and in an emergency, county judges’ special powers are generally limited to measures delegated by the governor. Harris County’s justices of the peace had agreed to suspend evictions through the end of March, but prospects for relief after that were uncertain. Hidalgo pressed the county attorney’s office for solutions, and it considered unorthodox steps such as ordering justices of the peace not to include eviction cases on their dockets—an idea that raised questions about separation of executive and judicial powers.
Hidalgo, a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant who narrowly defeated incumbent Ed Emmett, a popular three-term Republican moderate, in 2018’s blue wave, told me in an interview this month that her team considered many options. “We’ve been though all kinds of loops on this,” she said. The team got a temporary reprieve from discussing the issue when, later in March, the Texas Supreme Court ordered a halt to evictions that remained in effect until May 26, and a federal moratorium protected tenants until July 24.
By the time the federal moratorium ended, the debate over evictions had shifted to city hall. A task force that included tenant advocates and apartment owners had drafted a grace period ordinance. But Mayor Sylvester Turner, whose office declined multiple requests for an interview, refused to put the measure on the city council agenda, saying through a spokeswoman that it would simply delay rather than reduce the tenants’ financial burden. Advocates were furious, and both Hidalgo and her representative on the task force, Armando Walle, favored the moratorium. Activists argued that Turner’s focus on strengthening a rent relief fund was inadequate when thousands faced potential homelessness. By late July, tenants who hadn’t paid rent were being ordered out of their homes.
Hidalgo’s sense of urgency, even to the point of making a promise on evictions that she hadn’t figured out how to keep, stands in contrast to Turner’s more cautious, deliberate approach. In a sense, this difference is unsurprising: Turner and Hidalgo are products of sharply contrasting political traditions. In his 27 years as a state representative, Turner developed a reputation as a consummate deal-maker adept at working with Republicans and gaining support from business leaders and other interest groups before moving forward. Hidalgo draws her base of support from grassroots progressive activists who didn’t have much of a voice in local politics until recently. The two leaders are at opposite ends of their political lives; the 65-year-old Turner has said his final term as mayor will be his last in public office, while Hidalgo is widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic party. She was featured in the first few minutes of the party’s national convention on August 17.
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The pandemic has required Hidalgo to shift from being a bureaucrat to an emergency manager, requiring that she work with Turner more closely than before. Their frequent televised briefings on the pandemic present a tableau of unified leadership. But behind the scenes, the two have a more complicated dynamic, according to interviews with a dozen current and former city and county officials, political and policy advisers, and community leaders with the ear of one or both officials. (Most spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.) The contrast in styles—hers more aggressive, his more deliberate—has led to frustration and tension in both camps. “She’s pulling him along with her,” one member of Hidalgo’s team told me.
The county judge has regularly advocated bolder policy steps than the mayor, both in public and privately. In early March, Turner wanted to wait until there was a locally transmitted case of COVID-19 before shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, sources say. Hidalgo, on the other hand, questioned this metric. She told me she was prepared to “put my foot down”; a day after she came to the decision to do so, a case of community transmission was confirmed, and Turner closed the rodeo. Not long after, Turner and Hidalgo were also at odds over how strict to make a local stay-at-home order. During private discussions with Turner and his staff, Hidalgo and her team wanted to limit gatherings to fewer participants than the mayor did, and did not want religious services to be exempted. Once again, the dilemma was solved by outside factors: federal guidance helped Turner and Hidalgo agree on a limit of ten per gathering, and the order did not forbid in-person religious services based in part on an advisory by Attorney General Ken Paxton. Their differences in approach continued, however. On April 8, Hidalgo ordered county parks closed for the upcoming Easter weekend because of concerns about large crowds; Turner, who initially resisted calls to close city parks, followed suit the next day.
Hidalgo’s supporters say she doesn’t feel wedded to the old political norms of Texas Democrats: “I think she’s doing something different, and people who are accustomed to conventional politics don’t understand it,” said Ginny Goldman, a Houston community organizer who cochaired Hidalgo’s transition committee and continues to advise her. Opponents hold, however, that Turner’s consensus-building style yields better results. They argue that Hidalgo’s haste and bluntness have increased pushback from conservative politicians, including Governor Greg Abbott, and may have fostered public resentment that reduced compliance with containment steps such as mask-wearing. Texans, it’s often observed, don’t like being told what to do, so a certain level of subtlety is helpful. Hidalgo’s predecessor, Emmett, famously urged the public to “hunker down” when disasters approached, a sign of his disarming, folksy style. Hidalgo doesn’t do folksy; she’s data-driven and direct.
On occasion, Hidalgo’s eagerness to act has led to charges that she was sowing confusion. On March 24, she issued a countywide stay-at-home order and warned that police were prepared to enforce it with fines up to $1,000 or jail time. As she spoke, attorneys had not yet completed a final draft of the order, which was released about six hours later. City councilwoman Amy Peck was appalled: “A press conference to completely change everyone’s world, and the actual order that governs it isn’t ready yet for release??” she posted on Twitter. “There are thousands of people on edge waiting to see if they have jobs tomorrow. Businesses don’t know what to do. Publish the order!” Hidalgo maintained the urgency of the situation influenced her timing; another factor might have been that the Houston Chronicle had already broken the story, prompting public inquiries to county officials.
Sometimes the criticism has focused on the policies themselves. In late April, when Hidalgo ordered county residents to wear face coverings in public or face a potential $1,000 fine, police union leaders and Republican office-holders pounced: Congressman Dan Crenshaw called it “government tyranny”; Harris County GOP chairman Paul Simpson said it was an “unenforceable power grab.” Abbott took these complaints to a national audience in a May 6 interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, accusing Hidalgo of threatening jail time for noncompliance with her mask order, which she hadn’t done (the order called for possible fines but not incarceration).
Whether a more measured approach on Hidalgo’s part would have made much of a difference is a point of debate. She and Turner, like most elected leaders of Texas’s major urban areas, are Democrats in a state led by Republicans facing pressure from their right flank to limit or lift restrictions on business activity and public gatherings. But, although Turner and other Democrats have faced considerable pushback from Republican leaders for their pandemic policies—the mayor was sued by the Texas Republican Party over his decision to cancel its in-person convention in July—Hidalgo has become a more visible target of the right. Her supporters attribute this to her youth, gender, and ethnicity. Six days before Hidalgo’s mask order that Abbott railed against on Fox, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a 56-year-old white man, issued a virtually identical mandate but didn’t face nearly as much resistance. A Harris County official told me that after each of Hidalgo’s public announcements, the volume of calls to the county switchboard is so great that extra staff is required to answer them. Many of the calls are not friendly: “I’ve never seen this level of vitriol and hate,” the official said.
Turner and Hidalgo, of course, are on the same political team, and their conflicts with state Republican leaders throughout the pandemic have been more intense than their own disagreements. “To an extraordinary degree, we see eye to eye,” Hidalgo told me. “Of course we have differences, but what leaders wouldn’t?”
Turner did not publicly support either Hidalgo or Emmett during the 2018 campaign. But she doesn’t appear to have held a grudge; she recorded Spanish-language radio ads for him during his 2019 reelection bid. Beyond their disaster collaborations, the two elected officials often cross paths as they power through the nightly ritual of civic club meetings, business openings, sports celebrations, and other public events that come with their jobs. “We kind of give each other a knowing look,” Hidalgo said. Sometimes she sticks around to watch Turner in action. She’s delighted when she sees a speaking style that the mayor has said he nurtured as a child by standing in front of a mirror and trying to imitate the cadences of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
“I love it when I get to see his preacher mode,” Hidalgo said.
She spoke of a connection she feels with Turner that transcends their obvious differences in age, experience, and ethnicity. “Here is an immigrant kid and a kid from Acres Homes,” she said, referring to the humble, largely Black northwest Houston neighborhood where the mayor grew up and still lives. “And we’re running the city and Harris County, and it’s just such a Houston story.”