Democrats in Texas and nationally call Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo a rising star. But in order to fulfill that role, she first has to survive two growing controversies at home — and a brutal-looking midterm climate for her party.
Hidalgo was part of the Democratic wave in 2018, winning victory as the chief executive of Harris County — the nation’s third-largest county, anchored by Houston — in her first run for political office. Before becoming the first woman and Latina to hold the position, she worked as a medical interpreter and volunteer for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
It wasn’t long before some Democrats discussed Hidalgo, then 28, as a future statewide candidate as Texas inches toward battleground status. EMILY’s List, the national pro-abortion rights group that backs female Democrats, gave her its 2021 Rising Star award — previously won by the likes of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley before they gained greater national prominence.
However, two issues have come back to hurt Hidalgo as she runs for reelection this year: the county’s botched administration of the March primary election — after building her reputation in part on expanding voting access and fighting the new voting law enacted by state Republicans last year — and controversy over a Covid-fighting contract that went to a political consulting firm.
The election administrator Hidalgo selected, Isabel Longoria, resigned after some votes initially went missing during the March primary. The other issue led to three people on Hidalgo’s team, including her chief of staff, being indicted by a grand jury last month.
Now, Republicans are thinking a Harris County comeback is within reach, despite the county’s leftward move in recent years. Two Republicans are battling in a May primary runoff for the right to take on Hidalgo in the fall, centering issues like crime and rising homicides in the county.
After dealing with fallouts from natural disasters and a pandemic in her first two years, the new challenges add up to the toughest situation of Hidalgo’s brief political career so far. She may well be a future standard bearer for the Texas Democratic Party, but first, she has to survive difficult local and national political climates — the type of midterm environment that has wiped out large parts of both parties’ benches in the past.
“If we’d been talking a year ago, I would say that she would have been a lock for reelection,” said Mark Jones, director of research and analytics at the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. The group’s March poll found Harris County voters close to evenly divided on Hidalgo: 40 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable. The county judge took a 15-point net negative swing in those numbers since late October.
Now, Jones continued, she remains popular among local Democrats but has lost independents and moderate Republicans who used to support her.
“She’s been pretty much reduced now to the Democratic base, which means her profile is very similar to that of Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke,” Jones said.
Democrats insist Hidalgo is not in urgent danger. But the controversies she faces cut against her particular brand — a progressive change agent who preached about transparent governance.
In March, the county’s first elections administrator faced immediate backlash after thousands of mail-in ballots were damaged or left out of unofficial primary results — votes that could have been deciding factors in tight local races. Longoria resigned, and both Democratic and Republican leaders called for independent election reviews. The county is still in the process of choosing a replacement.
Republican state legislators, who tightened election rules in 2021 amid false claims of widespread election fraud, jumped on the mistake, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calling Hidalgo out by name. He categorized the errors as why the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 last year.
“The Democrats in Harris County made up their own rules last election,” Patrick said in a statement on March 1. “Lina Hidalgo must answer for this debacle of her own creation and must be held accountable.”
The other blow to Hidalgo came from a vaccine contract connected to an effort by Houston and Harris County to raise vaccination rates and spread awareness among Black, Latino and low-income communities in 2021.
Hidalgo’s office awarded, and later rescinded, an $11 million contract to a political consulting firm that had never participated in medical campaigns before — despite ranking the firm’s bid lower than others, including one from UT Health, during deliberations. Conservatives called it a “corrupt” way for Harris County officials to fund a company that could make inroads with Democratic voters. Hidalgo dismissed the accusations as political attacks rather than indications of an ethics breach.
But three of Hidalgo’s employees, including her chief of staff, were indicted by a grand jury in April for their participation in the contract process, facing charges of misuse of official information and tampering with government records.
“I take no pleasure in being right about this,” Republican County Commissioner Jack Cagle tweeted at the time. “This is a major black eye for Harris County. Now it’s time for the courts to sort it out.”
Hidalgo has said that at worst, the controversy seems like a “weaponization of the criminal justice system” to focus on last year’s contract and not other issues like education or homelessness in the county.
“The facts just don’t add up as they’re being presented,” Hidalgo told an ABC news affiliate on April 14. “It’s the middle of an election year and I think it’s very clear that the motivations around this are just to harm me politically and it’s very sad to see the criminal justice system used that way.”
Hidalgo’s office did not respond to multiple requests to schedule an interview.
Though conservatives have tried to peg her as a hypocrite on transparency, Hidalgo’s tenure has been more open than her predecessors, said Odus Evbagharu, chair of the Harris County Democrats. In addition to not taking political contributions from county vendors, Evbagharu pointed to Hidalgo’s practice of running county Commissioners Court meetings for 11-hour stretches as opposed to the shorter 30-minute meetings of the past, eliminating a culture of backroom deals, he said.
Evbagharu, who connected with Hidalgo early in their careers over their shared young, immigrant background, said politicians of color already don’t have the luxury of being unaccountable to their residents.
“The whole notion that the first Latina, second youngest [judge] — a time where politics are super partisan — is now, all of a sudden, not transparent? She’d be getting hammered three, four, five, six times harder here in Houston if she wasn’t doing things in a transparent manner,” Evbagharu said.
Critics have also tried to pin Hidalgo to a rise in violent crime that has hit Harris County and many other places around the country. Though overall crime dropped last year in Houston, homicides increased in the nation’s fourth-largest city, including several killings of first responders. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a $44 million dollar program in February meant to strengthen community programs and crisis intervention workers.
“We have general lawlessness, and this ability to kind of just put it off and say, ‘Crime is just a problem all over the place, what we’re doing is working?’ No, clearly it’s not,” said Alexandra del Moral Mealer, a GOP candidate for county judge who will compete in a runoff in May.
Vidal Martinez, another GOP candidate for county judge, called Hidalgo a “formidable campaigner,” adding that progressives see her as a key component to flipping Texas blue.
“I don’t discount her strengths,” Martinez said. “It’s going to take everything and more to beat her. But she has some stubborn facts that she’s going to have to deal with that may not be in her favor in November.”
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