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Lina Hidalgo’s Political Rise


On a recent Wednesday morning, Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Harris County, Texas, visited the Greater Pure Light Church, in northeast Houston. In front of the church—a sand-colored building with colonnades and a white steeple—a half-dozen people awaited Hidalgo, who arrived in a Chevy Tahoe with a pair of security guards. A petite woman of thirty, with an orb of black curls and a no-nonsense demeanor, Hidalgo rose to fame in 2018, after narrowly defeating Ed Emmett, an eleven-year incumbent, who is four decades her senior. Critics questioned whether she had the experience to lead Texas’s largest county, with a population of more than four and a half million and a budget of five billion dollars. During her first eighteen months in office, she has reimagined the role of a county executive, managed multiple crises, enacted progressive reforms, and gained popular support, all the while fending off a steady stream of criticism of her youth, ambition, gender, and ethnicity. The pandemic dominated Hidalgo’s tenure and mired her in political controversy for more than a year, but she has emerged from it as one of Texas’s rising Democratic stars.

At church that morning, Hidalgo was intent on steering clear of politics. She was there to greet people getting their vaccines and to brief her constituents on the county’s vaccination efforts. The neighborhood, Aldine, a predominantly Latino area of fifteen thousand residents, had some of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the county, and among the lowest vaccination rates. Bedevilled by crime and poverty, it was an unlikely place for a county judge—the local title for chief executive—to visit. The church’s pastor, Darryl Broussard, said that he did not recall Hidalgo’s predecessor ever visiting the area during Emmett’s eleven years in office. “If he ever came to the north side of Houston,” he said, “I knew nothing of it.”

Broussard, a rangy man of fifty-nine, wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with the word “pastor,” escorted Hidalgo into the church. As she approached the pews, she walked a few steps ahead of him. “Good morning. County Judge Lina Hidalgo. I’ll give you a fist bump,” she said to a woman who was waiting to be called on by a nurse. Hidalgo repeated the gesture with everyone who was to receive a shot. “I got mine last week,” she said. “Thank you so much for being here.” If anyone knew who Hidalgo was, it didn’t show. Undeterred, Hidalgo showered the group with attention. “How are you? Happy to be getting the shot?” she asked, in Spanish, to a mother with her young daughter. “Oh, I’m overjoyed to see you both here.”

Hidalgo then walked to the corner of the hall to deliver a briefing. Standing ramrod straight, in a pencil dress and with a flower-patterned mask, her arms hanging loose, she delivered good news: the county had administered more than three hundred thousand vaccines, roughly six thousand a day, across more than seventy-seven sites. Journalists asked the judge why Harris County’s covid-19 threat level remained severe, or red. Had the judge considered reducing the threat level? “The decision as to what our threat level is is not something I decide based on a feeling, or based on an arbitrary date, like some folks have done,” Hidalgo said, alluding to a decision by Governor Greg Abbott to end all pandemic-related restrictions on Texas Independence Day. Harris County’s positivity rate, she added, would have to dip below five per cent before anything changed—experts at Rice and Baylor universities had set the threshold. A reporter asked what she thought of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s claims that opponents of the state’s new “voter security” bill were a “nest of liars” solely interested in “race-baiting”? Hidalgo calmly replied that the bill—which would limit voting hours, forbid drive-through voting, and embolden partisan poll watchers—was no different from a literacy test or a poll tax. “It’s the same old story: suppression under the guise of some excuse,” she said. “So let’s keep calling it what it is—Jim Crow 2.0.”

Hidalgo’s swift political rise began with electoral maps. Like many other members of her generation, she decided to run for office after the 2016 Presidential election. A twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she reached out to Steve Jarding, one of her professors, and asked what to do. Jarding recommended that she find a seat where the incumbent had won by less than five percentage points, and that she clearly convey to voters what she would deliver if she were elected. She considered all of the positions she could run for in her House, congressional, and state-Senate districts in Texas. Among other reasons, Hidalgo settled on the county-judge position because Emmett had run unopposed for years. Not everyone saw the race quite the same way she did. Seasoned Democrats in Houston greeted her decision with incredulity and suggested that she run for the school board. “Everybody here thought it was a bad idea,” Hidalgo told me. “They just didn’t think that I could beat him looking the way I look.”

Around that time, Ginny Goldman, a progressive strategist who was advising Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, was searching for a candidate who would keep Emmett up at night. “Meeting after meeting, I asked people, ‘Will you run?’ ” Goldman recalled. “And everybody said, ‘No way, he’s not beatable.’ ” They said Emmett was the kind of Republican who pleased voters from both parties; he had last won reëlection, in 2014, with eighty-three per cent of the vote. But Goldman’s years working in community organizing had shown her that Harris County could turn blue. The electorate wasn’t only growing—it was becoming younger, more diverse. Hillary Clinton had won there by an overwhelming twelve points in 2016, even though Donald Trump had scored a decisive victory in Texas. “So then I got a phone call from people at the Democratic Party saying, ‘There’s this woman who just showed up in the county. She says she wants to run,’ ” Goldman said. “And I was, like, “I want to meet her!’ ”

Over breakfast at a diner, the two women spoke of Hidalgo’s aspirations to become a public official. Born in Colombia, in the early nineties, she had known the fear and uncertainty of a prolonged war. Kidnappings, killings, and bombings were commonplace. When Hidalgo turned five, her father got an engineering job in Lima, Peru, where they lived until the family moved to Mexico City, in 2000. Neither of the two democracies seemed perfect—violence and corruption were pervasive. And it wasn’t until Hidalgo’s family settled in west Houston, when she was fourteen, that she realized things could be different, albeit imperfect. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Hidalgo became fixated on the question of why government works in some places and not in others. Her research led her to Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring and, later on, to Beijing and Bangkok. Inspired, Hidalgo decided to become an activist herself, or perhaps a civil-rights lawyer. But the results of the 2016 election upended her plans. Change would take longer to effect from the outside—and that is why Hidalgo had come to ask for Goldman’s help. “I’m in,” the strategist told her.

What Goldman noticed in Hidalgo others soon saw, as well. The bulk of her initial support came from groups such as Black Lives Matter and Indivisible. She was also endorsed by Run for Something, a progressive organization founded in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The group’s co-founder, Ross Morales Rocketto, told me that he thought Hidalgo’s leadership could be an antidote to today’s grim politics. “So many candidates suck,” Morales Rocketto said. “They seem fine on the outside, and the moment you drill in a little bit you find a major character flaw.” Hidalgo, he added, was the complete opposite. “There’s an earnestness to her,” Morales Rocketto said. “People mistake that for being naïve—and they make that mistake at their own peril.” It wasn’t until the primaries were held, in March of 2018, that Hidalgo found an experienced campaign manager. “So many people were running for office and so many people were burned from Hillary’s loss that there was a massive supply-demand problem,” Hidalgo said. In Houston, though, she was the only Democrat who challenged Emmett.

On the night of the election, Goldman was in Austin, at O’Rourke’s campaign headquarters. “People were really affected,” she recalled, alluding to O’Rourke’s loss, to Ted Cruz, in the state’s closest Senate race since the nineteen-seventies. “I’m looking at the returns going, ‘Oh, my God, Lina Hidalgo is winning! Oh, my God!’ And people are looking at me, like, ‘Ginny, who the hell are you talking about?’ ” The following morning, everyone knew who Hidalgo was. Hidalgo’s opponents, including Emmett, attributed her win to straight-ticket voting, which accounted for more than eighty per cent of the votes she received. For her part, Hidalgo recognized that she had specifically targeted voters likely to split their tickets, but she credited her “ignorance of limitations,” instead. “That means that I’m not burdened by the assumptions that may tie the hands of many people,” Hidalgo told me. “Not because they’re narrow-minded, but simply because they’ve been looking at the same chessboard for way too long.”

When Hidalgo took office, in January of 2019, she became the first woman and first Latina elected to the position. She was also the first Democrat in nearly three decades to lead the five-member body that runs the Harris County government, formally known as the Commissioners Court. At Hidalgo’s first session, she set a tone markedly different than her predecessor’s. The meetings he led had rarely lasted more than an hour; her meetings went on for as many as nine. Hidalgo rescinded a rule limiting public discussions to only fifteen minutes and introduced progressive policies, such as a proposal for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage for county employees, criminal-justice and immigration reforms, and an expansion of health-care and voting rights.

To her critics, Hidalgo’s vision exceeded her authority. She contended that a county executive with a multi-billion-dollar budget ought to be setting ambitious priorities. “Nobody even asked why certain programs were being funded or even knew what the rollovers were for different departments,” she recalled. Setting an example of what clean government could look like, Hidalgo decided not to take campaign contributions from individuals and companies that engaged in business with the county government. Her decision was a departure from traditional Harris County politics. “It functioned as a good-old-boys’ club—you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” Michael O. Adams, a professor of political science at Texas Southern University, told me. “Lina has set a new ethical standard.” 

But her tenure has been defined not so much by good-government initiatives as by disaster responses. In the past two years, Harris County has experienced chemical fires, gasoline spills, tropical storms, explosions, deadly freezes, and a pandemic. “She’s had more disasters to deal with, in such a short amount of time, than anybody I can think of in local government, other than the mayor,” Rodney Ellis, a veteran Democratic county commissioner, said. During each crisis, Hidalgo has strived to be a constant, reassuring presence, and to err on the side of sharing information, regardless of how bad the news may be. Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University, acknowledged an element of self-promotion in her leadership style. But he argued that Hidalgo’s visibility allowed her to capture the public imagination, particularly in the midst of the pandemic. “What remains is this image of her trying to safeguard the population of Harris County,” he said.

When Washington State recorded the first coronavirus death in the country, last February, Hidalgo reached out to Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, which includes Seattle. Constantine had publicly declared that his state was grappling with “the most serious outbreak of covid-19 anywhere in the nation,” and Hidalgo wanted to know how to prepare for what would follow. “She was the first official around the country to contact me,” Constantine recalled. “It was very much fog of war.” Hidalgo asked if he was considering closing schools and offices or curtailing people’s ability to gather. “Those kinds of decisions are weighty for a public official,” Constantine said. “We were fortunate to not have the politicization there was in Texas.” Within days of their conversation, community spread took hold just north of Harris County. Along with the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, Hidalgo announced that the city’s rodeo, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, would be closing early for the first time since the nineteen-thirties. They issued an emergency health declaration that was to remain in place for seven days.

Initially, Abbott, the Governor, chose to proceed with caution and declare the pandemic a public-health disaster—the first that Texas had experienced in well over a century. Weeks later, however, when it became clear that restrictions would impose heavy political costs, Abbott decided to loosen measures across the state. “We can have both,” he said in a press conference, reassuring his constituents that both their health and financial concerns could be addressed. When Hidalgo announced a mask mandate, in the last week of April, Abbott stripped local officials of their ability to enforce such orders. A deluge of criticism against Hidalgo ensued. Patrick, the state’s Lieutenant Governor, cast the mandate as “the ultimate government overreach,” and Dan Crenshaw, a congressman from Texas, argued that it could “lead to unjust tyranny.” Steven Hotze, a conservative radio host and doctor from Houston, sued Hidalgo for supposedly overstepping her authority. “The rights we enjoy under the Texas Constitution are being trampled on,” he claimed.

It was not the first time her leadership was rebuked. When she addressed constituents after a massive chemical fire, the judge was lambasted for speaking to them in Spanish. (“This is not Mexico,” a commissioner complained. “Speak English.”) Her appearance was also mocked, with critics comparing her to “Dora the Explorer” and saying she looked like a “little girl.” More than the actual reproaches, what concerned Hidalgo was the public confusion that resulted from her disagreements with Abbott. “I don’t blame the community,” she said. “They’ve been hearing mixed messages for a year and change.” In her public remarks regarding the pandemic, Hidalgo cited numbers, expert opinions, and comparisons with other countries—the kind of details that either reassured voters or made their eyes roll. The problem was that the debate in Texas around the pandemic had long ago departed from facts—some people didn’t pay as much attention to the necessity of public-health policies as they did to impingements on their freedoms. Close to three million Texans have been diagnosed with covid, and more than fifty thousand have died, but the question of whether the staggering loss could have been averted remained a political one. Even Abbott, who embraced political expediency, had his popularity plummet.