In-Depth

In DA Race, Ogg Faces Multiple Challenges From The Left

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s opposition to bail reform has galvanized progressive opposition ahead of the March 3 Democratic primary

Criminal justice reform advocates have targeted Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in part because of her position on bail reform.

Carlos Caldwell, who lives in public housing in Houston’s Third Ward, worked as a substitute teacher until a year ago. That’s when he said he was pulled over for not having a front license plate, told he had a warrant for passing a bad check, and arrested.

Caldwell says he didn’t do it. He waited in jail for four days without seeing a judge, until finally he learned the details of his case from another inmate’s attorney.

“I know the bond is $100. I don’t have any family here, I really don’t have any friends here, and I don’t have $100,” Caldwell said. “[The attorney] said, ‘Well, if you plead not guilty, it’s going to take about two weeks and it’ll have to go to trial. And so you’ll be here for two more weeks.’”

Carlos Caldwell
Carlos Caldwell, holding his “wish board,” a motivational tool to help him get his life back on track

Caldwell said he was terrified, so he pleaded guilty, thinking that would be the end of it. It wasn’t. Caldwell lost his job, then his home.

It’s stories like Caldwell’s that outrage criminal justice reform advocates. And those advocates have found their target: Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who is up for reelection this year and is set to face an unexpectedly tough Democratic primary.

Ogg, who campaigned and was elected as a reformer in 2016, is now feeling pressure from some progressive Democrats who feel she failed them by pushing to hire more prosecutors instead of reforming the bail bond system.

One of those reform advocates is Tanuke Smith, who, when asked if she knew how she planned to vote in the upcoming DA’s primary, said, “I do. Not to vote for Kim Ogg.”

Smith and others recently argued against Ogg’s request for an increase in funding to pay for more prosecutors, at a meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court. Like Caldwell, Smith found herself in jail for a crime she says she didn’t commit and pleaded guilty to get out when she couldn’t afford bail. She too has been unemployed ever since. She blames Kim Ogg, who as DA opposed a plan to eliminate cash bail for indigent defendants and allow them to bond out on their own recognizance.

Tanuke Smith
Tanuke Smith

“I’m going to be pushing for Audia Jones,” Smith said, “because she understands what goes on in the African-American and the Latino community. And she understands how the court system is not favorable to those populations in the communities.”

Jones, who was recently endorsed by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, also has the endorsement of a number of progressive groups, including the Texas Organizing Project and the Houston GLBT Caucus. The latter is especially significant, given Ogg is the first openly LGBT DA in Houston’s history. In addition to Jones, Ogg’s primary challengers include Carvana Cloud and Todd Overstreet. All three challengers previously served as prosecutors in the Harris County DA’s Office.

As Harris County has shifted to left in recent election cycles, there have been increasing demands among Democrats, according to Bob Stein, professor of political science at Rice University.

Audia Jones
Audia Jones is running in the Democratic primary for Harris County District Attorney.

“Now the Democrats have such control of Harris County that they can look to an incumbent and say, ‘You know what? If you haven’t toed the line on things that we think are important, we have no problem running against you, because we’re not going to lose the seat to a Republican,’” Stein said.

Three candidates are fighting for the Republican nomination to challenge Ogg: former Harris County prosecutor Lori DeAngelo, former Montgomery County prosecutor Mary Huffman, and perennial candidate Lloyd Wayne Oliver.

Ogg opposed bail reform in large part because she said it didn’t do enough to protect crime victims and survivors. And some of those crime victims are strong supporters of Kim Ogg.

Calandrian Kemp
Calandrian Kemp

Gun control activist Calandrian Kemp lost her only son, George Kemp Jr., to gun violence. She said Ogg responded when Kemp brought to her attention a group of mothers who had seen no progress in their children’s murder cases.

“I just know that from that experience, DA Ogg, she really listened,” Kemp said. “She really had compassion for these families, and she was really about the victims’ voices, about doing what was right. Not just only for defendants but for the victims that are left behind.”

Kemp isn’t without sympathy for the bail reform argument. She said change is necessary to unclog the courts, allowing them to focus on violent crimes rather than non-violent offenders. But she said Ogg has been doing that, particularly through the use of diversion programs.

“For me, I’m going to go and vote for DA Ogg [to] continue because I want to see the work that she does continue,” Kemp said.

As for Carlos Caldwell, he’s still trying to make up his mind. But he says bail reform will shape his choice, “because there are a lot of people such as myself that have pled guilty to things they’re innocent of so that they don’t have to stay 14 extra days in jail to plead not guilty.”

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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