Politics

Lina Hidalgo, a rising Democratic star, faces a tough reelection race to lead Harris County

The Houston region’s high number of homicides, the state’s new abortion ban and a flood of campaign cash have made for a dramatic race to lead the state’s most populous county.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media| Alexandra del Moral Mealer's website

Four years after she unexpectedly ousted a well-liked Republican to lead the nation's third-most-populous county, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is in a pitched reelection battle against a well-funded Republican opponent — imperiling her party's hopes that the Democratic superstar could one day ascend to statewide office.

Hammering the 31-year-old incumbent over the county's high number of homicides and the criminal indictment of three Hidalgo staffers, Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer has mounted a robust challenge against Hidalgo — prompting GOP donors to open their wallets for the chance to halt Hidalgo's political career and retake the seat they lost in 2018.

A West Point graduate and ex-Army captain who served for a decade in Afghanistan, Mealer has put Hidalgo on the defensive over the county's crime numbers — which mirror trends seen in most major U.S. metropolitan areas during the COVID-19 pandemic — and a criminal court backlog that dates back to Hurricane Harvey, before Hidalgo took office.

Hidalgo and other county officials are "just not acknowledging the severity of the problem," Mealer said.

Hidalgo has touted annual increases to the county's public safety budget since she took office and sought to paint Mealer as an election denier — a label Mealer unequivocally rejects, as she says Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Hidalgo also has tried to tie Mealer to former President Donald Trump and the state's abortion ban, which county judges have little to do with as the top elected officials in county government.

Hidalgo came into office in 2019 with an expansive view of county government and a new Democratic majority on the Harris County Commissioners Court, enabling her to expand county spending into areas typically considered outside its purview, like early childhood education and a legal defense fund for immigrants — moves that critics have blasted as overreach.

Mealer has pitched herself as a back-to-basics candidate who would prioritize traditional county responsibilities like roads and public safety. Hidalgo has criticized that approach as short-sighted.

"In the time I've been in office, we've been able to tackle issues that went unaddressed for too long," Hidalgo said in an interview. If Mealer wins in November, she said, "I think that we would see an undoing of a lot of that work."

Texas Republicans made Hidalgo a top target after she was elected. But Mealer faces a tough climb in what's expected to be a tight race for the county's top position.

Like Texas' other major urban counties, Harris County has grown increasingly Democratic over the past decade. Barack Obama barely won the county in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton and Biden both won there by wider margins, as did Beto O'Rourke when he challenged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. And while every countywide position is held by a Democrat, the county judge's seat has been in Democratic hands for only four years.

"I would say she's a narrow favorite to win," Keir Murray, a Houston Democratic strategist, said of Hidalgo. "I think more likely than not she will prevail, but it's not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination."

Renée Cross, executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said Hidalgo is very popular among Democrats and very unpopular among Republicans.

"It's almost like the flip side of President Trump: People either love him or hate him," Cross said.

Republicans are betting that a national midterm environment that's generally unfavorable to Democrats, marked by Biden's low approval ratings and high inflation, could be enough to oust Hidalgo and regain a majority on the five-member court.

They are increasingly treating their bid to unseat Hidalgo as a last stand. If they fail to retake the seat, they fear it could be curtains for them in the state's most populous county — Harris residents account for 16% of the state's population — and that could make it harder to maintain their hold on statewide power.

"There's a feeling that we're the firewall here in Harris County to make sure Texas doesn't go blue," said Cindy Siegel, Harris County's Republican Party chair. "That's why I think there is this feeling that ‘This is it.'"

"The company they keep"

The political environment looks a lot different this year than when Hidalgo, then a political unknown with no managerial experience, won a surprise victory against Ed Emmett, a Republican who was well liked by voters of both major parties.

Then, Democrats were energized by their anger toward Trump, and O'Rourke was in a tight race against Cruz. Hidalgo netted the overwhelming majority of her votes through straight-ticket voting, which was later abolished by the Texas Legislature, and beat Emmett by less than 2 percentage points.

Now, Hidalgo is running on her record, particularly her response to multiple disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic — during which she built a national profile and became one of the state's most recognizable Democrats.

She and other urban county judges enacted measures intended to slow the spread of the virus like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions in stores and restaurants — drawing the ire of conservatives. Early in the pandemic, Hidalgo publicly clashed with Gov. Greg Abbott when he took the authority to enact pandemic restrictions away from local officials, unsuccessfully pleading with Abbott to take stronger action as COVID patients overwhelmed many Houston hospitals. Hidalgo also oversaw the county's response to the 2021 winter storm that crashed the state's power grid, as well as the region's ongoing recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

"I think she's shown a remarkable ability to exercise leadership during a moment of crisis and, in her case, a series of crises," said County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat and Hidalgo ally. "She's been tested in a way very few people in public life have been tested because of so many crises."

Hidalgo also backed measures to make it easier for people to vote during the pandemic, including 24-hour drive-thru voting — which inspired state Republican lawmakers to enact a sweeping bill last year that outlawed those same voting measures.

But a year of scandal and strife has complicated Hidalgo's reelection bid.

Three of Hidalgo's staffers drew felony indictments in April on charges stemming from how they helped award an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 vaccine outreach campaign — which Hidalgo later agreed to cancel — to a political consulting firm headed by a Democratic strategist. Hidalgo has defended the staffers, who are charged with misuse of official information and tampering with a government record, and called the charges politically motivated.

But the scandal has given Republicans an opening to clobber Hidalgo — who has often touted her ethical bona fides such as not taking campaign contributions from donors who do business with the county, a common practice among county commissioners.

"It's said you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep," Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale, a Houston businessman and local celebrity, says in an ad for Mealer released Sunday that highlights the indictments. "So tell me, what does this company tell you about Lina Hidalgo?"

Hidalgo also has clashed with local and statewide Republicans over the county's public safety spending.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in August accused county officials of violating a new state law aimed at discouraging local elected officials from cutting police spending when they ended a policy allowing county constables to "roll over" unspent funds to the next year's budget. Hegar threatened to block Harris County from passing a new proposed budget, even though it included substantial increases to the constables' budgets and the county's overall public safety spending.

Hegar later backed off. But that skirmish gave way to a standoff between the three Democrats on the commissioners court, including Hidalgo, and the two Republican members, who have skipped several meetings to stop the Democratic majority from passing a budget they contend insufficiently funds public safety while keeping property taxes too high.

Hidalgo and her fellow Democrats have accused the Republicans of "defunding" law enforcement by blocking a proposed $123 million increase in public safety spending.

Big dollars for a local race

The race has attracted unprecedented money from political donors, with Mealer outraising Hidalgo more than 3 to 1.

Mealer raised more than $4.9 million from July 1 to Sept. 29, according to her latest campaign finance report — dwarfing the $301,000 that Emmett raised in a similar time frame during his unsuccessful 2018 reelection campaign. Mealer outraised every statewide Republican candidate — except for Abbott — during that period.

Hidalgo, meanwhile, had a larger pool of donors but raised less than a third of Mealer's haul from July through September — about $1.5 million.

Among Mealer's top donors are Richard Weekley and Alan Hassenflu, real estate developers and co-founders of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, who contributed $400,000 and $350,000, respectively. Houston billionaire Jeffery Hildebrand and wife Melinda also gave Mealer $350,000.

Mealer also received $100,000 from the hard-right Defend Texas Liberty PAC, backed by donors including West Texas oil magnates Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks and headed by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican.

Mealer has outspent Hidalgo by more than 2 to 1, nearly $3.5 million to Hidalgo's $1.4 million — including on television and radio ads like the Mattress Mack ad and another commercial in which she appears with relatives of homicide victims.

Hidalgo, in turn, has attacked Mealer for not publicly taking a position on the state's blanket ban on abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade earlier year. One Hidalgo ad accuses Mealer of "staying silent while women's lives are in danger."

To Emmett, Hidalgo's focus on abortion policies — which county governments have little influence over — is an attempt to avoid debate on the county's handling of violent crime on her watch. Harris County oversees the sheriff's department and the constables who provide law enforcement for some 2 million people living in unincorporated areas of the county — as well as other criminal justice responsibilities like the jail, criminal courts and prosecutors.

"Lina Hidalgo doesn't want to talk about crime because she really has been more of the group that just didn't want to deal with it," Emmett said. "So she's running ads about abortion. That has absolutely nothing to do with the county judge."

Hidalgo argues that the issue is relevant given that the county appoints board members of the Harris Health System, which "provides abortions when they're medically necessary," she said. County budget officials also are examining whether they can use county funds to provide contraception or transport pregnant people out of state should they need an abortion, she said.

"Abortion has really come to the forefront of people's minds right now," Hidalgo said. "So partly, I felt a responsibility to address an issue that is so, so salient."

Mealer, however, doesn't see a need to weigh in.

"I frankly view all of this as a distraction from the actual county judge position," Mealer said. "I ran because this is the best position to impact public safety."

"Not where we need to be"

Mealer has focused her campaign on crime and grilled Hidalgo over law enforcement spending, which makes up about 60% of the county's $2.1 billion general fund budget and has grown every year Hidalgo has been in office.

Like nearly every major U.S. metropolitan area, the Houston region saw a surge of violent crime, particularly homicides, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of homicides in Harris County grew to 566 in 2020 — a 42% increase from the previous year, before COVID-19 hit. The next year saw homicides grow at a slower pace — about 12% — to 633 homicides.

Mealer said she plans to hire 1,000 more county law enforcement officers to deal with the surge. Though experts in policing tend to agree that increasing the presence of police officers generally results in lower crime rates, the effect on violent crime is less clear. Mealer has said she would pay for the additional officers with a combination of budget cuts and federal stimulus dollars, though she hasn't released a detailed plan.

"I think that's the big key: ‘Are we appropriately resourced?'" Mealer said. "And I'd say the answer is ‘no.'"

Hidalgo has rejected Mealer's proposal, arguing that the county already has hundreds of unfilled law enforcement positions. The proposed county budget blocked by Republicans contains a raise for county law enforcement officers, an attempt to better recruit and retain those officers, she said.

"It's not a matter of adding more boots," Hidalgo said. "It's a matter of adding feet to the boots."

At the same time, Harris County courts have struggled to tackle a criminal case backlog that dates back five years to Hurricane Harvey and grew during the COVID-19 pandemic as courts stopped holding in-person trials. That backlog sat at 41,344 pending criminal cases as of September, down from a height of about 54,000 during summer 2021, according to county court records.

Some critics, including Mealer, have blamed the backlog for the increase in crime, saying offenders are committing new crimes as they await trial for old ones — a claim crime experts have said has scant evidence to back it up.

"Right now, we have a public safety crisis," Mealer said. "We need to put everything we can into working through this backlog and getting the criminal justice system functioning."

Hidalgo has touted annual increases to the county's public safety budget since she took office and notes that violent crime has fallen year over year. According to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the number of violent crimes in Harris County fell 12% during the first nine months of this year compared with the same period last year.

"It's not where we need to be, but what we're doing is working," Hidalgo said.

Crime experts say the reasons that crime rises and falls in any given place are too complex to tie them to any single cause.

"It's clearly not a localized phenomenon," said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston's Law Center. "It's much broader, it's national. And so I think it makes it really hard to argue that it's due to any one person or one party's policies."

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/20/harris-county-judge-lina-hidalgo-alexandra-del-moral-mealer-election/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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