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Crime and partisanship are likely to be the main factors deciding the Harris County Judge’s race

Judge Lina Hidalgo, the Democratic incumbent, faces a stiff, well-financed challenge by Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer.

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

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Early voting begins today across Texas. One of the most important contests on the ballot in Harris County, Texas's largest, is the race for county judge between Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer.

High crime rates and a long-running battle over the county's tax rates and budget loom over the contest, which is expected to be close. But the deciding factor is likely to be pure partisanship.

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The final post-election survey of Harris County by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs shows Mealer polling at 47% and Hidalgo at 45%, with 8% undecided — a statistical dead heat.

Harris County's government has been deadlocked for more than a month. Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have been boycotting meetings of commissioners court to prevent the Democratic majority from passing new tax rates and a new budget. What started this struggle was Republicans' claim that the proposed budget did not provide enough funding for law enforcement. When Cagle and Ramsey refused to show up for a special meeting last Monday, Judge Lina Hidalgo exploded.

"They want to create a campaign ad," Hidalgo said. "They want to run an ad saying Harris County has been defunded, and in order for them to be able to do that, they have to make it defunded, so that they can then turn around and blame it on me. They're taking the people of this county, and the voters of this county, for fools."

The Democrats on commissioners court are looking to reduce tax rates somewhat compared to the last fiscal year, but the Republicans want deeper cuts. If the county can't adopt new tax rates by October 28, it will default to the revenue rates of last year, otherwise known as the "no new revenue rate." That will force steep reductions in projected spending to all county services, including public safety. This at a time when crime is the top concern of most voters, according to the UH Hobby School’s latest poll.

That focus on crime is what Hidalgo's Republican opponent, Alexandra del Moral Mealer, is counting on. Mealer graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2007. She served as an explosive ordnance disposal officer, rising to the rank of captain, and saw combat in Afghanistan. She then earned degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business school before pursuing a career in oil and gas finance.

"We have the votes (when) we get in office to fund 1,000 additional law enforcement positions. That is a serious commitment to safety," Mealer said in September. She spoke surrounded by members of the Harris County Deputies' Organization, which is endorsing her. "I've watched for three and a half years (while) we had someone in a leadership position that prioritizes what their national donors want to hear instead of focusing on solving the kitchen-table issues here in Harris County."

Hidalgo disputes that. She points to a range of critical issues affecting voters that she's addressed in her time in office.

"I dealt with a flood, a fire, a freeze, a pandemic, now monkeypox. And we reduced homelessness by 20%, and we made the largest investment ever in early childhood education, and we doubled the budget of our veteran services," Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo also defends her record on public safety. "We’ve added additional policing in the specific micro zones where crime is up," she said. "We have dared talk about gun violence, so we’ve had successful gun buyback programs (and) gun violence interruption programs. We’ve worked on mental health."

Asked whether she's spending money on the wrong things when it comes to fighting crime, Hidalgo said she refuses to pander in response to Mealer's pledge to hire 1,000 officers.

"I could easily run on hiring 2,000," Hidalgo said. "Or, heck, I could say I’m going to hire 10,000, and then I win the debate. But I’m not willing to say things that are not realistic."

It's not clear where Mealer would find the money to hire 1,000 additional officers given the ongoing tax and budget fight.

"It’s interesting to watch because you have individuals who are fighting, saying that Democrats are not providing enough funding for law enforcement, but then they’re taking steps to block any kind of increase in funding and making it so that the county is going to be bound to prior revenue," said University of Houston political scientist Beth Simas.

Simas said Mealer's message regarding Hidalgo's record on crime is somewhat misleading. She noted county budget statistics show Hidalgo has been increasing spending on public safety.

"But still, when you see that message of law enforcement and crime coming across, you see that a number of endorsements that Alex has received, you see members from the constables' office showing up en masse at meetings of the county, these things, they get attention, and they really do resonate with people," she said.

Houston Public Media approached Mealer's campaign multiple times to request an interview. But Mealer would only agree to speak if she could control the questions she would be asked, a condition Houston Public Media would not accept.

The question of who would do a better job fighting crime may be academic. Political scientist Bob Stein of Rice University said the election is far more likely to be decided by party loyalty.

"Lina Hidalgo's never really run for county judge," Stein said. "She won that election in 2018 largely because of what’s happened now, partisanship. People just would not vote for Ed Emmett even though they liked him. He was a Republican. And I think that strength of partisanship is twice as strong as it was in 2018."

Hidalgo's 2018 victory over then-Judge Ed Emmett was a nailbiter, with a Libertarian candidate splitting the conservative vote. No Libertarian is running for county judge this year. Further, 2018 was a year in which Texas still had straight-ticket voting. The fact that it no longer does means that voters will have to wade through many pages of the ballot to get to the county judge's race.

Partisanship is also reflected in large donations to Mealer by conservative political action committees such as Defend Texas Liberty PAC, backed by oil businessmen Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. This PAC alone has donated $100,000 to Mealer, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Transparency USA. Hidalgo, by contrast, has raised over $2 million through ActBlue Texas, a PAC where individual donors make contributions, since 2018.

Campaign finance records show Mealer has raised nearly $5 million this election cycle, more than triple what Hidalgo has raised as of the latest reporting period. Hidalgo currently has just over $2 million in the bank, compared to $1.7 million for Mealer.

Still, Stein believes there are two other factors that could weigh in Hidalgo's favor. The first is the popularity of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke among rank-and-file Democrats in Harris County. The second is the high-level of new voter registration in historically Democratic precincts across the county.

"I think even without the straight-ticket voting," Stein said, "You’ll still see pretty much straight-party voting on this issue. I don’t think voters are going to flip. The number of independent voters in Harris County that we can identify is not even much above single digits. So, at this point, I’d say it’s probably a much closer race than you would normally expect."

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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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