National pundits opining on Texas elections say that the governor’s race is the one to watch, pitting incumbent Republican Greg Abbott against his Democratic challenger, former congressman Beto O’Rourke. But Texans themselves are perhaps even more focused on the race for Harris County Judge—an elected office, whose occupant, despite the job title, serves as the de facto mayor of the largest county in Texas (third largest in the nation and home to Houston), which often finds itself in the crosshairs of Republican state lawmakers.
Thus far, the race has been a tug-of-war between national and local issues. The Democratic incumbent, Lina Hidalgo, has pressed the issue of abortion and gun control, despite her office’s lack of any oversight, legislative capacity, or regulatory authority on these issues. Her Republican opponent, Alexandra Del Moral Mealer, has campaigned on crime and public safety, stressing the county judge’s responsibility for overseeing the area’s criminal-justice system.
Hidalgo, a progressive political newcomer, won office in 2018, at just 27. The Stanford grad, with no political and limited professional experience, credited her win to the progressive advocacy groups Run for Something and The Arena. She was a longshot candidate by any standard, challenging popular Republican incumbent Ed Emmett. The race was expected to be an easy win for Emmett, but with Texas’s provision for straight-ticket voting and robust support in major urban counties for then-Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, Hidalgo was swept into office. (Another factor in the incumbent’s loss was nearly 25,000 people voting for the Libertarian candidate.)
Prior to Hidalgo’s election, the county judge’s office dealt primarily with infrastructure, public safety, and natural disasters. Since taking office, however, Hidalgo has created nearly a dozen new departments, from the Office of Equity and Opportunity to the Office of Sustainability; assumed authority of overseeing local elections from two duly elected officials and appointed an elections administrator; and shifted the county’s day-to-day management to a newly created county administrator position, now the highest-paid position in Harris County government.
Critics claim that her ideological quest to expand the role of county government has come at the expense of her core responsibilities. But she has come in for the most criticism for her handling of public safety and a fractured relationship with local law enforcement. Hidalgo settled, rather than challenged, a bail-reform lawsuit, thus putting her at odds with the Harris County district attorney. She flirted with abolishing eight independently elected Constable offices. In a recent budget, she rejected 82 percent of law enforcement’s funding requests, and she stripped more than $3 million in savings from local law enforcement. She has also pursued a grab bag of progressive “public safety” initiatives, broadening the definition of the term to include investments like $50 million to mitigate neighborhood blight, $1.5 million for public Wi-Fi, $8 million for an early-impact fund, and $8.4 million for new bike trails.
Meantime, the county’s criminal-court case backlog exceeds 24,000 for misdemeanor cases and 18,000 for felony cases. As of July, the county jail was at 99.8 percent capacity with 81 percent awaiting trial, and homicides have surged 43 percent from 2019 to 2020.
Hidalgo has also drawn criticism over a county contract that resulted in the indictment of three of her senior staff. The county awarded a former Hillary Clinton for President and DNC staffer $11 million for Covid outreach. The one-person firm had no experience in health-care outreach, and the county waived certain requirements and bypassed better-equipped and lower-cost vendors. Public pressure forced Hidalgo to cancel the contract, but not before District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, opened an investigation into the procurement process. Ogg impaneled a grand jury that eventually charged three of Hidalgo’s senior aides, including her chief of staff, each with one count of misuse of official information and tampering with a government record. The three aides allegedly communicated with the firm and let the owner review the scope of the contract and revise the specifications a month before the proposal was made public for bidding. Hidalgo claims the prosecution is political and has kept her chief of staff in place, adding that she expects that she will be indicted, too.
Hidalgo’s opponent, Alexandra Del Moral Mealer, has tried to put the emphasis back on the role and responsibilities of the county judge office. A political newcomer herself, Mealer topped the first-round vote in the Republican primary and then beat her runoff opponent with 75 percent of the vote. She is a Harvard JD/MBA, a West Point grad, and an Afghanistan combat veteran who says she was drawn into the race because of rising crime and Hidalgo’s lack of urgency in addressing it. Mealer has won the support of roughly 20 public safety organizations in the region, as well as many of the mayors and council members from the cities within the county.
Hidalgo, meantime, seems to be struggling to garner the support of fellow Democratic elected officials. “I’m not seeing the strong support behind her by every Democrat,” Rice University Political analyst Mark Jones said. “There are a decent number of Democrats that are alienated by her.” Newly released fundraising numbers show Mealer raised $4.9 million, more than three times the amount Hidalgo pulled in, over a three-month span. Mealer also received the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle editorial board.
Politico called Hidalgo the “Democrats’ Future in Texas,” the Texas Observer called her the “Face of New Houston,” and she made the 2021 Time100 Next list with a glowing profile, penned by O’Rourke. She is arguably Texas Democrats’ greatest hope, but her failure to prioritize the basic responsibilities of her office could thwart that hope, especially as Hispanic voters in Texas continue to trend more conservative.
The most recent primary highlighted this electoral shift. In Starr County, where nearly the entire population is Hispanic, ballots cast in the March 2022 Democratic primary declined by 98 percent from the 2018 election. In Harris County, 27 percent of all new voter registrations by women were Hispanic. One pollster said, “that number didn’t break 1% a year ago.” The University of Houston’s July 2022 poll on local issues found that Harris County Hispanic voters’ top concerns were crime and public safety (82 percent) and government corruption (73 percent), which doesn’t bode well for Hidalgo.
In testimony before the County Commissioners Court, April Aguirre, the aunt of nine-year-old Arlene Alvarez, who was shot and killed in Harris County, criticized Hidalgo for her public safety policies. She ended her testimony by saying, “We voted for you Lina. We’re disappointed. We are Democratic people that are now shifting into the Republican world because the people that we voted for are not representing us properly.”
If enough voters share Aguirre’s concerns, Hidalgo’s desire to expand government at the cost of core services may precipitate her downfall—and that of her party’s hopes to turn Texas blue.
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images