Houston City Hall

Texas’s Hottest Race

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.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Charles Blain (@cjblain10) is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. He is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance, urban politics, and other issues.

Photo credit: Ed Uthman via Flickr under CC 3.0 License.