2018 midterms

Can a 27-Year-Old Political Neophyte Run the Largest County in Texas?

Harris County's new judge, Lina Hidalgo.
Harris County’s new judge, Lina Hidalgo. Photo: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP

Even in defeat, Beto O’Rourke did a big favor to fellow Democrats all over Texas. A couple hundred thousand young people who might otherwise have skipped the election turned out to vote for the charismatic young liberal, and when they did, they also voted for his party down the ballot. The Republicans still won the statewide races, but the margins were the narrowest they’ve been in decades, and in local races, there were a number of upsets by Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise — or accident, as far as local conservatives are concerned — was in the race for the top administrator of Texas’s largest county, the one that surrounds Houston. The winner, Lina Hidalgo, was the most millennial candidate ever, a 27-year-old perma-student who relied on her parents’ financial support to launch her campaign. Her only jobs so far have been the short-term gigs she’s worked amid her schooling.

It’s safe to say she wasn’t chosen for her qualifications. Eighty-seven percent of her votes came from straight-ticket ballots. Now she’ll be overseeing a county of 5 million people — the third-largest in the U.S., larger than 26 states — along with a $5 billion budget and a payroll of nearly 17,000 people. (Only a few local hospitals and grocery stores employ more people, including Walmart, which has 34,000 Houston-area workers.) On top of that, Harris County has a vulnerable population of more than half a million undocumented immigrants, and surrounds a city that’s made entirely of concrete, as though it’s designed to encourage the maximum possible damage from floods — of which there have been two apocalyptic ones in the last decade.

Sometimes during the campaign, it didn’t look like she was even trying all that hard to win. A common refrain in news coverage was that she’d never attended a meeting of Harris County’s commissioners court, the governmental body she’d be overseeing, which is sort of like a city council. In one debate she couldn’t name the city auditor.

But the truth is that Hidalgo is more formidable than her short résumé suggests. To anyone paying closer attention, it was clear that she and the incumbent had fundamentally different ideas about what the administrative position should be. She thought, and still thinks, that there’s a way of transforming it from a mostly managerial role — someone who fills potholes, balances the budget, and cleans up after floods — to one that mobilizes the county’s resources to improve public health, expand public transportation, reform the jails, and reduce global warming.

“Any issue you choose, it’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything — that’s not the county’s deal,’ she said in a phone interview last week. “But fundamentally, it’s about priorities. Budgets are about priorities and they’re about values.” When she gets into the details, she’s persuasive — maybe because the transition has given her a chance to study the system up close. On criminal justice, she points out, the county has spent somewhere north of $6 million in the past year fighting a judge’s order to reform its bail system. On health, she cited an independent 2015 report that suggested the county could improve its services by coordinating better among its hospitals, clinics, schools, and public-health department. And on transit, she argued, the county can manage development in a way that discourages sprawl, and can divert some of its money for trains.

Her platform reflects a theory that many lefties have been promoting since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 bid: that technocracy is overrated, and that a leader with a strong vision can achieve more than someone obsessed with policy arcana (though Hidalgo is no slouch on policy either, despite that time she couldn’t name the auditor). Consider her election a proof-of-concept demonstration. Time will tell whether she can marshal the cooperation necessary to pull it off, but her chances are better than they seem at first blush.

The young politico has a vivid biography: Born in Bogota in 1991, “when the drug war still raged and kidnappings and bombings were frequent,” as she has recalled, she fled with her parents and younger brother when she was 5, living first in Lima and then in Mexico City. In 2005, the family found a way to Houston, via her father’s job in the recycling industry.

She decamped in 2009 for Stanford, where she studied political science. During the campaign, she was defensive about only having lived in the Houston area for a few years of her life. “Harris County is my home,” she insisted in one interview. “This is where my family lives; it’s where I started my education; it’s where my closest friends live.” In fairness, a childhood spent running from drug lords probably should give you the right to put your flag down anywhere you like.

The incumbent county executive, Ed Emmett, has always been popular, at least to the extent that voters know who he is. Anecdotally, though, most only know him as guy who goes on TV after floods and tells them everything will be okay. Otherwise it’s always been a low-profile job, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political-science professor at the University of Houston. Emmett is a four-term veteran of the Texas legislature and has governed the county since 2007. He’s widely considered a top-notch administrator. Though Emmett is a Republican, “he governs in as nonpartisan a way as one could, and still maintain his party status,” Rottinghaus said. The last time he was up for reelection, in 2014, no local Democrat bothered to run against him. No one besides Hidalgo signed up this time either. “Most people assumed Emmett was unbeatable,” Rottinghaus said.

When Trump was elected, Hidalgo was in a joint program in law and public policy at Harvard and NYU. She’d interned at the public defender’s office in New Orleans and at an inmate mental-health project in New York City, and had spent two summers translating at a Houston hospital. She had planned a career in health care and criminal justice, but the 2016 election spurred her to run for office instead. She says she was drawn to the county government in particular because it covers many policy areas, including those she was most experienced in: health care and criminal justice. “I’d worked with people for whom the jail was their mental health facility, for whom the emergency room at the hospital was their health-care facility,” she said. “The county is a collection of institutions that helps those with the greatest needs.”

There’s no question that county officials had not seen their jobs the way she did. “We’re not a policy board — we’re more of a service board,” said an audibly annoyed Harris County commissioner, Jack Cagle, when I called him last week. Cagle, a Republican, is one of the four elected officials who serve beneath the executive. He’s been there since 2011. He said the county is renowned for fixing potholes within 24 hours of when they’re reported. “We’re the gold standard,” he said. “When you fix a pothole, you don’t put an R [for Republican] or a D on it.” State law, he pointed out, doesn’t let county governments make ordinances — not even about noise levels, say, or lawn maintenance. Hidalgo’s rhetoric about national issues, which he thought sounded “almost like she was running for Congress,” was galling to him. (He added, however, that she had been “very gracious and kind” when they met recently, and that he thinks she’ll do fine when she gets a better handle on the nature of her new job.)

Hidalgo is already prepared for this culture clash. For every national issue she spoke about on the campaign, she’s ready with an explanation about how it ties into the county government’s work. On immigration, for example, she noted that more deportations happen in Harris County than almost anywhere else in the nation. She wants the county to think about funding legal defense for immigrants, like New York does. (Here the money comes from both the city and the state.)

Her rhetoric clearly helped with fundraising. During the first half of this year, 58 percent of her donations came from out of state, including the relatively large checks she received from Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, and Jennifer Garner, whom she met at a Los Angeles event put on by a well-connected friend — though she still raised far less than Emmett.

Her party affiliation itself was crucial too, and she knew it. She hastened to tell me that straight-ticket voting had always been part of her strategy. “We played into that,” she said. “It would have been irresponsible not to take advantage of it.” Some of her campaign money went toward identifying the Democratic voters most likely to split their tickets, and urging them to go straight-ticket instead. In the end, she received about 594,000 votes, nearly 515,000 of which were from straight-ticket ballots, enough to edge Emmett out by about 19,000.

Among her campaign promises, the least convincing is that she’ll drive a harder bargain than Emmett did with state lawmakers in Austin, and persuade them to give Harris County more money, as she told the Houston Chronicle. For some reason it feels a little hard in 2018 to take seriously anyone, whether young or geriatric, who runs on a platform of negotiating deals. Rottinghaus, the University of Houston professor, believes this will be a challenge for Hidalgo in particular. “She will clearly be the youngest person in any room she’s in,” he said. “She will be the least practiced of any of the officials she interacts with, including county and city officials. I think her biggest hurdle is to demonstrate the force of her vision.”

When I asked Hidalgo whether she felt daunted, she noted that there’s an experienced lobbying team already in place. “We can get bogged down and say it’s daunting,” she said, “or we can get to work, because the opportunities are there.”

On the other hand, she happens to be entering office at an optimal time. After Hurricane Harvey, voters agreed to a hike in their property taxes that will bring in money for flood preparations, thanks in part to Emmett’s lobbying. Hidalgo will get to decide, in conjunction with the county’s engineers and other elected officials, how to spend it. Starting next year, her party will also have three seats on the five-member commissioners court, and one of those members, Rodney Ellis, is a 63-year-old rabble-rouser who shares her social-justice vision. Ellis told me he’s already been impressed with Hidalgo’s adeptness at running meetings. “If we got on a tangent,” he said, “she would very politely pull us back to the agenda.” And after the 2020 Census, Hidalgo is likely to have more influence on local public transit, because the county will probably gain an additional seat on the Metro board.

She resents the charge that she never attended a commissioner-court meeting during the campaign — because she did watch the meetings online. “I don’t know how that became a thing,” she said. “I don’t know how many commissioners watched before they were elected, but I can’t imagine that they did.” One of her priorities, in fact, is encouraging more public participation. She complained that the court presently meets in the middle of the work day, in a small, ninth-floor room at a building with no public parking. She’s already working on making the meetings more accessible. “People will learn that actually the commissioners court has a lot to do with housing, with transportation, with health, and with criminal justice,” she said. “They’ll see results.”

There’s always the possibility that she’ll find out the day-to-day management is much harder than it looks. The worst-case scenario is that the county’s outer ring, beyond the Houston city limits, will look like Aleppo by the time her term ends in 2022. More likely is that her ambitions will be stifled by bureaucracy, limited budgets, and endless competing interests. But there’s room for optimism. Her bid for more visibility alone might help. “You can’t hold government accountable if you don’t know what it does,” she noted. “But when you have the public input and the public eye, there’s this pressure and this opportunity to find that, actually, the county can and should play a leadership role.”

Can a 27-Year-Old Neophyte Run the Largest County in Texas?