On Nov. 6, Democrat Lina Hidalgo defeated incumbent Republican Harris County Judge Ed Emmett by about 19,000 votes. Hidalgo immigrated to Texas with her family from Colombia in 2005 and later graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science. She was pursuing a graduate degree through New York and Harvard universities when she began her run for county judge. Here is what she had to say about plans for 2019 and the recent election in response to several questions from Community Impact Newspaper.
How did you decide to run for office?
Like thousands of women across our country, 15 months ago I decided that sometimes you can’t just wait for things to happen; you have to do it yourself. I’ve always been an advocate, working throughout our community on health care access and criminal justice reform, and internationally on human rights and free expression. Harris County made me who I am. I got here when I was 14 and was able to attend some of the world’s best universities with support from all across our community. I knew the issues facing us, from mental health care access outside the jail to our vulnerability to flooding—at that time we’d had two 500-year floods in two years already—were life or death issues. I decided to step up and give back.
What do you feel that you bring to the role of county judge, and what do you feel is the most important role of the position?
The county judge helps set a budget, mostly comprised of our residents’ property taxes. It’s over $5 billion for the next fiscal year. To me, the role is ultimately about priorities and values. I will work to make sure that our county’s priorities reflect those of the community. I share all our commissioners’ commitment to building a county government that works better and saves us money.
What will be your immediate top priorities?
Immediately, I am focused on putting together an expert staff comprised of people with all points of view. I’m working to talk to those in the county who don’t yet know me. To identify their concerns and hopes. And learning as much as I can from our different department heads, so I’m ready to hit the ground running on day one.
To what factors do you attribute your victory in the Nov. 6 election?
Timing and circumstance played a role here, as with anything. Ultimately, our win was made possible by the desire to make change and a team of wonderful people stepping up to make it happen. We reached hundreds of thousands of voters through digital media, television and radio. We pushed for the straight-ticket vote, but we also specifically targeted folks at risk of [splitting]their ticket. Hundreds of people partnered with incredible organizations to reach every corner of our community.
How will your approach differ from the current leadership?
I’ll be very focused on transparency. Throughout the campaign trail, I found the vast majority of people to be unfamiliar with the role of the county judge and of the county. I believe we’ll build stronger government if people understand what our role is, so they’re able to hold us accountable. I’ll work to make Commissioners Court meetings more accessible, to be more present and visible across our community year-round, and to publish more [information in a more accessible manner].
Do you expect to make any changes to current plans regarding Astrodome renovation, the flood bond programs or other initiatives started by the current administration?
Every time you take over an organization, you do a complete review of the operations and finances. I’m interested in making the best decisions for the residents of Harris County, and I’ll continue working with my colleagues and our department heads to figure out what those are.
What are several ways in which you hope to increase governmental transparency and reform the criminal justice system?
We need to increase our level of community engagement at all levels of county government so that we’re proactively educating our constituents on the role that county government plays in their lives. That means making our meetings more accessible, holding meetings in every community, publishing transparent and easy-to-understand metrics. As I’ve been meeting with staff and department heads during the transition I’ve emphasized my commitment to making all levels of county government transparent and accessible to the public.
Beyond bail, I hope to work to reduce the over-incarceration of our youth and instead look to early childhood education so that we break the school-to-prison pipeline. Ninety-six percent of children in our juvenile justice system are children of color. All throughout our criminal justice system, we need to end the dramatic disparities that exist. I’d like to work with our sheriff on overcrowding at the jail and on innovative policies he’s been proposing.