In 2018, political newcomer and then-27-year-old Lina Hidalgo won her race to become the top executive in Harris County, Texas, defeating the Republican incumbent Ed Emmett in an upset victory. That week, I was in Houston, the heart of Harris County, and the most populous county in a very large state, to write about Beto O’Rourke’s ultimately unsuccessful but close race against Ted Cruz. O’Rourke had consumed all of the oxygen, and it seemed few, even in Houston and beyond, were spending much time thinking about the race for Harris County Judge, a position akin to being the mayor of the county. The popular Emmett was widely expected to win, and even the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, which endorsed O’Rourke, threw their support behind Emmett.
If Hidalgo’s surprise victory was buoyed in part by a surge of Democrats in the county who voted more for the party and less for her, in the two years since she’s been in office, Hidalgo has gone from an unknown to a force to be reckoned with. She has turned what was largely seen as a role managing hurricane preparation and the aftermath of destructive storms into a bully pulpit advocating for progressive government, battling Texas Governor Greg Abbott on covid-19 public health and safety measures and pushing forward juvenile criminal justice reform and the needs of undocumented immigrants. As Texas Monthly wrote earlier last year in March, just as the covid-19 pandemic was gaining destructive force, Hidalgo’s leadership of the county is “a glimpse of what Texas might look like if Democrats ever win real power.”
But it was Hidalgo’s expansion of voting access during last November’s election that showed the true potential of her vision. Under her leadership, the county dramatically increased the amount of money earmarked for the election, and embarked on a spate of initiatives to make voting more accessible, from 24-hour polling sites to an expansion of early voting, leading to the highest turnout of registered voters in the county in almost three decades.
“The day of the election, before anybody knew what the result was going to be, I was at peace and I was happy, because our expansion of voter access had worked,” Hidalgo recalled in early January. “People had participated. And that’s really what I and the team wanted. And I still am so proud and I think it’s beautiful and I think it’s important.” Hidalgo, who was born in Colombia and lived in Peru and Mexico City with her family before immigrating to Houston in 2005, keenly understands the importance of targeting voter suppression and the need to, as she put it, “fight for democracy.” “I was in Egypt right after the uprising, and I worked with activists and journalists and bloggers who’d been in and out of prison in Southeast Asia. I grew up in Peru during the Fujimori times and in Colombia when it was a failed state in the ’90s,” Hidalgo told Jezebel. “I know the value of democracy, and I know the value of participation. And I don’t think there’s a more important thing, because it all builds on that.”
When we spoke, it was shortly after the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a group of insurrectionists eager to pull off a coup. As Hidalgo put it, it was “not lost” on her that Ted Cruz, who had eagerly fanned the flames of the band of counterrevolutionaries, was from Texas. To Hildalgo, part of what needs to happen now is a doubling down on, as she put it, “small-d democracy”—good governance and bold policies that materially improve people’s lives. “I think that we need to continue supporting democratic institutions, and that as long as you have a government that delivers and works for people, people are going to vote, they’re going to engage and they’re going to support a government that supports them,” Hidalgo told Jezebel.
It was also shortly after Georgia’s voters elected two Democratic Senators in a special runoff election, weeks after electing Joe Biden. To Hidalgo, who pointed to the decades of work by local activists in Georgia as a model for what could happen in Texas, her state is next, but it will take a whole lot of time, persistence, and money—less parachuting in for big elections and only spending millions on media buys, and more the day-to-day, unglamorous work of building a long-term movement. “It’s not going to be easy. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion to say Texas is always going to be red,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen those changes, from the urban areas to suburban areas, which is very heartening. And obviously, we have to reach out to all communities. We’ve known that in Texas. You know, people say, ‘We just discovered Hispanics are not a monolith.’ We knew that. The problem is that the funds haven’t been there, the infrastructure hasn’t been there to really do the kind of outreach that is merited. But we’re building on it.”
To Hidalgo, it all starts with making government work for those it has rarely championed. “I firmly believe it starts at the local level,” she said. “And I think that to the extent the Democrats continue to work on and deliver on issues that matter to people and build institutions that support those areas, I think that the Democrats’ future is bright in Texas.”