Democrats in Texas and nationally call Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo a rising star. But in order to fulfill that role, she first has to survive two growing controversies at home — and a brutal-looking midterm climate for her party.
Hidalgo was part of the Democratic wave in 2018, winning victory as the chief executive of Harris County — the nation’s third-largest county, anchored by Houston — in her first run for political office. Before becoming the first woman and Latina to hold the position, she worked as a medical interpreter and volunteer for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
It wasn’t long before some Democrats discussed Hidalgo, then 28, as a future statewide candidate as Texas inches toward battleground status. EMILY’s List, the national pro-abortion rights group that backs female Democrats, gave her its 2021 Rising Star award — previously won by the likes of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley before they gained greater national prominence.
However, two issues have come back to hurt Hidalgo as she runs for reelection this year: the county’s botched administration of the March primary election — after building her reputation in part on expanding voting access and fighting the new voting law enacted by state Republicans last year — and controversy over a Covid-fighting contract that went to a political consulting firm.
The election administrator Hidalgo selected, Isabel Longoria, resigned after some votes initially went missing during the March primary. The other issue led to three people on Hidalgo’s team, including her chief of staff, being indicted by a grand jury last month.
Now, Republicans are thinking a Harris County comeback is within reach, despite the county’s leftward move in recent years. Two Republicans are battling in a May primary runoff for the right to take on Hidalgo in the fall, centering issues like crime and rising homicides in the county.
After dealing with fallouts from natural disasters and a pandemic in her first two years, the new challenges add up to the toughest situation of Hidalgo’s brief political career so far. She may well be a future standard bearer for the Texas Democratic Party, but first, she has to survive difficult local and national political climates — the type of midterm environment that has wiped out large parts of both parties’ benches in the past.
“If we’d been talking a year ago, I would say that she would have been a lock for reelection,” said Mark Jones, director of research and analytics at the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. The group’s March poll found Harris County voters close to evenly divided on Hidalgo: 40 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable. The county judge took a 15-point net negative swing in those numbers since late October.