Lina Hidalgo Had Never Run for Office Before. Now, She Manages a $5 Billion Budget for the Largest County in Texas.

Culture

Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women have decided to run. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of a woman who has run. The point: You can, too.


Lina Hidalgo was 27 years old when she went up against an 11-year Republican incumbent for the role of county judge in Harris County, Texas. She became the first woman and the first Latina to be elected to the position, and while “judge” is in the title, it’s more of an executive role, with Hidalgo overseeing the county’s $5 billion budget. (It also happens to be the largest county in Texas by population, with more than half a million undocumented immigrants.)

Though she’s been criticized for her lack of experience (something that’s never been said to a woman before…), Hidalgo is particularly suited. She was born in Colombia, though her family left due to the drug war, and she lived in Peru and Mexico before moving to Texas. A Democrat, she studied political science before working as a medical interpreter and volunteering at the Texas Civil Rights Project; she was studying law and public policy at Harvard and New York University when she first considered running. Here, she explains why she did it.

The conversation in my family was always around corruption and government as a dysfunctional entity and something to avoid. In Colombia, there was very much a lack of control by the government and all sorts of abuses by both sides. In Peru, eventually, President Fujimori was indicted for bribery and corruption.

Eventually, my dad got a job here in Houston. I ended up at Stanford, where I found, I guess you could say, a theoretical framework for the issues I’ve seen growing up. I studied failed states, and I studied the rule of law and politics. I was able to put into words the corruption that I’d grown up with and the incredible opportunity I’d seen when we first moved to Texas. It was a big shock for me and my family that a Texas public school could have such incredible teachers and counselors and facilities. I wanted to understand why it was that in Latin America, if you can help it, you don’t send your child to public school.

I eventually concluded that it’s about having a strong democracy and rule of law, and a government that works and a government that’s accountable to the community.

I was in the middle of my degrees when the 2016 election happened. I decided that actually what I wanted to do was change government from within, that that was more effective. So many of us were galvanized. You saw it in the Women’s March. Tens of thousands of people showing up to march. In 2017, they marched as activists, and then in 2018, they marched as campaign staffers, as donors, as volunteers, as first-time voters. It was really everyone coming together but inspired by this new wave of enthusiasm. I think women in general were inspired to run, participate, and I was one of them. We need different voices in government—not for the sake of different voices, but because it actually makes a difference in policy.

At Harvard’s Kennedy School, there was a panel of young, elected officials. It was a young mayor from Massachusetts, a young city councilman, and a young state representative. Two of them were younger than I was at the time. I had never considered that, but if they could do it—and it seemed that youth wasn’t an obstacle for them—why couldn’t I? I just felt this call to action, to give back and do something about what was happening, and I decided that the most effective way to give back and to make a difference would be by being in charge. That there was no reason why I shouldn’t run. I know what needed to change, and I was going to do it.

We need different voices in government—not for the sake of different voices, but because it actually makes a difference in policy.

I thought about the issues that I cared about the most and the issues I’d worked on. It was a lot of the criminal justice system; I was very concerned for flooding, and all of those issues of healthcare and mental health. I was researching where I could make a difference, and I came across this position that had sort of flown under the radar.

Everyone said county judge is about roads and bridges. Once I was running, at the beginning of every meeting, people would say, “Well, don’t you realize that this job is about roads and bridges, and you’re not an engineer. Why?” But I decided when I first looked at the position that it was about so much more and people just hadn’t leveraged it.

It’s an executive position that helps control the budget for a county that’s the size of Colorado in population. The budget this year was just over $5 billion, and the budget covers more than roads and bridges. It covers all of the justice system, the largest jail in Texas, the public hospital system, flood control, and the operations of this massive place. It just seemed like this incredible, untapped potential.

As far as being in office, it’s just incredible how many committed people there are throughout a county government that’s as big as ours, and what a difference it makes to have energetic, outside-the-box leadership, which we brought to commissioners court with my colleagues. Sometimes it’s just asking questions that hadn’t been asked before. That’s why I think it’s so important that people remain engaged, that people vote and volunteer and run and support folks. We have got to include all the voices in our democracy. That’s how we preserve democracy, that’s how we build accountable government, that’s how you build responsive government.

Instead of having a quick transition committee, we did an open community-wide transition process. We were wondering whether people would show up, and they did. We had seven town halls throughout the county and hundreds of people at each one. It just showed that if you invite people into government, they come. People want to participate, and they make our policies better. Their ideas help us design a better and more responsive government.

We have stopped the building of a new juvenile detention center. We’re doing an overview of the juvenile justice system. You have seven times as many black kids and five times as many Hispanic kids as white kids in the juvenile justice system; you can’t just say that’s not our fault.

We had an increase to our public defenders’ budget. We’re working on an immigrant legal defense fund. We’re making voting a lot easier in the county, so people can vote at any polling location on election day. We are investing for the first time to make sure that we have an accurate census count so everybody’s counted.

I’m sure that we’re moving the county in a better direction. I’ve got an incredible team, I’ve got wonderful colleagues on the commissioners court, and we’re leaving no stone unturned in making positive change. And that’s what it’s about. I can’t let criticisms slow us down at all.

I’m very much in a hurry to get things done, to get the work done that the community needs. I think that the work we’re doing shows that county government and every level of government is about so much more than the status quo wants to make it out to be. We have to continue challenging and asking those questions. I’m just so eager to see the people that come after me—and the women that come after me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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