Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
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Judge Lina Hidalgo: Local Leadership, Voting Rights, and Values
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Judge Lina Hidalgo, county executive for Harris County, Texas, talks about changing the system from within and about budgeting through a values lens.
Including the city of Houston, Harris County is the third most populous in the country, larger than some states. As the county's chief executive, Lina took early public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and has made great strides to challenge voter suppression in Texas.
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Judge Lina Hidalgo: It's important for there to be that connection between the residents and their local government and the most immediate place where that connection happens is at the voting booth. I also think while a discourse on national issues is necessary, it's unavoidable and it's good, right? It's what sort of sets the tone for the country. I do think that to the extent local governments deliver for the community, the community has sort of faith in the system and participating in it.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Lina Hidalgo, the county judge for Harris County, Texas. Including the city of Houston, Harris County is the third most populous in the country, larger than some states. As the county's chief executive, Lina took early public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and has made great strides to challenge voter suppression in Texas.
Judge Hidalgo, thank you so much for coming on Burn the Boats.
LH: Thank you so much.
KH: Lina, our friendship goes back to the 2018 election. I remember hearing you at the beginning of a lot of your speeches explaining to people just how great of a responsibility the Harris County judge has. Can you explain to us, and especially the non-Texans listening, what county judge actually means?
LH: Yeah. Thank you. It's a good question because it could be confusing. My title is county judge, but I don't have a judicial position in the usual sense of the word. Instead here in Texas, the county judges are the county executives. And so I help control the budget for Harris County, which is home to Houston and 33 smaller cities. It is the third largest county in the country, about the size of Colorado in population, so we're larger than 26 states. And the budget is, you know, libraries, public hospitals, the justice system, et cetera. I'm also statutorily the Director of Emergency Management for Harris County. And so with the pandemic, the flood events we've suffered here in Harris County, of course, the winter freeze that folks heard about, that's been my responsibility as well.
KH: So I said, Harris County is larger than some states. Hearing you describe it, it is literally larger than most states. And as I understand it, you've got a $5 billion budget at your disposal.
KH: I've heard you talk about a budget as a value setting mechanism. Can you talk about that? Can you talk about the budget, which just seems so black and white, and actuarial as an expression of community values and how you have translated that actively in setting priorities?
LH: Yeah, so I do believe that budgets are about priorities, and in being about priorities, they're also about values. Before I got here, the sense was that the county government should only concern itself with roads and bridges. Of course, the result of that had been that we have a very, very limited public transportation system in Harris County. It's a big problem for business and folks who don't have a car. And we have the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas, which is the Harris County jail. All sorts of challenges. So what we've done is to try and design a budget that more closely aligns with the needs of the community. We've been able to really focus on flood control, to focus on early childhood education, to invest in smart crime reduction policies, criminal justice reform. And voting access has been a big priority which paid off. And then of course, just thinking about the budget itself, budgeting as a process in a more thoughtful way. In the past, and I think this is the case sometimes with government, is the budget was simply whatever it was the year prior plus 2% for inflation. There hadn't been an effort to truly evaluate the programs that we were funding and assess whether or not they were getting us to our goals. In fact, there weren't any goals. So we've adopted goals for the county based on conversations with the community. This is sort of in progress because it's a massive, massive bureaucracy. But working so that each program is truly getting us to a goal, and we're tracking how it does that. And if it doesn't do that, well then we just don't spend the money on that.
KH: You buried what I think you intended as a deep systemic critique in that answer in describing the largest mental health system in the state of Texas as the Harris County jail system. You aren't offering that up as an exemplar, right? That's not a great thing,
LH: Right. No, it's a problem. And it's tied into many different issues, right? The state of Texas has not expanded Medicaid, and so 20% of the people who live in this state are uninsured. There's been enormous under-investment in both health and mental health. But there's also the over-criminalization of mental health issues. You know, I used to work in civil rights and free expression. I also used to work as a medical interpreter, and I remember at one point being in one of our public hospitals and the mother of a woman with very severe mental health issues was basically being encouraged by her doctor to press charges against her own daughter, because that way she'd get mental health care at the jail. So what we're doing to change that is completely shifting the way we deal with homelessness, for example, so that you're not going from the streets to the jail, to a temporary mental health facility, back to the streets. But really long-term care, holding people's hands until they find permanent housing. Working on our juvenile justice side and with schools to identify mental health challenges in kids when they're very young before they get caught up with the criminal justice system. And then, of course, more broadly, we have a goal of really streamlining and using economies of scale, so to speak, across public hospitals, private hospitals, federally qualified health centers, which are sort of federally supported clinics in low-income areas, and schools, law enforcement, so that all of us are coordinating and providing consistent care to folks who need it on the mental health side. Now that latter effort is one that started right before COVID hit, and so we haven't dug into it with as much resolve and time as we wanted to, but once this crisis is over, I'm ready to take it back up.
KH: I know a lot of your efforts have come into direct conflict with opposing, not just efforts, but values at the state level. And I want to get into those. But you began to tease out a bit of your backstory with your background in civil rights and other things. Can you share with us what led you into public service?
LH: In many ways, Ken, I'm one of the women, right? So I never thought I'd run for office. And after Donald Trump was elected, it seemed like things that were problems were growing worse. I was very concerned about the attacks on the press, having worked in the sphere of public information and free expression. I was very concerned about the demonization of immigrants, and sort of just othering people who are not like him. And I was concerned about the policies that might arise from some of the rhetoric he was using. And so I felt I could continue working outside of the system to try and push for these issues to improve or perhaps it's time for me to be part of the system, and maybe that's a faster way. I mean, my goal had been to work as an advocate, to support the civil rights lawyers, to support the journalists. I was actually in graduate school, studying law, getting my law degree and studying a master's in public policy. So I took a leave of absence to run. I found this position that was enormously powerful, but really had not been leveraged. People were sort of used to this governing body of the county being a good old boys' club. These folks never used to lose. Usually if you lost a county judge or a county commissioner, it was because they were indicted or they died. And I'm not exaggerating here. Or they'd decided to retire and appoint their replacements. So it was very, very rare for anybody in county leadership to lose. But I think that nationally, there was sort of a wave of excitement, a lot of organizations wanting to support new perspectives. And so we were able to win.
KH: You have this abiding faith in the system to be able to self-correct. I call that patriotism. And that appreciation of our system isn't just academic. It's visceral in your case. Can you tell us about coming to this country and your impressions?
LH: Yes. So I was born in Colombia during the drug war, which was just a dangerous time to be there. My parents wanted to leave. They were offered a job in Peru, then in Mexico, then here. So I grew up in different places. But the constants across Columbia, Peru, and Mexico, when I was in each of those countries, was that governments there were going through tremendous struggles. So at that time in Columbia, it was in many ways a failed state. The government didn't control a lot of the territory. The guerillas did, and it was just horrendously violent. In Peru, I was there just as the president was indicted for corruption and for bribery. And then in Mexico, there had just been a seismic political shift that also had to do with sort of corrupt policies. So to me, government was something that didn't work by definition. Then I get to this country. I show up to a public school, which growing up, I always went to private schools, so I didn't have high expectations. And I find that my public school was this incredible place with brilliant teachers, dedicated counselors, great sports facilities. You know, it was just so impressive. And I know not all public schools are like that. But just the fact that it was possible really made me wonder why it was that government was working, what made it work. And so that's what I ended up studying in school. I studied political science. But partly the question was what leads to government accountability. And a lot of that, the conclusion is sort of obvious but it's true, and it's important. And that is citizen involvement, participation, that sunshine being the best disinfectant. The importance of voting, of the media, of public discourse. All of that really is at the heart of it. So that's been my focus.
KH: We spend a lot of time on this show, maybe too much, talking about national politics, and big national issues, and theory-driven policy debates. But you talk about government accountability as requiring citizen involvement. And as a local executive, you are where the rubber meets the road. You are the example of politics meeting the needs of real people. Do you feel like there's a disconnect, and maybe I'm part of the problem, between how we often talk about politics at a national level and what politics is actually for?
LH: I do think that it's important for there to be that connection between the residents and their local government and the most immediate place where that connection happens is at the voting booth. The counties administer the elections. And so that's why it's really important for elections to be fair and convenient. And so that's part of it. I also think while a discourse on national issues is necessary, it's unavoidable and it's good, right? It's what sort of sets the tone for the country. I do think that to the extent local governments deliver for the community, the community has sort of faith in the system and participating in it. It's easy to understand why people may just decide to check out, to say, "You know, I'm just not going to vote. I just don't care," to be sort of cynical if they don't see government working for them. And I think where people feel it the most is with local government. Just this past year, we saw the racial justice protests and the conversations around policing. Policing is local. The discussions around voting, you know, that's local. And of course the pandemic, the disaster response in most places has begun locally. When there's a hurricane, when there is whatever natural disaster your area is vulnerable to, the way it works is the locals, because they're the ones on the ground, they're the ones leading the response. And so when local government can show that it does a good job on that, I think it helps build trust in the system. Now, if the federal government is encouraging distrust in the system, it tears away at that fabric of participation and confidence, and that really hurts everyone. So that's been part of my concern, that the federal government's been doing that in many ways.
KH: Can you give us a specific example? I'm pretty sure I know what you're alluding to, but I want to have that conversation.
LH: Right. You know, COVID is where it's come up the most, because we had the federal government under the Trump administration contradicting the public health advice, saying that it wasn't so serious. So sort of cutting local governments off at the knees who are trying to remind their citizens that hospitalizations are going up, we need you to be careful. The census is another place. Places like Harris County are at this point majority minority. We've got a lot of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, but they've been so scared to participate because of an effort by the Trump administration at the time to threaten a citizenship question, to underfund the census. We didn't get any funds from the state government, for example, here, very little support from the federal government compared to past years. So then people are now scared to participate in the census. I'm hard-pressed to think that that doesn't have something to do with vaccine hesitancy. There's leaders at the federal level also feeding narratives around vaccines. So all of that, the folks that continue to claim that there was massive voter fraud, that the election was stolen when both of those we know to be false. They say, "Well, we need to restore trust in the system," but it's like a leaking bucket, right? They're the ones that are encouraging distrust. So that has very real implications on the ground, because all of a sudden then people simply feel like government is not to be trusted. And the problem is we need them to be part of a thriving civic discourse and participation in order for government to work.
KH: Well, it's that. It's the assault against our electoral processes and the faith people have in their outcomes that is really the foundational threat. If you don't address that, nothing else can be remedied, right? And you have been at the forefront of trying to expand voter access and protect people's rights to vote. If I'm not mistaken, you just received an award alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger for your advocacy in this area. But you've had to do it in opposition to state leaders.
LH: Yeah. So first of all, yeah, we both received an award and it was a bi-partisan award, and so Governor Schwarzenegger who was a Republican, I was a Democrat, and it was really funny. We both realized on the call, we had a Zoom award ceremony, and we realized we're both immigrants. So it's because we've seen broken democracies and we know how fragile democracy is, and we know it's not partisan to have participation. It shouldn't be. And we know how dangerous it is to try and make democracy itself a wedge issue. I've been watching with horror as the far right tries to turn democracy into a wedge issue. We can't let that happen because once you do that, you're threatening civic life. It's dangerous.
KH: Can we be more specific, because we have taken to using the term far right as shorthand? But you almost have to include the governor of Texas in that. I mean, it has become a much bigger club than it used to be, hasn't it?
LH: Right. I mean, the folks that are sort of mainstream leaders that are a part of this are pandering to the extreme right. That's very clear. When they know very well, and we know they know, that there was no voter fraud of any consequence or significance. And yet they're pushing this narrative. So in Harris County in the 2020 election, we invested in three times the number of early vote locations, we had 24-hour voting, we had drive-through voting. We had pretty much no lines in a county that is huge, and it was the largest participation we'd seen just from sheer numbers. The result of all of that was a record turnout, highest turnout in 30 years. And of course, 30 years ago, Harris County was a very, very different, much smaller place. And it was record turnout from both parties. In fact, the Democrats didn't do as well as we were hoping we would do. I didn’t even know - by the end of that election day, I didn't know how a lot of the races were turning out, but I really was happy that people had participated. We have folks from both parties praising these innovations. Well now, there are bills at the state legislature that the governor has supported, and they basically would eliminate drive-through voting, 24-hour voting. They would allow partisan poll watchers, activists, to go inside the polling locations and video record voters and get as close as they need to get. And if a poll worker tries to intervene, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. It's like all these very serious, concerning things. The bills wouldn't let government even talk about mail ballot voting. It could be a crime to so much as explain how it works, let alone share a mail ballot voting application. Because in Texas you have to apply and have to have certain criteria to qualify. So it's really concerning, not just because it would suppress the vote, not just because it would be particularly suppressive to communities of color, which of course, it simply continues the legacy of Jim Crow. But also because it suddenly turns voting itself, the democracy part of it, into a political football. And that is so dangerous. And because it's not just in Texas this is happening, right? It's happening all throughout the country. So the dominoes are falling.
KH: What has the pushback been like in Texas? Have these proposed measures provoked the kind of response we hope they will in a democracy, which is seeing the antibodies come out and call out the attempts to suppress votes and those things? Or are they going to get their way? Let me provoke your answer with this tidbit from a local Houston paper describing your advocacy and the Republicans response. The paper reported that “Hidalgo worked with other Houston leaders to make voting easier by adding more early voting locations, drive-through voting, and 24-hour polling places leading to the highest Harris County turnout since 1992. In response, Texas Republicans are working to pass a sweeping bill that would limit how and when Texans cast ballots.” I mean, it seems pretty clear that the response to high turnout is what's provoking the limits in the Texas legislature.
LH: Right. And I think that these Republicans in the state house that are pushing this, their theory it's going to help Republicans. But they're affecting both Republicans and Democrats. We have an election going on right now in Harris County, and the area that is by far using drive-through voting the most is an area that is definitively Republican leaning. So it's just really sad because ultimately it impacts both parties. But yeah, it's very much a response against our work. I mean, they've even carved out counties that are larger than a million residents, for example, we’re 5 million. So it's a very clear impact. Of course, all of this will have business repercussions. So what I'm hopeful about is the business community to some extent is coming out and speaking out against this. We're competitors for the FIFA World Cup, for example, here in Harris County, in our own county stadium. So I'm concerned about what it'll do for that. I mean, it's just an ongoing battle, but we're going to keep pushing and if we lose it, we'll fight in the courts.
KH: Well, we'll certainly keep tracking it here. We end every episode of Burn the Boats, Lina, with the same question. What's the bravest decision you have ever been a part of?
LH: Oh gosh, let me think. Look, I think some of these early COVID decisions, so many of us who had to make them, it was just so tough. You don't get any brownie points for deciding that people need to be out and about less, that restaurants and bars need to pull back. But there have been studies that our having done that early helped us not have the fate that so many massive metro areas faced. And so I think that those were tough decisions and I stand by them. But you know, there's so many decisions that folks don't get to hear about that I hope would make them proud.
KH: Well, thank you so much, Judge. It's been great having you.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, recently named the first-ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the State Department.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.