First-time candidate Lina Hidalgo hopes Harris County voters frustrated with what she says is poor leadership on flood control and criminal justice reform will help her defeat longtime County Judge Ed Emmett.
Hidalgo, 27, is the Democratic nominee for the county’s top executive position. She is one of a record number of Hispanic candidates in Harris County this year, and would be the first woman and Latina county judge. Democrats are betting high turnout among their voters, which helped defeat a Republican sheriff and district attorney in 2016, will overcome Emmett’s broad popularity with residents.
“What I have is the moral compass to ensure we are putting the community’s interests ahead of the next election,” Hidalgo said in an interview at her Galleria campaign headquarters.
Even in a year where Democrats are motivated by a viable Senate candidate and united in anger against an unpopular president, Hidalgo faces a tough task. She is running against possibly the most popular local figure who did not win the World Series last year. Though Emmett has more experience, is far more well known and has raised more money than Hidalgo, election researchers say she has a path to victory if too many Democrats forget to vote for him.
Hidalgo’s background is similar to those of the one-quarter of Harris County residents who are immigrants. She was born in Colombia in 1991, during that country’s war with drug cartels, and moved with her parents and younger brother first to Mexico, and then to Houston in 2005. She graduated from Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD in 2009, and earned a political science degree from Stanford University four years later.
She enrolled in 2015 in a joint master’s program at Harvard University and law program at New York University. As part of her studies she has interned with the public defender’s office in New Orleans and an inmate mental health project in New York City. Back in Houston, she spent two summers at Ben Taub Hospital translating for Spanish-speaking patients.
Putsata Reang, her supervisor during a research project in Thailand studying free speech rights in Southeast Asian countries, described her as a hard worker eager to take initiative.
“She’s like this incredible force where we were getting 10 employees out of one because of the sheer workload she could handle,” Reang said.
Go read the rest, then take a look at the companion piece on Judge Emmett.
If there is a nightmare keeping Harris County Judge Ed Emmett awake at night, it may go like this: It starts months before November, when Democrats tell pollsters they, of course, will vote for Emmett, even though he’s a Republican. They like how he led the county during Hurricane Harvey, and the storms before that, stretching back to Ike a decade ago.
Election Day arrives. A surge of Democrats turn out, motivated by anger with Republicans at the top of the ticket and President Donald Trump, who is absent from the ballot. They have no quarrel with Emmett. But the lines are long, the ballot is long, and the county judge’s race is below dozens of state and federal contests.
At the top of the ballot, however, voters can select the straight ticket of their party with one button. Democrats pick theirs, and leave. And Emmett loses to a 27-year-old who never has held political office.
That is the scenario, in the last Texas election with straight-ticket voting, election researchers say could sweep Emmett out of office. Though Emmett is likely to win a third full term, they said in an election in which Republican voters likely will be a minority, the judge should be reminding Democrats to buck their party and stick with him.
“It’s all about Democrats voting for Ed,” said Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility, however remote or odd it sounds, that Democrats never remember to.”
Stein said his research shows Emmett winning re-election, but with only around 55 percent of the vote — despite being viewed positively by 70 to 80 percent of the electorate. University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus said Emmett, though popular, could become collateral damage in a backlash against the Republican Party.
“The wave may very well drown a moderate Republican,” he said. “That’s true for Emmett and, potentially, for State Rep. Sarah Davis.”
You should read the rest of this one as well, but let me push back a little on the math here. In 2014, the undervote rate in the dozens of contested judicial elections was consistently right around four percent. That amounted to roughly 30,000 votes in each of those races, and in every case that total number of non-votes was smaller than the margin of victory, in race where the victorious Republican candidate mostly drew between 53 and 55 percent. Going farther down the ballot, in the non-judicial countywide contests that appeared after Emmett, the undervote in the races for District Clerk was 4.09%, for County Clerk was 3.90%, and for County Treasurer was 3.46%. I feel like if people remembered to vote for Stan Stanart and Orlando Sanchez, they’d probably not forget to vote for Ed Emmett.
As for the estimated share of the vote Emmett might get, we can’t really look at 2014 because he didn’t have a Democratic opponent. In 2010, when most Republican judicial candidates were getting between 55 and 57 percent of the vote, Emmett received 60.6%, so he ran between four and six points better than his partymates. I think 55 is on the high end of the spectrum for Emmett this year, but it’s plausible. The real question I have is, what do you think the baseline percentage for Republicans elsewhere will be? I fully expect Emmett to exceed the baseline, as he has done in the past, but he can’t completely defy gravity. He’s going to need the Republican base vote to be there as well, and if it isn’t then he’ll be in trouble.
My interview with Lina Hidalgo is here if you haven’t already listened to it. I think we can all acknowledge that Ed Emmett has been a good County Judge while at the same time recognizing that there are things we could be doing differently, priorities we could choose to elevate or diminish, and causes we could support or oppose with more vigor. Campos has more.