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Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

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7 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    Mayor Parker will take her out in the Primary.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Let’s look at how this is going to play out. Hidalgo and her ilk aren’t your daddy’s Democrat Party Beto isn’t the second coming of JFK, and Lina is no Barbara Jordan. That wouldn’t be a problem. The new crop are LWNJ’s that will destroy what has been built and proudly rule the ashes. Remember the Greenpeace protest at the Fred Hartman bridge in Baytown? Look at Harris County’s response…..they shut down the bridge and ship channel traffic and let them protest. That would never have been allowed back in the day.

    Remember white flight? What’s going to happen, over time, here, that is already happening in states like CA, IL, and NY, will be something akin to that, but instead of people fleeing based on skin color, they will flee based on political ideology. Conservatives and moderates will flee high tax, high crime, leftist controlled areas.

    Right now, people are fleeing the close in suburbs, to live in Cypress and areas like that (like the HISD executive and his family, lol). As Harris County continues to devolve, with crime and taxes increasing, and quality of life diminishing, people will flee Harris County entirely.

    County government really shouldn’t even BE that political. Fixing the streets, flood control, libraries, jails, and other county services merely require competent leadership who make good decisions. Turning criminals loose on the citizenry isn’t a good decision, and that shouldn’t even BE a political decision. That’s like dumping trash in bayous, restricting flow and causing flooding. That shouldn’t even BE a political decision. Everyone should just understand blocking the flow of bayous is bad. Unleashing repeat criminals on the community is bad.

  3. Mainstream says:

    I cannot say that I find Ms. Hidalgo’s press conferences reassuring in these difficult times. I miss having an adult like Ed Emmett in charge.

  4. Wolfgang says:

    NUECES DE AMBOS LADOS

    LWNJ = Left Wing Nut Job. A person who removes reasoning, logic, and common sense from their decision making process, instead basing their decisions solely on emotional responses.

    Thank you for the opportunity to enrich my vocabulary. Although I happen to be
    a politically interested contemporary with a background in letters and linguistics, I readily admit that I had to look this one up.

    Glad to have the Urban Dictionary online.

    … which just goes to show that folks who use such lingo are in a distinct discourse community, and may not even be understood by those outside it.

    The term “left-wing nut” as applied to a person is, of course, an insult, and belongs to the ad-hominem genre of rhetoric. Or ad-personam, if you want to be more overtly gender-neutral. You can’t even call such name-calling an argument.

    Honing in on the semantic content (see definition above) I don’t see how the underlying concept can be limited to “left wing” whatever that means. So, logically, there should be a corresponding concept of RWNC (right-wing nut case).

    I would submit that when either acronym/idiom is used in what is supposed to be a civilized discussion of matters of public concern (or in the blogosphere at large), it says more about the speaker that the person that is being (mis)labeled a nut. Such usage information would obviously be suitable empirical textual data to place the speaker or writer on the (admittedly simplistic) left-right ideological spectrum.

    Alas, failure to employ disciplined reasoning and logic is a very common condition, especially at the mass level. Educated persons are no immune, but should strive to raise above knee-jerk gut-level reactions.

  5. Ross says:

    Bill, once again you are totally fucking clueless. The bail settlement was necessary to avoid yet more losses in court, with the related high costs. And Harris County was going to keep losing, because the previous bail system was utterly unconstitutional. That’s on the old judges who were too lazy to come up with a bail recommendation based on each defendant’s circumstances. If they hadn’t been lazy, we might have had a solution that wasn’t entirely based on personal bonds, but that’s not what we ended up with. I suppose you think the County should have continued litigating and losing all the way to the Supreme Court. Personally, I would rather spend that money on something more useful. It’s probably a benefit not to have as many people in jail, waiting for trial, as well.

  6. Bill Daniels says:

    @ Wolfgang,

    If you have followed Kuff’s blog for a while, you’ve already seen the rather lengthy list of pejoratives and ad hominem attack words used against the tea party/libertarians/conservatives/Trump supporters. There are a lot of them, and they are used liberally (pun intended).

    Your point is taken that merely tossing out a pejorative isn’t a good argument, and I’d agree to a certain extent, but by now, everyone understands that the pejoratives on each side actually correlate into real policy views, on things like immigration, criminal justice, guns, the economy, etc.

    Example:

    Want strong immigration and border enforcement? Racist.

    Want lax or no immigration and border enforcement? LWNJ.

    Think of these descriptors as code words.

    My other observation is, sometimes it’s good to get out of the ivory tower and walk the streets with the plebes, to see what’s actually going on. You can have erudite and learned discourse, but somewhere, somebody needs to know how to grow food, drive a truck, fix a truck, keep the electricity on, keep the water flowing out of the tap, etc. You will occasionally encounter, and need to interact with, people like this.

    In any event, glad I could impart a modern acronym/colloquialism on you, Wolfgang!

  7. Wolfgang says:

    @ Bill Davis

    Thanks so much for giving me a good chuckle.

    Much appreciated in times of cholera — seemingly, given the recent run on toilet paper, whether the catharsis may takes in place in the shade of the ivory tower or within its sheltering walls.

    Discards-of-Society & Man-of-the-Plebs Credentials

    Since you bring up the matter of street cred, permit me to share that I fondly recall my years living in the barrio in the course of graduate school before Magic Johnson brought flat-screen allure to the Northline neighborhood, not to mention my brief experiential learning experience in the D.C. ghetto, where the cockroaches vastly outnumbered the sum of communitarians + international volunteers + domestic parolees + FBI moles, and the not-so-dearly departed John and Jane Does whose ashen remains sat on the shelf in silence, while we scheduling our old-van collection runs for discarded perishable foods for the community-sponsored soup kitchen and plotted strategy about how to best go about raising the government’s and the public’s moral conscience.

    Not to mention the highlight of the week in Washington late at night: Getting to patrol Reaganville for two-hour stints in Lafayette Park — what with “sleeping activity” duly proscribed because that’s where the federal courts drew the line between First Amendment activity (permitted) and overnight camping (not). See Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984).

    https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar_case?case=30121711727218786&hl=en&as_sdt=6,44

    Admittedly, these plight-of-the-home-nots credentials are by now a bit stale, and Mitch Snyder, who sadly ended up with a presumptively self-inflicted noose around his neck, has become but a dangling footnote in the annals of advocacy for the under-dogs.

    But that doesn’t mean all that didn’t leave a mark on my memory, not to mention my soul if there be such a thing.

    I would have more to offer by way of non-ivory credentials, but I sincerely hope the anecdotes will suffice to present a prima facie case for plebs-exposure being indeed part and parcel of my curriculum vitae.

    But more fundamentally concerning the matter of credibility, I am neither a politician nor a designated pundit sought out by the media for morsels of wisdom for placement between quotation marks.

    Given my lack of recognized renown, I would urge that the validity of what commentators of my ilk might have to say, should be evaluated on its own merits.

    When I make a factual claim, don’t take my words for it, check the source and critically appraise it in light of other (and hopefully better, or more up-to-date) evidence.

    If I posit an argument, go ahead and point out the flaws in the logic, if any. I will thank thee for it.

    No one is perfect, and there is always room for improvement.

    I hope Mayor Turner will have the grace and humility to admit fallibility, now that Dallas has imposed shelter-in-place, and Houston/Harris County is next.

    Alas, an opportunity to show leadership was allowed to pass.

    But there will more opportunities yet to come.