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The Observer overviews the DA primary

You’ve had a chance to listen to my interviews with DA candidates, now read this story for more on this important primary.

Kim Ogg

When Kim Ogg first ran for Harris County district attorney, she had a simple pitch for criminal justice reform: stop jailing people for petty pot possession. The position, novel to Houston politics in 2014, proved so popular that even her Republican opponent embraced a version of it. Ogg lost that first race, but she tried again in 2016, this time adding bail reform and a promise to create “a system that doesn’t oppress the poor” to her platform. She beat the incumbent by 8 percentage points to become Harris County’s first Democratic DA in 40 years.

Ogg was among the first wave of reform-minded “progressive prosecutors” elected across the country in recent years. This new class rejected a tough-on-crime ethos, advocating instead for fairness and jailing fewer people. Ogg quickly declared herself “part of the national reform movement” and started dismissing low-level marijuana charges for people who took a class and paid a fine. She also rejected so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule drug amounts and called for diversion instead of jail for small-time offenders. 

Over the course of her first term, however, progressives have soured on Ogg. While she publicly supported bail reform, she continued to seek high bail for people charged with minor offenses. She further disappointed them by objecting to historic bail reforms that followed a years-long lawsuit to end the practice of keeping low-level offenders in jail simply because they’re poor. Progressives have also bristled at Ogg’s repeated attempts to expand her office.

Now at the end of her first term, Ogg feels squeezed between opposing forces: a police union that accuses her of being soft on crime and critics on the left who say she’s failed to live up to her reputation. She’s facing a combative Democratic primary next month, flanked by challengers who insist that she’s stood in the way of progress during her first term. A Democratic sweep in the midterms that turned Harris County solid blue further emboldened local organizers who are seeking a new kind of reform prosecutor. 

While Ogg credits herself with boosting diversion programs and reducing prison sentences during her first term, her critics insist more fundamental changes are needed to fix yawning racial inequalities in the local justice system and to decarcerate one of the largest jails in the country. There was palpable tension between Ogg and the forces that helped elect her at a ACLU of Texas candidate forum in downtown Houston last Thursday. Some people in the standing-room-only crowd jeered as Ogg urged them to stick with her “balanced approach” to reform. After the forum, a woman walked up to Ogg and began arguing with her before campaign staffers quickly intervened.

In a phone call this week, Ogg sounded aggrieved and unappreciated, the way incumbents often do during tough re-election fights. “I started running before people in our local political arena even knew what a district attorney did,” she said. “Everything I wanted to do was a reformation of decades of static prosecutorial policy in Harris County. So of course I’m a reformer, and to be labeled otherwise—that’s a political issue more than a factual one.”

Ogg’s primary is one of several prosecutor races in Texas this year that could redefine the bounds of criminal justice reform in the state. As state lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress each legislative session, advocates for change have increasingly focused on amplifying key district attorney, judge, and sheriff races to transform how their communities are policed and prosecuted.

The article touches on the race in Travis County as well, where incumbent Margaret Moore is under similar fire. I have no idea what will happen in these races – they’re as prominent as any local election, but it’s hard to say how much of that breaks through in the non-stop fusillade of national political news – but they will have a significant effect in Harris and Travis Counties. A side issue I’ve been pondering, which I asked Audia Jones about when I spoke to her, is whether the Legislature (especially but not exclusively if it remains in Republican hands) will step in and try to impose some limits on what prosecutors can and can’t do. I can very easily see this as a red meat law-and-order issue for Dan Patrick (and, whenever someone wakes him up and reminds him that he’s Governor, Greg Abbott) in the 2021 session. I have no idea what they may try to do, but I’m sure their imagination won’t be so limited. Just something to keep in mind.