Getting to Know Judge Hidalgo
She dreamed, she ran, she won. Without any previous political experience, 28-year-old Lina Hidalgo was elected in November 2018 as Harris County Judge in Houston, leading the third largest county in the nation and the most populous county in Texas. Hidalgo beat incumbent Ed Emmett, a Republican who’s been on the job since 2007. Hidalgo’s victory will be written about in the history books. She is the first Latina as well as the first woman to be elected to this non-judicial, executive role that controls a budget of over $4 billion. Judge Hidalgo is in charge now, and people need to get to know her.
An immigrant, she was born in Colombia, at a time when bombings, kidnappings, and murders were far too common. Seeking safety and a better future, Hidalgo’s family fled when she was five years old. Hidalgo grew up in Peru and Mexico, countries where corruption was as prevalent as in Colombia. “I came to see government as a source of corruption, something that you stay away from,” says Hidalgo. In 2005, they came to the U.S., making Houston home. “It was a very dramatic contrast coming here and going to great schools,” Hidalgo says.
Hidalgo is the first in her family to attend college in the U.S., and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, the same year she became a U.S. citizen. Hidalgo then received a fellowship to work in Southeast Asia for Internews, an international NGO dedicated to training journalists and promoting press freedom. A year later, she moved back to Houston to help Latinos at the Texas Medical Center as an interpreter, and as a volunteer at the Texas Civil Rights Center. Pursuing her passion for public service, Hidalgo enrolled in a joint degree in public policy and law at Harvard and NYU.
After graduation, she hoped to work for a non-profit or pursue civil rights law, but something drastically changed her direction. In 2016, Hidalgo saw that freedom of the press was being compromised under presidential candidate Donald Trump. She dismally recalls when Trump kicked out Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a news conference.
“When I saw Trump attack the press, that raised a red flag for me. I knew I had to do something drastic to more urgently impact the system,” says Hidalgo. Around this time, Harvard hosted a panel on what it’s like to be a young elected official. They brought in a city councilman, a mayor, and other young leaders, including a Latina, and Hidalgo was inspired: “It never occurred to me really, but after that I thought, ‘What if I just run for office back home and I change things and fight for my community?’”
This inspiration turned into a decision. She put her studies on hold, packed her bags and went home to Houston. Hidalgo knew what she had to do, but didn’t know how. With the help of community leaders and organizations such as Run for Something and Arena, Hidalgo learned how to be an effective candidate. Next, she identified a powerful job, Harris County Judge. As the County’s top executive she oversees a billionaire budget for roads, bridges, public hospitals, county courthouses, jails, libraries, parks, public transit and the Harris County Flood Control District. By state law, the County Judge is also the county’s director of emergency management, leading the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. Against all odds, she won the race against a well-known incumbent and was sworn in as Harris County Judge on January 1, 2019, vowing to “build a county that works for everyone.”
According to the U.S. Census, there are almost 4.7 million residents in Harris County, almost half of them Latino. Hidalgo’s background brings representation to a large chunk of the population that wasn’t heard before. “I bring a different voice than some of my colleagues do,” says Hidalgo, who feels a special commitment to the immigrant community. “I feel an incredible duty to preserve that opportunity and that ability for people to reach the American Dream.”
It’s business that fuels the American Dream in Houston, the Energy Capital of the World. Houston is the headquarters and the intellectual capital for virtually every segment of the energy industry including exploration, production, pipelines, refining, petrochemicals, marketing, supply, and technology. Houston provides nearly a third of the nation’s jobs in oil and gas extraction, and also great opportunities in energy tech and clean energy. “We are having conversations on how we might plan the intersection of innovation and energy and also sustainability,” says Hidalgo.
Diversity is critical to this intersection in a city where one in four residents are foreign born. Houston’s booming energy industry also offers many opportunities for Latinos in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). SmartAsset studied demographics in STEM employment and found that Houston is the sixth largest market for diversity among 35 tech hubs considered. To build the pipeline of talent for the jobs of the future, Hidalgo hopes to work with business to build “a more resilient, welcoming, equitable community, and a county that continues to be attractive economically and at the cutting edge of energy and space.”
As a first generation immigrant and American citizen, Hidalgo wants Harris County to disregard the divisiveness of American political parties, and work together on issues that affect everyone. “Pretty much most of the work we do is non-partisan, it’s about improving the lives of people,” says Hidalgo. Some of the issues that reach her desk range from flood control, transportation, criminal justice reform, education, environment, veteran affairs and the future of the Astrodome. “It’s been a challenge to prioritize. We are constantly working on triage and are being very thoughtful about how we organize our priorities to be most impactful,” she says.
One of the main challenges of Harris County is flooding, and Hidalgo’s focus is prevention: “The conversations we’ve been having with our flood control district and with our community are very positive, productive, action-oriented. The fight is to continue to get ahead of this and to continue to build a community where people want to live, raise a family and do business.”
Hidalgo has been on the job for less than a year, and she’s already making an impact. To name just a few accomplishments, Hidalgo has worked on an immigrant defense legal fund, making voting easier, and trying to ensure the county has an accurate census count. “We’re proud of where we are from, we’re proud of our diversity, we love being here and we support and help each other during difficult times. We want to preserve that and continue to be a welcoming place, but we also need to make this place more equitable. We are only as strong as our weakest link,” she says.
Judge Hidalgo is optimistic about the future and all that she hopes to accomplish in Harris County. She also wants to see more young people in leadership roles, and encourages other Latinas like heself to run. “We need more women and more diversity in government. Democracy depends on our participation. It depends on people voting, of course, but also on the right people running. Run, do it!” she says.
By Stephanie Sanyour