2020 Third Place Writing Winner

George Stoia

Third Place
University of Oklahoma
$5,000 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fears ‘outbreak’ of COVID-19 cases as George Floyd protests continue

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo wishes she could join the thousands in Houston protesting after the death of George Floyd. But while the 29-year-old supports the movement that has swept the nation the past week, she also fears the protests may lead to an outbreak in COVID-19 cases.

At a press conference Monday, Hidalgo said supporting the protests while also keeping citizens safe is difficult. And with the heavy criticism she’s already taken for her strict coronavirus guidelines, it likely won’t get easier.

“Of course I’m concerned watching so many people out there protesting in groups… You’re in close contact, you’ve got a virus going around, you’re teetering on the edge of an outbreak,” Hidalgo said. “I appreciate people’s right to make their voices heard. I think they need to make their voices heard. And I do want folks to remember that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed 100,000 people.”

As of June 1, Harris County has more coronavirus cases — 12,276 — and deaths — 232 — than any other county in the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Hidalgo announced May 21 that her “Stay Home, Work Safe” order would extend through June 10. On Monday, she reiterated that neither Harris County nor the country has been able to contain the virus.

“We still have around 100 new cases a day in Harris County, and they’re spread throughout the community,” Hidalgo said. “We’re just holding our breath and hoping that one of those 100 cases is not going to decide to go to the protest or go to church or go to some other gathering.”

Hidalgo has been ridiculed by conservatives, including Gov. Greg Abbott, for her stern regulations, particularly after ordering all Harris County citizens to wear a mask on April 22. Abbott abolished the order a few hours later, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement that the mask order was the “ultimate government overreach.”

While Republicans have attacked Hidalgo’s approach, Democrats have praised her.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Monday that despite being “thrown around the block a few times,” Hidalgo has been impressive in “standing up and doing the right thing around the pandemic.”

Hidalgo, though, said she’s not worried about political battles at the moment. The time for that will come when she runs for re-election in 2022.

For now, she’s focused on what she believes is best for Harris County residents.

“The reality of it is: if we have an outbreak, we’re going to have to shut things back down, and we can’t afford that. And we can’t have a healthy economy if everybody’s sick,” Hidalgo said. “The people who try and threaten that I’ll lose power because of my response and focusing on science, they just have nothing on me because that’s not why I ran…

“I want the legacy to be that we prioritized human life, and if the legacy’s really short because I lost, that’s okay.”

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‘She’s a superstar’: How Lina Hidalgo’s life-long resilience has made her the county judge few thought she could be

In fall 2017, Annise Parker sat in a Houston coffee shop listening to Lina Hidalgo explain why she should be the next Harris County judge. Parker, Houston’s mayor from 2010 to 2016, bit her tongue.

A then-26-year-old female immigrant with no political experience or law degree beating one of the most popular incumbents in Texas? Not possible, she thought.

“I was not particularly impressed,” Parker said. “Clearly she was smart. Clearly she was passionate. But she was completely unprepared for the job.”

Now three years, a little luck, a lot of criticism and 595,221 votes later, Hidalgo is halfway through her second year as the judge of the third largest county in the U.S. Her unprecedented 2018 victory over Republican incumbent Ed Emmett has thrown her into the political spotlight, as conservatives ridicule her and liberals champion her.

Hidalgo has remained resilient, facing everything from floods to a pandemic to police brutality protests.

“It’s just so important not to lose that moral compass,” Hidalgo said. “I’m doing this because it’s really important and meaningful, not because it sounds good.”

And according to those who have taught her, worked alongside her and doubted her, she will continue to exceed expectations.

“She could be the future of Texas politics,” Parker said. “She’s young, she’s articulate, she’s worked hard to master the position. She has a long runway in front of her.”

‘She’s a workhorse’

Born in Colombia, Hidalgo and her family immigrated to Houston in 2005 after living in Peru and Mexico. At 15 years old, she enrolled at Seven Lakes High School where she excelled.

Her former teachers described her as a student who “would often hang around after class.” She spent lunch periods with her teachers, discussing world issues.

“She was quite amazing,” said Doris Hamilton, Hidalgo’s high school chemistry teacher. “Back then, I knew she was going to be somebody and do something. I had no doubt. Her passion was definitely public speaking, social issues. She was very involved in what was going on in the world.”

That curiosity led Hidalgo to Stanford, where she became the first in her family to attend college in America.

Early in her freshman year, she reached out to Chuck Ludlam, principal adviser for a prominent student organization, who quickly became Hidalgo’s mentor.

“She is the single most thoughtful, smart, constructive, analytical, political student I have ever dealt with at Stanford,” said Ludlam, who has mentored thousands of students since 1975.

Still a freshman, Hidalgo applied for a position to create a funding arm for Ludlam’s organization. Valentin Bolotnyy, a senior at the time, said the position was supposed to be filled by an upperclassmen.

Then Bolotnyy interviewed Hidalgo.

“She spoke in a way that conveyed seriousness and composure,” Bolotnyy said. “She very much had this attitude of ‘I can do it’ and ‘I’m going to work hard to do it.’”

The program Hidalgo created is now considered one of the most successful at Stanford, Ludlam says.

“She’s a workhorse. She’s a policy wonk. She’s a craftsman,” Ludlam said. “She was always focused on the task at hand.”

‘A perfect storm’

By 2015, Hidalgo graduated, earned her citizenship and pursued a joint law degree from NYU and Harvard. But after the 2016 presidential election, she decided to leave graduate school and run for office.

Political science professors Brandon Rottinghaus from the University of Houston and Mark Jones from Rice University gave Hidalgo little chance to win the Harris County seat. It would take “a perfect storm,” Jones said.

That’s exactly what happened.

A combination of straight-ticket voting and Beto O’Rourke’s popularity in the 2018 senate race allowed Hidalgo to fly under the radar to a historic win, making her the first woman and Latinx Harris County judge.

“She inspires you in a number of different ways,” said Nisha Randle, deputy communications director of Texas Democrats. “All the things we keep telling people we need — we need more women in politics, more people of color in politics, more younger people in politics — she checks all those boxes.”

Of course, Hidalgo still has her doubters.

Lately, conservatives attacked Hidalgo’s strict COVID-19 regulations, including an attempt to force all Harris County residents to wear a facemask in public — an order swiftly shut down by Gov. Greg Abbott. The attacks have been consistent, and her social media is often full of negative comments.

“There are some people that hate her,” said Monica Richart, a member of the Houston Community College Board of Trustees and a fellow Latina in office. “But there are so many of us in the Houston-Harris County area that are really just in awe of what she’s been able to do.”

‘She’s a superstar’

Hidalgo, now 29, has been unyielding in her pursuit of difficult issues like criminal justice reform, flood control, education and, above all, underserved communities.

Her charismatic personality and hard-nosed attitude resonate with minorities, making her a popular voice among those who feel voiceless.

“She’s a superstar,” Rottinghaus said. “She’s a rising presence in the Democratic Party in a state that is trying to emerge from decades long of underinvestment. She’s that next generation of leader for the party, which they need.”

As for what’s next, Hidalgo plans to run for re-election in 2022. But after that — a second term that would end before her 36th birthday — there’s no telling where she might end up.

“I don’t want to be here 30 years,” Hidalgo said. “You kind of get comfortable. You think you’re doing everything right, and you forget to ask the tough questions.”

Hidalgo’s Stanford colleagues are confident she will serve the public in some capacity. The local professors believe she could run for Houston mayor. Her political advocates predict she’s the future of Texas Democrats. And Houston’s former mayor remains unsure.

But as for Hamilton, the teacher who watched Hidalgo from the beginning, well, she’s dreaming big.

“She may be our first female president,” Hamilton said. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

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No crying allowed: COVID-19 cancels Tulsa’s biggest annual party

Ask almost any Tulsan about Cry Baby Hill and, oh, the stories they could tell.

If you drive down Tulsa’s Riverside Drive 364 days a year, you wouldn’t notice it. But if you hit it on the right day — the second Sunday in June — you won’t forget it.

The beer. The costumes. The jean shorts. The blaring music. The literal baby dolls and pacifiers. The stench of sweat and vomit. The ugly grey apartments surrounded by partygoers. And, of course, the hundreds of cyclists pedaling up the 203-meter climb.

The hill, infamous for being the final leg of the Tulsa Tough three-day cycling race, is home to Tulsa’s most raucous party where thousands of locals, tourists and bike enthusiasts partake in an experience unlike any other.

“It’s very much like Mardi Gras and a rave and a peace fest with this intense, action-packed, NASCAR-like atmosphere,” said Edward Snow, a Cry Baby Hill “referee” one day a year and a federal prosecutor the rest. “You can just fill in all the blanks you could expect to see at an event like that. We’ve had people that have had sex up there. So, yeah. It’s a little crazy.”

But this year, there will be no party at the top of the hill.

With COVID-19 playing the role of party pooper, Tulsa Tough, scheduled for June 12-14, was canceled in April. For those that have seen the event grow over the last 14 years, devastation has filled the days leading up to the weekend that usually showcases the unique flair of Oklahoma’s second-largest city.

“The emotional wreckoning has definitely been hard,” said Malcolm McCollum, executive director of the event. “It’s been a labor of love for us for so long. Not only do we look forward to it from a production standpoint, but we also know the community has embraced it, adopted it and claimed it as their own.

“To know we won’t be able to deliver that to our community has been gut-wrenching.”

Local hotels, restaurants, bars and concert venues across Tulsa will lose out on a few million dollars, McCollum added.

“People count on that weekend,” said Tiffany Turner, director of catering at McNellie’s Restaurant Group, which serves Tulsa Tough. “It’s a lot of incredible exposure not just for a lot of businesses downtown, but just for the city itself.”

And while the race has an obvious financial impact on the city, Tulsa Tough has become much more than a money maker.

In 2006, when the event was first created, Tulsa didn’t have much of an image.

McCollum says the city wanted to show why Tulsa was “one of the cool kids” at the same level as places like Austin, Nashville, Portland and Boulder. Downtown revitalization was at the top of the city’s to-do list, and an event that consistently drew a large crowd would also be a welcome addition.

For city officials and Tulsa Tough organizers, the race was crafted to highlight three locations: The Blue Dome District on Friday, the Tulsa Arts District on Saturday and Riverside Drive on Sunday.

Today, Downtown Tulsa and Riverside Drive feature an award-winning park, the state’s largest arena, a stunning minor league ballpark and a hill made famous once a year.

Tulsa Tough is the one event that puts it all on display.

“Somebody once said that the weekend of Tulsa Tough is what we could show everybody not in Tulsa what Tulsa really is,” said Andy Wheeler, volunteer director of Cry Baby Hill and a Tulsa native. “That’s the weekend we get to show everybody what we’re capable of.”

The growth of the downtown area has made Tulsa Tough a must-ride for professional cyclists. When registration opens each year, it’s filled within hours, McCollum says.

“Even at all the big, prestigious races around the country, they don’t attract the same sort of crowds,” said Marissa Axell, a professional cyclist from the Bay Area in San Francisco. “It’s such a unique spectacle in the U.S. I think the only thing you can compare it to are some of the big bike races in Europe where they attract a ton of people and they’re drinking and screaming. That just doesn’t happen in the U.S. That’s why it’s legendary.”

But Tulsa Tough, and specifically Cry Baby Hill, hasn’t always been a phenomenon. In 2006, a local group of bike enthusiasts were inspired by “tifosi” — a word often used in Europe to describe diehard cycling fans — and hoped to gradually replicate European races at Tulsa Tough.

Among those fans is Josh Gifford, co-owner of Soundpony, a cycling-themed bar and one of Downtown Tulsa’s most popular pubs.

Gifford opened Soundpony in May 2006, a month before Tulsa Tough’s inaugural race. Similar to the city, Soundpony has become a favorite destination for cyclists, which also means his business will lose “tens of thousands of dollars” due to the race’s cancellation.

“It was our biggest sales weekend of the year, bigger than some of our months,” Gifford said. “But I’m way more concerned with public safety than the almighty dollar.”

Along with starting his own bar, Gifford also helped create the aura around Cry Baby Hill.

The story goes that in the first couple years of the race, Gifford would run up and down the hill heckling riders and screaming “What’s the matter, cry baby? You can’t get up this little cry baby hill?”

And thus, the legend was born.

The hill has since grown into the city’s most chaotic gathering of the year. Thousands come to witness the spectacle, often dressed in little clothing and drinking too much to function. There’s also a theme, which brings out the most wild costumes — this year’s was supposed to be based on Netflix’s “Tiger King,” a perfect fit for the outlandish crowd.

The party has gotten so out of control that designated “referees” help “mind the gap” to keep spectators off the road.

“On Cry Baby Hill, Republicans and Democrats are getting along. African Americans and whites and Asians and the Dutch are getting along,” said Snow, who has been a hill referee for a decade. “People that don’t know a damn about biking are cheering on these people who live biking. It just showcases the best of what our city is and can be.”

For riders, it’s an experience that can’t be replicated and a challenge that’s hard to forget.

“You turn the corner and you hit this wall of sound. It’s noisy and crazy and smelly. It’s just a big cacophony of attention,” said Axell, who has never finished the course in her six years racing it. “It’s a lot of external input. When you do kind of make it through that wall, it kind of takes your mind off the pain in your legs, the pumping of your heart and you’re just overwhelmed with that sensory overload, in a good way.”

Those who have spent the last 14 years partying on or riding up Cry Baby Hill are unsure how they’ll spend their second Sunday in June next weekend. Cry Baby Hill isn’t exactly the best place to be during a pandemic, they all admit. But some, like Snow, plan to ride the hill with a small group. Others, like Gifford, plan to share a toast to the hill and the weekend that never fails to bring joy and pride to their city.

Though Cry Baby Hill won’t be home to a party in 2020, tears will still be shed.

“It’s so bizarre to even think of the weekend coming and going and that party not happening,” McCollum said. “I’ll be crying in real life.”

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