2020 Writing Finalist

Matt Cohen

Indiana University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, 29, used to be on the streets growing up, carrying signs, lying on the ground chanting, “I can’t breathe.” With protests engulfing the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Hidalgo said Monday she wants to use her executive authority to make substantial change. 
“I know progress needs to be made,” Hidalgo said. “Black and brown people need to know that they’re heard, and they’re valued. Every single time they have an interaction with law enforcement, they should know that they can be safe.”
With a global pandemic and large national protests, much of Hidalgo’s agenda has been pushed back and, in its place, criminal justice reform emerged. George Floyd’s family led a march in Houston on Tuesday. Protests have continued despite a stay-at-home order lasting through June 10. 
Hidalgo said she plans on working to improve community relations with the police by making interactions less militaristic. She’s focused on looking at the budget and data to create reforms to Harris County’s system. 
Hidalgo worked during her first year in office on the criminal justice budget. During her first weeks, the district attorney asked for 100 additional prosecutors. Hidalgo said no, and instead she advocated to fund more social workers and investigators.
“I don’t feel comfortable blindly fueling a broken system,” Hidalgo said. 
In 2019, she fought with the police to limit the number of new police deputies, arguing the county doesn’t need as many as were proposed. Instead, she wants a new recruiting process, one that will create a police force that adapts to the reforms national protests have called for.
“Show me where it says that more police means less crime,” Hidalgo said. 
She also plans to investigate arrests, police-involved shootings and as a whole, what Harris County police officers are actually policing.
Hidalgo is pushing for police to give tickets for minor offenses instead of jailing offenders. In protests, Hidalgo discussed having low level misdemeanor offenders released in 48 hours without posting bail they can’t afford. 

She’s doubled the size of the public defender’s office in response as well. 
“When law enforcement is out there marching with them, I think that’s great,” Hidalgo said. “It’s important for them to not be trampling protestors, shooting rubber bullets at anybody or arresting journalists. That’s good, but that should be expected. That should not be what we praise. What we praise should be policy change.”
With her role as a county judge, Hidalgo can implement the changes for which she used to protest. With unrest across the country, she’s listening and working to learn what remains to be done in order to create necessary reform in the police system and county policy.

Her friends are organizing the protests in Harris County, and Hidalgo works with them closely. Hidalgo said it pains her that she can’t be out there with them, but she’s following her own stay-at-home order.

 “I hope this leads to meaningful change,” Hidalgo said. “It has to.” 

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She knew it was coming.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo watched the coronavirus spread into the United States. It spread quickly from Washington to New York and toward Harris County, Texas, with over 4.7 million unprotected citizens in Hidalgo’s jurisdiction. 
With the threat looming, the 29-year-old stepped in front of an invisible enemy and treated it like a natural disaster.  
“It was a hurricane we saw coming,” Hidalgo said. “We knew that it was a matter of time before it hit us. It’s been fought on the shores of local government. I decided early on that my bias was toward action.”
Local interest groups called her saying there was no way she could close bars and restaurants, that she would never be reelected if she did. 
But that’s never mattered to her. Hidalgo said there’s no room in her head to even consider the threats or the politics. Instead, she focused on getting ahead, on preventing Harris County from being vulnerable. 
No matter the cost.

Lillie Shechter, the Harris County Democratic Party Chair, didn’t know who Hidalgo was when she first walked into her office in 2017. 
Schechter saw a young, energetic woman. She thought Hidalgo was naive, maybe too bold for her age and inexperience. 
But what stood out to Schechter more profoundly than Hidalgo’s age, background or never having held political office previously was her determination.
“She walked into an office full of strangers and said, ‘I want to make the system better,’” Schechter said. “‘I believe in criminal justice reform and having a progressive government that works for everyone. How do I fit in?’ It takes a lot of determination and confidence to walk into an office full of strangers and say that.” 
Hidalgo was born in Colombia and immigrated to the United States in 2005. She graduated from Stanford University in 2013, majoring in political science. Hidalgo became an American citizen the same year.
She never thought she would run for office. But after watching Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016, she decided something had to be done, and she wanted to do it herself.
At 27, she was elected county judge — an executive, not judicial position — for Harris County, the third largest county in the nation, which encompasses Houston. She ran on a platform including flood control measures and creating a more effective government budget. 
“I’m doing this because it’s important and it’s meaningful,” Hidalgo said. “Not because it sounds good.”

Hidalgo’s voice can be raspy at times. For Adrian Garcia, Commissioner of Harris County Precinct 2, that’s a symbol of the hours she’s spent in meetings to address the pandemic. 
Garcia said he hasn’t seen the young judge miss a beat in her first year in office. But as the meetings pile up and the long nights continue, Garcia can tell she is still working tirelessly to stop the spread while not forgetting about smaller issues facing the county too. 
Hidalgo said Harris County is still seeing close to 100 new cases of the coronavirus a day, and the area is still teetering on the edge of what she considers an outbreak. She has a staff of 300 contact tracers and is searching for an early indicator of the virus. But there isn’t one. 
Garcia sees Hidalgo constantly collecting data and on the phone with other leaders, working to create and decide on the next steps. And he’s seen her execute everything she’s set out to accomplish. 
“It’s been masterful,” Garcia said. “I don’t think I would do anything differently than what I’ve seen her do.” 
While Texas began to reopen May 1, Hidalgo extended the Harris County stay-at-home order to June 10. She required all residents to wear face masks, imposing a $1,000 fine for violating. 
That’s all led to intense backlash. 

Hidalgo is the first woman and the first Latina in her position. She defeated Ed Emmett — a white, conservative male — to win the office. 
Her ascent to power in Harris County, however, came with detractors who criticize what’s different. 
Check the comments of any Hidalgo social media post and they’ll include criticisms on her age, her immigrant status or her sex. They accuse her of fearmongering and being unqualified. 
“Our city will open and carry on without you,” a user tweeted May 24. “The Freedoms of Texans will not be limited due to your lack of knowledge of the American way. Get some grit, girl. [You’re] in Texas. Act like it.”
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called her COVID-19 policies “the ultimate government overreach,” according to NBC News. 
Schechter said Hidalgo handles that criticism well by ignoring it. She believes Hidalgo stays focused on what she wants to accomplish, regardless of the voices around her.
“Of course, there are going to be the naysayers who point out her race as her biggest criticism,” Schechter said. “I think she’s doing exactly what she needs to do by putting her head down and doing the good work.” 
Hidalgo’s response to the pandemic has not wavered in the face of the backlash she’s received. Even then, Garcia believes Hidalgo is well-liked by the majority of the community and respected.
“She realizes that she’s obligated to every person in this county whether they voted for her or not,” Garcia said. 
While being unfazed by criticism, Hidalgo knows there’s still work to be done. She will continue in meetings to push the policy she feels will best suit her constituents. She’s hoping the virus won’t worsen with protests taking place across the country.
“If we have another outbreak, we’re going to shut things down, and we can’t afford that,” Hidalgo said.
As the nation begins to reopen from quarantine, Hidalgo watches videos of in-person graduations. She watches friends be reunited and classmates see each other before going off on their own paths, all together for potentially the last time. 
But she can’t watch these student’s reach their joyful milestones without worry.
Because the pandemic isn’t under control just yet. 

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Spot Assignment

BETHESDA, Md. — Normally, Alfie Riley leaves work at 3:30 p.m. during the summer.
He goes home, changes into navy shorts below a white Gaithersburg Giants T-Shirt and drives to the field at Kelley Park in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He turns on the scoreboard, opens the wooden windows of the press box and begins to ready the field.
Working as the development director for the Giants is Riley’s side job. Almost everyone working in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League — a summer college baseball league played in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area — does it as a side job.
The games are played at fields tucked inside local parks or high schools. Most have just a few metal bleachers, scorched by the summer sun. The tickets are cheap, and the gimmicks are corny. Players carpool to games, and some show up late having been stuck in traffic from their internships in the city. 
For a few months each year, the CRCBL brings a local community together. Families relax after a day at work, spend $5 on a hot dog with a drink and watch their kids run around the stands chasing foul balls. Strangers form teams in three days and play in front of MLB scouts to chase their own dreams. These are the grassroots of a national pastime.
But this summer there will be no loud cracks of wooden bats, no smell of popcorn drifting through the parking lot or kids with ice cream dripping off their chins. What little money is made every summer isn’t coming this year. 
June 4 would have been opening day. The coronavirus pandemic swept that all away. 

CRCBL Commissioner Jason Woodward was told to stop unpacking. It was March 12 and he was at the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland setting up for the high school basketball state championships. 
The CRCBL is a side job for Woodward too, where he only makes a small stipend. He works as the athletic director at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland.
But as he was told to stop unpacking for the upcoming state championships because high school sports in Maryland had been suspended, he began to think about his summer job. 
Woodward worked with CRCBL President Brad Rifkin looking ahead to the summer. Every two weeks they laid out a plan for the season, constantly making changes with the unpredictability of the pandemic. 
At the latest, they had to start by July 1 to get a full season in and send players back to campus on time. 

Woodward made calls to the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball and the MLB. He set up meetings with the team officials in the CRCBL. He had teams contact host families to see how many would host a player from outside the D.C. region. He also considered having a season with only local players. 
There were too many questions Woodward had to answer and quickly, any hope for baseball vanished. 
The Herndon Braves were not receiving enough financial support from their organization, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Herndon would not field a team in 2020. The D.C. Grays decided against putting a team out as well. 
Only four teams were left. 
“Is the risk of someone getting sick worth having a season?” Woodward said.
The CRCBL didn’t have the means to test the players nor take their temperature. There was too much uncertainty in early May. Woodward didn’t see a way they could play.
He let the teams vote on May 4. They all wanted to play but knew that was wrong. They elected to cancel the season. 

Giants head coach Jeff Rabberman called Cameron Bush on June 1. Bush played for Rabberman last summer and pitched for Texas State University this spring where he was named a 2020 Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball. 
“Last summer was a game changer for me,” Bush told Rabberman on Monday.
The CRCBL is mostly freshmen and sophomores who redshirted or didn’t see much playing time that school year. Coming to the CRCBL gives them an opportunity to face other high-level collegiate players, but also a chance to see the field consistently and be a far improved player when returning to campus in the fall.
“If [Bush] doesn’t have that experience, he may not be a Freshman All-American this year, and that is a big deal,” Rabberman said.
By calling off the league in early May, players had a chance to find somewhere else to go. But for those left with nothing, their crucial summer for development is gone. 

Players normally arrive around June 1. They show up to the field, get their uniforms and meet their teammates for the next two months. They begin playing exhibition games within 48 hours and by the end of the week, opening day. 
Typically, Rabberman would be standing in the dugout this week. His wife, Lori, would be grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for the snack bar. His younger son, Carter, would be racing to home plate as the bat boy. 
Instead, they’re all home. Rabberman normally coaches his older son Andrew’s travel team. He also works as the athletic director at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. It’s 40-year-old Rabberman’s first summer not involved with baseball since he was 6.
“They’ll never get this summer back,” Rabberman said. “I tell our kids every summer, ‘You never know when this will be taken away from you.’”
Riley is working from home as well; he’s still moving his office. Riley is a commercial real estate appraiser in his day job. 
Before the pandemic, he was working with the Gaithersburg city government as well as Montgomery County. An elementary school is planned to be built in Kelley Park, and Riley had to make sure the Giants wouldn’t be forced to move. It was hard work enough before COVID-19 forced him to make changes. 
“It became an impossible task to put the league on,” Riley said. “It was a complete breakdown.” 
The costs are down this summer. Umpire fees are less, the stipends for coaches and interns are too. They don’t have to pay to maintain the field nor buy new uniforms.

But no money is coming in either.
The Giants’ main income comes from a winter fundraiser, players’ fees and the snack bar. Gaithersburg does have the finances to get to next summer. 
Though for the Giants — a low budget team — most of the sponsors are small businesses, and Riley can’t call them to ask for money. How is a small business hurting just like the Giants supposed to donate? 
“I’m not picking up the phone and asking Gaithersburg Party Rental, that just laid everybody off, for a $1,000 check,” Riley said.

Chris Rogers, the general manager of the Bethesda Big Train, sat in his car Wednesday morning looking through the chain link fence at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, Maryland. 
This is a week Rogers normally circles on his calendar. He would be getting to the field early, laying out uniforms for the players and preparing for opening night. 
Instead, he looked out at an empty field thinking about a pandemic, racial injustice and maybe just a little about baseball. 
Povich Field is roughly 10 miles south on Interstate 270 from Kelley Park. The Big Train is the largest budget team in the CRCBL and typically plays in front of a few hundred fans seated in stadium seating. It’s the most well-kept field with the most expensive tickets and concessions. 
The Big Train has two dog mascot costumes — Homer and his son Bunt — an air-conditioned press box and the most professional-looking game day operations. Povich Field is luxury compared to the rest of the CRCBL. 
On June 1, Rogers took over as the team’s general manager, in charge of the league’s largest staff. And while there won’t be baseball, the Big Train isn’t shutting down for the summer. 
In place of the home opener on June 5, the Big Train is hosting “NOpening Night.” That night, the team will launch Big Train TV, a new branch of the organization producing expanded video content beyond live streams and highlights on Twitter. The network’s coverage will include conversations with coaches and looking into the home lives of players and staff.
“There’s no season, and that’s what allows us to do this expanded programming,” Rogers said.  “From that perspective, it’s definitely a byproduct of the season being cancelled.” 
Rogers said the team will also produce an online magazine every two weeks called the Big Train Beacon. 
“It’s a more expanded version of the program,” Rogers said. “We can report on stories that happen during the summer.” 
Each issue will be eight pages and will replace the normal 32-page program published before the beginning of the summer. Rogers still wants to give his broadcast and writing interns as much of an experience as possible. 
The team will begin pushing its fundraising campaign along with the release of Big Train TV; trying make up the money lost with no ticket or concession sales and no summer camp. And all while still paying stipends.
Woodward said the CRCBL will survive financially. While there will be no income, costs — even the simple ones like baseballs — are cut. Woodward hopes to pay stipends to the CRCBL staff and interns. He hopes the franchises will compensate employees for work they’ve already done.
And while the league will be able to hold onto its MLB grant for next summer, it will have to push for more sponsors. To keep the league afloat beyond 2021, it has to. 
But for now, it’s quiet at Povich Field. The American flag next to the press box is still at full mast, swaying in the breeze, waiting for the next “Star Spangled Banner.” 

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