2020 Writing Finalist

Sasha Urban

University of Southern California
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Judge Lina Hidalgo is running for re-election, but don’t talk to her about it

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is running for re-election in 2022, she confirmed in a press conference Monday.

The first woman and Latina to hold the position, Hidalgo was elected in 2018, beating the popular Republican incumbent, Judge Ed Emmett, by about 19,000 votes. The historic Texas race received national attention; she was even featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. But amid multiple crises and an upcoming presidential election, Hidalgo said she has more important priorities than getting re-elected.

“Yes, I’m planning on running, but I don’t want emphasis on that,” Hidalgo, 29, said. “It just seems kind of out of touch with the fact that there’s an enormous election between where we are right now and when it would come time for me to run.”

In an email, former Judge Emmett, 70, declined to say whether he plans to run for the position again.

Since being sworn in on Jan. 1, 2019, Hidalgo has faced numerous challenges as the chief executive and emergency director of the third-largest county in the United States, starting with flood warnings less than 48 hours into the job.

Today, her responsibilities revolve primarily around the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more than 110,000 lives nationwide and 107 in Harris County, according to Houston news station KPRC.

Coronavirus was “a hurricane, pretty much, that we saw coming,” Hidalgo said. “It’s been fought on the shores of local government, so I decided early on that my bias was toward action.”

That action has received significant backlash, including a citizen-filed lawsuit in response to her April 22 mask-wearing mandate that was called “draconian” by the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

The union did not respond to a request for comment, but in an April 22 statement, its president wrote, “It is clear the so-called leader of Harris County, lacks any critical thinking skills, but let me assure the public, our officers do!”

Similar and often harsher criticism can be seen throughout the comments on Hidalgo’s various social media accounts. “Heil Hidalgo,” one Twitter user responded under a recent post advocating for social distancing.

“I don’t have room in my head … I just don’t have physical room in my brain to think about the politics of this,” Hidalgo said, referring to her coronavirus response and how it might affect her chances in 2022. “I want the legacy to be that we prioritized human life, and if the legacy is really short because I lost, that’s OK.”

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A straight-A student, Judge Lina Hidalgo’s hardest test is yet to come

For Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the crises just keep piling up. As the county’s director of emergency management, she’s been forced to reckon with a global pandemic, the worst economic devastation since the Great Depression and nationwide protests against police brutality. It also happens to be the start of hurricane season.

But regardless of what lands on the judge’s desk, she always seems to have a relevant bullet point on her resume. If she doesn’t, she’ll make up for it somehow.

A constituent can only understand Spanish? Good thing Hidalgo has worked as an interpreter. Trump threatening to send in the military to quell protests? That was the topic of her senior thesis at Stanford University. Republican opposition trying to shake her? She says she couldn’t care less.

Hidalgo, 29, was elected in 2018 with no previous government experience, still the main criticism leveled against her.

After 18 months learning on the job as the chief executive of the third-largest county in the country, the challenges she’s facing are unprecedented, on top of managing a multi-billion dollar budget. Supporters say her lack of political baggage is an asset.

“She’s a phenomenal quick study of public policy issues,” said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.


After fleeing violence in Bogota, Colombia with her family and subsequently moving to Peru, then Mexico, Hidalgo arrived in Houston at 15 years old. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford in 2013 before going on to work in various jobs related to healthcare access, journalism and criminal justice.

“I never heard her say, ‘I want to be a politician,’” said Valentin Bolotnyy, a friend of Hidalgo’s from college.

Along with a record number of women across the country, Hidalgo was inspired to run for office after the 2016 election, which took place while she was studying law and public policy at Harvard University. Hidalgo remembers that night, when so many saw Hillary Clinton’s victory as inevitable. “People seem to be getting ahead of themselves,” she remembers thinking.

Looking at Donald Trump’s chances, she said, “I was taking a statistics class at the time, and it’s like, if it’s a p of more than .05, you know that it’s not a given … So I was like, ‘I don’t know about this, guys.’”

That academic approach to electoral politics has stayed with her, although she had to abandon her graduate studies to become the first woman and Latina elected to the judgeship.

“She really took what I would consider to be a studious [approach],” said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

Hidalgo’s predecessor, 11-year Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, was massively popular in the region. So it came as a surprise to many when Hidalgo beat him by about 19,000 votes, largely due to her campaign’s efforts to maximize the benefits of straight-ticket voting.

“I think she is completely overmatched in the job, but as the person who lost to her in the last election, anything I say will be taken as sour grapes,” Emmett, 70, wrote in an email declining an interview request. “I know if a poll was taken now, she is likely the most unpopular elected official in the region, but again, if I say that, it will be written off as coming from a disgruntled loser.”

Others disagree with Emmett.

“Unless he’s got a poll to show, I would beg to differ,” said Commissioner Garcia, who enjoys a 3-2 Democratic majority on the Commissioners Court alongside Hidalgo and Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

Stein, a polling veteran of four decades, said he isn’t aware of any approval polls of Hidalgo, but praised her ability to focus on her work and tune out criticism — whether it’s online vitriol or personal attacks from other counties.

“You don’t rattle her,” he said.


Hidalgo’s campaign platform prioritized criminal justice reform, increased government transparency and flood mitigation. Since taking office, she has accomplished progress in all three areas.

Before 2019, the Commissioners Court would rarely meet for more than an hour. Hidalgo’s commitment to hearing from constituents means those meetings now last upwards of six. In mid-May, Hidalgo announced that a new flood basin was close to completion.

But Hidalgo’s most significant accomplishment to date is the cash bail reform she championed along party lines last year, which effectively keeps low-level, non-violent offenders out of county jails while they await trial. New York recently saw a rollback of similar reforms.

“I can respect that they’ve been able to do that,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who served from 1995 to 2007, when Emmett took over.

Hidalgo cited the court’s decision last year to deny the district attorney’s request to hire more prosecutors as another example of progress in this area. She said her preference would be to bring in more case workers rather than motivate unnecessary prosecutions.

“I just don’t feel comfortable blindly fueling a broken system,” Hidalgo said.

Amid the coronavirus, criminal justice has come back into the foreground for Hidalgo as protests in response to the death of George Floyd rage in Houston, Floyd’s hometown and the core of Harris County.

Hidalgo said as much as she wants to be marching alongside her constituents, she feels a duty to set an example as her office preaches the importance of social distancing.

“Everybody recognizes that there is an outbreak happening,” Hidalgo said. “Everybody also recognizes that these voices have got to be heard, and we can’t silence them.”


The day Hidalgo was sworn into office, Eckels says he brought her a present: a two-pound ceremonial oak gavel, 14 inches long, that features the Harris County seal.

“To me, that gavel represents the office,” Eckels said. “It is a reminder of the heavy responsibility that it is, because the things that you do affect people’s lives.”

As Hidalgo’s responsibilities and goals are overshadowed by daily crisis management on multiple fronts, the future looks uncertain. But one thing is for sure: she’s ready for anything.

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Spot Assignment

Coronavirus drops curtain on Broadway’s emerging #MeToo movement at ‘West Side Story’

It’s opening night, and a tightly knit crowd of about 100 mostly young people has formed in the February cold outside the Broadway Theatre on 53rd street in Midtown Manhattan. In puffy coats and skinny jeans, they are a contrast to arriving celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens, who’s wearing an off-the-shoulder black jumpsuit, and Alec Baldwin, sporting a barely visible lavender pocket square.

But these attendees, some carrying signs, aren’t here to buy a ticket; they’re here to protest at the premiere of the 2020 revival of the Golden Age musical “West Side Story.” The Feb. 20 demonstration was the most significant action to date in the emergence of Broadway’s nascent #MeToo movement, more than two years behind Hollywood’s. The protestors were calling for the removal of a lead actor who had been accused of participating in what’s commonly known as “revenge porn.”

Now, more than three months later, the momentum sparked by a group of three young women has evaporated. Amid the onslaught of the coronavirus, all 41 Broadway theaters shut their doors for a month (then indefinitely) following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s March 12 declaration of a state of emergency, leaving the question of how Broadway deals with sexual harassment unanswered, and the future of the movement in limbo.

“It was really incredible,” said OnStage Blog Editor-in-Chief Chris Peterson, who covered the protests extensively when they were happening. “This really became, before the COVID-19 shutdown, the biggest story on Broadway.”

The production itself was also groundbreaking: 33 cast members were making their Broadway debut and nearly the entire company comprised people of color. While critics said that deflated a central theme of the show — racism — it still drew praise for ushering in a new era of diversity on Broadway. The modernized, tech-rich production, led by legendary director Ivo Van Hove, was set to change history.

In many ways, it did.

“It was really bittersweet because they had actually taken the action that a lot of artists have been calling for … [to] hire more people of color in your productions,” said Alexandra Waterbury, the former New York City Ballet dancer at the center of the movement. “But it’s like, how can you speak up and take action against one kind of injustice and then outright support a perpetrator of a different kind of injustice?”

In September 2018, Waterbury sued Amar Ramasar and several other male City Ballet dancers for allegedly sharing and receiving sexually explicit photos and videos of women, including her, without their consent. The lawsuit alleges that while Ramasar, 38, did not send materials depicting Waterbury, 22, he requested and received them from her then-boyfriend, Chase Finlay, 29.

Ramasar did not respond to a message sent over Instagram, and Finlay’s lawyer said he had no comment because of ongoing litigation. City Ballet did not respond to a request for comment.

Alexa Maxwell, Ramasar’s current girlfriend, who has previously identified herself as one of the anonymous dancers mentioned in the lawsuit, has publicly defended him, saying in a Jan. 31 statement denouncing the protests that she is “not a victim.”

“With everything going on in the world including COVID and the injustice for the black community, Alexa does not think it is an appropriate time to be addressing this issue,” a spokesperson for Maxwell wrote in an email.

While the allegations were reported at the time by outlets including the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, they appeared to have little effect on Ramasar’s career. In July of 2019 he was announced as the pick to play Bernardo, the short-tempered leader of the Sharks gang who is modeled after Tybalt from “Romeo & Juliet.”

Through the Broadway shutdown in early March, “West Side Story’s” management stood firmly by its decision to keep Ramasar in the cast. A public statement made the week before opening night said there was “zero consideration being given to his potentially being terminated from this workplace.”

Neither head producer Scott Rudin nor director Van Hove responded to emails requesting comment. A spokesperson for the Actors’ Equity Association, which released a statement in support of the company the day before opening night, wrote in an email, “Members who feel harassed or unsafe for any reason can contact their business representative or make an anonymous report using our hotline.”

“I just really did not want to believe that people would take this man, Amar, who had so clearly just put Alex through hell … [and] allow him to take the stage,” said Megan Rabin, a Northeastern student and former ballerina who, with Waterbury’s permission, started a petition to remove Ramasar that has amassed nearly 50,000 signatures.

Soon after creating the petition in December, Rabin, 20, connected with 17-year-old Paige Levy, a high school senior in Manhattan. With the help of an Instagram account she created under the handle @wssprotest, Levy said she had begun organizing in-person protests as an outlet to express her and others’ anger about Ramasar’s casting.

When Ramasar was sued in 2018, he was just finishing his run as Jigger in the Broadway revival of “Carousel,” another musical from the mid-Twentieth century that tackles the subjects of community healing and violence against women.

“I didn’t think he would find work [after that],” Levy said.

Along with Waterbury, the three began collaborating on the weekly demonstrations, where a steadily increasing number of people chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Ramasar has got to go!” and held signs that told attendees to “Boo Bernardo.”

Levy attributed the growth of the movement to media coverage from multiple outlets, as well as the organizers’ concerted efforts to raise awareness on social media.

But when it became clear that COVID-19 was about to strike, Levy said organizing became “really confusing.” The protest was briefly moved online, but that was quickly scrapped in the face of uncertainty about the shutdown’s duration.

“It was almost kind of ironic that we did get him off the stage, just very much not in the way we anticipated,” Rabin said.

Before the protests against Ramasar, Broadway, like most industries, had seen its share of scandals. After pleading guilty in 2008 to engaging in oral sex with a minor, James Barbour was cast as the titular role in “Phantom of the Opera” in 2015. In one of the first stories of the #MeToo movement, actor Anthony Rapp in 2017 accused his “Precious Sons” castmate Kevin Spacey of committing a similar crime after a performance in 1986, when Rapp was 14. Broadway, a small and decentralized industry, does not currently collect data on sexual misconduct.

“The theatre community never had the reckoning that Hollywood did, and yet we knew that there were all these issues,” Peterson, the OnStage editor, said.

While Broadway awaits its fate, Peterson said he is doubtful there will be an effort to make much-needed changes such as improving reporting systems and strengthening equity policies in the workplace, as most people are primarily concerned with job security.

Meanwhile, Levy said she has pivoted the @wssprotest account to advocating for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, using the platform she has built to share resources and ideally find ways to address racism in the theater community, especially in ways that cross over with the issues for which she was already advocating.

“It’s such an intersectional issue because of how unequal people are treated in cases of sexual harassment depending on their race,” Levy said. “It was an easy transition to make.”

Separate from Waterbury’s allegations, the experimental production has also faced criticism for its casting of non-white actors in traditionally white roles. The prominence of people of color, in addition to the removal of the all-female Act II opener “I Feel Pretty,” Broadway director Schele Williams said in a live-streamed discussion Wednesday, detracted from the story’s timeless messages about racism and gender.

“You took the whiteness out of a story that is about a group of people saying, ‘This is America, and you don’t belong here,’” Williams said. “In addition, you have cut ‘I Feel Pretty’ away from a community that so desperately needs to say out loud, ‘I feel pretty and witty and bright.’”

As for Waterbury, she said a break from the intensity of protesting was welcome, as she was facing mounting public attention that was becoming hard to handle while she was completing her junior year at Columbia, where she is majoring in public policy and gender studies.

“Especially with the current state of the world, where people are so much more attentive to social issues, I don’t think people will accept this behavior,” Waterbury said. “I don’t think the conversation is over, I think it’s just paused.”

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