2020 Writing Finalist

Jordan Miller

University of Oklahoma
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls for sweeping policy change, continued pandemic precautions following Houston protests

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for policy changes across local, state and national levels days after thousands of Houstonians marched through the streets to protest police brutality.

In a Monday press conference, Hidalgo said the recent killing of Houston native George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody was “incredibly sad” and “frustrating,” while warning that the county is teetering on the edge of a new COVID-19 outbreak in a pandemic that’s already killed over 100,000 in the U.S.

Hidalgo has talked with protest organizers about what actions she can take, explaining budget changes she’s enacted that monitor the levels of county prosecutors and police officers to prevent over-prosecution. Her office is also running studies to determine what needs to be fixed in the “deeply broken criminal justice system,” including reports on effective policing and data analysis on underused police resources.

“I’ve been out there in those protests in the past, more than once,” Hidalgo said. “I ran because that felt like we needed change on the inside… black and brown people in this country need to know that they’re heard and they’re valued.”

Although some Houston figures like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, have turned out to these protests, Hidalgo has not. She explained to activists that she’d like to be there, but is unable to while urging residents to stay home to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

“Everybody recognizes that there is an outbreak happening. Everybody also recognizes that these voices have got to be heard and we can’t silence them. We just cannot,” Hidalgo said. “It’s a very challenging situation… (I) just try and remind people that social distancing, wearing face coverings, participating in different ways if at all possible, is just really, really important.”

A spike due of COVID-19 cases due to the protests is a big concern, especially with around 100 new cases every day within the county. Hidalgo said Harris county and large communities around the country still don’t have their grip on the pandemic, and that keeps her up at night.

“We’re just holding our breath and hoping that one of those hundred cases is not going to decide to go to the protests, or go to church or go to some other gathering,” Hidalgo said.

Houston’s people of color, and specifically black Houstonians, have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and Hidalgo said her office is working on assessments to improve some of the health disparities faced in these areas — which are often the same areas built over Superfund sites or near concrete batch plants.

“It is the same communities that are being impacted (as those who are protesting),” Hidalgo said. “There’s some real health equity problems… there’s no quick fix.”

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‘She’s a threat’: Lina Hidalgo navigates Texas’ largest county through crisis after crisis in postgrad position

In May 2017, Lina Hidalgo, then a 26-year-old graduate student, sat down for coffee at Austin Java with Democratic consultant Glenn Smith.

She’s pondering an electoral run, and he’s taking in her passion for public service.

Smith conducts these kinds of meetings every election cycle, typically giving advice to a dozen or so ambitious politicos with dreams of holding elected office. He worked for former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-TX, managed Ann Richards’ 1990 Texas gubernatorial campaign and now works for nonprofit organization Progress Texas.

The young woman he met for coffee that day, who stands just inches over 5 feet tall, impressed him “like no others from the beginning.”

That same young woman became the first female and first Latina elected Harris County Judge, an executive position in the nation’s third most populous county, just after leaving graduate school.

Her office is said to rival the innovation and creativity of a tech-start up. And at a little over a year in, she remains a dangerous political force to those across the aisle.

Since her swearing-in on New Year’s Day in 2019, Hidalgo implemented performance-based changes to the county’s budget allocation policies, historic bail reform and investments in drainage infrastructure.

At the expense of a chunk of her time, she’s also fulfilled a campaign promise that many politicians make, but usually aren’t realized tangibly: giving a voice to the voiceless.

Erica Brown was employed as a senior policy advisor in Hidalgo’s office for the majority of 2019, and worked with Hidalgo to get the Harris County community more involved with the Commissioners Court meetings — which went from lasting an hour to now sometimes 10-12 hours.

“(Previously) there wouldn’t be any real meaningful dialogue or input from the community about really important issues that are affecting the entire county,” Brown said. “I think the change under Judge Hidalgo is to really educate the public about what Commissioners Court is, the types of decisions that Commissioners Court makes, and really clarify and encourage folks to be part of that process.”

During her 2019 State of the County address in November, Hidalgo said four times as many people attended Commissioners Court meetings that year than all of 2018.

“Historically, the Commissioners Court meetings have not seemed like a place where
community voices are listened to,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston who’s become a frequent speaker at the meetings. “(Now) from our own organizational perspective, we at least feel like our voices will be heard.”

Mike Engelhart, Judge of Harris County’s 151st Civil District Court, said Hidalgo runs these meetings with “infinite patience.”

He swore Hidalgo into office just a few minutes into New Year’s Day 2019, and had occasionally given her advice on running in Harris County in the months leading up to her election. Her continued push for the agenda she ran on with access and transparency that has been “unprecedented,” he said.

“She’s put in place structural changes that will endure,” Engelhart said. “She has become an incredible role model for young women and minorities in the community who realize that if they work hard, and also if they… throw their hat in the ring, that incredible things can happen to improve their community.”


While pursuing her campaign promises, Hidalgo’s dealt with chemical fires, ever-present flooding and is now responding to a global pandemic as the area’s head of emergency management.

Her actions haven’t come without criticism.

Hidalgo was born in Colombia and immigrated to the U.S. with her family from Mexico in 2005. Despite her lengthy education at Stanford, NYU and Harvard, along with experience at the Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Medical Center, her background and political inexperience often inflames her opponents.

“English, this is not Mexico,” a Texas official commented on one of her bilingual, live-streamed briefings following a destructive chemical fire just months into her term.

Seeing her press conferences in English and Spanish has become familiar for Houstonians watching updates on the COVID-19 pandemic — where her actions have continued to garner condemnation unlike that of her counterparts’ in other Texas counties.

When enacting potential fines for residents who left their residences without masks, officials from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-TX, decried her reasoning, and Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the order just hours after it went into effect — although three counties had already implemented similar measures weeks before.

“On coronavirus, it was a hurricane pretty much, that we saw coming. We knew that it was a matter of time before it hit us.” Hidalgo said. “It’s been fought on the shores of local governments. So I decided early on that my bias was toward action.”

This fault-finding is often partisan, but she’s come to expect it. Hidalgo is the first Democrat to serve as Harris county executive since 1974, and bested a popular 11-year Republican incumbent during a ‘blue wave’ of straight-ticket voting in the county.

Her victory, along with that of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, gives the Democrats a 3-2 majority on the Commissioners Court that will prove crucial when they redraw the district lines in 2021; turning the court blue for the foreseeable future.

Richard Murray, an expert on Houston politics and a professor of political science at the University of Houston, believes she’s already got her 2022 reelection secured, comparing her success to President Obama’s after 2008.

“She’s a dangerous candidate for the Republicans because she’s 29 years old,” said Richard Murray, an expert on Houston politics and a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “She’s a threat. I mean, she’s a reflection of the changes that are going on in our society.”

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Spot Assignment

‘They have to eat it’: State, families still reeling from livestock show shutdowns due to COVID-19

After 600 miles, 11 hours of travel and 10 hours of waiting in line at the rodeo’s gates, the Bixby family was told to turn around.

Brian Bixby, his wife and his four children had lugged four heifers all the way from Panhandle, Texas, to compete in the renowned Houston Livestock Show after months of animal care and training. The same day they arrived, March 11, the rodeo was shut down due to coronavirus concerns, and other livestock shows would soon follow suit.

“It kind of felt like a dream at first when we first heard the news,” Bixby said. “When I found out
that they did close it for sure from the officials, we kicked into ‘We need to get out of here before they shut Houston down and don’t let us leave.’”

Last year, the rodeo generated $243 million in direct economic activity, with over $32 million in direct spending coming from show exhibitors alone, according to 2019’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Economic Impact Study.

Livestock shows all over Texas were canceled due to COVID-19, an impact the state is still feeling — as families are stuck with animals they were unable to show, sell or even process.

“If you have let’s say a steer or a pig that was ready to go to slaughter and be turned into meat, and you went to a small local plant to have that done, it’s very common for those plants to tell you ‘Well come back in about six months,’” said David Anderson, an economist at Texas A&M University with expertise on COVID-19’s agricultural product impact. “It has forced a bunch more supplies at small local plants.”

Bixby’s children were still able to compete in an impromptu make-up show in Bryan — about an hour and a half northwest of Houston — for kids who were impacted by the rodeo’s closing. Their four heifers — Peaches, Midnight, Hay Hay and Star — were named as reserve division champions and one as a division champion.

“They put it on in the middle of a pasture in some guy’s hay barn,” Bixby said. “They raised like $50,000 in prize money and donations for these kids. There was over 400 heifers that showed up. We parked trailers out in the middle of this guy’s grass pasture and showed heifers the next day.”

Jimmie Randall, 16 and a second-generation showman, was not planning on showing at his local agriculture show 45 minutes from Houston in Waller, which was also canceled.

Bixby said his family will always remember competing in the makeshift Bryan show, and didn’t face too much financial strain as a result of the rodeo’s closing. However, Randall is still caring for his steer, Joe, who he was unable to sell.

Jimmie first purchased Joe for $3,500, and he’s grown to be 1,200 lbs, requiring a lot of feed the Randalls didn’t expect to buy in the months following the Waller ag show. They’ve contemplated processing him for meat, but their local plants are backed up until August — three more months of feed away.

“Now, with everybody that wasn’t able to sell at Houston or San Antonio or Austin or ag shows or whatever, now they’re stuck with these animals,” said Linda Cook Randall, Jimmie’s mother. “Some people might have paid $5,000-$6,000 for a steer, and plus the feed that you might put into one, you’re looking at $10,000-15,000 on a project. And then now they’re out. And they have to eat it.”

In addition to the financial strain, Jimmie’s spent 2-3 hours every day taking care of Joe, feeding, training, washing and blowing his hair out under their fans to get him ready for showing.

“What it felt to me is very heartbroken,” Jimmie said. “When you do this, you don’t want to see your steer just stay here and wait to be eaten by your own parents and yourself… I love the steer. This is my favorite steer that I’ve ever had.”

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, an agricultural law specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Services, said many things went wrong at the same time to create a ‘perfect storm’ for what many families that show cattle are currently facing — including the cattle market’s nosedive and the backlog at processing plants.

Her family also sells show lambs, and they’ve seen many who won’t buy at all or are lowering their budget for next show season. Lashmet’s family uses how their lambs place in shows previously as advertising for the next year, and they were lucky enough that the lamb show completed right before the rodeo closed.

“I sure hope that the impact on kids is one that they can overcome and continue showing,” Lashmet said, “because when I think about the things that I did in my childhood that prepared me the best for life, I think showing animals was probably the best thing I participated in.”

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