2020 Writing Finalist

Jack Harris

Arizona State University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned Monday that, even as new cases of COVID-19 in the Houston region have slowed in recent weeks, health officials still can’t predict potential novel coronavirus outbreaks.

“What keeps me up at night is the fact that we don’t have a grip on this,” Hidalgo said during a press conference. “We are very much on the brink of another crisis.”

Since the peak of the pandemic in early April, numbers of new confirmed coronavirus cases in the Houston region have held steady around roughly 100 to 300 per day, according to the Houston Chronicle.

That reduction has led some political leaders at the local, state and national levels to push for further reopening of society. But Hidalgo, who in April required residents to wear masks and last month extended the county’s stay-at-home order until at least June 10, cautioned that strict safety measures might be the only thing keeping new COVID-19 cases down.

Hidalgo said the problem is that the only reliable numbers currently available to health officials are crisis indicators.

“By the time they start going up, it’s too late. You have to shut things back down,” she said, adding: “That’s catastrophic for the economy. That’s not what I want.”

The 29-year-old Democrat, who also confirmed she will run for reelection in 2022, has been consulting with doctors from Rice University but said predictive techniques such as contact tracing or wastewater testing might not be able to spot a potential outbreak.

“I want the economy to open safely, but that’s not what we’re doing right now, because we’re just at the edge of an outbreak, on the edge of having to shut back down,” she said. “So what I’m working on is an early indicator. The problem is, there isn’t one.”

And though she supported recent Houston-area protests over the death of George Floyd, she worries about the potential health consequences of such large public gatherings.

“We’re just holding our breath and hoping that one of those [new] cases is not going to decide to go to the protest, or go to church, or go to some other gathering,” she said. “It’s not a good place to be.”

Hidalgo, a first-time politician who was voted into office in 2018, has received criticism from prominent Texas Republicans over her aggressive safety precautions, claiming she has overstepped her responsibilities as chief government executive of the state’s largest county.

She has countered those claims, however, by citing health officials’ concerns about the unpredictable nature of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S., including more than 1,700 in Texas alone.

“We can pretend to play a political game and say, ‘Well, everything needs to be open,’” she said. “But the reality is, if we have an outbreak, we’re going to have shut things back down again, and we can’t afford that. We can’t have a healthy economy if everyone is sick.”

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Lina Hidalgo still remembers the balloons.

It was the day after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, and balloons intended for a Hillary Clinton victory remained in the rafters of the Kennedy School of Government. Finally released, they drifted down in near silence, a classmate’s wistful signing of “Amazing Grace” the only sound.

Hidalgo, a master’s student in public policy at the time, felt lost. “Why are we even here?” her classmates asked each other. “Why does it even matter?”

It wasn’t until later that winter that Hidalgo, the now 29-year-old judge of Harris County in Texas, officially decided to leave school and run for office. But that second Wednesday in November 2016 planted the seed.

“I knew I wanted to do something,” she said. “And I started asking what.”

Before then, Hidalgo had never planned to become a politician. Yet, two years later, she secured one of the Democratic Party’s most politically significant victories of the 2018 midterms, becoming the first woman, first immigrant and first Latina judge of the nation’s third-largest county.

In less than two years, she has turned an office once reluctant to change into one that embraces it. She has been one of Texas’ most proactive decision-makers during the coronavirus pandemic. And she maintains that reelection is the last thing on her mind.

She got into politics, after all, not to be a career politician, but to provide leadership she felt the country too often lacked – to fill the painful void she felt while watching those balloons fall four years ago.

“I just don’t even want to begin going down the path where things feel murky,” she said. “I think, particularly in politics, it’s just so important not to lose that moral compass.”


The Haas Center for Public Service looks like an oversized house on Stanford’s tree-lined campus, a beige three-story building where aspiring policy-makers and activists eat pizza, watch “The West Wing” and talk about how to best serve the country’s fraught political system.

It’s almost a literal marketplace of ideas, and it’s where Hidalgo’s principled philosophies were polished.

“She had an extremely strong, thoughtful, reflective, well-developed sense of social justice and social purpose,” said Larry Diamond, one of her Stanford professors. “There was always a sense that she was looking for a larger purpose.”

Yet, not until after the 2016 election did Hidalgo see herself becoming a politician.

“I really never thought I would be in government. That was always the folks we were trying to get to do the right thing, by pushing against the system,” she said. “[But] it seemed to me that there was so much I could do from within.”

Initially, Hidalgo looked like a longshot for the county judgeship, running a lightly funded campaign against a three-term incumbent Republican, Ed Emmett, with more experience and recognition. Plus, she was a novice to the nuances of local government. Former Houston mayor Annise Parker remembers meeting with Hidalgo early in the election cycle and realizing, “She had no clue what she was running for.”

But there were other factors at play. The so-called “blue wave” of liberal support sweeping across the country in 2018, especially in Texas where Democratic senate candidate Beto O’Rourke galvanized the state’s growing progressive base, convinced Parker that “any democratic woman on that ticket would have won that race” for Harris County Judge.

And Hidalgo, who at campaign rallies communicated her platforms in both English and Spanish to reach portions of the electorate often ignored in the past, was a perfect match for the political climate.

“Lina was in the right place at the right time,” Parker said. “She has really stepped up and grown into the job.”


Harris County Public Library Director Edward Melton wasn’t expecting much when he proposed an increase to his department’s budget in early 2019.

A member of county government since 2014, Melton had become accustomed to the Commissioners Court’s traditional reluctance toward substantial funding increases, especially for smaller departments like his.

This time, however, Hidalgo was there to hear his argument. While other commissioners initially pushed back, she saw libraries as a way to level the educational playing field for low income families. So, in one of her first of many political battles, she secured an increase for Melton’s department.

It was an early example of the changes to come.

“She’s really data-driven and policy-driven,” Melton said. “Departments within the county have had to transition to developing more measurable outcomes and use more data to support the work we’re doing.”

Harris County commissioner Adrian Garcia said Hidalgo’s approach has been “almost exclusively from a best-practice and data driven standpoint. I have not heard her mention once, ‘Well, this is polling real well.’”

That approach was tested early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when Hidalgo consulted with medical experts at Rice University and instituted several controversial safety measures including the release of certain non-violent inmates from jail and face mask requirements for residents, the latter of which spawned a lawsuit.

“When she says she doesn’t care whether she gets reelected or that she ever runs for something again, I believe her,” said Parker, who praised Hidalgo’s COVID-19 response but acknowledged public sentiment is split. “You want that purity of purpose and clarity, because this is a public safety and public health emergency.”

In Parker’s view, Hidalgo’s biggest weaknesses are in the traditional political arena, such as her icy relationship with many prominent Texas Republicans, or that some of her broader social policies could be almost impossible to enact in her current role.

But Hidalgo never wanted to be a traditional politician in the first place. She didn’t run for office to stay there forever, or forge a long-term career in local politics. She entered government to create immediate changes she wanted to see.

It all might make her 2022 reelection bid more challenging. But Hidalgo doesn’t care.

“I want the legacy to be that we prioritized human life,” she said. “And if the legacy is really short because I lost, that’s OK.”

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Spot Assignment

Michele Rubino knows the challenges of not having grant money.

After founding the non-profit Ahwatukee Children’s Theatre in suburban Phoenix in 2000, she realized that state funds would be hard to come by; that in Arizona, one of the country’s worst at supporting the arts, getting a grant sometimes felt as likely as winning the lottery.

Instead, she built a business model dependent on show tickets and member tuition, on private donations and parent-led fundraisers. To keep the theater alive, she has reluctantly moved to half-a-dozen locations. Still, she’s feared for its future more times than she can count.

“We’ve had quite the adventure,” Rubino says with a weary laugh. “Emotionally, it definitely took its toll on me.”

Rubino worries stories like hers could become the norm for Arizona-based art institutions, especially the low-earning youth theaters trying to cultivate the culture from the ground up.

The coronavirus pandemic wiped out three months of their revenue. Any long-lasting recession could ravage traditional donation bases. Next month, the state’s top artistic funding agency, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, is expecting to see its budget cut almost in half. And though youth theaters have in recent weeks finally begun to reopen their doors, they’re all fearful of just how deep the financial fallout might go.

“There’s been some frustration in not having the resources available to meet the demand of this crisis,” said Steve Wilcox, communications director for the ACA. “Really, the financial need is completely beyond the resources that are available.”

Arizona’s poor record of funding the arts has left the community exposed.

Most years (including 2019) the state ranks among the bottom five states in per-capita arts spending. Since 2012, the state legislature hasn’t even included the ACA in the annual budget’s general fund. Instead, the commission has relied upon a series of one-time payments from the state, distributions from the National Endowments for the Arts, and payouts from a statewide Arts Trust Fund that was originally only intended to serve as a supplemental funding stream.

This coming year, Gov. Doug Ducey was planning to ask the state legislature for a significant bump in arts spending. But once the pandemic struck, lawmakers were instead forced to pass a so-called “skinny budget” that cut ACA funding out entirely.

The result: After getting a $4.8 million budget in Fiscal Year 2020, the ACA is estimated it will receive roughly $2.5 million less in FY 2021.

“The arts have historically been undercapitalized in Arizona,” Wilcox said. “When a crisis hits like this … it hits hard. There’s not a ready infrastructure to address that emergency.”

“Earned” revenue such as tuition for members and ticket sales for shows have become the lifeblood for many theaters around the city, according to Bobb Cooper, founder and producing artistic director of Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix.

“When you look at the balance sheets of most of these other theaters,” Cooper said, “their ‘earned’ revenue is probably dramatically higher than their ‘contributed’ revenue,” such as parent donations and corporate sponsorships.

Because those “earned” revenue sources have dried up in the pandemic, coupled with likely further reductions in available grant money, and some theaters could slip into financial free fall. Theaters did receive a small one-time emergency grant at the start of the pandemic, Rubino said, but it didn’t even cover one month’s of her business’ expenses.

Cooper’s Valley Youth Theatre – one of the most prominent in the region, with an alumni list that includes Academy Award winning actress Emma Stone – is an exception. Thanks to an agreement with the City of Phoenix to secure a virtually rent-free downtown space and significant donations from local businesses, Cooper’s theater has monetary reserves for a crisis like this.

But he is still projecting to lose one-third of his normal revenue for the year and knows from conversations with fellow owners around the city that some youth theaters are facing potentially fatal financial circumstances.

“Some of these groups, their leaders were panicking,” Cooper said. “Earned revenue is their key component. They need those kids to be in those shows, to pay money to be in those shows. They need those shows so they can sell tickets.”

Even if theaters survive, there is concern about potential impact to childrens’ experience, pitfalls with which Rubino has unwanted experience. After years of rehearsing in cramped school classrooms and even a golf course clubhouse basement, her theater finally found a permanent home in 2006.

It wasn’t much, a modest double-unit in an aging stuccoed strip mall. Still, “that was the dream,” Rubino said. “We had our own performance venue. We had a place for our sets and props and costumes. It was everything that I wanted.”

In 2015, however, the building was sold to new landlords who tripled the rent. With an already maxed-out budget and no significant state resources to turn to, she was forced to move the theater again. Its new home: another basement, this time below a suburban office building.

“We didn’t lose a lot of our kids, which I think was an appreciation for what the heart of the theater is – the kids, the staff, the experiences we created,” Rubino said. “That didn’t change when we lost our space. But it was really inconvenient.”

The sad part, Rubino believes, is that artistic institutions – especially children’s theaters – are needed more than ever right now.

She points to the fact that participation in her choir classes and private lessons didn’t drop even after the pandemic forced sessions to be held online.

To resume in-person rehearsals, Rubino had to start taking the childrens’ temperatures and limit each class size to no more than eight. Yet, they still come to smile and sing and – from a safe distance – socialize, thankful to simply be back at the place with which they so closely identify.

“It’s hard to convince non-theater people how much theater means to theater people,” Rubino said. “For our kids, coming to [the theater] or going to their show choir rehearsals or having their private lessons, that’s their norm. That’s their home. You need to keep this going because this is going to keep kids grounded and social and sane while the rest of their existence is going crazy.”

But, in Arizona at least, such a pitch is a hard sell even in normal times. Now these theaters have a pandemic to contend with. And none of them can be sure how hard they’re going to get hit.

“We are resilient and we are creative. That gives me a lot of hope,” Rubino said. “But I’m really scared for theater.”

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