2020 Writing Finalist

David Eckert

Pennsylvania State University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Judge Lina Hidalgo will not partake in local protests, citing coronavirus concerns

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo doesn’t plan to partake in local protests against police brutality and social injustice in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, she said Monday.

Hidalgo, who declared a public health emergency in Harris County in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 11, said she would not participate because she is trying to remind her constituents that “it’s dangerous to be out.”

“I appreciate people’s right to make their voices heard,” she said. “I think they need to make their voices heard. I do want to make sure that folks continue to remember that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed 100,000 people, and we have to, as folks make their voices heard, do everything they possibly can to try to stay safe.”

Hidalgo said she planned to remind her constituents of the importance of wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and participating in the protests in alternative ways, if possible.

Harris County, which is home to 4.7 million people, reported 143 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday — the county’s highest single-day total, according to Harris County’s public health website. Over the previous three days, the county had reported an average of 51.3 new cases per day.

While Texas Governor Greg Abbott has allowed for the reopening of businesses like restaurants, stores and movie theatres at a limited capacity and with restrictions, Hidalgo said she doesn’t think Harris County has a grip on the pandemic.

“We’re very much on the brink of another crisis,” she said.

From an immigrant family, with a background in advocacy and criminal justice research, the decision not to physically take part in the Black Lives Matter movement is frustrating for Hidalgo.

Census data from 2019 estimates that 19.9 percent of people in Harris County identified as black or African American, and 43.3 percent of people identified as Hispanic or Latino.

“There’s always been a concern about community-police relations,” she said. “To the extent that those interactions are more human and less militaristic and less antagonistic, they’re going to be better, right? So that’s something we have to continue to move toward.”

To do that in Harris County, Hidalgo said she is focused primarily on budgets and data.

Hidalgo has commissioned a study that will look to analyze the effectiveness of the police departments and recommend changes, but she said it will take “all year” to carry out.

Harris County also adopted a cite and release system, allowing police to simply cite low-level offenders without taking them to prison. Hidalgo said she found out recently that the police are only rarely using that option.

“I’m working really hard on criminal justice reform,” Hidalgo said. “Sometimes there are places where we’re not making progress.

“Black and brown people need to know that they’re heard and that they’re valued, and that every single time they have an interaction with law enforcement, they should know that they can be safe.”

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Lina Hidalgo leads Harris County on a path she never expected to take

Lina Hidalgo never thought she would find herself speaking into microphones through a leopard-print mask, tailoring her words to a county of 4.7 million people waiting to hear how she’ll keep their community safe in a global pandemic.

She never thought she’d find her voice raspy from overuse through meetings and briefings, balancing a budget that ranges between $5 and $9 billion.

She never thought that, at 27, she’d become the first woman and the first Latina to hold the position of Harris County Judge, surprising many with a narrow victory over incumbent Ed Emmitt.

Yet, she has been the woman at the helm of the third-most populous county in the United States during a time of natural disaster, illness and civil unrest.

Her journey’s destination was not always clear — but its objective was.

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

A burgeoning public servant

Valentin Bolotnyy can still remember his skepticism.

He had just become chair of Stanford in Government, a political student organization at the university, and a sophomore Hidalgo had applied to lead a new effort to secure an endowment to support students in unpaid public service internships.

Bolotnyy, now an economist at Stanford, had concerns about Hidalgo’s youth and lack of previous experience with the organization. He wasn’t sure if she would be able to interact effectively with donors, faculty and other student interest groups in order to secure funds for the endowment.

After one video call, he was convinced.

“I remember leaving the call, turning to my friend who I was doing this with, and saying, ‘Yeah, we should give this opportunity to her,’” Bolotnyy said.

Through their work, Bolotnyy and Hidalgo became friends, and the budding leader excelled in her role.

She helped secure the first 11 stipends for students in the summer of 2012, and the program has gone on to benefit over 150 students.

“It was clear that she was trying to find her way,” Bolotnyy said, “but very passionate about public service, about her mission, this project. She believed in the project coming from the outside.”

Hidalgo went on to graduate with a degree in political science, but without a clear idea of how she wanted to use it.

The choice to run

Even the trivial details from the night Donald Trump won the presidential election are fresh in Hidalgo’s mind.

Pursuing a joint degree in law and public policy from Harvard and New York University, Hidalgo was inside Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum building on election night.

Ann Coulter, who emceed that night’s election event, wore a white pant suit. Balloons clung near the ceiling, but they weren’t released until the next day — and only at the dean’s urging, as someone sang “Amazing Grace.”

Everyone had seemed a little too sure that Hillary Clinton would win.

When she didn’t, Hidalgo wasn’t sure what to do. She knew she had to take action.

“We knew Donald Trump kind of ran on not listening to experts and demeaning research and demeaning expertise,” she said. “And here we are, studying public policy so that we can make meaningful decisions, so we all felt really lost.”

She attended a panel about running for office led by politicians that were all younger than her, which planted the possibility in her mind. Still unsure, Hidalgo reached out to Jorge Ramos, a journalist she respects, looking for guidance.

His message boiled down to: “Dude, figure it out.”

So she reflected, researched and spoke with some of her professors, before eventually deciding she would run for Harris County Judge.

Leading through crisis

Nearly two years after unseating Emmett, who had served as Harris County Judge for over a decade, Hidalgo has been given little time to settle into an unfamiliar world.

In September 2019, Hidalgo issued a disaster declaration in Harris County in response to flooding caused by Tropical Depression Imelda, which led to at least five deaths in the Houston Area.

By 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit Harris County, with 5,217 confirmed cases and 107 deaths as of Thursday.

“I think she has approached it from a best practices standpoint,” said Adrian Garcia, the Commissioner of Harris County Precinct 2. “It’s not based on what’s popular. It’s not based on which party or which senior elected official supports it, but because there is science behind it, and that it makes sense.”

Garcia said Hidalgo has leaned on data and the expertise of others in unprecedented times.

“I don’t have physical room in my brain to care about the politics of this,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo has also maintained her pragmatism amid protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police.

While she has found herself among protesters of police brutality in the past, considering some local leaders of demonstrations to be her friends — she will not be joining the crowds.

She is asking people to stay home to prevent further coronavirus spread.

“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 chaos during her time in office has also provided lessons, Hidalgo said, like the importance of surrounding herself with experts and the impact of community participation.

She’ll seek reelection in 2022. She plans to run with an eye toward earning four more years to implement what she’s learned and address issues forced into the background of the health crisis — like fund allocation.

“I’m very proud of her,” Bolontyy said, remembering their college days. “I think what I’m proudest of is the fact that she remembers why she’s doing this. I can feel that.”

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Spot Assignment

Local leaders unsure how high school drama will look when it lifts its curtain

The next person to step foot inside the theater room at Wallenpaupack Area High School will find a mess left by a group of student performers who didn’t think much time would pass before they’d be back to tidy up.

Instead, the costumes, props, and other various effects strewn about the room the WAHS Players call the Black Box will stay right where they are, unused for months after the group’s planned spring production of the Phantom of the Opera was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Alison Hoffmann, who teaches theater at WAHS in Hawley, Pennsylvania, expected to miss only one or two weeks when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered the state’s schools closed on March 13. When it became clear that wouldn’t be the case, the emotional reaction was intense.

“I think everyone involved in the Phantom of the Opera, the cast, crew, pit and the teachers as well, we all went through a stage of depression, or like a grief or loss, kind of having to let it go,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann decided to launch an online video series called “Showcasing The Stars,” hoping to acknowledge weeks of effort students put into a performance that would never appear on stage.

“Even though we didn’t get to perform on stage, we still got to talk about it and talk about our experiences and show people what we do and how we work,” senior Samantha Feely said.

At Delaware Valley High School in nearby Matamoras, Pennsylvania, the drama club plans to move its production of Once Upon a Mattress from the spring to the fall, after receiving permission to keep the props and materials needed for the performance instead of paying for new equipment.

Caroline Lehman, who advises the club, delayed her retirement to see the performance through, despite considerable uncertainty within the theater community about what theater might look like in a post-pandemic world.

“It’s just too early to tell what people are going to be doing, because nobody’s really trying it yet,” Lehman said.

Diminished capacities of auditoriums, altered seating and outdoor events were all floated as possible workarounds by Hoffmann and Lehman. While streaming might seem an easy solution to some, smaller theaters and drama clubs would run into copyright issues that make broadcasting performances difficult, Hoffmann said.

Likely, school theaters will follow the lead of Broadway and other professionals in New York, but, with entertainment listed in the final phase of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan, it is unclear how quickly the industry giants will be able to provide that guidance.

“In the meantime, I don’t know what high schools do,” Lehman said. “Our community theater, we’ve been doing some online virtual types of things for our fans, for the community — but it’s nothing, nothing, nothing compared to live theater.”

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