Ethics scandal emerges as latest test for rising star Democrat Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has often clashed with Republican state leaders over how to best manage the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a rising star Democrat who is widely seen as a future statewide candidate, is embroiled in an ethics scandal as she campaigns for a second term.

A criminal investigation into how her office awarded — and then canceled — an $11 million contract for COVID-19 vaccine outreach threatens to tarnish her carefully cultivated image as an ethically minded public servant.

Hidalgo, whose upset win over a popular Republican incumbent in 2018 gave Democrats control over the largest Texas county, occupies a powerful post that allows her to lay out a vision of government that contrasts with the one offered by Republican state leaders. Now, her Republican opponents have seized the opportunity to cast her as a hypocrite.

She has dismissed the contract probe as politically motivated, and she remains well positioned to win reelection in November in left-leaning Harris County. Yet political strategists say the episode exposes how Hidalgo, a self-described policy wonk, has sometimes underestimated how the the optics of her decisions will be perceived by the voters she needs to stay in power.

“All politicians have to be somewhat electorally minded,” said University of Houston political science professor Elizabeth Simas. “We sometimes think about that as a bad thing, but even if you have the most pure policy intentions, you can’t get those policies enacted if you don’t win.”

In early 2021, during the deadliest COVID-19 wave in Texas, Hidalgo wanted to launch a public campaign in hard-to-reach communities to boost the county’s vaccination rate. She stacked the vendor selection committee with three members of her staff, alongside two health department employees.

The committee rated a bid from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston the highest in an initial scoring competition. But after conducting applicant interviews, it awarded the contract to Elevate Strategies, a small political consulting firm owned by Felicity Pereyra, who has previously worked on Democratic campaigns.

Republicans pounced on the issue last year and suggested it is evidence of corruption, questioning the selection of Elevate, which had a more expensive bid and no experience in public health campaigns. County commissioner Jack Cagle suggested by hiring Pereyra’s firm, the county was subsidizing an effort for the Democratic Party to connect with voters.

Hidalgo’s team justified selecting Elevate because the firm’s experience conducting digital and door-to-door political campaigning was precisely the approach it felt would be most effective in boosting the vaccination rate.

Hidalgo agreed in September to cancel the $11 million contract, which she said had been unfairly politicized, and accused her Republican colleagues of pushing a conspiracy theory. It has never been rebid; the county’s vaccination rate has stalled at just below 63%.

District Attorney Kim Ogg in November launched a public corruption investigation into the contract. Search warrants filed by the Texas Rangers, who are assisting prosecutors, show a focus on whether Hidalgo’s office inappropriately included Pereyra in designing the contract application process she would later win.

The grand jury investigation is ongoing. Hidalgo, who declined to comment for this story, has maintained since the issue erupted that neither she nor her staff have done anything wrong.

“The intention was to quickly build the best grassroots outreach campaign we could to build confidence in the vaccine in the communities that were falling behind,” Hidalgo said in March. “Because it’s an ongoing investigation, I can’t address many of the misleading and sometimes false allegations that are swirling around, as much as I want to.”

This scandal is particularly thorny for Hidalgo because she has made good government a pillar of her public persona. She often boasts that on her watch, access to county government isn’t predicated on “having a friend downtown.”

And she has not hesitated to draw contrasts between herself and the four county commissioners, who are all decades older. Most notably, she refuses to accept political contributions from vendors, a tacit criticism of the commissioners, each of whom receives most of his campaign cash from individuals or firms that receive county contracts.

Bill King, an independent who twice ran for mayor of Houston, said he thinks moderate voters were impressed by Hidalgo’s strong stance on ethics. Her handling of the vaccine outreach contract, however, threatens to erase that goodwill.

“I just don’t see how any of the folks who are in my lane get past this contract issue, regardless of if anyone gets indicted,” King said. “It looks bad from the beginning.”

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, a Republican, said it was unusual for Hidalgo’s office to be so involved in awarding such a contract, a process usually handled by the relevant county departments. He cautioned against rushing to judgment before the investigation is complete but stressed the importance of hiring advisers who will provide guardrails against unwise political decisions.

“I had a chief of staff who frequently came in and said, ‘These are not the right people to do this,’” Eckels said. “You need people that will be there to challenge you in office. … I don’t know that happened here.”

This also isn’t the first time Hidalgo has misjudged the political optics of her actions. Barely nine months after taking office, Hidalgo and her Democratic majority pitched a bold idea in September 2019: to raise the property tax rate for the first time since the 1990s.

Hidalgo said a significant one-time tax hike made smart fiscal sense since a new state law would limit revenue growth in future years.

The effort failed spectacularly when the Republican commissioners used a little-known quorum rule to block it. Not only had Hidalgo confirmed a Republican campaign talking point — elect Democrats and they’ll raise your taxes the first chance they get — she had nothing to show for it.

She also kept Harris County at its highest COVID-19 threat level, which urged residents to stay home except for essential errands, for more than two months after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all state pandemic restrictions in March 2021. A top physician at the Texas Medical Center criticized that strategy as out of sync with science and public opinion.

Each of the Republicans running in the primary runoff for Harris County judge has made an issue of the vaccine outreach contract. Although Hidalgo was initially elected by less than 2 percent of the vote, Republicans have not won a countywide post since 2014. A University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs poll last year found Hidalgo had the highest favorability ratings of any Harris County politician.

Her 2018 surprise victory over Ed Emmett, a Republican with rare cross-party appeal, is one of the Texas Democratic Party’s few electoral bright spots the past two cycles.

A first-time candidate with no managerial experience, Hidalgo has since led the county through a series of chemical fires, the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s winter storm and blackouts, and ongoing recovery from Hurricane Harvey. She has built a substantial national profile, helped by regular appearances on primetime cable news shows, and has made appearances with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Hidalgo has also faced unusual criticism for a local politician from Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and conservative Texas members of Congress. The Republican National Committee on Monday attacked Hidalgo over a computer failure that led to the premature release of 300 people from the Harris County Jail.

This is an intentional strategy by Republicans, said Glenn Smith, a Democratic strategist and mentor to Hidalgo since her first campaign.

“She went on trial by fire with the disasters she faced right off the bat,” Smith said. “The Republicans are clearly scared by her performance. They want to knock down a rising star of that caliber. It’s in their playbook.”

Hidalgo has announced no public aspirations beyond serving a second term as county judge, though she is widely considered a potential candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.

Unlike other prominent Texas Democrats like former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former federal housing Secretary Julián Castro, Hidalgo currently holds a powerful office representing 4.7 million constituents.

University of Texas at San Antonio political science professor Sharon Navarro said Hidalgo should use this advantage to broaden her name recognition outside of Harris County.

“She’s got to focus on keeping this persona that she is moderate, or at least is pushing policies good for Texas,” Navarro said. “If you want to win in Texas, you have to distance yourself from what Republicans call liberal Democrats.”

Kevin Shuvalov, a Republican strategist in Houston, said his party would be thrilled if Hidalgo ran for statewide office because she would struggle to connect with an electorate that is far more conservative than the state’s Democratic strongholds.

“You can just win in Houston, Dallas, El Paso, Travis County,” Shuvalov said. “We are a Republican state. That’s been proven over and over.”

King said Hidalgo’s reelection is far from a guarantee. With Democrats facing traditional midterm headwinds with their party in the White House, he said the contract scandal could sway enough voters to ensure her defeat.

He said additional missteps by Hidalgo and her colleagues, including repeated problems administering elections and refusing to approve law enforcement requests for more staff to combat a sharp crime increase, contribute to the perception Democrats have installed a dysfunctional government.

“Most of the Democrats I’ve talked to are quite concerned about how these races are going to go locally,” King said. “All other things being equal, it’s still advantage Democrats, but they’ve done about everything possible to put Republicans back in this race.”

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