Judge Lina Hidalgo Stands Alone

Judge Hidalgo deserves more credit than she gets for her refusal to accept money from county vendors, because in a campaign that may well be decided by attack mailers and negative social media campaigns, her fundraising policy makes it much harder for her to bring her values to the voters. But she adopted the policy anyway as part of her commitment to transparency in county government.

The Houston Chronicle published Zach Despart’s fantastic exposé of just how much campaign cash flows from businesses awarded contracts from the county to the Harris County Commissioners Court that awards those contracts.

From 2020 through 2021, commissioners relied on county vendors — through political action committees, employees and their family members — for 79% of their campaign contributions while steering 93% of engineering, architecture, surveying and appraisal work to firms who contributed.

During that two-year period, this deep-pocketed donor class gave $5.9 million while commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — awarded their firms $310 million in work from the county’s engineering department and flood control district.

Kudos to the whole team on this, including those who did the info graphics. This is right up there with the ongoing dive into the infuriating disparities and loopholes in property tax law, and together, this is some of the most valuable reporting coming out of Texas right now.

To be clear, you could pick any two-year period going back who knows how long. This is not a new phenomenon, and these commissioners didn’t create this system. I have long heard rumors not just about county vendors, but the extended families of commissioners past and their own business ties to the court, nepotism be damned.

In almost every way, though, this system makes complete sense.

People give to people doing the work they care about. I’m a fundraiser by profession, so I know this in my bones. This is why you see the same lists of names giving to three or four animal welfare organizations, or a handful of museums, or politically-aligned candidates. That’s human nature.

Government exists in many ways, however, to make up for the shortfalls of human nature. We know ourselves too well! Like water, we find the path of least resistance.

We need government for things like public infrastructure and the common defense because, were we responsible for these things as individuals on the honor system, we’d never agree, most would opt out of contributing, and everything would fall apart.

Democracy has big first-week-of-January-gym-commitment energy.

So yes, it makes sense, even though any reasonable person could explain exactly why such a system creates the heavy, stinky odor of undue influence, infinitely harder to rinse out than the greasy reek of last night’s sizzling cast iron comal fajitas when you brush your hair the next morning.

Which is why Judge Lina Hidalgo, early in her tenure, acted with intention to change business as usual on this front. Shortly after taking office, she made her decision public:

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more open to the public, said she will ask donors to certify they do not have a contract with the county and will not seek one within the fiscal year. 

Rumor has it her decision ruffled feathers left and right. Some laughed at what they perceived as her naïveté. Some quietly suggested she could have had more impact had she worked in advance with the commissioners, or at least some more likely to agree with her and thus more likely to vote with her, to implement a policy for the entire court.

But Judge Hidalgo knew the moment she won that she might have limited time to make change. Before she was even elected, after all, long-time Democrats from the School of Wait Your Turn Young Whippersnappers were whispering that she had taken their place by presuming to run for public office.

And Republicans like Dan Patrick and Ed Emmett drip with good ol’ boy disdain and clutch their teeny, tiny pearls every time they mention her. [And yes, Ed Emmett and Dan Patrick are both the same kind of Republican, Ed Emmett just hides it better, and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.]

Hidalgo has noted the influence Governor Ann Richards, a woman she never met but whom she considers in some ways a mentor, had on her strategy. Richards regretted letting advice about the pace of change affect her decisions on how hard to push for certain changes, assuming she’d have more time in office and more political capital that would allow her to do more.

Judge Hidalgo explained she felt a sense of urgency to do as much as possible as soon as possible, and to take every opportunity to accomplish gargantuan tasks like bringing more transparency to county government.

Her decision may have been unpopular with the commissioners – although I’m sure their fundraisers were relieved there was no blanket policy, which would have had them scrambling to build new lists and pay even closer attention to the necessary tedium of compliance – but to many voters, it reinforced their support for the new energy she brought to the county.

I don’t want to downplay how powerful a piece of journalism this article is. The reporter very clearly refers to commissioners, and not the judge.

But other than in the caption of a photograph identifying her as Judge Hidalgo and referring to the others as commissioners, this distinction goes unremarked. Her decision, and the distinction between how she and her colleagues must raise funds (namely that she must rely in much greater numbers on smaller, individual donors, which is a more labor-intensive way to raise funds), comes near the end of the article.

I understand strategically why an author and editor would put this information near the end. The scandal, after all, is in how much of the commissioners’ funding comes from current vendors.

And, since Hidalgo’s commitment to transparency and determination to upset business as usual has lead to astonishingly long meetings of the court, requiring reporters to pack snacks and probably some to consider packing overnight bags, I can also imagine some being slow to shower her with attention for her position!

(One of my personal heroes, David Mincberg, earned that title for his willingness to leave meetings when the time on the agenda is up, whether or not the meeting has actually concluded. I long to implement that policy in my own life! Mincberg has done other great things for which I appreciate and respect him, but that commitment to working smarter not longer is high up there.)

But in all seriousness, I do believe it is notable that Judge Hidalgo has set the bar higher. That’s why I want to call this distinction out.

I will give credit where credit is due to those candidates who have opted to pledge they would follow her lead, while sympathizing with the difficulty of making the decision as a candidate whether or not to forgo funds you might need to win the seat for the party rather than lose it to the opposing party, and thus be in a position to do much more at the county level. This tension is playing out in the Democratic primary for Precinct 4 Commissioner between Ben Chou (adopting Hidalgo’s pledge) and Lesley Briones (not adopting at this time).

I can empathize with each candidate’s decision. Getting there is one thing, staying there to make the changes you want to make is another. I’d go the Hidalgo route, but then again, I’m not running.

Also notable and near the end of this article?

The law does not require county campaign finance reports to list donor employer and occupation information, something standard for federal campaign giving.

As Despart reports:

They also could list the occupations and employers of their donors. In addition, the county could create an online database of contributors, following the lead of the city of Houston, state and federal governments. Such a tool also could flag which contributors are employed by vendors, a crucial piece of information for the public.

Garcia and Ellis said they will not list the occupations of their donors on future disclosures because it is not required by law. They expressed support for a contributor database, but opposed flagging which donors are vendors.

Ramsey said he would continue to list his donors’ occupations, though he rejected the idea of creating a contributor database or disclosing vendor-donors.

“This is worth asking questions on, in the sense of being the most transparent as we can possibly can be with the public,” Ramsey said.

In politics, more sunlight might burn a few folks in the short-term, but in the end, it’s always better.

Election season is upon us now, and no one will change paths at this point. But I would hope that after the election, Democratic commissioners and the county judge might come together and decide to create a policy that will outlive them all, requiring that campaign finance reports list donors’ employees and professions, that donors sign a pledge that they have no current business and will not during the fiscal year before the county, and that the county create an easily-searchable public database like the one maintained by the Federal Election Committee.

In the meantime, if you admire the heavy lifting Judge Hidalgo is going in the face recalcitrance from allies and outright sexist and racist hostility from her opponents, give what you can, because every donation helps buy her more time to open government up that much more.

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