As her 2022 re-election campaign gets into full swing, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is also currently in the midst of the most high-profile PR struggle of her career, with three current and former staffers being indicted for allegedly conspiring with the firm Elevate Strategies in the awarding of a contract for COVID-vaccine outreach.
However, a number of facts demonstrate the case against them is a weak one. For instance, UT Health, which placed first in the committee’s scoring competition but second to Elevate Strategies in its contracting process, was scored down for failing to meet its numbers in a similar outreach project at the time. Additionally, Judge Hidalgo could have avoided the formal bidding process altogether under the emergency powers conferred upon her due to the pandemic but decided against it in the name of fairness. Even the Houston Chronicle has noted there is no indication that either Hidalgo or her staffer had anything to gain from manipulating the process. If she had wanted to give away a political favor, why go through the formal bidding process when she didn’t have to?
Though the investigation is almost undoubtedly to end in acquittal for her staffers, the perception of corruption could linger as the campaign progresses. Thus, it is worth looking into who has most pushed these claims of misconduct and whether these same people might also benefit from her being removed from office this November.
One of Hidalgo’s biggest opponents in the Harris County government is District Attorney Kim Ogg. It is indeed Ogg and her team that is leading the investigation into Hidalgo’s supposed wrong-doing, particularly curious considering Ogg’s status as a fellow Democrat. That being said, this might not be that surprising when looked at in the context of inner-party rivalry and political grandstanding.
“When Kim first got elected in 2016, she was the biggest star in Harris County politics,” said a Harris County political operative, who wished to remain anonymous due to possible retribution from Ogg, . “But in 2018, she was eclipsed by this young Latina who came out of nowhere and became a national star who was appearing on the front page of the Houston Chronicle and in the New York Times. So I think a lot of it stems from jealousy.”
During the intervening years, DA Ogg has regularly been in contention with Hidalgo and her Democratic majority on the Commissioners Court. In opposition to Hidalgo’s more progressive image, Ogg presents herself as a moderate to conservative Democrat on issues like bail reform and criminal investigations.
“She has had different ideas from Rodney Ellis and the folks on Commissioners Court who have been very aggressive in pursuing criminal justice reforms, and I think that created a lot of tension,” the veteran Democratic consultant said. “There’s a lot of bitterness from having had this policy fight with her fellow Democrats for a few years.”
Most prominently, Ogg has criticized the Commissioners Court for their dismissal of her requests to significantly expand the budget for her prosecutorial office, but insiders believe Ogg never provided a proper explanation for her request.
“Kim asked for a sizable increase in staff without providing much clarification for what she was looking for,” the adviser continued. “Part of public trust is that if you’re an elected official who asks for a bigger budget, you have to be able to articulate what you’re gonna do with that budget. I don’t believe the office ever answered that question with any clarity. And now, she’s wasting her tremendous amount of taxpayer money on a personal vendetta where there really wasn’t very much illegality happening from an outsider’s perspective.”
Even after the Court’s motion this past week to allocate $7.2 million in temporary funding to Ogg’s office, the DA claimed she will keep asking for more money “if it doesn’t work” to decrease backlogged cases. With a more incarceration-happy county judge in place of Hidalgo, DA Ogg could potentially strengthen her local political clout as well as more easily fulfill her requests for increased prosecutorial dominance.
Nevertheless, Ogg is far from the only major Harris County official to have problems with Hidalgo’s progressive politics. Hidalgo has made headlines for her unwillingness to take campaign donations from businesses that do contract work with the county, a far cry from the openness her fellows on the Commissioners Court have to corrupt-seeming money. In a recent February expose from the Houston Chronicle by writer Zach Despart, it was reported that in the past two years, commissioners had relied on county vendors for 79% of their campaign contributions, all the while awarding 93% of engineering, architecture, surveying and appraisal work in the form of no-bid contracts to firms who gave money to their campaigns.
The most tight-lipped donee regarding the relationship between donations and contracts was Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican who received a whopping 88% of his campaign dollars from county contractors. Cagle also happens to be the Commissioner most fervent in his beliefs regarding the veracity of the corruption claims against Judge Hidalgo’s staff, having been the first to interrogate the Elevation contract back in August 2021. In the months since, he has continued to perpetuate these claims during Commissioners’ meetings, having recently gotten particularly heated in response to Hidalgo’ denials by screaming that he “take[s] umbridge at calling” his assertions “a bold-faced lie.”
“This is an intentional strategy by Republicans,” said long-time Democratic strategist Glenn Smith in an interview with the Texas Tribune. “She went on trial by fire with the disasters she faced right off the bat. They want to knock down a rising star of that caliber. It’s in their playbook.”
Given that Cagle is also up for re-election in 2022 and looks likely to have his most challenging campaign yet based on his district’s redrawn boundaries, there are few politicians who stand to profit from smearing Hidalgo’s reputation for ethical governance more than does Jack Cagle.
Hidalgo addressed this hypocrisy head on in a recent statement. In it, she stated: “I ran against a style of politics in Harris County that worked more for the individuals who held these offices than for the people who voted for them. I don’t play the game. And that’s threatening to the powers that be. I think the notion is that if they come after me on what is my strength — the ethics of this office and my own — that they can score political points.”
It is also no surprise that the media outlet loudest in its investigations into Hidalgo’s perceived criminality is Fox 26 Houston, a subsidiary of the Fox Corporation owned by far-right media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Much of the network’s reporting on the story has been done by Greg Groogan, who hosts the weekly political talk show “What’s Your Point” with an undoubtedly right-of-center bias that regularly highlights local conservatives’ grievances with Hidalgo. Having said that, the entire local media has recently latched onto the narrative.
“I think the media sensationalizes everything, but I think a lot of it is just because the judge has been so vocal about transparency by not participating in pay for play and being the only person on Commissioners Court that doesn’t take contributions from vendors,” said another prominent Harris County staffer. “It’s more of a story because of her stance, so it has that air of hypocrisy it looks like she’s engaged in that makes it more compelling.”
With all these aforementioned examples in mind, it is clear Judge Hidalgo’s main investigators would also be the apparent beneficiaries of her political demise. As the story of the Elevate Strategies contract continues to develop, this partisan political dynamic must be acknowledged as a driving force behind its continuing presence.