My entire life, I’ve been prone to bouts of sentimentality and nostalgia, and while very little that happened during this legislative session was something I’ll remember fondly, seeing Beto O’Rourke back on the road, talking to Texans about the fight for voting rights and organizing for change has me looking back on the fall of 2018, and how close O’Rourke came to capturing a U.S. Senate, and the wave of change he helped bring along with him across the state.
There were a lot of intense factors at play that cycle, but the one that was most potent and that I’ve been reflecting on the most since O’Rourke announced the expansive tour to promote voting rights he started yesterday in Midland and Odessa is the hardest to preserve in our politics: the power of belief.
O’Rourke made it not only easy but cool to believe in the possibility of Texas turning blue, and the intoxicating impact of that can’t be overstated. 2018 was always going to be an aspirational cycle, with a new generation of candidates and leaders stepping up to fight back against Donald Trump, or to make government more accessible or transparent to the people who need its help the most.
One of those people was a 27-year-old Latina immigrant who saw our nation taking a dark turn in 2016 and resolved to be part of the solution, who I had only vaguely heard of in the fall of 2018 when I got a call asking if I would be interested in taking over her campaign for the final month and trying to help her beat an incredibly popular, 11-year incumbent.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the first time I spoke to Lina Hidalgo this week. I knew from the folks who connected us that she was incredibly smart and earnest, and fit a description that is often more elusive than it should be in American politics: she was running for the right reasons.
What impressed me the most about her wasn’t that she wasn’t miles smarter than anyone I had ever met (something she would prove repeatedly in the time we worked together) or that she had the courage to jump into such a difficult race. It was that she believed, not so much in herself but in the people she wanted to serve.
She fundamentally believed that government could be a force of good in people’s lives and that people really wanted a government that was proactive and transparent, one that they could participate in and feel ownership of. She was energetic and engaging, but the biggest impression she left on me was that she just really needed a few more people to believe in her.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what it was that made me believe in her, and I really can’t say with much specificity that it was any one thing. At the time, I thought about what an important office Harris County Judge is, and what it means for the emerging generation of younger, more diverse voters to see someone like Hidalgo in such an important position.
I also thought of a piece of advice someone gave me early in my career when I was weighing a job offer from a campaign I wasn’t much interested in. “If you have any doubts that they can do the job, you won’t like working for them, so don’t.”
And, finally, I thought of a rallying cry from my early year working in Democratic politics, one borne out of the avatar for hope and change that was the 2008 Obama campaign:
Somehow, in roughly twenty minutes, I knew with as much certainty as I ever had that she wouldn’t just be up for the job, that she would change it for the better if she got elected.
Years of working on political campaigns has made me a fairly jaded person. It’s an almost unavoidable occupational hazard. But Lina Hidalgo made me believe in what was possible again. So when she asked if I would come help out, I said yes.
I can say with the absolute certainty of a man that remembers his mistakes that it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. On our first day working together we put together a plan that she trusted me to implement, and then went into hustle mode. We spent a month sitting across a desk from each other, running all over Harris County until she had to replace the tires on her car, meeting voters anywhere she could.
Almost right away, I knew she would win. It was a gut feeling I just couldn’t suppress. I believed.
That belief was rewarded when early voting started. We would go to polling locations and she would start shaking hands and passing out palm cards. It happened almost right away. A younger couple waiting in line met her briefly and remarked that they were excited to vote for her, that they had seen our ads on Facebook, learned more about her, and thought she would make a great County Judge.
Beto made a lot of stops in Houston during that early voting period, and we would often swing by the events to chat with voters and warm up the crowd while he was in route. While Beto drew massive crowds of excited people, I was struck by the feeling that the more we showed up, the more people knew who Lina was and wanted to say hello or wish her well, or let her know they had voted for her or were going to soon.
No matter what each day brought, Lina kept working. We managed to raise enough money to put together a Spanish language TV spot, and I was again blown away by the belief Lina had in me, and the trust that I had developed in her in such a short time. She wrote the script for that ad mostly herself, and let me direct it with a local crew. She watched me negotiate over the phone with the networks, picking, and choosing the placements we wanted without having a team of consultants guiding every decision.
It takes a lot of faith in your message and your voters to do something like that, and an even more incredible amount of courage to know that you’re the person who will be looking into a camera lens and delivering that message.
She made it work. In fact, she made it work extremely well. The day the ads started running, people started texting and calling us both. “Oh my god, she’s on during the soccer match.” “Hey, she’s on during the news!”
The weekend before election day, when we had final totals for the raw number of early votes cast in Harris County, I spent the day creating an excel spreadsheet that ran over 100 different statistical scenarios for our race. The chart allowed you to quickly tabulate what share of the non-straight ticket vote we needed to capture in order to win.
These voters were our bread and butter, and we spent all of our time, budget and energy communicating with as many of them as possible, and the race was likely going to come down to about 40,000 voters who were used to casting their ballot for Ed Emmett, and whose minds we needed to change.
After running the projections, I found only 12 scenarios that Emmett could possibly win.
Another number had popped up while I was obsessing over the cells of my spreadsheet: 15,000. The most common margin of victory I landed on for Lina in my projections was 15,000 votes.
That evening, I told Lina I thought she would win by about 15,000 votes and that we needed to be prepared for a runoff. She immediately knocked on the wooden table, and asked me not to say that again.
She believed she would win, but she was committed to running from behind until the polls closed. It made me respect and believe in her even more.
The rest is history that is still writing itself. On election night, it took all night, but when the final numbers started trickling in they were coming from Democratic congressional districts. We quickly went from trailing by a small margin to leading by an even smaller margin. We jumped in the car to go to the Harris County Democrats election night party, and by the time we were closing the doors, it was over.
In the end, Lina Hidalgo became Harris County Judge by a margin of 19,277 votes.
My math was wrong, but I’ll take it.
We did just enough to win over the voters we were most focused on, and that night I watched in real-time as our belief was rewarded for Harris County Democrats. Standing backstage with now Judge-elect Hidalgo, we started running through the remarks she had been working on all weekend when history started walking through the door to join her.
First, it was County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who stepped through the curtain with a smile that said “It’s on tomorrow.” Congresswoman-elect Sylvia Garcia was next, and then, shortly before we went on stage, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee arrived.
Watching these giants celebrate something we had worked so hard for was absolutely surreal. It wouldn’t be until later that we would learn that Adrian Garcia won his election for County Commissioner, giving Democrats their first majority on Harris County’s commissioner’s court in modern memory.
As incredible as that experience was, it pales in comparison to how it’s felt for the last three years to watch Judge Hidalgo reinvent Harris County government into a more proactive and transparent force for change. From emergency management to pandemic response, she’s been a poised and principled leader who has been to overcome even the worst impulses of our state government to keep Harris County residents safe and build economic and criminal justice systems that are fairer and work for every Texan.
I think of everything Judge Hidalgo and the Harris County Commissioners, Ellis and Garcia, have been able to accomplish in just two and a half years since Hidalgo and Garcia were sworn into office in January 2019, and I think about all the times and ways that Governor Greg Abbott has failed Texans with his inattention and blind ambition, and for a moment I get angry.
But then, I remember. It will get better. We’ve made government in Texas better before, and we will again.
The living proof goes to work at the Harris County Commissioner’s Court every day, and in Commissioner’s Courts and city councils across this state.
We are the change we seek. There is only one thing we must do, at all costs, to achieve it.
So, please. Believe.
I promise it’s worth it.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.