It’s a new day in Harris County as the Democratic candidates who cleaned house in the most recent elections were sworn in to their county offices. Along with every judicial office up for grabs last November, Harris County Democrats took hold of the county judge’s office, treasurer, clerk, and one commissioner’s seat.

The swearing-in ceremony was held at NRG arena following the official swearing in of the county judge one minute past midnight on January 1, 2019.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the 27-year-old political newcomer, took the stage to give her first speech as top administrator. “The people of Harris County took a chance on all of us on this stage today … on many of us who didn’t have much political experience, and they took that chance because they believed in us,” she said.

Hidalgo laid out a few of her top priorities, chief among them being public safety. “Our first task is to make sure people are safe, that our community is protected,” she said, adding they need to be ready for anything that “Mother Nature, or Austin, or Washington D.C.” might throw at them.

While Harris County is now effectively managed by Democrats, Hidalgo will have to learn to work with Republican state officials like Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and others. Admittedly, it won’t be hard for Hidalgo to do better than her predecessor in that regard. Emmett regularly sparred with Abbott and Patrick over their efforts to provide taxpayer relief among other issues.

Hidalgo also mentioned further regulating development in flood-prone areas. “We need to inform our citizens of dangers,” she said. “We need to implement safeguards so we are growing in a way that doesn’t knowingly put people and their livelihoods at risk.”

With dozens of newly sworn-in judges who all campaigned on reforming the criminal justice system, Hidalgo also made sure to make mention of it and list it as one of her priorities.

“We have to update our justice system,” she said. “This can be addressed by unifying healthcare and mental health” and “rallying around comprehensive, smart, cost-saving reforms.”

Hidalgo also said she wants to include the voices of those who ventured into politics to help elect her and others this November, adding, “We have to open the doors of county government to welcome the energy of those who, for the first time, became involved in the political process over this last election.” Undoubtedly many got involved because they felt it was a ripe opportunity for change, and they were proven correct, but Hidalgo would be wise to ensure the waters between electoral politics and governing do not get muddied.

Last, but certainly not least, she mentioned her “Talking Transition” effort backed by the Houston Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

The Talking Transition project will be a public engagement campaign where she will hold town halls, run surveys, and hire canvassers to gauge the wishes of the community and, according to Hidalgo, show them how they can be actively involved in their county government.

The initiative, which includes “Civic Saturdays” — full-day gatherings scheduled around specific issues like healthcare and transportation — sounds very similar to community organizing. She also plans to host smaller working groups and a large roundtable discussion.

Hidalgo’s website says HR&A, a consulting firm consisting of former city officials, lawyers, planners, architects, and economists, will serve as “technical support” for the project. HR&A’s website says they focus on public-private partnerships, policy analysis, market and financial feasibility, economic impact analysis, economic revitalization and community planning, parks and open space strategy, affordable housing, and retail planning.

Hidalgo closed by saying, “Fundamentally, it’s our job to remember that the point of holding public office is not to hold our approval rating on a pedestal and admire it. It is to take risks, to dare put our reputation on the line, for the things we believe in; to remember that we represent all of the people in Harris County, whether they voted for us or not.”

What will ultimately come of her administration is yet to be seen, but with flood projects in the works, federal disaster relief funds on their way, and the legislature mere days away, the direction in which she hopes to take the county will soon become clearer.

The first meeting of the new Harris County Commissioners Court will be on January 8, 2019.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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