CURRENT SPRING 2020

When she was elected Harris County Judge in the fall of 2018, Lina Hidalgo broke a couple of glass ceilings. She became the first woman to take on that role, as well the first Hispanic. But, even though she was only 27 when elected, she’s quick to point out her age should make no difference, saying “Judge Roy Hofheinz was only 24 years old in 1936, when he was elected Harris County Judge.”
 
Hidalgo was born in Bogota, Columbia, went to high school in Katy, Texas, then earned a degree in political science from Stanford University in 2013 ––the same year she became a U.S. citizen. After college, she worked in Thailand for a non-profit organization that advocates for press freedom. 
 
She also studied law and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and New York University’s School of Law, but opted to set her studies aside to run for office. As Harris County Judge, she now oversees the county’s operating budget of more than $5 billion. 
 
Last November,  she delivered her first State of the County address to members and guests of the Greater Houston Partnership. She talked about the county’s accomplishments in 2019 and its goals for the future. 
 
Early in the year, we were able to catch up with County Judge Hidalgo to get more details about her plans for 2020.  
 
HOUSTON WOMAN MAGZINE: In your State of the County address, you spoke about staying awake nights from the sheer excitement of thinking about what can be done. Now that a year has passed, what is the one challenge that most frequently occupies your mind  at night?
 
HIDALGO: The challenge that will always remain is how to  prioritize projects.  
      
Harris County is the size of Colorado in population, the largest county in Texas and third in the nation. With challenge comes opportunity, and that is what excites me about this job. When I first ran for office, I was told the scope of county government was essentially roads and bridges. But,  with a $5 billion operating budget, we have the opportunity –– and I believe the expectation –– to do so much more. 
 
Safety is always the number one priority. Beyond that, I’ve tried to be thoughtful about listening to what the community wants to see as priorities, and to choose projects that will have deep and positive impacts. This year, we are prioritizing early childhood development and education, which has never been done before in Harris County and generates so many benefits for society. 
 
Decades of studies have shown children with access to high-quality early childhood programs complete high school without suspension, had fewer arrest and substance abuse issues and had higher rates of employment as adults. This year, we will focus on listening and engaging with the community so we can pursue this positive change together. 
 
HWM: You talked about mistakenly thinking that putting in the hours could make things happen faster. In hindsight, what other major lesson do you think you have learned on the job? 
 
HIDALGO: Ask lots of questions. Push back. What has always been done before doesn’t mean that it is the right thing or the best way. In the state of the county speech, I spoke about the ignorance of limitation. By asking questions and expecting more, we have pushed the bar higher on all kinds of issues. 
 
For example, during the chemical fires in 2019, there was, initially, an assumption that, because the county had never had a robust air monitoring system, it was simply not something for the county to do. But, it quickly became clear it was necessary and expected from our community. And,  we’ve invested over $11 million to help make that possible. 
 
There are mundane issues, like potholes. For decades, if folks found a pothole in unincorporated Harris County, they had to find their commissioner precinct and then a phone number for that precinct. Now, we’re working on a 311 system, so folks anywhere in the county can call a single number and have their issue addressed ––from contacting their representative to reporting a lost pet.  
 
HWM: You said the county’s $5 billion budget was “more than bridge money,”  but a means to build bridges to opportunity for Harris County residents. Which takes priority: investing in people or in infrastructure? How will you be able to achieve the right balance?
 
HIDALGO: I don’t think we should have to choose. Investing in infrastructure helps our overall quality of life. Of course, we have to be thoughtful about it –– build more than just more roads. And, investing in our people helps us build a stronger and more resilient community. 
 
I do believe public safety should always take important consideration in all matters, from protecting people’s homes from flooding to ensuring we have adequate air monitoring equipment.  
 
HWM: Early childhood education is the focus you have identified for the coming year. What do you hope Commissioners Court can accomplish in this arena within the next 12 months?
 
HIDALGO: We are going to spend the first part of the year listening to the community. We want to listen to where people feel the most need is and what they would like to see from early childhood programs. 
On issues from environment to flood control to services for our veterans, we have learned that the result is undoubtedly better if we design programs hand-in-hand with the community.
 
HWM: Before you decided to run for public office, what path did you think your  career was going to take?
 
HIDALGO: Before running for office, I had always worked to make change from the outside. I protected free speech overseas and civil rights here in the United States. I figured I would continue working in that vein, in the nonprofit sphere or perhaps as a civil rights attorney. 
 
After the 2016 election, I felt a call to action –– a call to do even more, and fast. I concluded that by working from within the system, there would be an opportunity to take what I had learned and create real change in the community that helped raise me.  
 
HWM: You said you treasure the trust of young women who have told you they are  inspired by you. Do you think women in our society have unique qualities to offer in government and in leadership roles?  
 
HIDALGO: Absolutely! I welcome the day this stops being a question we ask ourselves. As women, we bring our life experiences to the table, and each of those unique perspectives adds value to the conversation.
 
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.