For Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, Texas, the work is never done. Wearing a navy suit and a matching floral face mask, ringed by her signature crop of black curls, the top elected official of the nation’s third-largest county announced the grim news in early August: the Houston-area COVID-19 threat level would be returning to “red.”
The virus had reached a level unseen since May, when cases finally began dwindling and the county’s positivity rate fell below five percent. The highly contagious Delta variant, alongside lagging vaccination rates among eligible groups, has continued to spur an explosion of new cases across the nation. With the county’s positivity rate back up to an alarming 22 percent as of Aug. 1, 2021, Hidalgo has joined many other elected leaders, including Pres. Joe Biden, urging the unvaccinated to stay home and wear a mask in public.
At the press conference announcing her decision on Aug. 5, 2021, Hidalgo said, in her characteristically measured tone: “We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff.”
Indeed, for Hidalgo, there’s a strong sense of deja-vu. Back in March 2020, when concepts like “social distancing” and “quarantine” were newly entering our vocabulary, Hidalgo recommended implementing a strict mask mandate. When Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other notable Republicans publicly battled her, calling her recommendation “the ultimate government overreach” and a “draconian” order that could “lead to unjust tyranny,” the then-29-year-old was launched into the state and national limelight.
As cases kept rising and hospitals overflowed, Hidalgo stood firm in promoting precaution. Finally, in June, Abbott did a 180 and began urging Texans to heed the advice Hidalgo had preached for months.
A year later, the county is experiencing roughly the same number of COVID-19 hospitalizations as in June 2020. Nonetheless, Abbott has maintained his July 2021 executive order banning mask and vaccine mandates in favor of “personal responsibility.”
That hasn’t stopped the County Judge. On the contrary, it has only made Hidalgo more determined.
Hidalgo never imagined she would become the first Latina and first woman elected to Harris County’s chief executive position. In fact, she never imagined she’d enter American politics at all.
Born in Bogotá in the early ‘90s, when Colombia was in the grip of drug trafficking violence, Hidalgo and her family moved to Peru, then Mexico City, before finally immigrating to Houston in 2005. In 2013, she celebrated two major milestones: becoming a U.S. citizen and earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford University.
“I thought I wanted to do some sort of international development work,” Hidalgo remembered. “Supporting activists, supporting journalists abroad — folks that I’d worked with when I was in college and after I graduated. I was just seeing really brave people in developing countries, in countries that don’t have strong democracies, just fight and be arrested or intimidated for wanting to pursue democratic government and promote free expression. So I was inspired by these folks. I wanted to support them.”
But then, in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, something clicked for Hidalgo. It was a wake-up call. She realized, if Trump could be elected, perhaps she “could be the one making the decisions and making the policy, as opposed to working outside the system to try and mold it in a better direction.”
It was a determination fueled by indignation. “It’d be hard to imagine that it didn’t have something to do with Trump’s attacks on women, attacks on Hispanics, attacks on immigrants, attacks on policy making writ large,” Hidalgo said.
The Harris County Judge position was perfect, Hidalgo realized, because it meant controlling a $5 million budget and, as a result, the priorities and values of the county government. Her revolutionary idea? To transform what was basically a managerial role into one capable of creating sweeping structural changes: to strengthen public health, expand public transportation, reform criminal justice and mitigate the effects of climate change.
When she told her family she wanted to run, Hidalgo was slightly embarrassed. “It was such an out-of-character idea for me and just saying, ‘I believe I deserve to be an elected political leader’…it’s like, ‘what makes you worthy?’” But neither her mom nor her close friends batted an eye. She had their full support.
As for the rest of Texas, on the other hand, convincing them that an immigrant in graduate school with no political experience could do a better job than the widely-liked Republican incumbent, Ed Emmett, was no easy task. But Hidalgo’s Houston pride was much stronger than it might have appeared at first.
“A lot of people in this country and in this community weren’t necessarily born here,” Hidalgo said. “They may not have had the exact same upbringing that I did, we may not share a cultural, racial, or ethnic background, but we share this idea of coming to a place that we love and making it our home and wanting to give back,” she pointed out.
When it comes to leading a county with 1.1 million foreign-born immigrants in a city that’s been named the most diverse in America, Hidalgo, who was elected in 2018, has been more than up to the task.
“When I sit at the dais, I think I bring my perspective not just as a woman, not just as a young person, but also as someone with this lived experience of [being] an immigrant, of having different perspectives from different places,” she said.
Moreover, she said, it helps her “recognize that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the best way; that there isn’t just one perspective or just one way of doing things.”
Part of doing things differently has included giving press conferences in both Spanish and English, in order to ensure important messages reach the more than 2 million Hispanic residents in her county. For Hidalgo, who once worked as an interpreter, the switch comes naturally. While the majority of the community has welcomed it, some critics have derisively nicknamed her “Dora the Explorer,” while other high-ranking leaders have told her: “This is not Mexico. Speak English.”
“There’s no denying that there’s been a little bit — or a lot — of xenophobia that’s been fostered ever since the campaign of Donald Trump in particular,” Hidalgo said. “ [But] for a community like ours, we can’t let that happen, because we’re so diverse. We can’t have those kinds of divisions. So when folks were trying to blame the Asian community for COVID, we did a lot of work to say, ‘no, this is something that’s affecting all of us.’”
Although she’s a rising Democratic star, often compared to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hidalgo maintains that she is committed to helping all of her constituents, across ideologies.
“I’m proud of all communities in Harris County, and I work as hard as I can to try and make clear that I represent everyone, whatever their background, whatever their political persuasion,” she said.
Throughout the uncertainties of the pandemic, one mission has been central for Hidalgo: to protect her county as best as possible from the virus. When it comes to vaccinations, that first meant creating a “fair process”: bringing vaccines directly to over 300 communities, using randomized selection to schedule appointments and giving people rides to vaccination sites. Now, as supply has overtaken demand, it’s about advocating for vaccination in the first place.
Alarmingly, African Americans and Latinos in Harris County are particularly behind in COVID-19 vaccination rates, despite bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s ramifications. This reflects a broader, nationwide trend.
Hidalgo has enlisted the same volunteers who helped with the U.S. census count months prior to ensure every community and micro-community is targeted for vaccine distribution. “And of course we’re doing raffles — we’re giving away one weekly scholarship for kids under 18,” she explained. “For folks who are getting vaccines at mass vaccination sites, they can get gift cards, tickets to big-time concerts. So we’re doing everything, basically.”
Money talks, COVID walks. Our $100 vaccine incentive is working. Yesterday, demand for vaccines more than TRIPLED, and future slots are filling up fast. Register at https://t.co/qS98pi06fL or 832-927-8787. pic.twitter.com/02yVDhf0B9
— Lina Hidalgo (@LinaHidalgoTX) August 19, 2021
For Hidalgo, these persistent efforts are a small way to live out the big ideals that have always driven her work, from her days helping journalists abroad, to her service as a legal interpreter.
“[It’s about] helping build a community where everybody has opportunity; where there’s justice, where there’s fairness,” she said. “And that, I think, comes from my experiences growing up in places where it felt like that wasn’t the case.”
“These fights are never won. You have to keep defending the gains. And trying to make more gains. People forget. People forget why folks fought for democracy,” she warned. “They don’t remember how fragile it is, so it’s incumbent on every generation to protect that and remind everybody else why it’s important.”