Whether the old guard in Harris County likes it or not, the county has a new chief executive. It also has a Commissioners Court with a Democratic majority for the first time in decades, Democrats in nearly all executive positions, and Democrats presiding over the courts. But the face of this evolution/revolution is County Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo.
Congratulations to Ms. Hidalgo, her campaign team, and a county Democratic Party apparatus that has returned from the mostly-dead.
Check out these election results (PDF), and then compare them to 2014's. (Also check out the new-jack HTML version of the results page.)
Emmett received 40-60,000 more votes than nearly all of the Republicans on the county ballot, because plenty of Democrats like and respect him. I am one Green who likes and respects him, but I am happy to see the change at the top, mostly because of Hidalgo's number one issue on which the county dragged its feet too long: flood control and prevention.
The joy that I feel over the county results is a guarded, qualified joy. While I have no doubts about Hidalgo's progressive bona fides, there is a difference between one's positions on issues and one's ability to put them into practice when elected. Leading a majority on the CC is one thing, but dealing with various business constituencies in the county is another. If she and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian García truly intend to reform county government, along with the other new Democratic officials, contractors will need to adapt to a new way of doing things.
Or they may just promote bidness as usual, like the Democrats on Houston's City Council. We shall see.
I'll get to the other county races below, but let's shine the spotlight on the county judge contest a bit longer.
Complaints and Worries
Judge Emmett, I understand that you are bewildered, as much by the county's new blue hue as by your narrow defeat. You're probably right that the Legislature's decision last year to keep straight-ticket voting for one more election came back to bite you and other office-holding Republicans in the butt. A fair number of Democrats, it appears, switched their votes to you, but not enough.
All ye media outlets, please just stop with the carping about Hidalgo's youth and lack of experience. (You may need a digital subscription to the Chronicle to see the article.) There have been younger county judges in Texas, albeit none overseeing a county of 4.5 million souls. Hidalgo would not have waded into the race if she had not studied the important issues and the art of county governance. Even the Chronicle's liberal-ish editorial page editor Lisa Falkenberg was taken aback by the result.
Another worry about the new Commissioners Court lineup revolves around the Astrodome. Members of the preservationist group Renew the Astrodome have expressed worries that Emmett's plans to repurpose the Dome may be scuttled and the Dome itself razed. Here's one blogger's take. This issue crosses party lines, with the Dome a beloved shape on our urban landscape, but Hidalgo has nothing about it on her Issues page.
I still prefer turning the Dome into a gigantic public greenhouse, but I'm OK with Emmett's plan. Whatever happens, I want it saved as long as it's saved For The People rather than for corporate exploitation.
Down the Ballot
In addition to Trautman taking over the county clerk spot, we will now have Marilyn Burgess as district clerk and Dylan Osborne as county treasurer. They will join the Democrats now serving as district attorney, county attorney, sheriff, and tax assessor-collector. Adrian García finally found another race that he could win; he will represent Precinct 2 on Commissioners Court, replacing Republican Jack Morman.
Yes, there are substantial differences between the duties of the county clerk and district clerk, just as there are between those of the county attorney and the district attorney. I'd wager that only a small percentage of Harris County residents know those differences; as much power as it wields, our county government doesn't get much play on TV.
- Apart from administering elections and campaign finance reports, the County Clerk's office also handles issues and maintains marriage and death certificates.
- The District Clerk's office mainly maintains court records and issues jury summonses.
- The Treasurer's office does, y'know, treasurer stuff.
For those of you who don't follow Texas politics, we have partisan elections for judicial seats from top to bottom. That's pretty unusual in this country. I have heard more than one judicial candidate say straight up that they have switched party affiliation based on which party is more likely to win. For decades, that meant some moderate-to-liberal folks running as Republicans. Now we can worry whether Tea Partiers and white nationalists will sign up in greater numbers to run in the Democratic primaries.
This year, Harris County voters were asked to decide races for:
- 36 state district courts of various specialties
- 15 county criminal courts
- 4 county civil courts
- 4 county probate courts
That's a total of 59, and that doesn't include the couple-dozen judicial races in presidential years. With big counties come big judicial slates. You can see why the straight-ticket option is popular, with more than 76% of the voters punching the party line—and supposedly going through the other races to make changes, select candidates outside their preferred party, and vote on ballot propositions. Of that 76%, more than 55% punched straight-Democrat.
Supposedly. Check the very bottom of the Harris County voting results PDF to see the undervote totals for Houston's two propositions. Part of that undervote may result from straight-ticket voting, part from voters' admitted ignorance of the issues. For my part, I abstained on Proposition B due to the chicanery witnessed on both sides from firefighters in favor of pay raises and from Mayor Sylvester Turner opposing them due to concerns about layoffs in city government. The firefighters will get their raise, with voters approving the proposition by a 3-to-2 margin.
That's all for now.