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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in tight race for reelection

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in tight race for reelection” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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HOUSTON — Incumbent Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, was leading Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer in the race to lead the state’s most populous urban county by a slim margin, according to returns tallied as of early Wednesday morning.

As votes trickled in, the margin between Hidalgo and Mealer was razor-thin. Harris County extended voting by an hour Tuesday because several polling places opened late, and vote counting was expected to stretch through the night.

The race is the first major electoral test for Hidalgo, who became the county’s top elected official in a surprise win against a well-liked Republican in 2018. Since then, the 31-year-old first-time officeholder has risen to superstar status among Texas Democrats and is thought to be a future contender for statewide office.

As a result, Hidalgo became a top GOP target. Since July, Republican donors have poured nearly $9 million into Mealer’s bid to unseat Hidalgo — a staggering haul for a county judge race. Hidalgo, meanwhile, raised about $2.4 million in the same period.

Mealer, a West Point graduate and ex-Army captain who served for a decade in Afghanistan, has hammered Hidalgo over the county’s high homicide numbers — a trend seen in most urban areas of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and a criminal case backlog that dates back to Hurricane Harvey, before Hidalgo took office. She also has reminded voters of the criminal indictment of three Hidalgo staffers — enlisting Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a well-known Houston businessman who has given heavily to Mealer, to highlight the issue in a television ad.

Hidalgo has defended her record on public safety, touting annual increases to the county’s public safety budget each year she’s held the office — a trend broken this year when the two Republican county commissioners in October blocked the five-member commissioners court, headed by Hidalgo, from passing a new annual budget that would have again increased the county’s spending on public safety.

At the same time, Hidalgo has tried to shift the debate to issues considered more favorable to Democrats. She has tried to tie Mealer to former President Donald Trump and paint Mealer as an election denier — Mealer rejects that label and says Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Hidalgo also has criticized Mealer for not taking a public position on the state’s total abortion ban, which the role of county judge has little to do with.

Members of both parties had white knuckles as they waited for hours for an inkling of how the race would shake out.

Cheers went up at the Harris County Democrats’ watch party at a gastropub in East Downtown when a local TV station flashed early results favoring Hidalgo on the screen. Sipping a Corona, Angela Williams, whose sister is a family district court judge seeking reelection, said the race was “uncomfortably tight” and was dismayed with Mealer’s ability to make the race so close.

“It’s sad that you have candidates without any experience that aren’t known that make these promises and get funded by one or two people,” Williams said. “That’s what they do, that’s how they run. That’s not a fair campaign.”

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Celesté Arredondo-Peterson — an organizer for National Nurses United, the nation’s largest registered nurse union — was “incredibly nervous” though encouraged that Hidalgo had an early lead. Republicans successfully hammered Hidalgo on crime and capitalized on voters’ fears, she said.

“I think having a progressive in one of the bluest counties in the state is a meaningful advance for us and it would suck to see it go backwards,” Arredondo-Peterson, 40, said.

Ten minutes away at Kirby Ice House, Republicans at Mealer’s watch party were feeling optimistic. Steven Rainer, a 60-year-old shift supervisor at an energy production facility, hoped that enough Republicans turned up on Election Day to carry her over the finish line — and that Mealer’s election would translate to lower crime.

“She can handle the pressure, knows what her goal is and what she wants to do, and I think she’ll do it,” Rainer said. “She’ll get the people together to get it done.”

The slow trickle of results had Brian Linthicum — president of the Pasadena Police Officers Union, which backed Mealer — and his wife Denise Linthicum, an accountant for an oil and gas firm, slightly on edge though they were confident Mealer would ultimately prevail.

“If Lina wins, and we have another four years, I will be honest with you, you’re going to see a mass exodus out of law enforcement,” Brian Linthicum said. “I’ll be one included. That’s a fact.”

Whether either candidate will have a majority to enact their agenda should they win also is hanging in the balance. Democrats currently hold a 3-2 edge on the commissioners court, and two seats are up for grabs.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a Democrat in Precinct 2, was leading Republican Jack Morman, who held the seat before Garcia won it four years ago, in early returns. In Precinct 4, Republican incumbent Jack Cagle was trailing Lesley Briones, a Democratic civil court judge.

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