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Harris County Democrats split over heated district attorney race

By Madaleine Rubin, The Texas Tribune

Harris County Democrats split over heated district attorney race” 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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When Harris County voters initially elected Kim Ogg as the top prosecutor in Texas’ most populous county, she became the first Democrat in more than 35 years to lead the District Attorney’s Office.

But before she can compete for a third term against a Republican later this year, she must first face a primary election challenge from former prosecutor Sean Teare in a race that is dividing the county’s Democratic party.

Early voting for the March 5 primary starts Tuesday and runs through March 1.

Ogg has drawn fire from local Democrats for failing to deliver on the party’s criminal justice reform priorities, maintaining alleged ties to Texas Republicans and having a high turnover rate in her office.

The next district attorney in Texas’ largest county — and the nation’s third largest — will face major challenges. Harris County is grappling with a mounting criminal case backlog and overcrowding in the county jail, the biggest in the state. Teare said he’s running to take more action on these issues.

“These are things that are pretty easily fixable, but you’ve got someone in that office right now that has no interest in fixing anything,” he said.

Ogg was reelected in 2020 by a margin of over 120,000 voters and has the backing of prominent Houston Democrats, including state Sen. Carol Alvarado and state Rep. Mary Ann Perez. She was not made available for an interview for this story. In an email to the Tribune, she defended her record.

“I intend to make my case to voters that I’ve lived up to the promises I made to the community and crime victims,” she said. “My opponent is running on creating diversion programs that we’ve already instituted and reforms we’ve already made.”

But Ogg’s ongoing, derisive feud with members of her own party could impact her reelection chances. Last month, mounting tensions came to a head when Harris County Democratic Party leaders voted to condemn her for inadequately representing party values.

Over two terms, Ogg has split from her party on the county’s cash bail system for suspects awaiting trial, investigated local Democrats and publicly clashed with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo — an influential young progressive backed by national party leaders.

Asked about the party vote admonishing her, Ogg accused Teare of “trying to create division in the Democratic party.”

“There is no question I’m a Democrat, and my dad, the late state Senator Jack Ogg, is spinning in his grave watching this nonsense,” she added.

Weeks before the primary election, Ogg is facing a maelstrom of new allegations. Recent reports claim she wrongfully influenced an investigation into a controversial Texas Republican. And her office filed criminal charges in thousands of cases that lacked probable cause, the Houston Chronicle revealed.

As the rift between Ogg and her party widens, Teare has gained endorsements from Hidalgo, a group of Harris County Democratic Party precinct chairs and state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who endorsed Ogg in 2016.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Houston attorney Dan Simons, the lone Republican candidate, in November’s general election.

Harris County contains Houston, Texas’ most populous city, and is a reliable Democratic stronghold in state and national elections. But Democrats there did not start winning county-level positions until recently — Ogg is the first Democrat to serve as District Attorney since 1980.

In a presidential election year, when higher Republican turnout is anticipated come November, experts say more than Ogg’s reelection is at stake in Harris County.

“The fact of the matter is, if it becomes an open seat, and [Ogg] is not renominated, this is the opportunity for Republicans to make real, significant inroads,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

Run-up to the race

Ogg has been at odds with members of her party since her first term. In 2016, she won over Democrats with campaign promises to reform the county’s cash bail system.

Yet three years later, she changed tack, opposing a settlement to a lawsuit in which a federal court found that jailing people accused of crimes before trial because they could not afford bail was unconstitutional.

Since then, Ogg has opened a probe into the county’s Justice Administration Department, an agency monitoring the progress of bail reform, and challenged positive reports on bail reform from 2023, according to the Chronicle.

“Bail is set by judges. Prosecutors and defense lawyers only make suggestions,” she said in an email to The Tribune. “Our approach is that no one should be kept in jail just because they are poor, and no one should be released without sufficient consideration for public safety.”

Recently, Ogg has come under fire for accepting major campaign contributions from bail bonds companies — in January, she brought in over four times as much money as Teare, with over $50,000 coming from the bail bonds industry. Teare has vowed to refuse fundraising contributions from bail bonds companies.

Teare and local Democrats also argue that Ogg has faltered on other Democratic priorities, including gun violence prevention, decriminalizing low-level offenses and reducing overcrowding in the Harris County Jail.

In response, Ogg has touted her record on criminal justice reform and said it is “disingenuous or worse” to discount her office’s work, including decriminalizing most marijuana possession and diverting thousands of minors away from time in jail.

While in office, Ogg has also investigated members of her party on at least four occasions, securing criminal charges twice and incensing local Democrats. In 2022, Ogg indicted three ex-staffers of Judge Hidalgo over their handling of COVID-19 vaccine outreach funds. She hired a private attorney, Rachel Hooper, to work on the investigation.

Hooper is counsel for the Texas GOP. She has been linked to Texas House candidate and former chair of the Harris County Republican Party Jared Woodfill — who Harris County unexpectedly stopped investigating for fraud charges one month after Hooper was hired.

Asked about claims that she played a role in the investigation’s conclusion, Ogg said she would not comment “on allegations made in an affidavit submitted to a third party.”

Throughout these investigations, prosecutors reportedly working long hours and sifting through a steep, multiplying caseload began leaving the District Attorney’s Office en masse. The turnover rate in the office nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, according to the Houston Landing. Witnessing Ogg’s management during his tenure, Teare said, pushed him to enter the race.

“That was one of the beginning mass exoduses,” Teare said. “People went to Fort Bend, people went to Galveston, people went to Montgomery, people went to other jurisdictions all over the state because they still believed in the job; they still believe in the mission — they just didn’t want to do it for her.”

Possible outcomes

Experts say infighting between Harris County Democrats reflects a larger fissure in the party — between older moderates and younger progressives.

According to Stein, as the party shifts left nationally, young voters and elected officials mirror that trend locally. In the 2022 midterm elections, voters aged 18 to 29 leaned left of the general electorate on key progressive issues, like abortion and immigration.

Nationally, Democrats have hitched their campaigns to issues like abortion access that drive voters to the polls. Teare has tried to position himself to Ogg’s left on progressive issues — at a candidate forum hosted by the ACLU of Texas last week, he critiqued her response to the state’s 2021 ban on nearly all abortions, arguing it was insufficient.

In the primary, this strategy could mobilize progressive voters. Teare has gained crucial endorsements by arguing that Ogg has not taken action on Democratic reforms she once supported.

“I endorsed Kim when she ran [in 2016], and I had high hopes for her that she would come in and do all the things she promised,” saidWu, the state representative who is now endorsing Teare. “And then when she actually took office, nothing happened.”

In such a race far down the ballot, endorsements are critical. Teare also has the backing of former Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and Hidalgo, who is revered among progressive voters and could energize her base.

But the Harris County electorate is ideologically diverse, and historically, turnout in Texas primaries is low. Just under 7% of the county’s registered voters cast ballots in 2022’s Democratic primary election. Young, progressive voters are often least likely to turnout, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“The voters who come out to vote in Democratic primaries tend to be a little bit older, a little bit more moderate and are not quite as tuned in to Judge Hidalgo,” Rottinghaus said. “I think that’s the question mark we don’t know the answer to yet — which electorate will show up? And that will really dictate [whether] the district attorney is able to hold on or not.”

Clinching the primary is half the battle — Teare or Ogg will eventually face Simons, the lone Republican candidate, in the general election. While appealing to progressives might help Teare in the primary, Rottinghaus said, it could backfire in November.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, facing a reelection challenge, will be atop the ballot in the general election, likely alongside former president Donald Trump — the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary. The two party figureheads could magnify conservative turnout in November, Rottinghaus predicts, and Teare might struggle to sway Republican voters.

“The farther left you go in a primary, the harder it is to walk that back to a Harris County electorate that has shown some conservative tendencies,” Rottinghaus said, noting that in recent elections, Republican candidates have gained traction in Harris County — Hidalgo won reelection in 2022 against a Republican challenger by just two percentage points.

Ogg, though, has won the general electorate twice before, and already has some conservative support — she’s received large campaign contributions from a top-dollar, longstanding Texas Republican donor. Yet the Chronicle’s report that her office has filed thousands of criminal charges without legal basis could hurt her chances with moderate and conservative voters, too.

At last week’s candidate forum, Teare attempted to walk the midline. He made appeals to moderates, emphasizing his experience in the district attorney’s office while critiquing Ogg on abortion and bail reform — two hot-button issues for progressive voters.

Voter turnout in Harris County is difficult to forecast. But fractures in the Democratic party are poised to influence this race, and others, Stein said. And county Republicans might view infighting on the other side of the aisle as an opportunity to mobilize their base.

“The Republicans who looked like they were out of business in Harris County have been given a foot back in the door in the city and in the county,” Stein said.

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