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Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

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21 Comments

  1. Manny Barrera says:

    Republicans who like to belong to a winning team will soon be converting to Democrats, a la Rick Perry. This is good for Harris County which is embracing diversity, unlike the monolithic almost all white male Christian Party, that is the Trump Party.

  2. Manny Barrera says:

    Kuffner is not right when it comes to the last part, someone with the ability to raise money.

    A good Democratic Candidate can oust him the same way Hidalgo did, placing your name at the right time. Every thing depends who will be on the top of the Presidential ticket.

    Mormon did not have a lot money when he beat Sylvia.

    Hidalgo did not have money when she beat Emmett, although she did raise enough to run Spanish TV ads.

    Adrian certainly did not have the kind of money that Mormon did.

    Don’t be afraid to lose, be afraid to stay silent and do nothing.

    You don’t need all kinds of policy positions, like Joe believes.

  3. Jules says:

    What do they attribute Sid Miller beating Kim Olson to? Sid’s Jesus shot awesomeness?

  4. Mainstream says:

    In 2010, Sarah Davis did not win just based on straight ticket voters. She won her district at the same time that Bill White was winning the Governor contest in that district.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    “You don’t need all kinds of policy positions, like Joe believes.”

    I don’t know, running on a strong “criminal justice reform” policy for county judge seems to have paid off for Lina. I’ll be waiting on the commissioner’s court to start voting on sentencing guidelines, bail amounts, and other criminal justice reform measures now that we’ve got a SJW running the county.

    She will be our own Alexandria Occasio Cortez, a strong Latinx who is well versed on the job and what she needs to do.

    Jules,

    Ag Commissioner was the one race statewide I really thought y’all would win. I think Sid won for the same reason Emmett lost. Straight ticket Trump inspired anger. Texas Republicans straight ticket voted just as Texas Dems did, because of the President.

    This was not the year for people who have an affiliation, but usually vote for a little from column A, a little from column B. Anger turned most of those folks into one button pushing voters this year.

  6. asmith says:

    Why did Rottinghaus say Harris is trending purple? Its already blue.

  7. Brad says:

    As Ed Emmett said, he ‘will be fine.’ Perhaps he could next apply his talents advancing the Ike Dyke, Medicaid Expansion or some other good cause.

  8. It’s not like Sylvia Garcia or Ellen Cohen had any ideas.

    Sylvia Garcia’s ideas as city controller were boring. 4 years and no feasibility studies on raise-the-wage ordinances? LOL

    What exactly did she do as county commissioner? And El Franco Lee was just a placeholder

    Ellen Cohen couldn’t figure out simple paid maternity leave after 18 years at houston area womens center. So why expect her to have any ideas for state legislature or city hall.

  9. Bill Daniels says:

    Joe,

    Raise the wage ordinances cost cities jobs AND business. Why not look at Seattle as an example of your idea put into action? It’s not like this great idea has never been tried before.

    This is WaPo, not some conservative or libertarian outlet:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/26/new-study-casts-doubt-on-whether-a-15-minimum-wage-really-helps-workers/?utm_term=.db209d13f9c9

    If you want to raise the minimum wage, maybe start deporting illegal aliens who will work harder, and for less, and with much less grumbling about working conditions, etc. Raise wages by reducing supply of unskilled and low skilled labor.

  10. It’s obvious bill is just as dumb as my former employer(s).

    They can’t figure out how to add 25 cents to cheeseburgers to pay a $15 minimum wage.

  11. voter_worker says:

    Best wishes to new County Clerk Diane Trautman who will be conducting sequential major elections right out of the gate.

  12. C.L. says:

    @Joe “It’s obvious bill is just as dumb as my former employer(s).”

    Your former employers must have been doing something right if they got rid of your disgruntled ass.

  13. Actually, I walked off the job(s). They begged me to come back.

    I go above and beyond my job description.

    That’s why steve lufburrow and jonita reynolds stole my ideas off of cover letters and exit interviews. Then angela blanchard and laura moser asked me for ideas while unemployed while the 4th largest city pretended not to know who i was.

    It’s not that hard to make houston leaders look lazy and stupid.

    I don’t see any other pussy millenials writing dozens/hundreds of ideas

  14. C.L. says:

    You sound like a model employee.

  15. C.L. says:

    @Joe You sound like a model employee. I can’t believe you haven’t gone any further than you have.

  16. I should’ve accepted the scholarship to study with the united nations.

    It would’ve been more interesting than babysitting ceo’s and politicians with ideas i googled

  17. It’s easier to mooch off family than waste my time changing diapers at west oaks and st joseph’s for $14 an hour.

    I should’ve accepted the offer to study and work with the united nations 2 years ago

  18. Greg says:

    I voted straight ticket. I used to split my vote for “qualified” judges. However, in my view, so long as he Republican Party fights against the LGBQT community and immigrants, and runs fake scare ads about how Democrat judges free child molesters, they will never have my vote. All Republicans are complicit. Until they change, every one of them should lose.

  19. Jerald P Mays says:

    How long has it been since the Democrats had a majority on the Commissioners’ Court?

  20. Jerald – Great question. Given that we’ve had a Republican County Judge since at least 1974, the question is when did Dems last have a 3-1 edge among the Commissioners? I don’t know the answer to that.

  21. Mainstream says:

    probably Democrats kept the 3-1 edge until Squatty Lyons left office and Jerry Eversole came to Commissioner’s Court about 1994. Morman was the first R to ever represent his district.

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