SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Judge Lina Hidalgo discusses COVID-19 response, growing up in Katy

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo begins a press conference announcing that the county will adopt a “Stay Home, Work Safe” strategy until April 3, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at TranStar in Houston.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo begins a press conference announcing that the county will adopt a “Stay Home, Work Safe” strategy until April 3, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at TranStar in Houston.

Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo begins a press conference announcing that the county will adopt a “Stay Home, Work Safe” strategy until April 3, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at TranStar in Houston.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo begins a press conference announcing that the county will adopt a “Stay Home, Work Safe” strategy until April 3, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at TranStar in Houston.

Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Judge Lina Hidalgo discusses COVID-19 response, growing up in Katy

Lina Hidalgo was elected Harris County judge in November of 2018. Now, a little over a year into her term, she is leading a county with more than 4.7 million residents through an unprecedented pandemic. Hidalgo is also a Colombian immigrant who grew up in Katy. Hidalgo discussed navigating the tumult of the COVID-19 crisis and reflected on her teenage years in Katy.

Before we get started, would you like to say something to the people of Harris County?

Honestly, a heartfelt thank you.

I know these have been incredibly difficult times, and we’ve asked a lot of our residents. As we always do, during a crisis, our community has stepped up.

We’ve already saved at least 4,500 lives. And the more we all stay home, the sooner we will reach our peak in hospital admissions, and the sooner we’ll get our economy back on track. We’re still in the thick of this- we still don’t know when the virus will peak. We still don’t have universal testing, which is a prerequisite for opening the county back up. But we’ve fared better than expected so far, thanks to the profound sacrifices people are making. Please stay strong and stay home. The more we work on this the sooner it will be over.

You grew up in Katy. What was it like going to school at Seven Lakes High School?

Katy was an amazing place to grow and learn. Seven Lakes had just opened when I was there, so it was wonderful to grow with the high school. I had brilliant classmates and dedicated teachers. It made me see that it is possible for our public school system to truly deliver for its students. We just need to ensure everyone has that same opportunity. As we move through this crisis, I’m also so impressed by the resiliency of students and teachers right now in this moment.

As an immigrant, did you face any additional challenges while growing up in Katy?

It was a very diverse and welcoming community, so I truly felt at home. Growing up in such a diverse community- and truly all of us in this region are part of beautifully diverse communities- showed me the strength that lies in our diversity.

There are always the challenges of not having the know-how on certain things. Normally parents or older siblings will pass things on from experience, but my whole family was new to it. On the lighter side, I didn’t know a thing about homecoming garters. The educational system was new to me as well, and there I have my teachers and school counselors to thank. They knew to assign me to challenging classes and guided me in navigating a system that was completely new to me.

How did you prepare for your current role as Harris County judge, arguably among the most powerful political positions in the state?

I ran for this position because I saw an opportunity to improve government from within, tapping into an executive role that can ensure our budgetary priorities reflect the needs and values of our community. I was among many women who were inspired to run in 2016 because we saw the need for more and different voices in government. And not just for the sake of having different voices- but because having those voices in the halls of power brings about better policy.

Our first 100 days were an “open transition” where we listened to thousands of residents about their concerns. What we learned guided our priorities and helped us determine what policies would be most impactful.

Of course, I draw from my background every day- I’ve worked with people on the losing side of the criminal justice system, have been an interpreter in the hospitals at the heart of our healthcare infrastructure, have worked to promote free expression and access to information and deeply believe in the need for transparency. My academic work means I always ask questions and rely on data. Since we came into office, “best practices” has become something of a refrain in our office. Folks know I will always ask for research and will ask what we can learn from other localities or nations. And in this crisis, the same applies. There is no room in my brain to factor in politics when we make these tough decisions. Our North Star in dealing with this crisis is relying on data, research and public health expertise.

You’re being bombarded with information from federal, state and local entities. How do you synthesize that information? How do you separate fact from speculation?

I surround myself with capable, compassionate individuals who share my belief in making decisions based on research, facts and science. We pore over the research, the information at hand, and seek out experts carefully- people with zero agenda and unimpeachable credentials. Then we decide which information requires action, what outcome would be best for the residents of Harris County, and the path forward. We always want to hear from the community. Generally, our major initiatives – whether it’s been massive environmental investments, smart prioritization and speeding up of flood control projects, requiring the most stringent development requirements so we don’t flood folks downstream as we build, bail reform, supercharging our veterans’ services department, our immigrant legal defense fund, gun safety, or even the work we were designing on early childhood education before coronavirus hit- all these rely on thorough community input. These days, we’re still working to hear from our communities by engaging with nonprofits and community forums. It’s important to me that we keep an ear to the ground and not make policy from an ivory tower.

Similarly, how do you distribute that information in a way that will inform people without inciting panic?

Since we came into office just over a year ago, we’ve faced two major floods, three major chemical incidents, and now this pandemic. I always err on the side of information. During the ITC fire, it was important to me that whatever air quality readings we had were immediately available to the public. The same applies to this crisis. We’ve worked to ensure that readyharris.org is the one-stop-shop for regional information during disasters. We’ve developed the ability to send residents improved Wireless Emergency Alerts directly to their phones. And of course, I’m committed to delivering remarks in both English and Spanish. I’d love to speak more languages fluently. The community deserves to know what the situation is and what we’re doing to alleviate it. But even if we’re doing incredible work, it’s not adequate if it’s behind closed doors. I strive to present folks with the facts, even if it’s tough news. In this crisis, testing is the perfect example. From the start, we were being steered to say that testing would open within a day, within a week, but it was important to me that we not string the community along. After our team scoured the nation and globe and realized there simply were not supplies available, we made that clear. Instead we secured support from the federal government. That’s been the approach- I will share good news when we have it, our team will work tirelessly to ensure we have as much good news as possible, but I will say things like they are.

How is Harris County situated to get past its current economic downturn?

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will leave us forever changed. It’s impossible to know what the exact economic impacts will be, given the downturn not just locally, but globally. What we do know is that businesses we love may not reopen. Livelihoods will be lost. But I’ve seen our communities pull together and lift people up, and I have no doubt that will continue as we recover from this. We are doing all we can at the county – supporting the hiatus on evictions, creating a $10 million (and growing) fund for small businesses, aiding essential workers with childcare and providing as much free testing as we can, supporting the COVID-19 recovery fund, which is providing millions in direct aid to hard-hit families. We are working with partners throughout our jurisdictions and the business and nonprofit sectors to continue to ask what else we can do.

We’ve also worked hard to put the county finances in as responsible a position as possible. This will be hard on our county budget. Our sources of revenue are decreasing, and our costs are rising. But we’ve spent countless hours since I first came into office reforming the way budgeting is done, to ensure it is performance based budgeting – informed by outcomes and metrics. We’ve also had experts on the ground since the start of this year helping us find efficiencies and further improve our budgeting systems. We’re not at a perfect place yet, but the efforts are helping ensure we’re responsible with every dollar.

The year 2020 has been tough for Harris County residents – the Spring Branch neighborhood explosion, the water main break, the COVID-19 outbreak – how do you maintain composure with everyone looking for hope? What do you do to relax?

I derive a lot of strength from the resiliency of our community. Particularly in this crisis, we are all impacted, and each of us is necessary to make a difference. I try to squeeze in a run whenever I can and try to get out in nature at least once a week. Our county parks are true jewels, and I look forward to our county getting back in full force, ensuring they are easy to access, and that our trails connect with one another.

claire.goodman@chron.com


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