NHI Award Winners
2020 NHI Person of the Year: Lina Hidalgo
The National Hispanic Institute is closing out a very challenging 2020 by naming Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Judge, as its 2020 NHI Person of the Year.
NHI annually bestows the award on someone who exemplifies NHI’s principles in providing community leadership, and considers issues that have been important throughout the year. Hidalgo, as Harris County Judge, oversees a governmental body and its $4 billion budget, integral in the lives of nearly 5 million people in the Greater Houston area — and she’s done so in a year that provided enormous tests for leaders throughout the world.
“In the COVID-19 era, there are leaders who were successful, some who faltered, some who were late to the party. Then there were leaders who confronted the layered and often twisted challenge of the pandemic never expecting to have to be ready to do just that,” noted Julio Cotto, NHI’s Senior Vice President. “Though the Judge might have not expected this being part of what her term would entail, she faced this incredibly complex challenge and she stood up. She was courageous. She spoke up. She was analytical. She was NHI in her steadfastness, her strength, her manner, acting for the benefit of millions. She knows that in leadership it also means owning the consequences – good or bad.”
Elected in 2018, Hidalgo is both the first woman and first Latina to hold this executive post with a somewhat-misleading title.
According to Hidalgo’s official government website:
The County Judge is the presiding officer on the Commissioners Court. As the main governing body of Harris County, the Commissioners Court plays a critical role that is part administrative, part legislative, and part judicial. Its many responsibilities include adopting a budget; setting tax rates; calling for bond elections; building and maintaining county infrastructure such as roads and bridges; and overseeing county courthouses, jails, libraries, parks, and the Harris County Flood Control District. By state law, the County Judge is also the county’s director of emergency management, leading the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM).
The website also notes that the Harris County Judge serves as an important advocate for the County; throughout the year, she’s been front and center in leading governmental efforts to fight the pandemic and its economic effects. That work has included securing resources to distribute to Houstonians (including, most recently, COVID-19 vaccines), raising awareness about and advocating for COVID-19 precautions and safety measures, encouraging record voter turnout in Harris County for the 2020 election, and continuing to push forward on the promise of transparency she campaigned on.
In the process, she’s emerged as a nationally-known and inspirational young Latina leader who was part of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. In November 2018, former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, himself a DNC participant, called her upset election victory over incumbent Ed Emmett “easily the most underappreciated upset in Texas.” (Hidalgo, named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 in October, will turn 30 in February.)
Hidalgo began her NHI journey as part of the group of Houston-area students attending the 2006 Texas Ambassador Young Leaders Conference (now the Great Debate). Upon graduating from Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, Hidalgo went on to Stanford University, majoring in political science and graduating in 2013.
In a recorded video message to NHI students at Celebracion 2019, Hidalgo recalled her NHI training, saying, “I remember learning so much about public speaking, really growing, and building confidence and strength as a high school student.”
She credits the network NHI created as important to her, describing it as “being surrounded by other 14 and 15-year-olds who were passionate and deliberate and wanted to make the most out of school, who were really serious about going to college and just wanted to learn and to grow and were hungry. Having that network of support was incredible.”
She notes that when she began her campaign to run for Harris Country Judge, her fellow NHIers were among the first people she called. “I was proud to have some of those folks as my very first donors and very first source of support,” she noted, calling it “a wonderful community.”
“In looking at NHI Person of the Year candidates, we pay attention to the impact that leaders have on the lives of others,” said NHI founder and president Ernesto Nieto. “Through leading by example, changing hearts, inspiring a shared vision, and challenging the process, Lina has excelled in demonstrating the qualities we look to develop through our programs. Leadership is in her makeup and her actions speak for themselves. All of us at NHI beam with pride at how she reflects the organization’s ideals.”
NHIMagazine.com plans to run an interview with Hiladgo and her thoughts on leadership in January.