A conversation with NHI alumna Lina Hidalgo
On December 31, 2020—following in tradition established over the past few years—NHI named its Person of the Year. While you can read about Lina Hidalgo and her accomplishments in what we published then, we had the opportunity to interview her on January 8. We present excerpts from that interview here.
This was obviously a challenging year for people, particularly for leaders dealing with a pandemic. How did you meet the challenges that 2020 presented?
The first one was COVID-19, and it was a challenge from the operational side of keeping folks safe, and trying to get the test out, and doing the tracing, and getting the support for the community through financial assistance or child care programs.
But also, it was just seeing the politicization of a disaster. Since I’ve been in office, I’ve dealt with floods and fires. Every time — and I’ve got 34 cities in Harris County, so it’s mayors from both parties — every time, you put everything aside and you work together on a crisis. But with this one, it was a different thing. It was doing so while the crisis itself can also become politicized. And that’s something we’re still navigating. I try to go directly to the community, but it’s challenging when half of the community is being told by the leadership that they ought not to pay attention to the public health guidelines.
So what sort of things did you try to do to overcome that?
Before the disease arrived here, I talked to my colleague in Seattle to learn from his experience. We’ve been planning here, we were immediately trying to get our hands on all the tests that we could, to try and set up the infrastructure as best we possibly could. There came a point where we knew that we needed to bring down the spread even more, for any hopes of sort of a sustainable reopening.
But the state superseded us local governments, and decided to reopen most things, and stripped away our authority. So that’s where we pivoted to thinking if we can’t contain this, let’s supercharge our contact tracing, let’s supercharge our focus on nursing homes and communications. We’ve built additional tools, like reaching the community through text messaging and other different ways.
Also, financial support. Many local governments received funding from the CARES Act. And what we wanted to do is get those funds out the door immediately, making sure that they reached the most vulnerable people. So none of the funds went to budget holes, even though the county is facing a tough economic situation as every other jurisdiction is.
Instead, we desiged programs in such a way that they prioritized the most vulnerable people, even setting aside $30 million from the local coffers to make sure that undocumented immigrants were receiving the same direct financial assistance that others were receiving. So whether it was the support to domestic violence victims, childcare, small business assistance, rental assistance, direct financial assistance … everything we did, and continue to do, has a focus on the folks that most need it.
So, thinking about your NHI experiences, what from those in particular helped you in this crisis, or in anything else you’ve done as an executive?
(Note: She participated in the 2006 Young Leaders Conference—now the Great Debate—as part of the Houston contingent, and then returned to coach students.)
What my time in NHI did for me helped build that confidence. I remember I competed in the extemporaneous speaking part, and it was just believing that you could master an issue and have the knowledge and the confidence to speak on it, and then teach other people how to do it. So I think it’s building on that experience.
That NHI network is part of what inspired me to run for office, to say, “Wait a minute, I can’t wait for other people to do it. I know I’m capable. I know I have something to say. And I’m going to take matters into my own hands.” When it came time to run for office, they tell you the first people you ought to call is your friends, your personal network. And I remember going down my NHI list and having that faith from these folks who’ve known me since I was 14 and 15. It was so empowering and so important. As anyone who’s running for office or has thought about it knows, it’s hard to just find the guts to do it, you know? So that always meant a lot to me.
It was also a really important network for me, because all the kids in our region were encouraged by our mentors to not just apply to college — it was assumed we were going to apply to college — but to apply to the best schools. Everyone hears stories of the counselor that tells the students don’t even worry about applying to Stanford or Harvard, because you’ll never get in. For me, through NHI, it was the opposite. When I sat down to pick the schools I was applying to, they were Stanford and Princeton and Harvard and Yale, because why not? We worked on our applications together, and the network was, in many ways, very helpful, just very empowering.
What in particular did you learn coming back to mentor? It’s one thing to have what you learn experientially in NHI, but another to come back and guide and mentor students about to have the experience you had.
It’s always important to have peer mentors. One of the factors in my running for office was watching other young elected officials there in the halls of power, and recognizing that I could also run. And so, I think that it’s just impactful. I remember, there were some kids in our class that they were just terrified of public speaking. And we could tell them, “Look, if I can do it, you can do it too.” There’s something about peer mentorship. You build that relationship that you carry forward as I did. So that’s really powerful.
NHI is very much about developing Latino and Latina leaders, and to think about the assets in their community no matter where they lead, be it in business or in government. Your path has taken you to the very important role of Harris County judge. And though you’re there to lead for all people in Harris County, how does being a Latina leader propel you or motivate you or otherwise carry you?
I feel that responsibility very strongly. I think any woman in elected office, any minority in elected office, can share the same stories. I have people coming up to me, little girls, parents of little girls, saying it’s just so important to have you as an example, and to show that it can be done. A county judge in Texas doesn’t normally look like I do.
I hope that in some ways, it inspires people who may not look like this, what a county judge usually looks like, to run for office. I do think that there’s a value in bringing different perspectives, that it’s not diversity for the sake of it, but because the different perspectives yield better policies. For my part, I bring my experiences as an immigrant, as someone who’s lived and worked in different countries, and knows the value of different opinions, who’s not going to just do things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done. And so I think that all kinds of different backgrounds bring that kind of richness, and I hope that I represent not just the Hispanic community, but the diversity of this country, and in particular, my county.
Finally, what’s next for you, thinking about 2021 and beyond?
We’re just thinking about our agenda. We got a lot done this past year; it wasn’t just COVID. We built our first Early Childhood Education Fund, we built a legal defense fund for immigrants. We implemented bail reform in Harris County, and all sorts of reforms after the George Floyd protests that we’ve been working on. Obviously, elections, we’ve become a model for accessible and secure elections.
But there were areas that we weren’t able to work on, that had to be put on the back burner because of COVID. So I’m eager to work on that in the next two years. I’m in a hurry to do that. I am going to run for re-election to be able to finish those projects. Before I got here, the $5 billion budget was not done according to any sort of metrics or performance indicators. It was whatever was done the year before plus inflation. So we’re overhauling the way the budget is done, so it’s accountable and metrics-based. So I’ll do that.
And after that, I’m really not sure. We’ve got plenty on our hands!
(Photo of Lina Hidalgo courtesy of Harris County Judge’s Office)