A specter is haunting Harris County—the specter of Fidel Castro. It manifested in a Houston suburb earlier this month, when the Greater Tomball Area Pachyderm Club hosted a debate between Vidal Martinez and Alexandra del Moral Mealer, the two Republican candidates vying for a chance to unseat Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top executive, in November. The most dramatic moment came during closing statements, when Martinez, a lawyer and longtime power broker in Houston Republican circles, held up a photograph of Mealer’s grandfather signed by the late Cuban dictator. 

“This is a picture that’s inscribed to her grandfather as a ‘compatriot of the revolution,’” he said, to a mixture of groans and laughs from the audience. “There’s not going to be a single way that a Communist Castro grandfather that gave her all her inspiration is going to be elected from the Latino community.” 

Mealer, a 37-year-old investment banker and retired Army captain, defended her grandfather, Armando del Moral, who she said was forced to flee his native Spain after fighting fascist general Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. “This man chooses to spit on my grandfather’s grave,” a visibly infuriated Mealer shot back. “The fact that this is your attack? That’s pathetic.” (Mealer later told Texas Monthly that she doesn’t know the story behind the photo, but noted that her grandfather’s first name was misspelled—an indication, she said, that Castro did not know him well. Her grandfather died in 2009.)

The Joe McCarthy–style ambush came as a surprise to many in Harris County, where the 67-year-old Martinez has been a pillar of the legal and business communities for more than forty years. After earning his law degree from the University of Houston, Martinez started his career as a federal prosecutor before going into private practice, focusing on international law. Over the years he’s served on dozens of public and private boards, including those of the Houston Hispanic Forum, the Houston Methodist Hospital System, the University of Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 

Yet in the March 1 Republican primary, Martinez came in second behind Mealer, a political novice who has lived in the county for less than a decade. In a field of nine candidates, four of them Hispanic, Mealer won 30 percent of the vote to Martinez’s 26 percent. Because no candidate cracked 50 percent, Mealer and Martinez will face each other in a runoff election on May 24. Getting bested by a little-known candidate three decades his junior appears to have rattled Martinez. “My opponent is from California and moved here six years ago,” he told a crowd of about fifty supporters at a meet-and-greet in West Houston last week. “She has no community footprint. I respect her military service, but other than that we don’t know anything about [her].”

The intensity of the runoff election reflects a burning desire among local and state Republicans to oust Hidalgo, who has established a national political profile and is widely seen as a future statewide candidate. In 2018, the 27-year-old first-time candidate shocked the political establishment by narrowly defeating three-term Republican Ed Emmett, a sober technocrat who projected competence and stability. In office, Hidalgo has pursued an ambitious progressive agenda: expanded early childhood education, stricter regulation of land development and pollution, criminal justice reform, easier access to voting, and support for undocumented immigrants. These policies, and the Democrat’s aggressive response to the coronavirus pandemic, have made her a hero for Texas liberals and a bête noire for the right. She’s come under fire for everything from her comportment at law enforcement funerals to conducting bilingual news conferences

“Judge Hidalgo has reinvented the role of the county judge,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “She has made it much more political in terms of matching her values to her budgets. Not that others didn’t do that in the past, but her approach makes it very visible. As a result, you’re going to get a lot of attention, and that potentially is going to generate controversy. Certainly the pandemic brought out the sense that this position is really important.”

No Republican has won a county-wide election in Harris County since 2014, but a series of high-profile scandals may have left Hidalgo vulnerable—especially in a midterm election likely to see strong Republican turnout. Last year, controversy erupted over an $11 million contract for vaccine outreach awarded by Hidalgo’s senior aides to a well-connected Democratic vendor. The contract was canceled, but a Texas Rangers investigation is ongoing, and three members of Hidalgo’s staff have received criminal indictments. (Hidalgo denies all wrongdoing and has retained the three staffers.) In March, Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria—who was hired by a board chaired by Hidalgo—was forced to resign after a botched primary election in which 10,000 ballots were accidentally left out of the preliminary count. Hidalgo’s handpicked IT director, former Democratic state representative Rick Noriega, has presided over a series of system outages, culminating last month in a crash that mistakenly caused the release of nearly three hundred Harris County defendants from pretrial detention

Hidalgo, who pledged to end the county’s good-old-boy system—in which officials award contracts to campaign donors—does not accept contributions from county vendors. But she has been charged by her Republican challengers with steering lucrative jobs and contracts to political supporters. In essence, they say, she has simply traded one form of corruption for another. “I think voters are sensitive to these issues, because Harris County has been a place where there have been these corruption issues in the past,” Rottinghaus said. “Hidalgo ran on the premise that she was going to clean that up, and the case could be made that she hasn’t done that, and has maybe made it worse.”

In a recent phone interview with Texas Monthly, Hidalgo vigorously defended her record and described the contract investigation as a politically motivated hit job. “I think voters can see through the false allegations, and I’ve heard as much from the community,” she said. “My opponents are courting the Trump side of the party, and Harris County has never subscribed to that.” (Hillary Clinton won Harris County by twelve percentage points in 2016, and Joe Biden won it by thirteen in 2020.) “They’re promising a return to the old way of doing things. We know what that kind of control of Harris County looks like, and I just don’t think voters want that.” 

While Mealer and Martinez have avoided talking directly about Trump on the campaign trail, their platforms include Trumpian positions on public safety, immigration, the teaching of racial issues in public schools, “election security,” and pandemic health measures. Mealer has said she was partly inspired to run for office by her opposition to a school requirement that her children wear masks. At his campaign event in West Houston, Martinez described Hidalgo’s $30 million early childhood education initiative as a nefarious plot to get “campaign consultants to come in and teach five-year-olds critical race theory”—a framework for studying persistent discrimination that is typically taught in college and seldom, if ever, in public schools. Martinez has touted the endorsements of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who continues to promote unfounded conspiracy theories that Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election, and Steve Hotze, a far-right Harris County activist who was recently indicted for allegedly paying a former cop to assault an air-conditioning repairman he suspected, without evidence, was transporting fraudulent mail ballots. For her part, Mealer has been endorsed by popular local right-wing radio host Michael Berry and Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale. 

Both Republican candidates have called public safety their number one issue. Violent crime has spiked in Harris County over the past few years, as it has across the country. Police reported 469 homicides in Houston last year, a 71 percent increase over 2019. In response, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court earmarked $1.38 billion for justice and safety programs in its most recent budget—more than 64 percent of total spending, and a 14 percent increase from 2021. The money will pay for new law enforcement vehicles, constable pay increases, additional sheriff patrol deputies, and 35 more positions in the criminal investigation bureau of the sheriff’s office. 

Mealer and Martinez say the county should be spending even more. They have also pledged to withdraw the county from the 2019 ODonnell settlement, reached between a group of misdemeanor defendants and the county, which eliminated cash bail for low-level offenses in the county, and which they blame for creating a “revolving door” justice system. At his recent meet-and-greet, Martinez promised to “head-shot” the reforms on his first day—although it was unclear whether the veteran attorney had actually read the agreement. He referred to it in public and in an interview as the “Donnally settlement,” and asserted that it applied to those charged with both misdemeanors and felonies. Only after Texas Monthly corrected him did Martinez admit his mistake—although he stood by his commitment to killing the settlement. In an interview, Mealer acknowledged that ODonnell applied only to misdemeanor defendants, but said that local judges were incorrectly applying it to felony defendants as well. (Civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the settlement, said the county judge cannot unilaterally scrap it; dissolving ODonnell would likely take a prolonged court battle.)

Hidalgo rejected the argument that bail reform is responsible for the crime spike, pointing out that cities that haven’t enacted bail reform are also seeing higher murder rates. “If this were some sort of local issue, the crime rate wouldn’t be rising nationally,” she said. “We’re looking at what the research says, and we’re investing in those policies—violence intervention, precision policing hyper-targeted to the communities that have the biggest increase in violent crime.” 

Because they share most of the same policy positions, Martinez and Mealer have mainly battled it out on their qualifications and electability. Mealer cites her experience as an explosive-ordnance disposal officer in Afghanistan, while Martinez touts his deep knowledge of Harris County, particularly its Hispanic community—at more than 2 million, the second largest in the country, behind that of Los Angeles County. In the debate, he pointed out that Mealer doesn’t speak Spanish. “If you can’t talk to them, you can’t talk for them,” he said. Mealer responded by touting the endorsement she received from the Houston Police Organization of Spanish Speaking Officers. “This is the third-largest county in the country, with over one hundred and fifty languages spoken,” she countered. “And when you start dissecting and disintegrating people, tearing them down, that’s divisive language.” 

Mealer also went on the offensive during the debate, slamming Martinez for donating money to Democrats in Harris County, including to Judge Hidalgo shortly after her 2018 election. Martinez explained that he and other members of the Greater Houston Partnership, a pro-business board on which he served, gave Hidalgo money in hope of gaining favor with her, comparing his actions to Donald Trump, before he entered politics, donating to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns. “We made a business decision to at least have some access to her, and hope that we could have some influence on her to drive the county car. She quickly disappointed us.”

That kind of pay-to-play is exactly what’s wrong with Harris County politics, Mealer replied, claiming that she had never donated to a Democratic candidate. “I am not a political insider—if you want the establishment, it’s right there,” she said, pointing to Martinez as she received one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night. “I’m an outsider and I want meaningful change for our community.” (Unlike Hidalgo, however, both Mealer and Martinez have said they will accept donations from county vendors.) 

Many local Republicans had hoped that former judge Emmett would run again this year; Martinez told me that he waited to declare until he knew that Emmett wouldn’t be in the race. Since losing to Hidalgo in 2018, Emmett has kept a relatively low profile, serving as a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and mostly confining criticisms of his successor to private gatherings. He recently broke his public silence about Hidalgo in a wide-ranging interview with Texas Monthly, slamming his successor for losing focus on what he called the office’s core responsibilities of flood control, infrastructure, and public safety. (Emmett said he decided not to run this year because he “needed to get on with my life.”)

“She has brought a very partisan approach to the office of county judge,” Emmett said, “which is unusual because typically county judges deal with issues that are not particularly partisan. I think ultimately her tenure is going to be judged by whether or not people think she has accomplished anything.” Did Emmett think she had accomplished anything? “Not much that I can think of,” he responded. 

Emmett has not endorsed either candidate in the Republican primary, saying he trusts the voters to make that decision. “I think it’s really going to come down to the question of, what do you want to do as county judge? And the candidate that can articulate that the best is going to come out the winner.”

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