One of many important local elections slated for 2020 is that for Harris County District Attorney, where Democrat incumbent Kim Ogg is facing multiple challengers from both sides of the political aisle.
In 2016, Ogg handily won her election for D.A. of the state’s most populous county.
While Hillary Clinton carried the county and swept many other Democrats into office that year, Ogg’s margin of victory was bolstered by conservatives who refused to support then-incumbent Republican Devon Anderson for multiple issues, including indictments of David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt over their investigation of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.
During her tenure, Ogg has enacted promised criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support, but for many on the political Left, she has not gone far enough.
In 2017, Ogg instituted the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program (MMDP) which allows offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana to avoid arrest by opting for a $150, four-hour course. Participants do not face charges and the county does not pay costs associated with arrest and prosecution.
In the previous decade, Ogg says the county prosecuted more than 100,000 individuals for misdemeanor possession at a cost of more than $100 million.
Earlier this year she announced that the program had reduced such arrests by 80 percent, and according to Ogg campaign director Jaime Mercado, those numbers have fallen even further since the Texas Legislature legalized hemp production in June.
But former prosecutor and Democratic primary challenger Audia Jones says Ogg’s program is insufficient.
In an open letter to the D.A., Jones calls for an end to prosecutions “for marijuana possession, full stop.” She argues that the $150 fee is too onerous, and that despite a decline in prosecutions, the county still arrested 4,900 people for possession of fewer than 4 ounces even after implementation of the MMDP.
Jones does not mention that the program is not applicable to occurrences in nominally “drug-free zones” such as schools. She does acknowledge that MMDP does not apply in cases of suspected intent to distribute but Jones suggests that the county’s standards for evidence of intent are overly stringent.
Although elected officials such as Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) admit that the county is experiencing a “staggering increase in crime,” Audia Jones has joined Ellis and others in criticizing Kim Ogg for requesting additional prosecutors for the D.A.’s office.
Ogg’s initial request for an additional 102 prosecutors was rejected by Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this year, who instead voted to significantly increase funding for the public defender’s office.
Jones says that in order to relieve the prosecution backlog, Ogg should instead decline to prosecute in more cases.
Endorsed by the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Jones is also promising to stop seeking cash bail and to “eliminate pretrial incarceration unless necessary to ensure community safety or to prevent willful failure to return to court.”
If elected, Jones would add to the number of county elected officials formally associated with the Houston Democratic Socialists of America; others include her husband, criminal district court Judge Dasean Jones, and county criminal court Judge Franklin Bynum.
In addition to criticism that her pre-trial diversion programs don’t go far enough, Ogg has come under fire for her amicus brief opposing some aspects of the county’s controversial bail bond settlement.
While Ogg says she remains committed to bail bond reform, she expressed concern that some terms of the consent decree extend “far beyond the scope of the original controversy,” and that some of the remedies already in operation are contributing to skyrocketing non-appearance rates in the county’s courts and jeopardizing public safety.
Despite the concerns expressed by Ogg and other witnesses, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal recently approved the settlement terms as written.
Mary Nan Huffman, one of two candidates filing for the Republican primary, also testified regarding concerns over the bail bond settlement.
A former assistant district attorney in Montgomery County with 10 years of prosecutorial experience, Huffman now works as an attorney for the Houston Police Officers Union (HPOU).
Huffman told The Texan that she supports bail bond reform, but like Ogg she objects to some of the specifics of the settlement.
She said in her work with HPOU, she sees officers who “put their lives on the line every day,” but a large number of alleged criminals out on minimal or personal recognizance bond puts both law enforcement officers and the community at greater risk.
“I’m not a politician; I’m a prosecutor and a mother of two toddlers, I want my boys to grow up in a safe place.”
Huffman added that her race wasn’t necessarily against Ogg specifically, and noted that the winner of the Republican primary could end up facing any of the other Democrat candidates.
Although HPOU and the D.A. both testified in opposition to the bail settlement terms, the union has publicly criticized Kim Ogg over bail policies and the ongoing controversy surrounding efforts to exonerate and compensate Alfred Dewayne Brown.
After serving more than 10 years for allegedly killing Houston police officer Charles Clark, Brown was freed due to phone evidence that made it difficult to place him at the scene.
Ogg opened a new investigation and declared Brown actually innocent which entitles him to state compensation. However, the Texas Attorney General conducted a separate investigation and advised the state Comptroller not to issue compensation.
The matter is now headed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Ogg has also been more willing than her predecessors in the D.A.’s office to investigate and prosecute police officers, and most recently her office has moved to charge officers in the Harding Street raid incident.
One other candidate has filed as Republican: attorney Lloyd Oliver.
Oliver has run for numerous offices over the past two decades, including for Harris County D.A. He’s been affiliated with both parties, but has run as a Democrat since at least 2012.
When asked why he switched parties, Oliver told The Texan, “People say it’s because I’m a spy and traitor; all of that is true and worse.”
He added that the Democratic party platform had become “silly,” and that he’d probably vote for President Trump because Trump “is a good leader and a good man to boot. And he has a beautiful wife.”
Oliver has a reputation for making controversial comments on a range of issues, and in 2012 Democratic Party officials unsuccessfully attempted to remove him from the ballot after he won a primary race.
Perhaps true to form, Oliver told The Texan he decided to run against Kim Ogg because “she is a filthy, disgusting lesbian.”
In response, Kim Ogg sent the following statement to The Texan: “I believe Mr. Oliver knows he will be roundly condemned for his hateful remarks, but nevertheless made a calculation that a segment of voters will silently respond to his hate speech.”
While Ogg clarified that she did not think Oliver’s comment worth a rebuttal, she said this kind of language can have “violent consequences.”
“I know because I prosecute the acts born from vile remarks like this. I hope Mr. Oliver is wrong and that there will be no silent segment, that everyone in both parties will rise, not to my defense, but to the defense of common decency and respect.”
The filing deadline for 2020 primary races is Monday, December 9.
Update: Lori DeAngelo, a former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office, has also filed a Republican. For more information on this race, read Harris County District Attorney Race Embroiled in Debate Over Leniency for Criminals Amid Concerns Over Crime.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.