While Hidalgo has refused to debate Mealer, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) and Democratic challenger Lesley Briones have met twice in recent candidate forums to present their views on issues relevant to county government.
Cagle, a former civil court judge, has served on the commissioners court since 2011. Although he is technically the incumbent, last year, the commissioners court’s three Democrats voted to completely shift his precinct geographically, giving Democrats an electoral advantage of about 7 percent.
Challenger Lesley Briones is the former chief executive officer of the controversial Laura & John Arnold Foundation, a Houston-based LLC that engages in efforts to end cash bail and provides grants to progressive groups such as the Vera Institute of Justice. In 2019, Democrats on the commissioners court sparked controversy when they rushed the appointment of Briones as the judge for a civil court without seeking public comment or giving Republican commissioners the opportunity to review her resume.
During a forum sponsored by several of the county’s Super Neighborhood groups, Cagle emphasized that the core functions of county government are public safety, roads and bridges, and flood control, and repudiated his Democratic colleagues for wading into national and state issues.
“I believe firmly that the role of county government, county commissioners court, is to be local, not global,” said Cagle, who touted his precinct’s crews maintaining roads, bridges, parks, and drainage ditches.
Briones, who has also campaigned on abortion rights according to her website, said she would work in collaboration with Democrats already on the commissioners court to “build a Harris County that is safer and more affordable for all of our families.”
“We need a Harris County that continues to move forward, not back,” added Briones, who disparaged Cagle for skipping recent meetings and depriving the court of the quorum needed to raise taxes on residents.
Briones sided with Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), who include non-traditional items such as youth intervention programs and mental health services as public safety spending. She praised their current approach, adding that “law enforcement spending has gone up every year and accounts for about two-thirds of our budget.” She also claimed that without the tax increase, law enforcement budgets would be cut.
Cagle noted that the county’s public safety spending had not added any new patrol officers in response to dramatically rising crime, and that while Democrats had increased funding to the Public Defender’s office by 26 percent, they had only increased the district attorney’s office by 7 percent.
“Prosecutors in the system are handling between 500 and 600 cases,” said Cagle. “If you’re a victim of crime, you’re depending upon your prosecutor who’s gonna stand in court to make sure that your case gets handled properly to balance yours with all of the other 500 plus cases.”
Cagle also disputed Brione’s claim that budgets would be cut without the tax increase, asserting that at the default tax rate the county would still take in an estimated $66 to $72 million in new revenue.
Regarding the county’s allocation of road funds, which Democrats changed from a formula based on county road miles to an even split per precinct in 2019 and have recently signaled intent to re-allocate based on social criteria, Briones indicated support for a new formulation.
“I will always advocate for my precinct, for residents, and for our 1,423 miles of road that I look forward to taking care of,” said Briones. “But at the same time, we need to be honest, and there are areas that have been underserved.”
Cagle pointed out that while some areas overlap with Houston and other cities, Precincts 3 — under Commissioner Tom Ramsey — and 4 include more unincorporated areas that entirely depend on the county for road and park maintenance and flood and drainage projects.
Briones defended Democrats’ shift of $424 million from the toll road authority, saying, “[W]e need to think much more expansively about mobility in Harris County,” and said funds should be used for trailways and mass transit.
Cagle noted that his precinct had invested extensively in trailways, but added, “[A] good trail is not a substitute for a good road when you need to get to work.”
Both Cagle and Briones agreed that additional flood control projects would be needed, with Briones lamenting the slow progress of work approved by voters in a 2018 flood bond initiative and Cagle saying every project approved in that bond is either on time or ahead of schedule.
On the issue of the more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds received by the county, Briones defended establishing new programs for free daycare and early childhood education, while Cagle said the funds should have gone to public safety and infrastructure.
“$48 million to provide free early child education daycare for 1,000 kids is not a core function when we have 22 school districts and a Department of Education,” quipped Cagle. “Moreover, it’s not even an efficient way to provide mass early childhood education: that’s $48,000 per kid.”
While Briones said she supported passage of the county’s proposed $1.2 billion bond in addition to the other proposed tax increase, Cagle said it was not the time to raise taxes on residents still recovering from the pandemic shutdown and skyrocketing inflation. He also questioned the vague nature of the bond proposal and the $1 million county Democrats had allocated for “community engagement” to promote passage.
In closing, Briones said she would be the first mother and third woman to serve on Harris County Commissioners Court.
“You want a mother fighting for you, you want somebody who has worked multiple jobs and is still paying their student loans to fight for you,” said Briones, who earned $315,000 as CEO of the Arnold Foundation and received additional compensation for serving as the organization’s general counsel. “I will fight for all working families.”
Cagle closed touting his infrastructure work and endorsements from the county’s law enforcement organizations. “When it comes to the police there’s a lot of rhetoric of what’s done, where there’s cuts and not cuts, but the cops are not fooled.”
While Cagle and Briones met for a second forum at a senior living center last week, Garcia has not agreed to any candidate forums with Republican challenger Jack Morman.
Although former sheriff of Harris County, Garcia has lost support of police over his efforts to take contract authority from the constables and push more lenient bail bond policies. Consequently, the county’s law enforcement associations are supporting Morman in this election.
Despite the Democratic-leaning of the district, an August poll of 600 likely voters with a margin of error of 4.9 percent showed Briones with a two-point lead over Cagle.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.