Elections 2022Local NewsRepublican Challengers to Lina Hidalgo Spar in Heated Runoff for Harris County Judge

While the candidates have differentiated on some policy issues, arguments about electability and an attempt to discredit a candidate’s grandfather have backfired in the increasingly heated contest.
April 22, 2022
Republicans Vidal Martinez and Alexandra del Moral Mealer have hit the campaign trail in what has become a heated runoff race for a chance to replace Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo as Harris County judge.

The two emerged as victors in a nine-person primary election last month, with Mealer capturing 29 percent to Martinez’s 26 percent. In several recent forums, the candidates have outlined plans for addressing pressing local issues such as skyrocketing crime, flood mitigation, property taxes, and county spending, and presented different approaches to policy.

At a forum hosted by the Tomball Pachyderm Club, businessman and former federal prosecutor Martinez praised the county’s use of toll road revenues, saying, “Part of what’s been funding the county is we’re using hundreds of millions of dollars from the toll road authority to keep our property taxes low.”

In 2020, the Democrat-controlled commissioners court pushed through a plan to shift Harris County Toll Road Authority funds into the county’s general funds to circumvent restrictions that limited the use of revenues to transportation infrastructure and related facilities.  

Of the original restraints on the use of toll revenues in the 1983 election, Martinez said, “We are beyond the promise we made to taxpayers,” and suggested the county look at imposing additional fees on commercial trucks using the roadways. 

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“I am for an analysis of when and where we need to go,” said Martinez. “We’re going to have to have a rational discussion as a community.”

Mealer, a graduate of both West Point and Harvard who works in oil and gas-related finance, countered, “When Democrats talk about analyzing and studies, it really means they’re going to raise your taxes.”

“When I talk about the toll road, I don’t think we need to analyze and rationalize, and I certainly don’t want to increase any tolls on our commercial trucking. Keeping our port competitive, attracting business, growing the tax base, is how we make Harris County the…economic engine.”

Saying she was committed to lowering taxes, Mealer added toll roads were not keeping property taxes low since they had increased every year, especially through appraisals which she called “back-door tax increases.”

“Our appraisals have gone up 10 percent every year…and in this last year, 20 percent,” said Mealer. 

Instead, Mealer lambasted deficit spending, noting that under former county judge Ed Emmett the county spent $3.5 billion with revenues of $4.5 billion, but in the last year under Hidalgo, the county spent $7.6 billion while revenues climbed to $7.1 billion. 

“We lost population during that time, and there’s never enough money for what these people will spend,” said Mealer, who identified several new county spending initiatives, including Hidalgo’s recently approved $8 million for early childhood education despite the existence of more than 20 county school districts and the Harris County Department of Education. Other problems she highlighted included the county’s attempts to “fight crime by bureaucrats” rather than adding patrol officers. 

Both Republicans advocated for better county leadership on the halt to the I-45 improvement projects. Mealer noted she had visited with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and learned the project was not “take it or leave it,” but that the county could continue to work with the state agency.

Martinez, however, insisted the project was “take it or leave it,” and retorted, “You came from California six years ago and you don’t know how the process works in Austin.”

Martinez repeatedly emphasized his service on boards such as the University of Houston and Houston Methodist Hospital and called Mealer a “California tourist.”

Mealer noted she had been meeting with members of TxDOT and had first-hand information and asked Martinez when he had last met with the agency. She also emphasized that before coming to Harris County she had served in the Army for 10 years including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and characterized herself as a political “outsider.”

Candidates were both queried about whether they had ever donated to a Democratic candidate, and Martinez defended his $2,000 contributions to Hidalgo as a “business decision,” but did not specifically address his contributions to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) or former state representative Rick Noriega

“Me and most of the Greater Houston Partnership Board made a business decision to at least have some access to [Hidalgo],” said Martinez. 

“I’ve only given to Republicans, and I just want to know when you were writing that check to Lina, did you feel a little bad about it?” asked Mealer.

Despite additional discussion on issues of rising crime, the jail system, and indictments of Hidalgo staffers, a question from moderator Greg Groogan of FOX 26 about what candidate characteristics would constitute a tiebreaker between the two has drawn the most attention from the community.

Martinez answered, “electability,” and spoke briefly to the audience in Spanish and claimed that the election was about “fighting for the soul of the Latino community.”

“She is totally unelectable,” Martinez said of Mealer.

Mealer countered, “The tie-breaker should be about who can lead with integrity and honor.” She said that she was second-generation Hispanic and while not fluent in Spanish, she had been endorsed by the Libertad America PAC and Houston Police Organization of Spanish Speaking Officers PAC. 

However, noting there were 150 different languages spoken in Harris County, Mealer said, “When you start dissecting and disintegrating people, tearing them down, that’s divisive language.”

In his closing statements, Martinez held up what he said was a picture Fidel Castro had given to Mealer’s grandfather in the 1950s, prompting boos and jeers from the audience. 

Martinez’s attacks on Mealer drew the ire of popular talk radio show host Michael Berry, who ridiculed the idea that electability depended on speaking Spanish and excoriated Martinez for attempting to discredit Mealer through a grandparent and a 1955 photograph. Berry has been very vocal about the race on air and generally supportive of Mealer. 

The incident also prompted a public rebuke from Wesley Hunt, the Republican nominee for Texas 38th Congressional District, who during a radio interview with talk show host Ken Webster also endorsed Mealer and announced he would return Martinez’s campaign donations

This week, the Hunt campaign spent $5,000 on radio ads in which the former Army helicopter pilot and West Point graduate voices his support for Mealer. A campaign spokesman told The Texan they will be spending at least another $5,000 in the coming weeks.

Martinez touts endorsements from former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, state Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), and conservative activist Steve Hotze, among others. 

Mealer’s endorsements include former Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay, former Commissioner Steve Radack, and Dr. Mary Talley Bowden, who has taken on Methodist Hospital over COVID-19 treatment, vaccinations, and public data. 

Early voting for the runoff election begins May 16, and election day is May 24, 2022.


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Holly Hansen

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.