Political Connections

A Model for Texas Democrats

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has beaten back critics as she’s implemented criminal-justice reforms.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg speaks at an event.
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

HOUSTON—It’s hard to top Kim Ogg as a symbol for the rapid pace of political change in urban America, even in states that remain very conservative overall.

Ogg is a left-leaning, openly gay Democratic attorney from this city. In 2016, she routed a Republican incumbent by just over 108,000 votes to win election as the district attorney for Harris County, which includes Houston and surrounding suburbs. Since taking office, Ogg has rapidly engineered changes in criminal-justice policy more familiar in reliably blue cities along the coasts, and she’s denounced efforts by President Trump’s administration and Texas Republicans to toughen enforcement against undocumented immigrants.

Her message is bracingly direct: She intends to build a Democratic model for public safety that challenges the prevailing Republican “tough on crime” narrative in the state. “I am confident that not only is reform compatible with public safety, but reform is required to make us safer,” she insisted at an Atlantic forum on criminal-justice reform that I moderated here last week.

Early in the 2000s, Harris County, like many metro areas, shifted slowly toward the Democrats: Barack Obama carried it by about 18,000 votes in his first election and by less than 1,000 votes in 2012. But in 2016, the dam burst. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the county by more than 160,000 votes, and Democrat Ed Gonzalez ousted a Republican incumbent as county sheriff by 73,000 votes.

Ogg’s victory may have been the most head-turning. It came after Republican incumbent Devon Anderson tried to rally local conservatives by describing Ogg as “a liberal, pro-choice lesbian.” After the election, Ogg described that moment as akin to the common “bad dream” where you show up at school with no clothes on. After assuming office in early 2017, Ogg implemented an overhaul, quickly firing over three dozen prosecutors. “I did not trust … the architects of the system that I ran against to work with me to rebuild it,” she told me in an interview. “I also diversified the leadership, and I think that that was critical in the most diverse city in the country.”

In February 2017, Ogg joined with Gonzalez, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to announce a policy that decriminalized possession of four ounces or less of marijuana. Now, people caught with those amounts are not arrested or even ticketed, but instead sent to a drug-education class.

Ogg then targeted enforcement of other drug laws. She stopped prosecuting people caught with residue amounts of drugs other than marijuana that are too small to use. She’s also backed an array of diversion programs for other nonviolent crimes, including one that eliminates jail time for small retail thefts. Ogg says all of these ideas promote fiscal responsibility: Until the marijuana-diversion program went into effect, she notes, the county had been spending $27 million annually locking up low-level offenders. She also argues that these policies advance social equity by leaving fewer people scarred by a criminal record that harms their long-term employment prospects.

But at the same time, she acknowledges that the key to sustained public acceptance will be evidence that these reforms improve public safety. “We have to show that these reforms don’t just save money and people’s lives, they also protect the public,” Ogg told me in the interview. “Instead of the dragnet that arrests 110,000 people a year, many for very minor crimes, if we have a more nuanced and efficient approach we’ll make people safer.”

Not surprisingly, especially in Texas, plenty of critics on the Right are unconvinced. The marijuana-decriminalization policy drew attacks from some Republican district attorneys in surrounding counties, as well as the state’s strongly conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former Houston talk-radio host. The Houston Police Officers’ Union has also sparred with Ogg over several of her initiatives.

Even amid such complaints, some local observers believe Ogg faces greater political risk from the other direction: energized, grassroots African-American and Hispanic activists who believe her reforms don’t go far enough. It’s not easy to walk the tightrope between those offsetting pressures. Ogg, though, is optimistic that Harris County’s diversion programs are building a new model for the state. “I think it will continue to be politicized, but I think the fight is over,” she said. “We have reformed drug policy in the largest urban area in Texas, and eventually the rest of Texas will follow.”

To drive that change, and the many other policy shifts that they seek, Texas Democrats still face an uphill climb against Republicans, who remain dominant outside of the state’s largest metro areas. But with Texas’s biggest cities tilting toward them, Democrats, for the first time in years, now have a beachhead from which to mount that fight.

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