The race for Harris County District Attorney likely will come down to two things: party and voters’ definitions of “law and order.”
Incumbent Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, left, faces Republican Mary Nan Huffman in a bid for re-election. Huffman is a former Montgomery County prosecutor and the legal counsel for the Houston Police Officers Union.
Incumbent Kim Ogg has the edge in the former, running as a Democratic officeholder in the most populous blue county in Texas.
Republican Mary Nan Huffman hopes the latter will give her the advantage in what political observers say is an uphill battle.
“It’s the only (race) where the Republicans have even a ghost of a chance of winning in the cycle,” said Mark Jones, a professor at Rice University’s Department of Political Science. “She still is an extreme long shot.”
While Ogg frequently is the target of criticism by Huffman’s employer, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, the incumbent insists she has not veered to the far left on policing issues, adding she tries to walk the line between demands for public safety and criminal justice reform.
Ogg, 60, touts her indictments against multiple police officers in the fallout of a botched narcotics raid on Harding Street that left two residents dead, as well as her program to divert misdemeanor marijuana possession cases from the court system.
She also repeatedly has requested more prosecutors for her office and opposed a landmark settlement over the county’s use of cash bail for poor defendants, saying it did not do enough to protect the public from violent criminals.
Ogg was a longtime prosecutor before becoming the “gang czar” for Houston Mayor Bob Lanier. She subsequently served as executive director of Crimestoppers of Houston for six years before moving into private legal practice. She was elected district attorney on her second attempt in 2016.
Huffman, who brands herself as “not a politician” on her campaign website, is a former prosecutor in Montgomery County, where she was the felony chief in the Child Exploitation Division and the Internet Crimes Against Children Division. The 37-year-old now is now an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which has endorsed her and long been a staunch critic of Ogg.
Huffman said Harris County has not remained a safe place under Ogg’s leadership, whom she views as a progressive. On Twitter, she frequently shares stories about defendants who are released on bond and are accused of more crimes. In interviews, she often mentions streets being “flooded” with criminals let out on “sweetheart deal after sweetheart deal.”
“Harris County isn’t safer than it was four years ago — we’ve seen crime rise throughout Harris County,” she said. “Public safety should be the one thing that the government provides for its people.”
TEXAS TAKE: Catch the political news you need every weekday at HoustonChronicle.com.
Houston saw an uptick in violent crime for the first half of the year, with murders, aggravated assaults, robberies and sexual assaults up 6 percent in the first six months of 2020 over the same period in 2019. Aggravated assaults increased 21 percent overall from the first half of 2019. Robberies and sexual assaults were down.
Whether Huffman’s rhetoric about rising crime rates will tilt voters in her favor remains to be seen, said Jeronimo Cortina, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. Perception is key, he said, and people are more likely to vote for Huffman if they agree that crime is as bad as she says.
“It’s not very clear to me that such an argument … can sway a lot of voters,” Cortina said. “If you go out and you don’t see it, you don’t see people being mugged in the street or robbing a liquor store, a voter is going to create cognitive dissonance.”
Ogg and Huffman agree that the district attorney’s office needs to do its part to alleviate mounting caseloads in the district courts, especially the more than 1,300 murder and capital murder cases awaiting resolution.
The similarities mostly stop there, however. Ogg said she wants a better flow of evidence from police to attorneys at the start of prosecutions; Huffman said major problems stem from inexperienced prosecutors in Ogg’s intake division.
Ogg still wants more staff to handle the increasing caseloads. Huffman said she wants to return to at least a staffing level that makes up for prosecutors that Ogg lost during her first term, one of her major criticisms of the incumbent.
Huffman also has accused Ogg of being unethical in choosing which cases to prosecute, such as a failed environmental crimes prosecution against Houston Ship Channel chemical plant Arkema. After finding that prosecutors did not prove their case, Judge Belinda Hill last week issued a directed verdict acquitting three defendants in the trial. Another two defendants had already been dismissed.
She also pointed to several people who left the prosecutors’ office, saying Ogg cared more about prosecutorial wins than obtaining justice.
“She picks and chooses what cases to prosecute based on a political agenda and not facts and evidence, and that should scare everyone,” Huffman said. “We need a DA who does the right thing every single time.”
Ogg denied the accusations.
She chalked up some employees’ dissatisfaction with the office to a “changing of the old guard.” And she questioned whether Harris County residents would be receptive to a law-and-order district attorney after four years of progressive change.
“It would be a setback to have somebody who is single-mindedly pro-police,” Ogg said.
Huffman said she still plans to hold officers accountable when they take advantage of Harris County residents.
On HoustonChronicle.com: Emails show independent investigator hired to assist Harris County DA Kim Ogg has been sidelined
“I do support law enforcement but I support good law enforcement,” Huffman said. “Nobody likes a bad cop.”
Huffman has said she would recuse the office from the Harding Street investigations to avoid conflict of interest perceptions, but Ogg said voters should consider whether they want the county to turn over a police corruption case to be tried in a surrounding county that may be friendlier to police.
Ogg’s 2016 election was part of a Democratic sweep of every countywide office. She garnered support for her promises of criminal justice reform, but some of those early supporters have drifted, instead backing two of her primary opponents who branded themselves as more progressive than Ogg.
Jones said Ogg’s centrist position is likely what will help her in November.
“Kim Ogg doesn’t leave much space in the center that Huffman could move over and occupy and win in Harris County,” Jones said. “The only way for Huffman to win is to convince a significant number of voters going Democrat up and down the ballot to vote for her rather than Kim Ogg.”
Cortina anticipates voters will remain polarized along party lines, even though Ogg faces some dissatisfaction within her own party. Ogg’s struggles with some Democrats are unlikely to make a big difference, because it was not effective in the primary, he said.
“The attacks that she had in the primary from the left didn’t work very well because she won the nomination,” Cortina said.
For her part, the incumbent maintains her position as a reformer and promotes her misdemeanor marijuana program, police prosecutions and exoneration of previously incarcerated defendants as examples of a progressive agenda.
“We’ve only just begun the massive changes that I foresee happening in criminal justice across the country,” she said. “At least, we’ve begun here in pretty significant approaches and results.”
Huffman is running as a Republican, but said her candidacy is not about political party.
“If Kim Ogg had done a good job, I wouldn’t have run against her,” Huffman said. “I’m running for the people of Harris County. I think it has nothing to do with her being a Democrat.”