Concluding a blistering and hard-fought campaign for both candidates, Democrat Kim Ogg has won the seat for Harris County district attorney to replace Republican incumbent Devon Anderson.
In their second heated matchup since Anderson beat Ogg at the polls in the 2014 election, Ogg was leading Anderson by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, after building a campaign around promising to uphold victims' rights and go after hardened, violent criminals as opposed to low-level offenders.
After thanking and congratulating Anderson for her service, Ogg said of her win, "This is so personal to me. I just want you to know: I’m a hometown girl; I love Houston; I love our people; I believe in justice; I hate discrimination, and until the day I die I will be fighting for the things we all believe in. It’s called justice. it’s called justice for all."
"The voters have said they agree that we will be safer if we prioritize felons by holding them accountable, but by not giving them a criminal conviction simply because they can," Ogg said, referencing her plans for criminal justice reforms for low-level offenders. "It’s a new day of justice in Harris County."
Over the last several months, Ogg's campaign messages have been fueled by inopportune scandals plaguing the current district attorney's office administration, scandals for which Anderson has largely taken the blame.
The most damaging controversy by far was the jailed rape-victim case, in which Anderson defended a prosecutor who, fearing his key witness would run away, jailed a mentally ill rape victim for 27 days in order to secure her testimony and convict a serial rapist. A close second: Anderson's decision to wait roughly five months before notifying her trial prosecutors and the defense bar about the possibility that drug evidence could have been destroyed in hundreds of defendants' cases dating back to 2007. That was thanks to the rogue Precinct 4 property room manager who incinerated thousands of pounds of drugs before checking to make sure the cases were closed.
Overwhelmingly in Ogg's favor, both scandals stole center stage from other pressing everyday internal policy issues, such as drug diversion policies, which otherwise would have dominated the race as they did two years ago.
Anderson promised drug reforms in 2014 that she has not only followed through with but expanded upon: She first implemented her First Chance Intervention Program in October 2014, allowing first-time low-level marijuana offenders off the hook in exchange for community service. Then, in February, she expanded the First Chance model to first-time shoplifters and felony drug offenders (with less than 4 ounces of drugs), who could go to rehab instead of jail.
Still, Ogg only went bigger, saying she saw no point in offering things like marijuana diversion to only first-time offenders. In an interview with the Houston Press earlier this year, Ogg said she would seek to effectively decriminalize misdemeanor-level marijuana by declining to prosecute any of those misdemeanor cases — and not just those for first-timers, but all offenders. “We've created a class of repeat offenders, and by continuing to give them convictions for low-level crimes, we make them unemployable, un-houseable, and ripe for re-entering the criminal justice system.”
The policy played into Ogg's core campaign message of focusing on violent criminals as opposed to low-level ones, which Ogg's supporters at her watch party at Ritual Tuesday night—many of them former or current lawyers, including John Raley who helped exonerate Michael Morton—largely cited as the reason they voted for her.
"She has the experience, she's compassionate toward victims, and she has a vision to change criminal justice in Harris County that coincides the way criminal justice needs to change in America," said Joe Inocencio, a retired Houston Police Department lieutenant. "Low-level narcotics arrests for minorities, especially minorities, should not be a priority in Harris County. It should be violent crime; it should be robberies and burglaries. [Ogg] is the leader who can change that."
While Anderson has always maintained a commitment to crack down on violent crime, this time around it appeared to backfire, with Ogg's political ads accusing Anderson of going to any lengths —including jailing a rape victim — to win a conviction.
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Even some right-wing conservatives ditched Anderson, with Texas Right to Life running anti-Anderson ads calling her a “fake Republican” in the final weeks of the campaign. The ad criticized her for indicting two anti-abortion activists who infiltrated Planned Parenthood using fake IDs in order to discuss buying fetal tissue, which is illegal. (Then Anderson, who is pro-life, made even more left-of-center people angry when she dismissed the indictments based on vague technicalities months later.)
Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that Donald Trump's name on the ballot likely did not help her case either, only inviting more straight-ticket Democrat voters, including more Latinos, to come out to the polls and widen the margin for Ogg.
“It's not helpful to have people firing you from the right if you're running as a Republican,” he said. “I think most Republicans probably [voted] for Anderson, but maybe a couple thousand [were] affected by this argument on the far-right. And she didn't need that. She needed everything working great to win in this environment, because the environment is distinctly hostile to Republicans this year because of the sharp increase in Latino participation.”
Update, November 9, 6:02 a.m.: With 100 percent of ballots tallied, Ogg defeated Anderson 54 percent to 46 percent. A total of 95,628 Harris County residents casted ballots.