The 2016 election had traumatic consequences for the country as a whole when Donald Trump was elected president in a surprise win. However, Harris County saw some positive changes as more progressive candidates were elected locally. The victory of District Attorney Kim Ogg, 61, an out lesbian Democrat who ousted an embattled incumbent, elevated her to the status of the highest-ranking LGBTQ criminal-justice official in the country. Now, as she approaches next month’s election asking for a second term, Ogg hopes her plans for the future will earn her the votes she needs to win on November 3.
During the Democratic primary election, Ogg defeated Audia Jones, a former assistant district attorney who ran to the left of Ogg. Jones was able to pick up a few endorsements from groups that had previously supported Ogg, like the Texas Organizing Project and, most notably, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. That Caucus endorsement resulted from a split vote of 121-95 among Caucus membership, and instantly made headlines as the LGBTQ community, arguably a solid base for Ogg, seemed to be distancing itself from her.
“I would say [losing the Caucus endorsement] gave me a broader perspective about issues of intersectionality that are important to our community,” Ogg says. “[During the screening process] I was talking more about what I had done to improve things for the LGBTQ community, and I should have been talking more about racial justice. I’ve expanded my perspective now.”
Caucus President Jovon Tyler notes that while Ogg had a great deal of support within the organization during the primary endorsement process, “a majority of the members wanted to see more progressive policies from [her] office.”
Following her successful Democratic primary race, Ogg has secured the Caucus endorsement for the general election as she faces Republican candidate Mary Nan Huffman, a former Montgomery County prosecutor who currently serves as an attorney for the Houston Police Officers Union.
“The Caucus recognizes that DA Ogg has been the most progressive DA Harris County has had. That bar is low, however,” Tyler says. “We also understand that she has to follow the law. Many of the reforms we want to see are governed by state law, or controlled by other officials. We hope the DA will work with us to push others to make the needed changes and be open-minded in exploring the limits of her discretion.”
Endorsements aside, Ogg believes that she has worked hard to address issues impacting the lives of LGBTQ citizens, including constituents of color who encounter harmful policies and treatment much more often than their white counterparts. One of the policy changes that Ogg cites is putting an end to the prosecution of low-level drug offenses like the possession of trace amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
“Where Black and Brown communities were most disproportionately impacted by arrests was with drug offenses. I wanted to decrease the unnecessary over-policing of communities where drug arrests were often used as an excuse. Drug use is equal in all communities, but you get more enforcement in Black and Brown communities,” says Ogg.
Ogg also recently incorporated the Make It Right program into the DA’s office. The goal of the program is to connect people with criminal records to pro-bono lawyers to assist them with getting their offenses expunged or put on nondisclosure status. The program also invites employers to connect with individuals who are willing and able to work, but who may have been held back by their record. Programs like this have a positive impact on the lives of the individuals receiving help, as well as the community at large, according to Ogg.
“If we make people more employable by eliminating criminal records that should be expunged or non-disclosed, then we strengthen our workforce and make our community safer. Having a job is the best type of crime prevention,” Ogg emphasizes.
Ogg also claims that she has made great strides in diversifying the leadership and professional staff in the DA’s office, which includes her attorneys and investigators. A diverse staff can add perspectives that previous Harris County DA offices often lacked.
“We have increased the hiring of African-American lawyers by 95 percent in my first three years, and Latino representation by 125 percent. The LGBTQ population is almost impossible for me to tell you about, but I am proud that we have an open atmosphere, a support group, and an ally group. By having an inclusive and diverse work atmosphere, it makes it more difficult for discimination by police and others [to occur]. It makes it much less acceptable. This is a step forward in how we finally destroy discrimination,” says Ogg.
Diversity in hiring was an intentional effort made by Ogg, who says that she accomplished it through active recruiting at universities like TSU and in other parts of Texas that had not traditionally been tapped for talent. Ogg says that if you’re going to support diversity, you can’t just take a superficial stab at it by increasing support staff. Typically, support-staff positions are overrepresented by employees of color. Some employers use those support-staff numbers to inflate their diversity and inclusion goals on paper, while in practice they neglect to hire people of color for higher-level and executive positions. This scenario also plays out in the hiring of women and LGBTQ employees.
The transgender community has also felt the brunt of a criminal-justice system that is often stacked against them, and Ogg says she recognizes this injustice.
“Historically, transgender people were disrespected and not given equal credibility in practice by police and prosecutors when they were victims. By implementing an evidence-based filing policy, whether it is a hate crime or any other type of crime, it reduces the analysis of the evidence to objective facts and prevents discrimination, whether it is intentional or unintentional bias. It gives the transgender community equal footing, whether they are victims or arrested.”
Ogg has also instituted implicit-bias training to improve the cultural competence of staff members. That training covers education about the transgender community as well as other margianlized communities. This, paired with an evidence-based approach to casework, has helped create a more equitable environment for victims and those arrested, according to Ogg.
Still, some LGBTQ Harris County residents urge Ogg to do even more to protect people of color, should she be reelected.
“We have had seven people killed by police this year,” says transgender activist Monica Roberts. “We need DA Ogg to start prosecuting and sending those bad officers to jail.”
Mike Webb, who was president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus during the primary election endorsement process, notes that “We’ve always advocated for DA Ogg to involve the community more in her policy and implementation decisions, especially as it relates to issues that disproportionately impact communities of color—including LGBTQ+ communities of color, which should be considered LGBTQ+ issues as well.”
District attorneys play a critical role in how a community responds to important issues like police brutality, police reform, racial and social justice, and the equitable treatment of all citizens. Ogg says she takes this responsibility seriously. Although she did not earn the Caucus endorsement for the primary race, she says she has heard what the community is asking for, and is mindful of the trust that they have put in her with their general-election endorsement.
“I want to thank my community for placing their confidence and trust in me at a time that is critical, in terms of the way the country is going to go. By bringing the LGBTQ perspective to this level in the fourth-largest city in the country, it gives us the credibility and the gravitas we need to make the changes that so many [smaller American] communities need and want,” says Ogg.
For more information on Kim Ogg, visit kim-ogg.com.
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.