Recently, I asked outgoing Harris County Judge Ed Emmett if the new mental health facility that bears his name in Houston was his proudest achievement:
If you think losing re-election for Harris County Judge is going to knock Emmett out of public service, you don’t know this guy.
Ken meets Ed
I’ve gotten to know Emmett pretty well over the past few years. We met after I wrote a column about the Astrodome and Emmett, who’s very passionate about the Eighth Wonder, called and asked if we could meet over breakfast. Emmett thought I was advocating for tearing down the Dome, and wanted to share his position that it’d be better, and make more financial sense, to save the abandoned building.
I told him that I wasn’t arguing to demolish the Dome, I was saying either fix it and do something with it … or tear it down. Do something, one way or another.
Emmett gave me a look like, “oh.” And then he asked, “Do you play tennis?”
Ed Emmett, tennis ace
We’ve played tennis almost every week since. Usually early, like 7 am on Thursdays at Rice University, his alma mater. He wears a floppy white hat, like Aussie players of the ’60s.
His image is being calm under pressure, the adult in the room. But I’d like to share his emails, where he warns me not to bother showing up at Rice because he’s got a new tennis racket, or when he hits a backhand winner, “Did that remind you of Federer?” He can play. He used to be a teaching pro at Golfcrest Country Club before he got a real job.
The most fun is just sitting and talking to Emmett during breaks. He has a devilish sense of humor and he’s intimidatingly smart. If I ever get on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I don’t care what the question is about, Emmett is my phone-a-friend. Except if the question is about pop music. I once asked him, if you could take only two albums on a desert island, which would they be? He said, Album 1700 by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert in London.” I asked him, what does your family get you for Christmas? He said, “books.”
Emmett doesn’t have a security detail drive him places, like some elected officials around here, not naming names. The City Manager of little West University Place — population 15,600 — earns a bigger paycheck than the chief elected official of Harris County, population 4.7 million.
A rare breed
Emmett is a throwback, a dying breed — a true public servant who doesn’t play politics, governs with his integrity, works his hardest, and does his best, regardless of party. He endorsed Democrat Mike Collier for lieutenant governor of Texas this year.
I’m honored that someone I admire so much is my friend. Most of my other friends, as they say, not so much. I have one friend who runs one of the biggest counties in America, is respected by Democrats and Republicans, and wants his legacy to be helping the mentally ill … and the rest enter eating contests and watch wrestling DVDs.
When I hear people say, “Emmett is 69 years old, he’s probably done running for office,” I tell them, “You haven’t seen this guy run down my drop shots and lobs. I try everything to grind him into the ground. He chases everything.”
That’s why, 100 percent, I expect Ed Emmett to keep running. My money would be for Harris County Judge in four years.
Straight-ticket loss for a straight shooter
We’ve heard it many times. Emmett, a Republican (at least there’s an “R” next to his name), lost to 27-year-old Lina Hidalgo because a blue wave of straight ticket voting swept Democrats into office throughout Harris County.
Emmett, after years of governing a $10 billion budget for the county, was able to crunch the numbers that 75 percent of people would vote straight ticket and there were 105,000 more Democrats than Republicans this election cycle. With more than 1 million votes cast, Emmett lost by 18,000 votes. He out-performed every Republican on top of the ballot in Harris County by a wide margin. We threw the baby out with the bath water.
Emmett is leaving his job as county judge, really the chief executive administrator of Harris County, the biggest county in Texas, third-biggest in the U.S. Only Los Angeles County and Cook County (Chicago) are bigger. More than 4.7 million people live in Harris County.
That’s more than 26 states’ population. More than 100,000 people move into Harris County each year. Harris County has 15,000 employees. It’s a massive, thriving, diverse, wondrous county, and Emmett ran it with class and dignity for more than a decade.
When it hit the fan around here, like our seemingly annual 500-year storms, "Hunker Down Ed" Emmett rose to the challenge, sleeping nights in the Office of Emergency Management, helping residents through the crisis, standing side by side with Democrat and Republican officials. When water is pouring through your roof, and there’s a boat outside to help you evacuate, you don’t check party affiliation.
Ed Emmett lost his election to a person who has lived in Harris County “only sporadically as an adult” and “has never attended a Commissioners Court meeting,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Bet you never thought of County Judge as an entry-level position.
By the way, the Chronicle, endorsed Emmett for re-election, but “with a tinge of regret.” Really, regret? Yeah, the newspaper said it wished it could endorse Emmett for Texas governor. That’s some seal of approval.
Emmett kept telling me that straight ticket voting might cost him tens of thousands of votes. He’d be lucky to squeak by. Emmett said he was hard to find on Harris County’s lengthy ballot that looked like a CVS receipt. He joked, “I’m far down the ballot, in the middle of real judges.” Except he wasn’t kidding. He even made a commercial with his grandchildren asking their mom, “Where’s Grandpa?” on the ballot.
If Emmett made his reputation as a mature, level-headed leader during storms like Hurricane Harvey, it was a perfect storm of straight ticket voting, a confusing ballot and Democrat surge that doomed him.
Still his neighbors took the trouble to wade through the ballot to find him. He earned 66.47 percent of the vote in hometown West U, and 61.73 percent in next-door Bellaire. The people who know him best didn’t let him down.
Hey, there’s an election for West U Mayor next May, and the current mayor is term-limited out. Just putting it out there.
What’s next for Emmett
Don’t worry about Emmett. He will get job offers, speaking engagements, and consulting fees like crazy. I can hear TV stations calling him now, “Hey, when the next big storm hits, will you be 'Hunker Down Ed' for us?”
I’m sure it’s not lost on Emmett that this was the last election in Texas where people could vote straight ticket. If my crystal ball is correct, the incoming county judge is just a seat-filler. In the meantime, let’s pray for good weather the next four years.