Mark Tice, a Chambers County, Texas commissioner, thinks Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who is the first woman and first Latina elected as the county’s top executive, is a “joke.”
Hidalgo spoke in English and Spanish at a news conference on Monday about a Intercontinental Terminals Co. massive chemical fire. It was streamed on CBS affiliate KHOU’s Facebook page, where Tice, who isn’t even a commissioner in that county, wrote, “She is a joke. English this is not Mexico.”
On Tuesday afternoon, he doubled-down on his comment:
“It’s real simple,” Tice told The Houston Chronicle in an interview. “This is the United States. Speak English.” He also said, “If you come to this country, learn the language or get an interpreter.”
And what about calling the 28-year-old successful Latina, who’s made history, “a joke”?
Tice told the Chronicle, “It’s nothing personal. It’s nothing against her. She’s probably a great lady. The bottom line is I don’t think she’s prepared to do the county’s work.”
After backlash from around the country, Tice later said, in a Facebook post: “There were reporters asking questions in Spanish and Judge Hidalgo responded to those questions in Spanish, with no translation given. If that is not the case, then I sincerely apologize.” He added, “I apologize to Judge Hidalgo, the citizens of my county, and most importantly the entire Hispanic community for hastily acting out with transgression on social media.”
There were reporters for Spanish-language and English-language publications present. Hidalgo said a disaster was in progress, so she had to reach as many people as possible. That’s typical for government officials to do in times of emergencies. The Harris County population is 43 percent Latino.
An elected official who is the chief executive for county government is called the county judge in Texas.
“As the Head of Emergency Management, Hidalgo is directly responsible for the safety of all 4.5 million residents of Harris County, a third of whom are Spanish speakers,” said Kiran Khalid, Hidalgo’s director of communications. “Judge Hidalgo represents all of Harris County and given the county’s composition and her bilingual skills, she will continue to communicate as broadly as possible especially when public safety is at stake.”
Upon learning of Tice’s comment, she said on Wednesday, “My initial reaction is just, ‘Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and so he’s entitled to his.”
“I’ve heard specifically from the community the appreciation from Spanish speakers,” Hidalgo told KHOU. “If I can do that in English and in Spanish, especially knowing that that’s such a high percentage of our community, I think it’s well over a third of our residents speak Spanish, it would be almost problematic not to do so.”
It’s common sense for someone, a commissioner at that, to understand why Hidalgo used her bilingual skills.
So what compelled Tice, a Republican, to make the comment?
“Like many citizens concerned about the ITC fires, I was very emotional about the effect it was having on everyone,” he said on Facebook.
Tice was “emotional,” meanwhile Hidalgo, a Stanford and Harvard grad who was born in Colombia, kept her calm and performed the duties of her job.
In November, her election was considered part of a Democratic sweep in the traditionally Republican county.
Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia condemned Tice’s comments, in a press release.
“Commissioner Tice is an elected official, and he has been an asset to Commissioners Court thus far in his term,” Sylvia said. “However, the statements he made are his and are not made on my behalf, or on behalf of the Court. I am currently in the process of reaching out to Judge Hidalgo and have left a message with her office.”
Hidalgo said she hasn’t received a direct apology from Tice, but said she’s ready to move on.