GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County Commissioners

Texas County Commissioners – One Of The Most Important Offices That You May Know Nothing About – Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen Gives Us the Scoop (Elections)

Attention Mentions:

Michelle: House of the Dragon on HBO

Claire: she co-signs the House of the Dragon recommendation!

Nichole: Hoard House Flippers on Hulu

 

Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen shares her experience growing up in Hays County, Texas, and her deep family ties to her community. We learn about her decision to pursue secondary education after the age of forty and how she completed her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees. Her dissertation inspired her to commit to running for office, starting a leadership organization, and sharing everything she’s learned. True to her commitment, she is on the November 2022 ballot for County Commissioner for Precinct 2 in Hays County, Texas. She shares her pandemic experience of seeing a problem with health outcomes in communities of color in Hays County, and she immediately got to work to solve those inequities. The result of that problem-solving was the creation of Hays Latinos United. Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen educates us on the role of County Commissioners and the structure of the Commissioners Court. We were reminded of the undeniable importance of Texas local races and the impact they have on our daily lives.

Watch the episode here

Listen to the podcast here

 

Texas County Commissioners – One Of The Most Important Offices That You May Know Nothing About – Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen Gives Us the Scoop (Elections)

In this episode, we interviewed Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen. She talked to us all about the County Commissioner’s Court. She is on the ballot for the November 2022 election in Hays County. She is running for county commissioner for Precinct 2. She is a wonderful candidate. She was inspired to run by her community involvement and she saw a real need for her to jump into the race. We had a great conversation with her.

What was impressive about Michelle was that she is a working mom, she’s a candidate. She started this organization called Hays Latinos United. She’s a problem solver. She gets so much done because she cares and knows how important it is to have people in our elected positions who reflect the communities they’re trying to represent. Nichole, what are you still thinking about after our chat with Michelle? 

I’m thinking about how if you don’t live in Hays County, you might think, “Maybe I don’t need to read this episode.” That is not true because she gives us so much information in general about the way the commissioner’s court works, the structure of it, which I had no idea about. I didn’t know about staggered terms. I didn’t know there was a county judge. All of the things that are little background information to understand why it’s such an important role and how it works. It applies whether you live in Hays County and have the opportunity to vote for her or not. There’s more general information than just her specific race. Everybody can find something in this one.

If you live in a Texas county and you have a county’s commissioner court, you should be aware of these folks and what they’re doing and vote for them when they come up on your ballot. That’s about it. Check out the show.

We are excited to have Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen with us. She is running for County Commissioner in Hays County for Precinct 2. We are eager to learn a lot about what county commissioners do, because we’re still a little unclear ourselves, and about her journey and all those interesting facets of who makes Michelle, Michelle. To get us started, Michelle, we love to find out a little bit about our guest biographies and their origin stories. Are you from Texas? What was your upbringing like?

First, thank you, Claire and Nichole, for having me. I’m always excited to talk about the campaign and my journey because it’s a long one. I was born in Austin. I’m one of the originals. My family lived in South Austin. My mother was 17 when she had me. She dropped out of school to raise me. She was a young mom. She has an interesting story herself. When she had me, a year later, she had another child, my sister. She was married. My father was in a bad car accident at 19, but he was 21 in the Marines. He was quadriplegic. She’s 19, taking care of a quadriplegic and 2 small children. A lot of my own work ethic comes from my mother. I’ve seen her work hard as a young woman, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

Now I can understand working hard for her children. I’m the oldest of four. At a young age, I had a lot of responsibility of taking care of my siblings and helping my parents out. My biological father and my mother eventually divorced because it was too much. She remarried. My stepfather, it’s interesting. I was young when everything happened back then. I didn’t know he was not my real father until I went to grade school. I was told, “This man is not your real father. This other man is.” I remember having to change my last name from Peña to Gutierrez. When I was in the first grade, having to rewrite that.

My upbringing comes from a strong female upbringing. I have a lot of aunts growing up. They were always the leaders in my family. They still are. My mom’s still the leader. We moved to Hays County back in the ‘80s. They bought a piece of land and they split it three ways. My grandparents were in the front, aunt and uncle were in the middle, and my parents were in the back. We grew up on this somewhat of a compound with my family so we could all be together because that was important, that family stays together and we look after each other. My family is still there now. They still live on the same piece of property.

My aunt and uncle still live there. My grandparents have passed. That house is no longer there, but my family is still there. I grew up in Hays County. I spent many years in Hays County. My kids went to school here. My youngest goes to school here at a local middle school. I have a lot of deep roots. I’ve seen this county grow immensely over those years. I remember when there was nothing here. It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown. As far as my work background, I spent about 25 years in supply management in the private and public sector. I was a state purchaser and contract manager. Most of my career has been in that role. I have an understanding of contracts and RFPs and RFQs and that whole concept.

What are RFPs and RFQs?

Request for Proposal and Request for Quote. It’s a procurement terminology that you would have to use. I have a lot of experience in that. Now I’m a trainer with the state. I teach virtual classes to other state employees. They’re virtual now because of the pandemic. We used to teach them in person. When the pandemic hit, we switched to virtual. It’s worked well that all my classes are virtual now. As far as my education, what’s interesting is when I got a high school back in ‘89, I went to school for a while, I stopped, went to school, but I was working at the same time.

I never quite finished my schooling when I was young. When I was 40, I had my late baby. She gave me the motivation to go back to school. It’s hard to explain, but all those dreams I had as a young woman that I wanted to do all came back. I decided to go back to school. Two months after she was born, I enrolled in an online college and got my Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a two-month-old.

With a concentration in finance, I immediately went and got my MBA. They made me wait six months, but then I enrolled in the Doctorate program and did that. I received my Doctorate in 2019. It’s a Doctorate in Management and Organizational Leadership because I have a fascination with leadership. I haven’t been in leadership roles necessarily my life, but I’ve always been a follower. I’ve always been interested in leadership.

You’re the oldest. Of course, you’re a leader.

You could call that leadership, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was told, “You take care of your siblings. You walk them to school. You make lunch.” That was my role. At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I’ve always kept this feeling of obligation and responsibility for people. That’s where that comes from.

It sounds like it was rooted in your family dynamic.

What you witnessed, but maybe you didn’t identify with that terminology. It’s like how Claire pointed out, you were always a leader, but you maybe didn’t think of it that way.

That’s the way it was. Family was important growing up. It still is now. I’m all about family and more about community now, trying to take care of other people who don’t have. We were poor growing up. We didn’t have a lot. We got our school clothes from Goodwill. That’s the life. At the time, when you’re a kid, you don’t notice that because there’s so much love in the family that that stuff doesn’t matter or you don’t notice it maybe that economically, that’s where you are. We were happy as a family.

I had this thought as I was getting my boys ready. I was like, “This is hard. How did teen moms do this? Seriously, how do they do this?” It’s amazing that I’m sure lots of moms figure it out and go the next day and the next day. Kudos to your mom.

I can’t imagine, but a lot of women would be able to do it because they have to. There’s no other choice. What helps me a lot sometimes when I feel a little overwhelmed is everything’s like a check box for me. I got up, check. I took a shower, check.

Is that the management side of you or the supply?

Mentally, that feels better for me. Getting up and getting dressed, “That’s done. Now let’s make lunch. Let’s get making up for school.” It helps me that way to do that.

I also love that you did most of your secondary schooling over the age of 40. I want to underline that, too. That’s incredible and amazing and a reminder to all of us that you don’t have to stop dreaming and can keep going and do whatever you’re interested in at any age.

That’s why I tell other women who are thinking about going back to school, but they feel like they’re too old, I’m like, “I went back when I was 40 years old. It is never too late to go back to get that education.” I know what this means. I know maybe 7% of women of Latinos in our country have a Doctorate degree. When you break that down by how many women, it’s maybe 3% to 4%. When you look at Latinas who have a Doctorate degree in Texas, it’s probably not even 1%. I understand the responsibility that this carry. When I was defending my dissertation, the three things I told my committee I was going to do is run for office.

It is never too late to go back and get that education. Share on X

I was going to start a Latina leadership organization and I was going to share my findings, is what I was going to do. I’ve done all that. The organization was not quite what I had imagined because it’s about health and protecting communities of color from COVID. That wasn’t the organization I had in mind, but we’ve done so much as an organization that I’m proud of the work. I’ve done it. When I meet other young women, Latinas, they hear I’m a Doctorate and they ask questions like, “Was it hard? I’m afraid to go. I don’t know if I can go that far.” I want to be an example for them that it’s never too late.

We need you to go as high as you can in your academics because my experiences with work and school and trying to get new positions or whatever I was applying for, it was either you had the experience but not enough school or you had the school, but not enough experience. It was never enough. You have to advocate. I have to advocate for myself every day. Even now, after everything that I have accomplished, I still have to advocate for myself. I still have to prove myself. Not so much proving anymore because I’m like, “I’ve done it either with me or you’re not.” I do have to advocate for myself. That’s been a lot of this race, personally, is still advocating during this race.

Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because we don’t see people like you in these positions, so they question, “I haven’t seen how she is going to be the leader that we need when I haven’t seen a leader like her before?”

That is part of it, Claire. I also think that the Latino voice is misunderstood. We speak with passion and excitement. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. That should be a whole another episode, understanding the Latino voice and don’t be afraid of it.

We can generalize that even broader to women of color. Black women are accused of that, too, of being angry. That’s the label.

I thought, “This is history and years of suppression that women of color have had that’s passed on.” The mainstream is not used to that voice. They don’t understand it. They’re afraid of it. They try and push it away, but that’s us. That’s who we are. We are done. I’m done with all the oppression and you’re not enough. That’s where I am in my life. I figured out that I’m not afraid to say, which now I understand my grandparents saying the things that they would say because you get to a point in your life where like, “I don’t care if you don’t like what I had to say.”

This is me and this is who I am. It’s been hard, even though the media keeps talking about Latinas on both sides, Republican and Democrat, leading the charge in Texas, which is why we see a lot of Latina candidates on the Republican side is they see that too. They’ve been recruiting. Even if that’s the narrative, it’s still not what’s happening on the ground for Latina candidates. We’re still underestimated and underfunded. We don’t sometimes have the establishment support, things like that. Some of what I faced during this campaign was that. I knew why I was doing this.

GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County Commissioners
County Commissioners: Latina candidates are still underestimated and underfunded. We don’t sometimes have the establishment’s support.

 

I knew why I was running and how important it was. I’m doing it for the right reasons. Again, I was advocating for myself, showing up for the community. I didn’t wait for an election to start doing something for my community. I’ve been doing it. I’m not just, “I’m going to run and see what happens.” No, I ran because of the pandemic.

I had seen the disparity that happened in our county with COVID. The Latino community was the most hit during the pandemic, which is why the organization was formed because we were not seeing organized efforts to protect the communities of color. We started doing free PPE and we did COVID testing. Now we do COVID vaccines in communities of color and rural areas of the county. That’s the work I put my heart into and the people I want to fight for. I know I’m doing this for the right reasons.

Michelle, can you talk about how that happened? You say that you could see what was happening around you. Can you dig into what that means?

I’m a researcher by heart. I’m always looking at the data. On the national level, I was hearing stories of communities of color being the hardest hit by COVID. I started looking at my own county, and they were not publishing the demographics of who was getting COVID.

They, like the county commissioners? Who’s the they?

Yeah. They were not publishing. I wrote letters. I said, “It’s important that you all release that data because we need to have awareness.”

It was just a lump, one number.

This number of people have it, but we didn’t see the breakdown. I wrote letters. Eventually, they said, “Okay.” They released it. Sure enough, it was exactly what I suspected that Latinos were leading in every category related to COVID, positivity rates, hospitalizations, death, confirmed cases, all of them. From that, I started buying masks myself and hanging out at the COVID testing sites in the county and passing out free masks to people.

It wasn’t even a big organizational effort at first. You were just like, “This is something we got to do.”

At that time, people were losing their jobs. They were being forced to stay home. There were all kinds of food insecurities and rent insecurity. I don’t know if you remember the food distribution drives that were happening. There was a lot going on at that time. I couldn’t deal with the fact that our governments or our cities were not providing a basic resource that could save their life.

I got together with some other well individuals and I said, “Let’s do this. Let’s have a free drive-thru PPE and we’ll give out what we can.” That’s how it started. When people say, “Tell me about Hays Latinos United,” I’m like, “It was founded as a direct response to the racial disparities of COVID against the Latino community in Hays County.” That’s my spiel to them.

GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County Commissioners
County Commissioners: Hays Latinos United was founded as a direct response to the racial disparities of COVID against the Latino community in Hays County.

 

It’s always funny because I’m like, “Do you only do Latinos?” That’s how it was founded, because of that. We give anybody who wants any of our resources. The how our org started. Through that work, when the vaccines rolled out, those communities of the lower economic level could not access those vaccines. I was making calls at night with other health resources saying, “How many shots can you give?” They say, “We got ten.” “Let me call ten people.” That kind of work is going on behind the scenes to try and get the underserved and the uninsured those vaccines to save their life. I knew that that’s who it was impacting the most.

Sometimes I forget what it was like back then. When I see documentaries, sometimes I have PTSD over it because it was a horrible time. So much of our community was in despair, loss and stress. I hear about it all the time. I was getting phone calls from families who lost loved ones. Do you remember all the GoFundMe accounts that we saw? People couldn’t afford it. We did a lot of work that I’m proud of, but it showed me the lack of resources for our own county health department. They did not have those resources.

It sounds like you created this group because the county wasn’t doing these things. What was their excuse for not doing that?

They were understaffed and under-resourced, but now we do have a relationship with the Hays County Health Department. There are some young individuals that are in that department right now who are actively doing community outreach and providing information and vaccines. They are still lacking. They were hoping to get a mobile unit clinic to drive around. They didn’t get funding for that. They didn’t get more money for staff. They’re severely under-resourced still. We partner a lot together to help with that.

Can we talk about that resource component? You’re running to be a county commissioner. How is the county’s budget collected? How does the county get that bucket of money that they spend on things?

Taxes. They passed their budget. I know that they disapproved their budget, but our health department didn’t get the funding that they were asking for. They mostly supported law enforcement. It’s tricky during election time. Funding goes to what people seem to be caring about the most, which is law enforcement. I totally understand that. I fully support law enforcement. In fact, I’m in a police academy right now at the City of Kyle, so I can understand more about law enforcement. Unfortunately, our health department did not get the funding that they needed. We are in front of a potential another COVID spike in the fall.

What I don’t understand is that it begins with the health of people. What the pandemic taught us is that if they don’t have their health, then they can’t work. They can’t visit your restaurants and stores because they didn’t have that right. My logical thinking is, why not put as much resources as we can into our health department and get people access to vaccine, flu shots, PPE, anything to help them feel well so they can continue working and visiting businesses? It’s all related. They don’t think that way. One of my top priorities is public health and making sure that we get resources to people. Right now, if you’re uninsured, you can’t get a free PCR test anymore.

If your child is sick at school with COVID, they can’t go back to school unless they have a PCR test. A PCR test is a $100 usually. They may not be able to afford that. If they need a COVID test for one family member, they’re probably going to need it for additional ones. It’s either a PCR test or they have to be out of school five days with no symptoms.

Who’s going to stay home with the kid?

There are five days when that child is not in school and not learning because of this requirement. There are some real breakdowns in healthcare that I want to address. Unfortunately, our Hays CISD district is not pro-health. They are against mask mandates. They only held one vaccine event during the entire pandemic. It’s been hard to work with them. What upsets me is that their student population is over 64% Latino. That is the group that’s suffering the most. Again, why not do these things right now? Why not do PPE? Why not do more vaccine clinics within your schools? It makes sense to me, but unfortunately, it’s that political climate of ours that is hindering health access to people.

What a shame. People are already there.

They trust the schools. They’re familiar with it. It’s a perfect place. That brings up another thing, when we were trying to do COVID vaccines on the East Side because that is where our rural areas and communities of color are, there’s no community infrastructure on the East Side. The schools would not let us inside their school to have a clinic. You can point fingers out on who said what, but it was a safety coordinator who would not let us in the school. We don’t even have a library East of I-35, from the top of the county to the bottom.

There’s no library and community infrastructure. I have to rely on little venues like that hold quinceañeras and weddings and small gatherings of people to provide healthcare to folks. Sometimes we’ll work in a park and do a drive-thru. There have been select schools that have allowed us to do PPE and food and water distributions at that level, but we’ve never been able to gain access inside the building to provide vaccines to folks. It’s a struggle. One thing I say is I’m a problem solver. I never give up. If you tell me no, this way, I’m going over here. I’m working on the problem until I find a solution. I’m going to take that same problem-solving energy to the county court and do the same thing there.

Speaking of the county court, can you lay out for us what the duties are of the county commissioner’s court?

There’s a lot. In my race, talking to people, a lot of them said, “I don’t even know what a county commissioner does.”

That’s pretty common. It’s not something I’m proud of.

I understand that. I don’t know if that’s by design to keep them in the dark. Maybe, I don’t know. One thing is public health. They’re in charge of public health. They have a health department. Law enforcement, they’re in charge of the sheriff’s department. They pass the budget. They approve all the contracts, like construction contracts or any contract work that a vendor does with the county. The commissioner’s court approves that. They decide on where voting locations are located. That’s always been an issue because we can never get enough voting or polling locations on the county’s East Side because we don’t have infrastructure there. It all makes sense. They approve of that. Roads are a big one.

Anything that’s not within the city limits, all the roads on the outside of the same limits, they approve those construction projects for that. East Side of the county has been severely neglected as far as roads. They’re now coming in and trying to make the roads bigger, but because we’ve been heavily populated all of a sudden in the last several years, we have all these people that live in these areas that are trying to fix the roads. It’s causing more of a headache now. Honestly, I don’t know how they’re going to do it personally because there’s so much traffic on the East Side. The housing market has exploded, especially in Buda on the East Side. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sunfield. They have over 5,000 homes just in that one subdivision in Buda.

There are only about 1 or 2 ways in and out of that place. I know they’re working on it, but you can go drive to the East Side and see all these blocks of detours. If you talk to people on the East Side, that’s the one thing they talk about, the roads and how long it takes to get to work because most of our population here still works in Austin. They moved to Hays County because the housing was cheaper. It’s because it’s too expensive to live in Austin, so they moved to Hays County. Buda and Kyle are still close enough to Austin where it’s not too big of an inconvenience, but if you watch the news and you watch the traffic, it’s over an hour to get out of Kyle and Buda to get to Austin.

Traffic is probably the number one issue for most people. Also, in Buda, we only have one H-E-B and one Walmart that people could go to for groceries. They’re not that big, honestly. When you think about all the people that have moved in on the East Side and then all the people who still live or are living on the West Side, flooding to two places for food, it’s crazy. It’ll be interesting to see how we get out of this with folks. That’s a lot of what the commissioners does. I’ve heard from another commissioner that the county commissioner’s seat is one of those jobs where you’re not going to know exactly everything there is to know about being a county commissioner.

GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County Commissioners
County Commissioners: The county commissioner’s seat is one of those jobs where you’re not going to know exactly everything there is to know about being a county commissioner. You learn on the job as you go through it.

 

It’s like a learn on the job as you go through it because there is a lot. You got contracts, health, law enforcement, and voting. That’s a lot of areas that a county commissioner has to know about. Me being a state purchaser, I know about procurement and contracts. Being in this health area, I know about that. I know about working with the health department and some of the struggles that they have. I know about voting because I was a precinct chair fighting for polling locations on the East Side.

I may not know everything that there is about being a county commissioner, but I feel like I’m going in with enough knowledge to make a difference. I’m not afraid to research and learn and listen to the experts about the issues of our county. I’m afraid we’re going to let someone who’s going to sit there and not fight and take the position for granted. I’m going there to work. A lot of times, people who are elected office are only thinking about the next election and not what needs to be done right now.

The other thing, Michelle, I keep thinking about is, first of all, your deep interest and commitment to leadership. I was thinking about these problems that you have been outlining for us and the idea that if we assume the best intentions that the people who have been in those positions have been doing the best that they can, I do believe in assuming the best intentions, but if they don’t represent a wide variety of the people that are in the county, then maybe they weren’t aware of the issues with COVID disproportionately affecting minority communities.

Maybe they weren’t aware of the lack of infrastructure on the East Side because that’s not a community in that they’re necessarily enmeshed in. If we assume the best intentions, what you highlight though is how leadership does need to be reflective of the population so that everyone’s interests truly are being represented and that there is somebody who is accountable to all the folks. If nothing else, what you’re going to bring is a perspective that either isn’t there or is being ignored right now. That’s necessary to bring some balance.

Also, I cannot help but point out that how if you are present on the commissioner’s court that everybody benefits. It isn’t just the Latino community that would benefit from the perspective that you’re going to bring. That’s an East Side benefit. That’s a full Hays County benefit. Everyone will receive some of what is important about what you bring.

If elected, I will be commissioner over a specific precinct. It’s one of the smaller ones, but it encompasses two of the fastest-growing cities in the county, Kyle and Buda. Sometimes when you’re running in these elections, there’s a lot of focus on countywide seats. I’m not a countywide seat. I’m just a precinct seat, but my vote is going to matter on that court countywide. I don’t know if people see it that way or not. My county’s this small on the map, but my vote is going to have an impact on what happens with our county.

Also, your voice, the way you’re going to bring a different perspective to the conversation. That has an impact.

I’ve always said that I am going to be more of an in-your-face commissioner because I can tell you that all the time that I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen a commissioner connect with the community, do town halls with the community, talk to constituents. I’ve never seen them.

Why do you think that’s the case?

They’re afraid, honestly, because not all conversations are going to be pleasant. There are a lot of folks that live here that are frustrated. Sometimes they’re afraid to face that. I’m not, honestly. I want to be more present going to HOA meetings or going to PTA meetings, doing town halls in these areas that don’t ever get the official to come into. I want to be there. What’s great is that most people who live in my precinct know who I am because of the work I’ve been doing. They know that Michelle’s in it for us. Our precinct is over 50% Latino. We’ve never had a Latina in this precinct ever and we haven’t had a Democrat in this seat for over a decade.

Me being in this seat is going to be a real true representation of the people who live here. I’m what they call homegrown. I am from here. I went to school here. I know what the issues are here. I’m nervous, but I’m excited about it. Even when I went to go vote, I was filled with such nerves. It’s my third time voting for myself in a year. I was super excited to vote and get to this point because it’s been a long year, ladies. It’s been a long year with the primary and then a primary runoff and then getting ready for the general. I’m ready. I’m at this point. Everything that I’ve been through in my life has prepared me for this. I truly believe that. All those shortfalls or those barriers that I had to fight through are for this reason.

Even if this isn’t the next step, which hopefully it is, because it sounds like you would be a great fit, other doors will be open that never would’ve been open because you’re like, “I’m going to try it and put my name on the ballot and do this courageous act,” because you do want to influence your community. Who knows what else could happen if it’s not that direct seat that you’re going for?

Everything happens for a reason. I believe that. Before I decided to run, I was in Precinct 1 and then they did the redistricting. The redistricting drew me into two by a block. This seat happened to be coming up for reelection. I thought, “Maybe that’s a sign. Maybe that’s what was supposed to happen.” I always joke and I thank the Republican commissioner for redrawing the district for allowing me the opportunity to run for this office. I do think things happen for a reason.

I do believe that it has to be the right position and the right time sometimes for a candidate. This position keeps me close to the community, which is who I care about the most. That’s how I feel like. Everything’s aligned in this journey. I’m hopeful about the outcome. I’m ready. Claire, maybe some people understand this innately, which is the structure of the commissioner’s court. That’s something I don’t necessarily understand. I had the understanding that there was one county commissioner and that that’s how it worked. Can we talk about that?

I wanted to circle back to that. You said that there are some, it sounds like, at large precincts.

There are four county commissioners. Each has their own designated precincts. There are four precincts and then a county judge. Right now, the party breakout is 3 to 2, Republicans, three, and then our county judge is a Democrat, and then we have another Democrat county commissioner who’s been there a long time. If I win and our county judge wins, then it’s the first time we’ve had a Democrat majority in a long time. If we ever had, I don’t even know. That’s exciting.

We do have another person running, Susan Cook, who is running as an independent against a Republican. If she wins, then it’s a person we’ve ever had a woman majority on the county court. That’s exciting to think about, too as well. Every county has four, broken out by population and one county judge.

Every county in Texas has four. We live in Travis County and it’s huge and you still only get four plus the county judge.

What’s the role of the county judge?

It’s like they are the high-level mayor of the county, the executive director of the county. They run the commissioner’s court. They have a vote on the issues that come up. They’re managing the whole courtroom. They cast their vote and they bring up initiatives. Our judge has done a great job over the last few years, bringing the minority community in and getting them more involved. He’s done an awesome job. He’s our first Hispanic county judge here in Hays that we’ve ever had. It’s good for constituents to see someone in that role that looks like you. That’s his role there.

It’s important to see people that look like you because I’ll look at people’s campaign websites and I’m like, “He looks like a mayor or whatever. This is based off of a picture. I have no idea who this person is,” but it’s that image we have, which can be our downfall because when we end up with the same kinds of people who maybe don’t want to solve problems. That’s terrible. That was my thought.

I may not look like the mold of a county commissioner, but that’s lack of true representation.

Imagination. You got to imagine bigger.

I’m excited to be part of this race and ready for the results.

We were talking about the structure. Is every position open during every election? How long are the terms?

Four years, which is good. Unlike State House, it’s every two years. In Congress, every two years. They only run every four years. Same with the county judge as well. It’s staggered. 2022, it’s only the county judge, Precinct 2 and Precinct 4. The next time it’s going to be 1 and 3. They’re all staggered out.

Something I thought about when you were talking about Kyle and Buda, the boom, the population, and the growth and the new development. Does the county commissioner’s court have jurisdiction over development?

They do, partially. Within the city limits, then it’s a little different. They do have it. If it’s outside that, they do have some role in that. What’s interesting is a lot of people don’t understand where their lines begin and their line ends between the city and the county. That may be by design. They don’t know who to complain to. The first person they think of is complaining to the city. If it’s outside the city limits and it’s not a city problem, it’s a county problem and they don’t know who to talk to at that point. During my time, in the last few years, I’ve always said, “If you have a complaint and you don’t know who to talk to, call me and I will help you write your letter.”

A lot of people don't understand where their lines begin and end between the city and the county. Share on X

I’ve discovered it. You write a letter and you get a response. I’m always offering to help folks who are not familiar with voicing their concerns or they mumble it to themselves. I’m a big advocate of you need help complaining to your elected officials, contact me and I’ll help you. It’s creating a template or get you an email address or helping you and I’ll help you. They don’t know who to talk to. That’s unfortunate. Again, it’s by design.

I have a personal story about that. I live in Travis County, but I’m outside the Austin City limits. I’m in an ETJ. Again, confusing. One night there was this loud music going on. There was some rave venue and they were like, “We’re going to party all night long.” 4:00 in the morning, you’re still hearing this music. I called the police because I’m like, “I don’t know.” I was like, “Can you maybe go tell them to turn it down?” He is like, “You live in the county and we don’t have noise ordinances in the county.” I was like, “I’m stuck not sleeping.” Everyone in the neighborhood was feeling this frustration, but that’s how it is. Who knew? Maybe they can’t put that in place. I don’t know. This one hadn’t and we had to deal with it.

It would probably be the sheriff’s department since the county commissioners are over the sheriff’s department. They approve their budgets and approve their positions and things like that. That would be the people that probably would come out or those individuals.

Someone said something to this venue because I haven’t heard it since. I’m like, “Come on, let’s be good neighbors.” I learned a lesson that night. I’m not in the city.

Michelle, too, it sounds like maybe this is complex and it’s issue by issue, but the relationship then between the city and the county, is it dependent on what the issue is?

Yes, but I would say they mostly work well together. I’ve been working with the City of Kyle for a long time already. I know we need them to work together. For example, there’s a bond on Kyle’s ballot that to fix a lot of the East Side roads, which is in my precinct. They’re roundabouts. I’m having mixed feelings on roundabouts. It’s because we have few roads coming out of the East Side to get to I-35. I suspect it’s going to cause a lot of delay and a lot of upset people. If I win, they’re going to call me to complain about the roads. I’m going to have to say, “That’s the city’s roads.”

I’ve already talked to some city council members and said, “Guys, we need to develop a clear strategic plan to work together on these projects if it passes.” I know if I’m elected that I will get the phone calls about, “Why is this road closed? Why is it taking me an additional fifteen minutes to get out of my neighborhood?” Those things. We need to work together to figure out a logical strategic plan for this because I know that that’s coming. It’s important for us to work with the cities. For me, it’s Kyle and Buda because those are the two cities that will be in this precinct. I truly believe in partnership and collaboration because that’s how I run my organization.

GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County Commissioners
County Commissioners: We need to work together to figure out a strategic, logical plan for these projects. Partnership and collaboration are important to run an organization.

 

I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have with that without that. I am a big advocate of working with the cities. Let’s work together on our issues and let’s develop plans that make sense. Let’s push communication, just not one town hall at your city hall. Let’s get out into the community that it’s impacting the most. Even if that means we have to go door to door, leave a flyer, we do that. That’s what we do to give them a heads-up.

A lot of times you hear them say, “We didn’t know this was happening. We didn’t know that these roads were closing. Who was supposed to tell us?” There’s a lot of that that happens. We need to work together in our issues. Even if they’re not directly impacting the county, it’s still going to impact us, at least me as county commissioner at some point. We do need to work together.

Call for more town halls so that you’re talking to the community and they’re talking to you. If everyone can’t be there, maybe that person can tell their neighbor. “Heads up, traffic’s going to be bad the next couple of months.” Even explaining things like when I was asking you what the county’s excuse was or the reasoning for not providing better healthcare, maybe it is a simple answer of we don’t have the money. “We would love to do this, but we can’t financially make it happen.” Explain that to people.

Maybe they don’t want to say that.

They should. Be honest with us. Let us know what challenges are you up against.

We would reach out to our state reps and our congressional. I did that all the time with our Rep. Erin Zwiener. She was involved in what we were doing. She donated masks and sanitizer to us to do what she could from her office. I’ve built these relationships through this pandemic. I know who I can call and who can provide me with resources. I’ve been fortunate to have that.

I figured we’re going to continue to do that work together going forward. Regardless of party, however you feel, it does take all of us working together to get stuff done. I always said if I’m on that court, my party affiliation drops. I’m not going to let that guide my decisions. It’s about what’s best for the constituents and what they want. I’m going to work hard. I know that. This is what I was meant to do right now. I’m excited.

It does take all of us, regardless of party, working together to get stuff done. Share on X

I believe it and I love it. We need problem solvers. It makes me think, Nichole, we had an interview with Claire Barnett and Stephanie Phillips from Blue Horizon. They’re an organization that helps train people running for state representatives in rural red areas. I was like, “What do people want at the end of the day? What do people want from their elected officials at the end of the day?” They’re like, “They want problem solvers. They want people to go in and handle government issues.” It’s true because that’s why they’re there. Yet too often, we get people who don’t do that or who make up problems that aren’t even there. It’s like, “Please, handle this. I got enough going on in my life. I don’t want to worry about it.”

I always tell my kids, “Mommy’s a problem solver. Whatever our issue is, we can fix it.” I’m going to take that same energy to court and do my work there. That’s the plan.

Nichole, do you have any things or questions?

I feel like I always have the same reaction to every conversation we have, which is how much I’ve learned and how inspired I feel. Thank you, Michelle. This is a great way to start the week, which is on fire for problem-solving candidates who are here to let us know what the job is and how they plan to tackle the parts of it. I feel super inspired and grateful for your time.

Thank you for having me. This is great.

I understand some things that I didn’t not understand before.

I have one more question and then we’ll move into our last segment, which is a little bit funner, more upbeat, a little lighter. Michelle, how do you think ordinary Texans can be more involved with the county and understand what’s happening at the county commissioner’s court? This part of government flies under the radar and we don’t understand. If we did want to understand and get a little bit more involved, what’s the best way to do that?

I’m big on educating and sharing knowledge. That’s what we need to do. Those who understand the government and all the intricacies of the local municipalities need to start reaching out and being more present with our community. Whenever I meet people, I do overload them with information. We need elected officials to show up, not just for photo ops, to get into the community and have them understand how it works in both English and Spanish specifically, especially in my precinct. Some people are enclosed in their own circle of reality, they don’t look past that. They can’t see the bigger picture of how voting, for example, impacts your children.

Making those personal connections to the county commissioners’ role or city council’s role or even the school board. Making those connections to help them better understand that. If we could find the head of a family to pass on that information, that would be great. That’s how I get my information. If I can get the head of a family that the rest of the family will listen to, then I have a better chance in trying to educate more. It’s going to take elected officials getting more involved. We need to hold our community responsible as well, trying to make them understand that this stuff is important, voting is important and going to school board meetings is important. Even starting small, like PTA, doing something, stay in your community.

During my research, I learned that all the women that I interviewed, the Hispanic women who were in elected office, were influenced by their family being involved in some kind of community, whether in politics or their church. They were exposed to it at a young age. They grew up understanding the meaning of community and helping the community.

That’s why I always say, if we can instill that with young people or young families how important it is to get involved in your children’s lives, then you’ll understand. Your child will have a better chance of being involved as an adult in their community if they see you doing it. The one thing pattern that I saw is that in every one of these women that I talked to, their family was involved in the community, so they understood it at a young age.

We need to figure out a way to pull in our families and get more involved. Even at a small level like PTA, we want them there. We want them present. A lot of them are intimidated. They don’t want to look stupid. There are lots of reasons where they don’t get involved, but it starts with elected officials and being involved in a community and showing up and educating and encouraging them to educate their own family and children, and then things will get better. That’s what I believe.

It’s okay to ask questions.

I’ve certainly lost that fear that I used to have. I don’t know things. Might as well admit it and ask the questions.

I had this fear of if I showed my cards, what are they going to think? It’s like, “They probably don’t know either and they probably appreciate us asking, so we’re going to ask.”

I don’t know everything either. I’m always asking, researching, and doing whatever I can to better inform myself. Water is a huge issue here. I grew up with my water being white and I didn’t know that that was an issue. We still have a lot of water issues in the county. That’s one area where I want to educate myself with more. I’ll be the first. I don’t know everything that is about water and how the infrastructure is at the county level. That’s an area where I want to learn a lot more about because water does impact health. I’m always learning. Every day I’m learning something new.

You’re at the police academy. That’s also cool.

It’s interesting. I went to a gun range as part of the whole curriculum. With everything that’s happened with guns, I was like, “I don’t want to touch a gun.” I also felt it was important for me to understand the weapon. I was petrified of that whole experience because we shot an AR-15. I’ve been to Uvalde. I’ve been down there twice over at the school. I’ve talked to an aunt of one of the children that passed. I know how devastated that community is and what they’re fighting for.

As part of me trying to understand all sides, it’s why I’m doing that because I do want to understand that. I’m not saying I’m going to go out and buy one at all because I don’t think I should have one in my position, but I understand it and I understand why law enforcement uses it. For me, it’s all part of me growing and understanding all aspects of what goes on here. It’s been great. I love the class. I’ve gotten to know the police officers locally. I go on my first ride out. That’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to that.

I love all the learning that you’re doing. It sounds exciting. We’ll move to our last segment. I don’t know that we prepared you for this. It’s called our Attention Mentions, where we mention something that has our attention right now. It can be a TV show because I’m sure you have lots of time to watch TV right now, or a book or a podcast maybe that you heard or even an experience that has your attention. Nichole, do you have anything ready?

House of Dragons.

I’m making a note. That’s the Game of Thrones spinoff thing, right?

I’m a big Game of Thrones fan. I watch it. I’ll keep it on all day or whatever. I’ll listen because it’s such a great show. House of Dragons was the thing that I was watching. The season finale was awesome.

That’s what I was thinking of, too, for the same reason. It’s interesting in that show, I don’t know if you’re watching it, Nichole, but it’s all about this one woman who is supposed to become the heir to the throne, but they’re like, “No, it can’t be her. She is a woman. We have to have the men. We’re used to men in power.” All the resistance she’s up against. It’s interesting because it’s obviously a fictional show and set in this medieval context and you’re like, “Even now, we still have resistance to women in power.” Yet you see in this show how her experience makes her a better leader, but they’re so blind to the patriarchy. That’s a good one.

It is interesting that that seems to be the driving theme. It’s a woman trying to come to power who’s being denied that because she’s a woman. It’s pretty fitting, considering our climate right now, that I’m watching that show. That’s what’s gotten my attention.

I’ve got a silly one. I found a show on Hulu called Hoarder House Flippers. It’s people who are house flippers but who bought houses where hoarders were the last people living in them. Always step one is cleaning the house of all of the stuff that is piled. Some of the things that people collect are a little disturbing, but it’s fun to watch the transformation of a house that is overrun with stuff to something that’s beautiful and that you could not have envisioned when you first saw it. Also, it takes place in Canada. That’s also interesting culturally. It’s cold there in many of these episodes. That’s an interesting thing to relate to. The accents because they’re always like, “House, a house.” Hoarder House Flippers on Hulu is a fun little good time.

It would probably remind me of how I need to do my house. When you’re a candidate, you don’t get to do all the things like house cleaning. I don’t know who it was, but I saw a speech by a woman. They ask her, “How do you do it all?” She says, “I don’t. If I’m succeeding in one thing, I’m failing in another.” She’s a writer. That’s what she is. She’s like, “If I’m kicking ass in an episode, I’m missing my daughter’s practice or game.” I disconnected so much with that speech of hers because she was right.

I’m doing all these things, but trust me, not everything is getting done behind the scenes. You have to figure out how to create a balance and not beat yourself up over it. If you didn’t get a chance to clean out the bathroom or do a load of laundry or whatever that you know you need to do, it’s okay. It’s going to get done. You can always ask for help. That’s the other part sometimes with me, is asking for help on things I normally do anyway, asking someone else. I don’t know what that is, but it’s there that I’m dealing with at a personal level. When I heard that speech, I thought, “She’s right.” We have to, again, not beat ourselves up over that. What I’m doing here is important and makes a difference and I’m doing it for the right reasons. It’s interesting.

You don’t have to beat yourself up over creating that balance in your life. You can always ask for help. Share on X

We appreciate it. I will officially double mention House of the Dragon. Michelle, we wish you all the best of luck with your race. Even if you don’t get this, which could happen, we hope not, we know you’re going to do amazing things for your community because that’s where your heart is. We appreciate that and see so much value. Thank you for being there for Hays County and the people in your life.

Thank you so much for having me. This was fun. It’s been awesome.

Thanks, Michelle.

 

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About Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen

GBTB - DFY Dr. Michelle Gutierrez Cohen | County CommissionersDr Michelle Gutierrez Cohen has lived in Hays County for a combined 30 years. She has 20 plus years working in the private and public sector in supply management. Dr. Cohen has a bachelor’s in business administration, an MBA and a Doctorate in Management in Organizational leadership. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Hays Latinos United.

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