By Mason Lerner
Cynthia “Cindy” Siegel has had quite a journey since she hit the campaign trail for Bellaire City Council in the late 1990s. Siegel went door-to-door while pushing her one-year-old daughter in a stroller in that first run for nonpartisan public office, persuading neighbors she would be a good listener and guardian of their tax dollars.
Since that first campaign and years in Bellaire politics where the closest glimpse into her politics was fiscal conservatism that boosted her popularity, a different Siegel has emerged. Now the current, elected chair of the Harris County Republican Party — the third largest county in the U.S. — Siegel is unabashedly, aggressively partisan. As the party has transformed from the neo-conservative Bush era of her early years as a pol to the grassroots populism of the current Trump-MAGA movement, she has transformed along with it.
Siegel rose through the ranks of Bellaire government in several integral capacities along the way. Before serving as mayor from 2004-’12, she had stints as chair of the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, as a Planning & Zoning commissioner, and two terms on Bellaire City Council.
Her political world expanded after term limits pushed her away from the Bellaire counciltable. She represented 14 small Houston-area cities on the METRO board, became active as a Republican Party fundraiser and as a leader among GOP women’s groups, and in 2019 gave up her METRO seat to run for the Republican nomination for the local Congressional seat held by Democrat Lizzie Fletcher.
She didn’t make it past the primary in 2020, losing to Wesley Hunt. Both ran as Trump Republicans, but Hunt received support from the national level and from Ted Cruz, while emphasizing his military service.
Siegel bounced back fast, though, parlaying her solid GOP credentials into a successful run as party chair and quickly became the face of the GOP in Harris County.
She’s gone to Austin to testify about “gross mismanagement” of elections by the county’s Democratic leadership (televised nationally on C-SPAN), and called on the Democratic district attorney to get tough on crime after Siegel was mugged near downtown Houston. She’s not shy about branding national Democrats as “socialists” and through social media has indicated support for views that the recent spate of Trump indictments is a “witch hunt” and that gay pride supporters are a “cult.”
Under her party leadership, the Harris County GOP has helped turn a growing number of what were nonpartisan races into red-versus-blue contests — city elections and school board seats in particular. Candidates can apply for an endorsement and are reviewed by a panel, under the premise that “it is important for the Republican Party to have representation on local boards and city councils that will represent conservative values and governing principles that are consistent with the Republican platform,” according to the candidates’ guidelines.
In Siegel’s own backyard, the party has endorsed conservative Republicans for the Houston ISD board in the last election and a candidate in the West University Place City Council race this year. Both lost — but GOP-backed candidates have been more successful in other areas, including gaining two seats on the HISD board before trustees were replaced in June’s state takeover of the district.
“We can say (local government institutions) are non-partisan, but the reality is they have always had some sort of partisanship,” Siegel said. “When I was knocking on doors the first time while running for city council in 1997, I would get asked…‘Are you a Republican or Democrat?’ I mean, there were people who took that into account. Or they’d ask me questions like ‘What’s your opinion on this? What’s your opinion on that?’… (things) tied to either party’s platform. So, the political partisanship, I think it’s always been there. But, yes, it’s gotten more intense.
“I think one (reason) is just the political environment we’re in is very hyper-partisan at this time in our country,” Siegel explained. “And I think it’s carried over to the local government.”
Siegel believes COVID played a big role in energizing Republicans to become more involved in school board politics.
“When COVID hit and (parents) were at home with their kids, they saw for the first time what was actually being taught in the schools and taught to their kids,” said Siegel. “And there are people that are very concerned that the schools are getting away from actually giving our kids…reading, writing and arithmetic…giving them the tools they’ll need to be successful in life.”
Siegel concedes that voters on the political extremes can have an outsized voice in local elections that don’t typically draw the numbers of national or state elections. But she said that is why more people need to be engaged in order for the will of the people to be more accurately represented through the wheels of government.
“I don’t want to be flippant, but you snooze, you lose,” said Siegel. “And that’s why people need to be informed…because if you don’t go and speak at city council, if you don’t write letters or send emails or make phone calls, if you don’t get out and meet the candidates (you are not going to be heard).”
She quotes a former Bellaire council colleague, Tom Phillips. “Tom used to end with ‘If you don’t go out and vote tomorrow, you don’t have a right to complain.’ Now, that’s not really true. But his point was that you need to get out and vote.”
Despite her vocal opposition to management of the county’s election operation, the 2022 Harris County elections were responsible for the accomplishment Siegel is the most proud of so far in her stint as county chair. “We wanted to win more, but I will tell you, we were excited to win the first four countywide judicial seats that we’ve won since 2014,” said Siegel.
Siegel believes people have lost faith in government at all levels due to corruption. She says that the current Democratic-leaning leadership of Harris County is an over-the-top example of this.
“People have said that they’re some of the most corrupt leaders that we’ve had,” said Siegel of Democratic leadership including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who with districts redrawn now represents Bellaire and West University.
Who exactly are the people saying this? “I’ll just say it’s our base,” said Siegel. “We hear it. You can go on social media, and in our social media, and you can see various posts.”
At this point, Siegel knows she has more of her political career behind her than she does ahead of her. And that is just fine with her. She wants to spend the rest of her time as a public servant helping Republicans expand their tent while winning more elections.
“I have no underlying drive to run for some other political office,”said Siegel. “I’m at a point where I have a really nice life. I have good friends and family. And I love Bellaire… I love the city. I love Houston. And anything I do is trying to make it better.”
It just so happens she believes that these days “better”means local government with a discernible red hue.
Lerner is a longtime newspaper reporter and editor, including stints with the Houston Chronicle, Galveston Daily News and Killeen. In recent years he has freelanced for such publications as Vogue and ESPN.com.
Editor’s note: Read Siegel’s response to the article here.