Immigration attorney’s challenge against Rep. Cuellar signals left-wing’s RGV arrival

The left wing of the Democratic Party has planted a flag in South Texas, with 26-year-old immigration and human rights attorney Jessica Cisneros launching a primary bid Thursday against longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, whose congressional district, No. 28, stretches along the Rio Grande from Laredo to Mission.

Born and raised in Laredo, Cisneros — backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive grassroots organization that recruited and helped elect freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, in her long-shot primary win in 2018 — called Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat” in a campaign launch video.

“Our Congressman claims to be a Democrat, but he’s voted with Trump nearly 70% of the time,” Cisneros said in the video, also criticizing Cuellar for receiving an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and for accepting sizable donations from private prison groups.

Cisneros, who announced Friday morning that she raised $80,000 on day one, said she is running on a platform to end “big corporate money in our Democracy,” fix the immigration system and to support a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, free public college and reproductive rights.

Cuellar’s campaign has welcomed her to the race, set on defining the Justice Democrats group supporting Cisneros as out of step with South Texas.

“We feel like the Congressman votes the values of his district and he knows it a little better than a New York-based special interest group like Justice Democrats,” said Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign spokesman, who also criticized the policy agenda of the Justice Democrats — that of pushing the Green New Deal, gun reform and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement — as job-killing for tens of thousands of people in the district.

“This isn’t the Bronx; this is the border,” Strother said.

The Justice Democrats zeroed in on Cuellar earlier this year, identifying him as what they believe is a flimsy Democrat whose time in Congress — he took office in 2005 — needs to end. But Cuellar, when asked last month about the primary target on his back, said he’s not interested in being a radical officeholder.

“One of the things that we see in Washington, D.C. is there’s extremes,” Cuellar said during a late May luncheon in McAllen. “And those are the ones that you usually hear about. But there’s a lot of us in the middle that want to get the job done.”

This is nothing new for Cuellar, a common collaborator with Republicans, especially U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX. And his district has rewarded him for his work across the aisle. But in the tricky modern political environment, which has sent political novices to high elected office, the left wing group coming after Cuellar could pose a threat.

“On the one hand, progressives do have a point that in the Democratic Party, he’s a centrist outlier,” Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said. “On the other hand, though, his district is a very centrist district, and while it’s overwhelmingly Latino, it’s populated by Latinos who tend to share Cuellar’s political philosophy.”

South Texas as a whole tends to elect more moderate candidates, Jones said, referencing both Rio Grande Valley state senators and multiple state representatives, all Democrats.

“You see it with (Juan) “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr.,” Jones said, referring to the state senators from McAllen (Hinojosa) and Brownsville (Lucio). Jones also mentioned state Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen.

“The South Texas Latinos are Democrats but more centrist than Democrats in major metro areas, which is why Cuellar is a perfect fit for his district, just like Chuy Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio are perfect fits for their districts,” Jones said.

While defeating any incumbent is a serious test, Cisneros is hoping to mold her bid in the shape of Ocasio-Cortez’s in the last election cycle, when Ocasio-Cortez upset longtime U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary. Ocaso-Cortez has not slowed since her victory, amassing strong support outside her district and lifting up candidates across the country.

But Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday held off on supporting Cisneros, according to Politico.

“She just announced. I really don’t know much about her,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that “I don’t believe in just blanket endorsing challengers for challenging’s sake, so it really depends on the merit of the candidate.”

But unlike Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent, Cuellar has been active and accomplished in his district, Jones said.

“It would be very difficult to defeat a popular longtime incumbent like Henry Cuellar, who knows his district and works hard in his district,” Jones said.

Cuellar has also fielded interns from his district over the years, including Cisneros in 2014, before she eventually went to law school at the University of Texas the following year. In her exit interview from the internship, Cisneros lauded Cuellar.

“Despite wide-spread opinion, Members of Congress are very hard workers!” Cisneros said before departing the internship, according to a transcript obtained by The Monitor. “Experiencing it first-hand, I saw that congressional offices — especially District 28 — are constantly putting in long hours to represent the district’s interests and to serve constituents.”

Cisneros, in an interview with the Laredo Morning Times published Thursday, recalled her stint in Cuellar’s office differently.

“I saw firsthand how he was silent on certain issues,” Cisneros said. “He took the people of South Texas for granted. It was a very insightful experience. And that’s when I (thought), ‘You know what, that’s going to be me one day running for Congress. I’m going to listen to the issues that South Texans want to be addressed. I’m going to listen to the people, and I’m going to be a fierce advocate for them”

Even though defeating an incumbent in a primary in Texas doesn’t happen often — Jones could hardly remember any off the top of his head — it is not unprecedented on the border. In 2011, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke challenged longtime U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes for the El Paso Congressional seat and won. After three terms, O’Rourke went on to narrowly lose a U.S. Senate challenge in 2018 to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, though it was the closest margin in a statewide general election in decades.

Cuellar didn’t campaign for O’Rourke and mostly stayed out of that race, but he did get involved in a Texas Congressional race that Cisneros made sure to point out in her campaign launch press release. Cuellar participated in a fundraiser in San Antonio leading up to the 2018 midterm elections for Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock. Carter’s opponent, M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran, criticized Cuellar at the time.

“I’m a huge fan of bipartisanship and working together to get things done,” Hegar said in an interview with the Texas Tribune, noting that she thinks Cuellar “does a good job of working across the aisle and working in a bipartisan way.” Hegar went on to lose a close election and is now challenging Cornyn in 2020.

Hegar added about Cuellar: “I do think there’s a difference, though, between the friendship that belongs on the golf course and fighting for our ideals and values on the battlefield. And I think it’s actually not an example of bipartisanship. I think it’s actually an example of what’s wrong with politics today.”

While the currents of the Democratic party may be moving in multiple directions in Texas, Jones believes Cuellar’s seat is safe, so long as he doesn’t take it for granted.

“Cuellar needs to take it seriously in part because we’re probably going to have unprecedented turnout in the Democratic primary in 2020,” Jones said. “So Cuellar does have to worry a little bit that there’s this surge of support for left-wing candidates,” such as presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, he noted.

And Cuellar’s campaign said it is not taking the challenge lightly.

“Consistently, we take every challenge seriously,” Strother said. “Because the best way to lose your job in politics is to not take it seriously.”

mferman@themonitor.com