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26-Year-Old Immigration Attorney Challenges Incumbent Rep. Cuellar for Seat in Congress

Rep. Henry Cuellar and challenger Jessica Cisneros

Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, has been in office since 2005. The wide 28th District of Texasincludes parts of San Antonio, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. He hasn’t had a serious challenger in the last decade, until now.

Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney, has launched a primary challenge against Cuellar. Cisneros is a progressive Democrat backed by the Justice Democrats, the same group who helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get elected in New York City.

Cisneros made her first campaign stop to a colonia in the Valley earlier this month.

The Valley is a region where about a third of the population lives in poverty. Many residents speak an intricate blend of Spanish and English.

On the second day of Cisneros’ campaign, she wanted to hear from locals about their needs, wants and concerns in their neighborhoods.

She greeted a group of women who eagerly awaited her arrival.

“Are you the candidate?” a woman asked in Spanish.

“I am the candidate, Jessica Cisneros, here to serve you,” Cisernos responded in Spanish.

Cisneros mingled with the people. Then they grabbed some chairs and formed a circle.

Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Jessica Cisneros talks with constitunents on the campaign trail. She is running to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who has been in office since 2005.

Margarita Suchil has lived in the area for more than 20 years. She and the others present said they don’t have health insurance and often have to go to Mexico to get treatment because it’s more affordable.

“My doctor said I needed to get a mammogram, but I didn’t have money to get it done, so they sent me to a clinic, and the cheapest they could charge me for it was $70,” she said. “I told my friend that the doctor was telling me I needed a mammogram, but I didn’t have the $70.”

Cisneros told the women one of her platforms is ensuring Medicare for all. She said some of her own family members also don’t have health insurance.

“I had an aunt who had cancer in her stomach, and she died because she couldn’t keep up with the treatment, she couldn’t pay for it, and it’s not right,” Cisneros said. “Just because we don’t have money to pay for our health insurance, we have to just wait for the worst.”

They continued their conversation for about an hour and a half and brought up other pressing issues, like not having street lighting, sidewalks or sometimes running water. Cisneros promised to fight on their behalf.

The issues in some colonias along the border are nothing new for Cisneros, she said, because she’s seen them firsthand. But, she added, to learn that these problems continue appalled her.

“America is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, and yet we have communities that have been isolated,” she said. “They don’t have basic infrastructure. They don’t have lighting, they don’t have water, they don’t have sewage.”

Cisneros said one of the reasons she decided to run for Congress was because she wants South Texans to be proud of the representation they have in Congress. She explained that she worked for Cuellar as an intern in 2014.

“Never once did he ask me -- he knew I was a constituent -- and he never once asked me what changes do you think we can bring to South Texas,” she said. “A lot of people, it’s day one and a half, day two, of our campaign and we’ve already talked to so many community members, and they say the same thing: 'I’ve never spoken to Henry Cuellar, and he’s never asked me what we think we should change.' "

Cuellar was not available for an interview, but his campaign spokesperson Colin Strother responded to TPR's request for comment.

Strother said when they heard Cisneros was running against the congressman, they were caught off guard.

“There’s a big sense of betrayal that someone we considered in our family and that we went to extraordinary lengths to help her further her ambitions and her career would turn around and not just run against him, but run against him by degrading him and propagating falsehoods,” Strother said.

Cisneros said Cuellar voted in favor of the border wall within his own district.

Strother said Cuellar has been one of the loudest voices against the border wall.

But in a 2019 appropriations bill, Cuellar voted in favor of allocating more than a billion dollars for border infrastructure, and in doing so helped prevent a government shutdown and also prevented the wall from being constructed near places like a historic chapel and the National Butterfly Center.

Strother said they’re currently working on a new spending bill that will claw back millions of dollars that were previously allocated for border infrastructure.

“The Congressman, because of his hard work, his reputation and his years of experience, he gets to the table where decisions are made, and he’s able to influence things,” Strother said.

Henry Flores, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said Cuellar has a lot of institutional support and name recognition -- but conditions might be ripe for a challenge.

“The citizens and voters of the country don’t like to see entrenched politicians hold onto power, particularly if their social and economic conditions don’t change very much,” Flores said.

He said Cisneros’ progressive agenda might help her during the election, especially since she’s championing health care for everyone.

“That’s something South Texas really, really needs, is substantive health care reform because people have been calling for that for a long, long time, and there’s only been marginal change over the decades in that respect,” Flores said.

He added that because Cuellar is an incumbent, he has a lot of community connections that have helped him get elected throughout the years, so he already has a network set in place.

Cisneros will have to raise substantial amounts of money to take on Cuellar, Flores explained. She will have to travel a lot throughout the diverse and large district to improve her name recognition among the voters.

Cisneros said she will have no problem reaching out to people because her campaign is about “la gente,” the people.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos