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Battle For Future Of Democratic Party On Full Display In Texas' 28th Congressional District

Henry Cuellar (TX-28) faces his first serious primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros.
Henry Cuellar (TX-28) faces his first serious primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros.

Moderate and progressive candidates are mired in a nationwide struggle that may define the future of the Democratic Party.

One of the starkest examples of that ideological and political struggle can be found in the 28th Congressional District in South Texas, which spans from San Antonio to the border cities of Laredo and McAllen.

Henry Cuellar has represented the district for 15 years and the self-identified moderate Democrat has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and more than 100 local leaders.

But he faces his first serious primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney and progressive backed by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Nancy Pelosi struck a confident tone in her recent visit to Laredo to stump for Henry Cuellar.

Congressmen Henry Cuellar (D) and Will Hurd (R) speak at a press conference about border crossings in August 2019.
Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
Congressmen Henry Cuellar (D) and Will Hurd (R) speak at a press conference about border crossings in August 2019.

“We want this to be a victory, but a resounding victory,” Pelosi said.

Speaker Pelosi appeared alongside Cuellar at his campaign headquarters, where she told a small crowd that she “assumes Henry will win, but we don't take anything for granted.”

The seven-term congressman has a long list of endorsements and a strong campaign war chest, including support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a political network created by the Koch brothers.

His challenger, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, is backed by the Justice Democrats, the same group that helped get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected in 2018.

In the months leading up to Super Tuesday, Jessica Cisneros and her team traveled around the district.

The team went door-to-door in Starr County to hear from the community about issues that matter to them.

“Buenos dias!” Cisneros says from one side of a fence after knocking on it trying to figure out if anyone is home.

Not everyone answered their doors.

Jessica Cisneros looks through a chain link fence while knocking doors.
Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Jessica Cisneros looks through a chain link fence while knocking doors.

Cisneros said there is often a lot of shock and surprise when they show up and knock on doors, especially in the smaller towns.

“They’re kind of used to being neglected,” Cisneros said. “Usually elected officials are trying to be strategic about where to spend their time, they spend it in the bigger areas of the district, not so much the smaller ones.”

Cisneros eventually meets Jose in a neighborhood in La Grulla. 

He tells her the streets are an issue and that healthcare is too expensive, so he and his wife have resorted to going to Mexico for treatment.

“Right now my wife is in Camargo because one of her legs was hurting and she said, ‘I’d rather go to Camargo than here,’” said Jose.

Cisneros said the man’s concern about healthcare is something she hears a lot. It’s also an issue that’s close to her. Cisneros’ aunt died of cancer several years ago because she couldn’t afford treatment. One of her campaign promises is Medicare for All. 

“These are stories that we’ve been hearing since day one of the campaign, were people having to decide whether they could afford to buy food for the week, or having to choose between their prescription medication,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros is also in favor of a Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage.

Congressman Cuellar has voted for expanding Medicare and lowering the cost of prescription medication, he’s also voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour, but says the Green New Deal will kill jobs.

Cisneros said she’s the candidate that can bring a better standard of living to the district.

According to Census Data, about 24% of people in the district live below the poverty line.

The race has gotten contentious at times. Cisneros has called her opponent President Trump’s favorite Democrat because Cuellar has voted with Republicans nearly 70% of the time during his latest term. She has also criticized Cuellar for voting twice in favor of spending bills that included money for the construction of Trump’s border wall in his own district.

“He knows that all of sudden every single vote is under scrutiny and he’s being held accountable and that’s something he’s not used to. I think voters are smart and they know that it’s a little too late,” Cisneros said.

Cuellar defends his vote on border wall construction. He said he doesn’t agree with President Trump on the matter, but insists that he still needed to govern.

“It was a matter of do I believe in shutting down the federal government, I do not, do not, emphasize, do not believe in shutting down the government,” Cuellar said. “I think that’s a radical view to say that you shut down the government because you disagree with some parts there.”

He said he used his position on the appropriations committee to protect areas, like the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen State Park, in his district from wall construction.

Cuellar’s campaign said they go to “every community” in their district, which spans more than 9,000 square miles, at least once every month. Cuellar says he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in office, including the creation of the Texas Children's Health Insurance Program and securing more money for economically disadvantaged students to attend college.

The Congressman said he’s been able to provide for his district because he works in a bipartisan way.

“I don’t go to Washington to just attack Republicans, like some people want to do. I see bipartisanship as a positive. It doesn’t matter if it’s under a Democrat or a Republican, I’m able to produce because you know what? At the end of the day we’re all Americans,” Cuellar said.

Instead of challenging moderates like him, Cuellar said the people, in the what he calls the extreme left of his party, should focus more on expanding the Democratic majority in the House and winning the Senate.

“There are some radical people on the left side that will attack me and will attack other Blue Dog Democrats because we think a little differently and they want to get rid of us,” Cuellar said. “That’s why we have a Democratic Primary here where they’re spending millions of dollars from outside money because they feel that I’m not in their image.”

Nicholas Kiersey is a professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

He said like most progressive candidates who don’t take corporate donations, Cisneros faces an uphill battle. He said the true test for Cisneros to overcome Cuellar’s corporate backing and name recognition is whether her ground game has mobilized enough people ahead of the March 3 primary.

“It’s about people stepping up, making those phone calls, going door to door, talking to ordinary people and having those conversations where they connect where they listen to stories, where they share their own stories, by wearing that t-shirt, by sharing those stories people are demonstrating their commitment to a different way of thinking about the world that is that’s based on possibility of change,” Kiersey said.

Cisneros has also been calling for a series of live debates between her and the Congressman, but Cuellar has not committed to any debates. She recently stopped by TPR’s The Source to take calls from listeners, but the Congressman agreed to a pre-taped interview.

Cuellar has raised $1.7 million this election cycle, with his top donors coming from the oil and gas industry and the private prison industry, while Cisneros has raised $1.3 million, with money coming in mostly from small donors. If Cisneros wins the primary, the 26-year-old could be on the path to breaking the record set by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest woman to serve in Congress.

TheTexas Tribunecontributed to this story.

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