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FBI raid of South Texas congressman adds another element to a tough primary challenge

It's a rematch in South Texas: Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros. Two years ago, Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros to hold on to his seat.
It's a rematch in South Texas: Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros. Two years ago, Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros to hold on to his seat.

In his hometown of Laredo, Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar is deep-seated. He's been in office since 2005 and even has an elementary school named after him.

But the nine-term Democratic congressman faces a stiff challenge in the state's March 1 primary from Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old progressive.

The race was already on the political radar for Democrats and for Republicans, who see the South Texas congressional district as a potential pickup opportunity, when an FBI raid of Cuellar's home and office last month added another element to the contest. He has denied wrongdoing.

Cisneros — an immigration attorney who is also a Laredo native and who narrowly lost to Cuellar two years ago — is running again with the backing of progressives Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Cisneros has distinguished herself from Cuellar with her support for Medicare for All, pro-labor legislation and access to abortion. Her election would mean a new brand of politics for South Texas.

Meanwhile, Cuellar is backed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and can count on a long list of local endorsements and supporters.

"I've been voting [Cuellar] for several years. I think Henry's done an incredible job," said Cristobal Rodriguez, a real estate sales agent and Laredoan. "He's brought a lot of money to our community."

Many in the 28th Congressional District have a sense of pride about Cuellar's powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee. He touts his ability to reach across the aisle and get things done.

"We cannot have leaders that are uncompromising and extreme," Cuellar says in a new ad, one of many recently flooding the airwaves. "I will always vote in the best interest of our constituents."

Still, some of those constituents have found it hard to make sense of his voting record. Cuellar is considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, as he's taken right-leaning stances on abortion rights, gun control and immigration.

Joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Cuellar speaks on southern border security and illegal immigration on July 30, 2021. Cuellar touts his ability to reach across the aisle and get things done.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
Joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Cuellar speaks on southern border security and illegal immigration on July 30, 2021. Cuellar touts his ability to reach across the aisle and get things done.

At a Laredo rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, Cesia Rodriguez and her husband looked at each other and laughed when asked about their vote in the congressional primary.

Rodriguez has known Cuellar's family for years. She's a court administrator who appreciates the federal grants he brings to her community. But she's conflicted.

"I don't agree [with him], that he doesn't vote for gun control, that he voted against the woman's right to choose — I need to think of the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is my community," Rodriguez said. "And that's hard to say."

FBI raids of Cuellar change the race

In January, Cuellar's Laredo home and campaign office in Texas were raided, which only added to the conflict for voters.

Cuellar co-chairs the House Azerbaijan Caucus, and outlets including ABC and CBS News report that the raids are part of a federal investigation into the country and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to it. NPR has not confirmed that reporting.

While many supporters are rushing to Cuellar's defense, others say it's time for a change. Crystal Valles, a teacher in Laredo, said the FBI investigation has only hardened her disapproval.

"I've already viewed him differently since before, but it just added to the doubt of him running for office," Valles said.

Cuellar's office declined multiple requests for comment, but he released a video after the raids saying he is cooperating with the investigation.

"I'm committed to ensuring that justice and that law is upheld," he said. "There is an ongoing investigation that will show that there was no wrongdoing on my part."

Cisneros has used the FBI raids to make the point that Cuellar's ties — and votes — extend outside the district's interests. She points out that Cuellar has taken large campaign donations from the Koch Brothers, big oil companies and the private prison industry.

"Well, his vote — if you want to make sense of it, just follow the money," she said.

Cisneros and a third candidate in the race, Tannya Benavides, are calling for accountability and transparency for their community.

"I'm not taking a dime of corporate PAC money because South Texas families deserve true representation," Cisneros says in an introductory video, adding: "They said change was impossible here ... but we showed them that the dreams of immigrants, rancheros, truckers and teachers can be just as powerful as their corporate dollars."

Cisneros has the backing of fellow progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who came to stump for Cisneros and another political candidate last weekend in San Antonio.
Eric Gay / AP
Cisneros has the backing of fellow progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who came to stump for Cisneros and another political candidate last weekend in San Antonio.

Texas' 28th district stretches from Laredo along the border to the Rio Grande Valley and up to San Antonio, where Ocasio-Cortez came to stump for Cisneros last weekend.

The New York congresswoman told reporters that a progressive taking the seat would signal the flipping of Texas and then the nation.

"Jessica Cisneros has really shown what is possible — not only here in San Antonio but all the way down South Texas," Ocasio-Cortez said. "She's shown that we don't have to accept status quo politics before we actually fight for change."

Henry Flores, a political scientist at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, said the contest highlights a wave of young progressives championing reform and trying to unseat established politicians. He said Cuellar is in the political battle of his career against Cisneros.

"I think it's one of the races that will tell us where the nation is going," Flores said.

Democrats across the country are keeping a nervous eye on this race. Whoever wins the March 1 primary will then try to hold on to a district that Republicans are targeting as a seat they could flip.

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