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Texas mainstay Cuellar faces threats from federal probe, progressive challenger and a changing Laredo

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) faces a tough primary challenge from progressive lawyer Jessica Cisneros. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

LAREDO, Tex. — A week after images of FBI agents carrying boxes out of Rep. Henry Cuellar’s large north Laredo home streamed live on social media, the South Texas native proclaimed his innocence in front of his modest southside childhood home, a totem to the humble roots he routinely invokes — especially when seeking reelection.

“When I look at this house, I see struggle. I see sacrifice. I see hard work. I see grit,” the nine-term incumbent said in the video statement in late January after the raid. “I see Laredo, the 956. This is my home, my community and why I got into politics.”

Cuellar isn’t the only one pointing to his roots as the key to understanding who he is and whether voters should send him back to Congress — his opponent Jessica Cisneros is too.

The 28-year-old immigration lawyer who grew up in a neighborhood cheekily dubbed “Get out if you can” in Spanish and is running on a progressive agenda is telling voters that the federal investigation is the latest evidence that the son of migrant farmworkers, who made a name for himself as a conservative Democrat and pragmatic dealmaker, has forgotten the lessons from his modest youth as he caters to powerful interests and leaves many of his constituents behind.

“People are looking for a working-class champion, someone that is not forgetting where she comes from and is advocating for the little guy,” Cisneros, who is campaigning on issues such as Medicare-for-all and pro-union policies, said in an interview.

Cuellar, a leading House centrist with a business-friendly record, dismisses such criticism, arguing he has used his perch in Washington to help direct federal funds to the district that have created and saved jobs, proudly promoting himself as an old-school rainmaker for the district.

“All she does is attack, attack, attack,” he said. “I can go down the line of money that I brought in for my constituents.”

The primary battle between Cuellar, 66, and Cisneros, which will be held March 1, is a rematch from two years ago, when the congressman prevailed by about four points, but the investigation has invigorated the race and made it potentially more competitive.

It also comes at a time when, like in several Democratic primaries across the country, voters are wrestling with whether to stick with a centrist incumbent who may represent their best chance of holding on to the seat against a Republican challenger or embrace a younger liberal who seems more line with the party’s leftward drift.

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But what South Texas voters, many of whom identify as Latino, made clear in interviews is that the struggle between progressive and establishment Democrats here is much more complicated and culture-specific than the broader national debate. People here do not fit into the traditional mold of a conservative or liberal by national or even Texas standards, as evidenced by the success of both former president Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) , said Nicholas Hudson of Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Anglo conservatism is not Tejano conservatism, which is why Cuellar, often described as the most conservative House Democrat, is careful to strike a compassionate tone on immigration and social welfare matters. And Anglo progressivism is not Tejano progressivism, leading Cisneros to temper her rhetoric about the U.S. Border Patrol and the changes she would like to see to immigration laws. There are different shades of blue and red in the borderlands. Voters say the focus here is more on tough love than ideology. Their approach is both practical and aspirational.

Cuellar and Cisneros are both products of this community, and the generational and socioeconomic divides that distinguish the candidates mirror those of the district. Laredo, which anchors Texas’s 28th Congressional District, is a city at an inflection point where decades-old income inequality and tension between a traditional, more conservative establishment and the activist, unapologetic liberals are colliding.

In presenting competing visions for what this slice of South Texas is and could be, the congressional contest will test the limits of Cuellar’s carefully curated centrist identity and the reach of Cisneros’s pro-working class message to largely Mexican-American voters.

“There was a time when Cuellar could shoot someone in the middle of San Bernardo Avenue and not lose any voters,” said historian Jerry Thompson, of Texas A&M International, referencing a central Laredo thoroughfare. “That may no longer be the case.”

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For Cuellar’s longtime backers, there is no one more integral than their congressman. He is an ally of House Democratic leadership and sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for deciding how the government spends taxpayer dollars. He embodies what is possible for a young, politically ambitious Tejano who has made his success a collective experience for many people in his community. His brother is the county sheriff. His sister is a former county tax assessor. His friends lead local government. Many of his former staff are local power brokers.

He was a visible presence in the district — until the FBI raid.

Since then, Cuellar has not made many public appearances in his district or on Capitol Hill, where he has voted “proxy” — or remotely — for over a month. He is typically a fixture at the annual George Washington Birthday Celebration events here, but was notably absent this past weekend.

In previous years, Cuellar touted his clout by standing alongside Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in the parade. While leadership supports reelection of their incumbents, only Hoyer has publicly endorsed Cuellar this election cycle. Cisneros enjoys the support of some national progressive figures such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

Cuellar maintains he is out and about in the district, door-knocking in recent days and working the phones to convince undecided voters.

With regard to the FBI raiding his home and office, Cuellar said in his January video statement that “there is an ongoing investigation that will show that there was no wrongdoing on my part,” adding that he has always done “things honestly, ethically and the right way.” The FBI has declined to discuss the matter.

When Cuellar talks about his district, he describes voters who are staunchly Catholic, antiabortion, and pro-law enforcement — views he represents through his votes in Congress. His constituents are people who want a secure border, reject government handouts — even as they accept funds steered their way by Cuellar — and are moving steadily rightward, he says.

But Cisneros argues the district is changing, and she is banking on the support of voters who don’t see Cuellar as responsive to their needs.

Laredo resident Leticia Canales acknowledged Cuellar is known for his accessibility, but the people it applies to are restricted by class and clout, she said. Her family has lived in one of the oldest neighborhoods on Laredo’s low-income southside since the 1900s. At least four times this past year, the water from the faucet of their barrio turns brown or goes out completely.

When they call, no one answers, she said. She and many other voters said they want a candidate who responds to the material needs of their families and have embraced Cisneros’s focus on wages, equity and the standard of living.

“We haven’t seen much change,” Canales said of Cuellar. “He’s had his chance.”

Republicans are eagerly watching the primary, saying that whether a potentially damaged Cuellar emerges or the liberal Cisneros prevails they will have a good chance to pick up the district even though Cuellar won by more than 19 points in 2020.

“There’s no question in my mind that once we get down to the issues and debating the issues, clearly you will see that the values that we aspire to, should dominate the vote,” said Webb County GOP Chair Luis de la Garza said.

Border politics forged by history

Border politics revolve around personalities and dynastic political families who preside over fiefdoms of influence, according to historians who have studied the region. In Laredo, the current system is the legacy of socioeconomic-based caste systems established by colonizing Spaniards and upheld by successive generations’ allegiance to the status quo, said Thompson, the historian.

Democrats have controlled politics here for more than a century, organizing around hand-picked candidates with a hyperlocal network of skilled campaign workers, said Abel Prado, executive director of the democratic advocacy group Cambio Texas in the Rio Grande Valley focused on increasing voter turnout.

Cuellar and his recent FBI encounter is representative of the “patrón” political system that leaves little room for outsiders to participate, suppresses voter enthusiasm and makes incumbents extraordinarily difficult to beat, said Alec Martinez, a Laredo community organizer.

The 28th Congressional District has some of the lowest voter turnout in Texas, and David Villalobos, of the Texas Organizing Project, said that can be explained in part by the feeling among many that their interests aren’t being represented.

“People tell me, ‘Vote, what for? You’re not going to get anywhere.’ If they don’t feel like resisting will result in anything changing, then it’s not worth the energy,” he said.

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But Cisneros’s first run and Sanders’ success in the district during the 2020 Democratic primary suggest its century-old dynamics are changing.

Her campaign coincided with a burgeoning movement of Laredo community organizers animated in recent years by Trump administration policies, which helped the first-time candidate mobilize voters others hadn’t bothered to contact, said Danny Diaz, Cisneros’s 2020 campaign manager.

“Voters here are not loyal to the Republicans but also not to the Democrats. They are for the taking,” he said. “Whoever talks to them, they will swing that way.”

Nowhere were the tensions over this shift more evident than in the Webb County Democratic Party, where Laredo’s class and generational divides clashed. Party chair Sylvia Bruni said they tried to recalibrate in the wake of a 2020 election that saw Donald Trump overperform in border districts. They started registering new voters from the county’s most underserved communities and inviting people from outside the closed political elite to direct the party’s agenda, said attorney Carlos Flores.

New ideas and new members overhauled what once was the province of a select few politically connected residents.

First-generation college student Christian Ochoa is one of many his age who found space within the revitalized party in Webb County to exercise his growing political consciousness. He spent many nights stuck at home during the pandemic with his Catholic parents talking about the local news and trying to understand where his family’s political values lie.

“The cultural values of South Texans are conservative, but if you pull back the skin and look at the bones, what it’s all about is whether I can protect my family and put food on the table,” said Ochoa, 19. “We are just tired of the same thing, of the same people in charge and getting nothing done.”

But as the primaries neared, a cadre of Cuellar loyalists and former local elected officials accused the local party of shifting leftward and of lending tacit support to Cisneros. Last fall, Cuellar supporters founded a new group, the Tejano Democrats of State District 21, using the office the party left recently — in a building Cuellar leases, members said. Eduardo Chapa, the club leader and former Cuellar intern, said they felt ostracized for their antiabortion , pro-business views.

While the official county party does not endorse candidates, the new group explicitly backs Cuellar. They say they value his bipartisanship, seniority and pro-business pragmatism. They argue the federal investigation is politically motivated and targeted at Cuellar because he is the last antiabortion Democrat in Congress.

A tale of two voters

The lines of the 28th District have been redrawn as part of the decennial redistricting process to include thousands of more voters in more populous Bexar County, home to San Antonio and its suburbs, making it slightly more friendly to Democrats.

Cuellar’s campaign aides said the incumbent is banking on his list of reliable and likely voters built over three decades in state and federal government to deliver him another victory. The campaign is investing more in San Antonio-focused television ads and canvassing more frequently in conservative-leaning border counties to make up for urban voters who stay home or choose his progressive opponents.

But for a community that values personal outreach, Cuellar’s recent public absences may prove costly.

Arturo Perez, a teacher and Cuellar supporter, has seen the congressman driving his truck past a downtown Laredo polling center every morning since early voting began Feb. 14.

Holding a deep-blue Cuellar sign and matching hat, Perez, a 51-year-old Republican-leaning independent, said the investigation would not dissuade him from voting for the Democrat again.

“When my brother asked me why [I’m still supporting him], I said because he didn’t say ‘fake news.’ He didn’t say ‘Oh, no, somebody is trying to get me.’ He was responsible, and that’s what I want. I want a responsible politician, be it a Democrat or Republican,” he said.

Reymondo Rodriguez, a retired mechanic living in Laredo’s Santa Niño neighborhood, was calling his neighbors on a recent Friday to see if they were experiencing water problems, an increasingly vexing infrastructure issue plaguing city residents. Standing outside of his home flanked with security cameras, Rodriguez said he decided his 2020 vote for Cuellar would be his last.

“Cuellar has done a great job, but I think when someone is in an office for so long, you tend to favor— whether you want to or not, I don’t know if you do it intentionally — but you tend to favor the rich,” Rodriguez said. He added: “Mr. Cuellar, he’s done a good job. But I think it’s time to try something new.”