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Meet Jessica Cisneros, the 28-year-old immigration lawyer who forced a veteran Democrat into a runoff in Texas

The closely watched race underscores division in the Democratic Party and is a fresh test of whether left-leaning candidates, who have struggled in recent elections, can prevail over more-moderate Democrats

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), right, attends a rally with Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros on Feb. 12, 2022, in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)

A millennial with big political ambitions forced a veteran Democratic congressman into a runoff in Texas’s 28th Congressional District as a close race unfolded in Rep. Henry Cuellar’s deep-South Texas seat stretching from San Antonio to the Mexican border.

Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer from Laredo, will square off with Cuellar, a 17-year House veteran and conservative Democrat, on May 24 after holding him to less than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday in Texas’s primary contests, the first in the midterm elections cycle. Two years ago, she nearly won the nomination.

Cisneros, a first-generation Mexican American lawyer, like Cuellar, once interned for the congressman. She said repeatedly during the campaign that Cuellar, who opposes abortion rights and is a critic of some of President Biden’s immigration policies, was out of touch with the 28th District.

By Wednesday morning, the Associated Press showed Cuellar leading Cisneros by just under 2 percentage points — 48.5 to 46.8 — with 99 percent of the vote counted.

Cisneros said Wednesday that she was excited and energized by the primary results. The third candidate in the Democratic race, Tannya Benavides, received 4.7 percent of the vote. Cisneros said she hasn’t spoken to Benavides but is ready to work with her and “whoever wants to work with this campaign for new leadership.”

“That means that over 50 percent of voters in our district want new leadership,” Cisneros told reporters. “It’s really exciting to see how our conversations on the people-centered policy that we’re running on have gotten so much momentum over the last couple of years, and we are so much closer to defeating Henry Cuellar.”

Cisneros said she’s looking forward to the runoff election May 24 — which is also her 29th birthday.

Despite the vote margins, Cisneros, speaking in Spanish, said she did not think her campaign would be requesting a recount, choosing instead to focus on the May contest.

“I trust the work we’ve been doing,” Cisneros said. “We knew from the start that it was going to be a very tough election because, obviously, running against someone who’s been in power for so much time, it’s very difficult to beat them.”

A spokesman for Cuellar did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the results.

The closely watched race underscored the division in the Democratic Party and was a fresh test of whether left-leaning candidates, who have struggled in recent elections, can prevail over more-moderate Democrats.

Justice Democrats, a liberal group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in her first congressional run in 2018, has been an early supporter of Cisneros’s campaign, and on Wednesday a spokeswoman said the results of Tuesday’s primary gave the group hope.

“We are so proud to have backed [Cisneros] from the very beginning,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. “For years, South Texans have been demanding change. Now Jessica has the momentum to win the runoff against Cuellar and then take on the GOP’s agenda of division and greed with a vision for shared prosperity.”

Cisneros received the support of Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund and labor unions including the Texas AFL-CIO. She backs policies that often stand at the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum from Cuellar’s, who is considered one of the most conservative members of Congress.

After interning for Cuellar in 2014, Cisneros waged a primary challenge against him six years later and came within 2,700 votes of defeating him. Cuellar was able to prevail thanks to decades of name recognition and a deep campaign account; he outspent her by $700,000.

[Get the full Texas result download here]

This time around, Cisneros went into the race confident that years spent strengthening her relationship with the community, a stronger grass-roots campaign and a district redrawn to include more portions of liberal San Antonio would be enough to push her to victory.

Cisneros’s agenda includes support for abortion rights, Medicare-for-all and a more aspirant-friendly revamp of the nation’s immigration system, but she has said her embrace is more than backing progressive liberal ideals.

“When I talk about Medicare-for-all and why I support that policy, I always talk about how when I was 13 years old, I had to help my family fundraise by selling plates of food to raise money. … No 13-year-old or no family should have to do that,” Cisneros said. “It’s much easier for people to be able to grasp the concepts and policies that we’re running on if we do it that way, instead of trying to pigeonhole ourselves into one label or the other.”

Cisneros’s parents migrated to the United States when her older sister needed urgent medical care. Cisneros’s father picked fruit and started a trucking company. Cisneros graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also got a law degree. There she focused on immigration law.

Cuellar ran on the promise that he would strike bipartisan deals in the House, telling voters in a recent campaign ad that he wanted to “build relationships with both parties.”

Cuellar had criticized Cisneros by arguing that she supported two key issues pushed by liberal Democrats that he claims could hurt the district — a move toward more clean energy and less funding for the U.S. Border Patrol.

“Cisneros is against oil and gas, and I’m not going to vote to get rid of 40,000 jobs that are good-paying jobs here,” Cuellar said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Although Cisneros has voiced support for the Green New Deal and the renewable-energy industry, she pledged to be “a voice for workers in the fossil fuel industry to ensure no one gets left behind.”

On the border, Cuellar said, he wanted to make sure “that we don’t have open borders or defund the police or attack Border Patrol.”

“Those are good-paying jobs,” he said. “My opponent has said that my district is too dependent on Homeland Security jobs — that we totally disagree on.”

Cisneros highlighted her background as an immigration lawyer to draw a contrast with Cuellar, who has become one of his party’s most outspoken critics of the Biden administration’s immigration policies. While he assailed many of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies — he opposed the construction of a border wall — Cuellar has described the Biden administration as being too welcoming to migrants.

He has also accused Biden of listening too much to “immigration activists” and not enough to those living on the border, including landowners and law enforcement officials.

Cisneros, meanwhile, constantly invoked her work defending immigrants against deportation during the Trump administration as evidence that her views on immigration are opposite to Cuellar’s and more attuned to those of the voters in her district, which is predominantly rural and Latino.

She supports the scrapping of a 1996 law passed during the Clinton administration that laid the groundwork for the country’s massive deportation system.

“It was so heartbreaking and painful,” she said during a campaign event, of her work on deportation cases. “But I was representing so many people that reminded me of myself, of my family, and that the only difference between them and me was the fact that I was born in this country, that I just so happened to be born five minutes north of the river.”

The race in the 28th District came on the heels of an FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters on Jan. 19. The congressman has not said why he is under investigation but has declared his innocence and vowed to remain in the race. The FBI has declined to discuss the probe.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.