After representing Texas’ 28th Congressional District for more than 15 years, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar faces his first serious Democratic primary challenger in more than a decade in Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration lawyer.

The Laredo native says the district is ready for a leader who will take a more progressive stance on gun control and climate change. Cuellar claims that his centrist approach best represents the large, diverse district with conservative views on several social issues.

Cuellar launched a television ad last week that is critical of Cisneros’ campaign funding, affiliation with abortion activists, and stance on transitioning Texas’ energy sector away from oil and gas. It was largely in response to an advertisement Texas Forward ran on Cisneros’ behalf which noted there can be a “damn big difference” between Democrats, citing Cuellar’s votes against pro-union legislation and to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

The moderate House Democrat incumbent and his progressive challenger will continue to draw sharp contrasts ahead of the March 3 primary election. Early voting begins Tuesday, Feb. 18. In November the winner will face Sandra Whitten, who is unopposed in the Republican primary.

Cuellar’s ad describes Cisneros as someone “who gets her money from outsiders and who just moved here six months ago.”

Cisneros was born and raised in Laredo but lived in New York while participating in a fellowship program there that assisted migrants with their immigration cases. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin’s law school in 2018 and passed the bar in New York before returning to Texas, but she is not practicing law, choosing instead to focus on her campaign.

Challenges regarding her experience and credentials don’t surprise her, Cisneros said.

“For the first time in 13 years he’s facing a serious primary challenge and now he’s up and down the district trying to get feedback from the community that he’s taken for granted for so long,” Cisneros said.

U.S. Congressional District candidate Jessica Cisneros Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As for campaign finance, both Cuellar’s and Cisneros’ campaigns have benefited from outside money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent six figures on the TV ad for Cuellar. Texas Forward, a super PAC associated with Emily’s List, spent $1.2 million on advertising against Cuellar and supporting Cisneros. Most of his money, however, is coming from within the district.

Cisneros raised $982,000 and had $615,000 on hand as of Dec. 31. Cuellar raised $1.5 million and had $2.9 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Campaign finance filings covering the first months of 2020 are due to the FEC by Feb. 20.

Emily’s List backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Their ad notes Cuellar, who is anti-abortion, voted to cut funding to Planned Parenthood and questions his Democrat credentials.

“The Democrats have taken the position in the past [that abortions should be] legal, safe and rare. … My opponent and the pro-choice people are taking very radical positions,” Cuellar said, including Emily’s List’s support of late-term abortions and protest of rules that require parental notification of their daughter’s abortion. He supports Planned Parenthood and programs for women’s health, he said, but not using federal funds for abortions.

The constituents in District 28 are more moderate than Cisneros thinks, Cuellar said. He likened progressives to the tea party movement.

“What we’re seeing here is what the Tea Party did to the Republicans,” he said. “We’re trying to expand the Democratic majority house … [but] we’re wasting money [fighting] against another Democrat.”

“They’ve created a circular firing squad,” he said. “My philosophy is if you’re going to grow the tent, you put a tent where you expand the majority, you don’t shrink.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Cuellar’s long record in the U.S. House has been a double-edged sword in this primary. On one side he’s a senior member who serves on the House Appropriations Committee as the only Texas Democrat. From that position, he helps direct funds for projects in the South Texas area, including $117 million for a new federal courthouse in San Antonio and $61.3 million in reimbursements to Bexar County for the Mission Reach redevelopment project. He’s helped secure millions more for transportation projects, education services, youth homelessness mitigation, and military and defense projects. Once Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) leaves office, Cuellar will be the only Texan on the Appropriations Committee.

Cuellar has been able to deliver on this funding under majority Democrat and Republican houses because he’s able to work across the aisle, he noted.

On the other side, he has a voting history that doesn’t always line up with the Democratic Party. Over his career, Cuellar voted in line with President Donald Trump’s position 44.5 percent of the time, according to a vote-tracking project by FiveThirtyEight. He’s one of three congressional Democrats to receive an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

He stands by his votes and opposes Trump when it counts, he said, noting that he consistently votes against funding for the border wall – except when it means shutting down the government. He also voted to fund 33 miles of border wall in 2018 as part of the fiscal year appropriations bill after securing protection for the federal Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

“When I vote, I always look at what’s in the best interest of the district. So I don’t go up there and vote on party lines,” Cuellar said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people up there … who only have one question: what does my party want me to do?”

On other major policy issues, such as supporting the 2010 Affordable Care Act and opposing the GOP’s massive 2017 tax cut, he’s in line with his Democratic colleagues.

Union activists held a protest at his office in San Antonio on Friday in opposition to his recent vote to reject the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act. The bill would impose penalties on businesses that engage in coercion or take retaliatory action against workers who are trying to unionize.

“Texas is a right-to-work state and I will protect the right-to-work state,” he said. “The provision in this PRO Act was very lopsided — it didn’t find the balance between workers and businesses.”

Cuellar cited a provision in the bill that he says unfairly penalizes large companies for workplace infractions committed by their franchisees – scaring such companies from partnering with smaller businesses.

Other times, he’s been able to support pro-union legislation, he said. “I’m not going to be 100 percent [in agreement] with everyone.”

The hardworking people of District 28 need someone who will fight for them, Cisneros said. She received an endorsement of the state’s largest labor group, the Texas AFL-CIO, last month.

“My opponent hasn’t really been a champion for working-class people and they were very frustrated about that,” she said.

She has received endorsements from several national progressive groups such as Justice Democrats, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who dropped out of the presidential race.

Cuellar has amassed more than 200 endorsements from in-district elected officials, including former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association, school board members, and more.

Cisneros welcomes her support from outside the region, she said.

“We’ve been getting a lot of national attention – we want to be a bridge from our local issues to the national platform,” she said. “Under this [president’s] administration, there’s so much talk about our people from the border but you don’t hear a lot from us. … This is an opportunity to shine a light on our district.”

Beto O’Rourke’s close race against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 inspired more progressives to run in some elections, Cisneros said.

“It activated a lot of people down at the border,” she said. “We do deserve someone who’s going to actually be out there championing our issues instead of someone who just has ‘D’ next to his name.”

Cisneros cites Cuellar’s support of a bill that lifted the time limit on the detention of children at the border as well as votes that weakened the Affordable Care Act as votes that were out of touch with the district.

Improving health care – making sure all Americans have access – is at the top of her priority list, Cisneros said.

“Making sure that health care is an absolute right is important because we’re tired of burying our loved ones because we can’t afford care,” she said, noting that medicine and treatment can be easier to obtain in Mexico than in the U.S., where some people have to ask for donations to pay for surgeries.

“Go Fund Me — it seems like that’s our health insurance,” she said.

When she first announced her candidacy, many drew comparisons between Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), who also was vetted by Justice Democrats.

But Cisneros is not AOC and she’s vying to represent a very different constituency.

“For me, it basically reminds me that we need to do a lot more to get people who look like me into office,” she said. “Those comparisons are happening because we’re both young Latinas. Hopefully, we’ll get to a point where there’s just so many amazing Latina women in office that the comparisons don’t need to be made anymore.”

Cuellar’s recent TV advertisement could mean that his campaign is worried that Cisneros is hitting a nerve in the district, said local political consultant Laura Barberena. Barberena is not involved in either campaign but has worked for Texas Organizing Project, which has endorsed Cisneros.

“There’s no way he’s doing spots like that without research that says he needs to,” Barberena said.

She said the anti-abortion messaging also signals an appeal to older Hispanic Catholics, which could backfire and bring out voters who agree with improving access and privacy laws surrounding abortion.

The television ad buy is a defensive way to shore up Cuellar’s brand, said campaign manager Colin Strother.

“You don’t let someone try and tarnish your brand,” Strother said, because Cisneros is trying to label him as a weak Democrat when he’s been a powerful ally to the party. “You can’t just sit there and take the arrows. … We feel we’re in a real strong position and we don’t want to slide. Our fundamentals have never been higher in terms of job approval.”

Cuellar’s ability to bring millions of dollars for infrastructure projects within the district is probably more well known among politicos, business leaders, and others, Barbarena said.

“That’s inside baseball,” she said. “I’m not sure the average voter is aware of the advantage of having [local representation on the] Appropriations Committee.”

On Friday, Cuellar was in town celebrating the final installment of federal reimbursements for the Mission Reach restoration project with Bexar County officials. They credited his ability to work across the aisle to ensure that $61.3 million the County spent was repaid.

“All you have to do is show to the ordinary voter … the Mission Reach and San Pedro Creek,” he said. “That’s not inside baseball. Those are things that people can see.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Texas Forward developed and paid for the “damn big difference” advertisement, not Cisneros.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org