Jessica Cisneros is running for U.S. Representative in the 28th congressional district currently held by Democrat Henry Cuellar.
Jessica Cisneros is mounting a Democratic primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas' 28th Congressional District. Credit: Courtesy / Cisneros Campaign

A progressive immigration and human rights lawyer has thrown her hat into the ring to challenge U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Jessica Cisneros is looking to unseat Cuellar, who has represented Texas’s 28th Congressional District since 2005, by running to the left of the incumbent whose district includes parts of eastern Bexar County. According to her campaign website, Cisneros supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, gun law reform, and other progressive policy priorities.

Cisneros, 26, has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, a Tennessee-based organization that helped elect U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In 2018, Democrat Ocasio-Cortez unseated a Democratic incumbent who had represented her New York City district for 10 terms.

In the past three elections, the 63-year-old Cuellar secured his seat with more than 80 percent of the vote. He ran unopposed in the Democratic primary in 2018.

In a video released Thursday launching her campaign, Cisneros lambasted Cuellar for his voting record. A news release about her campaign pointed to a FiveThirtyEight story from February 2017 profiling Cuellar. FiveThirtyEight found that Cuellar had voted in line with President Donald Trump 75 percent of the time in 2017. That number has since gone down to 52.8 percent.

“Our congressman claims to be a Democrat, but he’s voted with Trump nearly 70 percent of the time,” said Cisneros in her launch video. “He’s Trump’s favorite Democrat. Henry Cuellar voted to defund sanctuary cities and reproductive health services for women’s health. He’s received an A rating from the NRA. And he’s accepted thousands of dollars from private prisons and the Koch brothers.”

Cuellar campaign spokesman Colin Strother defended the incumbent’s voting record.

“The congressman’s voting record basically hasn’t changed in 15 years,” Strother said. “He’s always been a blue dog. He’s quite fond of saying that he votes his district first. The only determining factor in how he votes is, ‘Is this good for the 28th district of Texas?’”

Cuellar understands the diversity of the district, with its suburban, urban, and rural voters’ priorities, Strother said.

“You can’t just represent one segment of society,” he said. “We’ve got to represent everyone in the district. That leads him to having a voting record that’s very centrist and looks a lot like the district.”

Among other things, Cisneros criticized Cuellar for his votes to fund construction of the border wall. Cuellar helped negotiate a deal to spend $1.375 billion on “pedestrian fencing” along the border in February, but also worked to protect the National Butterfly Center, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, La Lomita Chapel, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo)

Cisneros pledged to reject all campaign donations from corporate lobbyists and political action committees.

“This campaign is for la gente, it’s for la raza, it’s for the people of South Texas,” Cisneros said in her video. “I won’t take a dime of corporate PAC money and I will fight tirelessly from Bexar to Webb County, all the way down to Hidalgo County.”

Strother said that Cisneros’s promise is interesting, but irrelevant as PACs don’t give to “long-shot candidates.”

“It’s up to every candidate to decide what type of contributions they will and will not accept,” he said. “The congressman is fortunate to enjoy broad-based financial support from around the country and from almost every sector imaginable.”

Cisneros was born and raised in Laredo. She attended University of Texas at Austin and earned degrees in government and Latin American studies. She also earned her law degree from UT Austin. Her campaign website biography said that Cisneros decided early in life to become an advocate for immigrants and working people.

“We welcome her to the race,” Strother said. “It’s important that young people be active in the process, and robust and healthy debate is good for democracy. We look froward to having those debates in the next nine months.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.