The political life of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar goes on to see another day.

The embattled congressman, whose property and campaign office the FBI raided in January, will face a runoff with his progressive challenger, 28-year-old lawyer Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar defeated Cisneros in the 2020 primary by less than 4 percentage points.

The race has huge implications for South Texas, and national media have highlighted it as one that could define the Democratic Party for years to come.

Both candidates hail from Laredo, a city that plays a major role in this congressional district, the 28th. Stretching from Converse to Rio Grande City, the 28th has the familiar shape of Texas’ heavily gerrymandered districts — which is to say so unfamiliar as to have no real discernible shape.

So how did Cuellar manage to win a plurality of votes in the face of a federal investigation that garnered national headlines? In a word, Laredo.

Despite narrowly edging his opponent in the overall tally, 48.4% to 46.9%, Cuellar carried Webb County (where Laredo is the county seat) with nearly 60% of the vote. Compare that to Bexar County, where Cisneros took home a whopping 73% of the vote and Cuellar mustered just 21%.

As someone who grew up in Laredo, I know its peculiarities. Ever since I can remember, Laredo votes Democrat but not liberal, supports social programs but maintains a social conservatism. Its body politic leans heavily into a Catholic ethos. In short, Laredo contains multitudes.

Cuellar is one of the last of a dying breed in the U.S. Congress but who occupy an outsize role in current affairs: So-called Blue Dog Democrats are an anachronism in today’s political climate, a relic of the party’s past. They occupy the space just to the right of center, much like Lyndon B. Johnson before the Great Society and Civil Rights Act.

Today that looks like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), who liberals see as an obstructionist but who represents a relatively conservative constituency.

In 2017, the data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece about Cuellar headlined “A Q&A with the House Democrat who’s voted with Trump 75% of the time.” Ultimately, his pro-Trump voting record shrank to 40% but still 20 points above where the site expected him to be. Cisneros calls him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”

But, again, multitudes. Trump may have launched his 2016 presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and bad hombres, but that apparently did not offend a growing legion of his supporters in the Laredo area.

In September 2020, thousands turned out for a “Trump train” demonstration in the streets of Laredo — part parade, part protest. Some people described the event as a sort of coming-out party for closeted Trumpers, the right-wing equivalent of flying your freak flag in blue Webb County.

Months later, Biden won Webb County fairly handily — 61% to Trump’s 37% — but it was the closest margin for a presidential election in the county since the beloved former Texas Gov. George Bush secured his second term in the White House.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) smiles alongside U.S. Congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros, left, and Greg Casar after a rally at Paper Tiger in February.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) smiles alongside congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros, left, and Greg Casar after a rally at Paper Tiger in February. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Cisneros, meanwhile, campaigned with backing from progressive organizations such as Our Revolution, EMILY’s List and Tucker Carlson’s favorite congresswoman from New York, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).

She’s voiced her support for policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Cisneros’ candidacy has clearly invigorated a left-of-center base in the 28th Congressional District. Many of those who oppose her candidacy, however, view her as an outsider, thanks in part to a clever bit of spin on the part of those advising Cuellar. That’s unfair to Cisneros, who only ever left Laredo to attend college and law school in Austin and then to complete a yearlong fellowship in Brooklyn, New York. She began working as an immigration attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid after unsuccessfully running against Cuellar in 2020.

Cisneros, who formerly interned in Cuellar’s office, had railed against Cuellar’s coziness with Washington’s elite even before the federal investigation. To be clear, Cuellar has not been charged in connection with the raid, and the FBI won’t say whether Cuellar is the subject of the investigation. All we know is that FBI agents emerged from Cuellar’s property with computing devices and personal belongings. He has denied any wrongdoing.

ABC News reported the investigation centers on the ties of several U.S. businessmen to Azerbaijan. Cuellar has in the past served as co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and has had frequent meetings with Azerbaijan officials, according to ABC News.

Cisneros told the left-wing political news outlet the Young Turks that accepting corporate PAC money has had a “corrupting influence on [Cuellar’s] votes in Washington.”

Cuellar has represented the Laredo area for the better part of four decades, and he’s part of a political dynasty there. His brother is Webb County’s longtime sheriff, and his sister has also held political office.

His assignment on the House Appropriations Committee is important to the people of Laredo, who have been pining for a prominent voice in Washington for years. He’s seen by his supporters as a dependable advocate for Laredo, but his apparent position at the center of a federal probe raises the specter of an allegiance to foreign interests.

Whatever the consequence of the investigation, Cuellar appears set for the fight of his political career in May.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.