When Jessica Cisneros was a 20-year-old student with a passion for politics, she interned for Congressman Henry Cuellar, a popular Democrat from Texas. Cuellar shared Cisneros’ heritage (their families were both from Mexico) and hometown (the bordertown of Laredo), and were both outstanding students whose graduate degrees took them away from home. But that’s where their similarities ended.
Cisneros, now 26, was all about working with the disadvantaged, whose compassion for the underserved would eventually lead her to become an immigration attorney. Cuellar, who just turned 64, built a political career in which he often aligned himself with Republicans. He says it was to get things done, but Cisneros saw it as a betrayal of Democratic values.
Her eyes were opened, she says, when she spent the summer interning in his Washington office.
“I didn’t like what I saw,” Cisnero told Refinery29. Cuellar’s reliance on corporate money and business interests — especially with private prisons and energy companies who perform fracking, who are among Cuellar’s largest contributors — made Cisneros uncomfortable. Moreover, she felt he lacked an interest in the regular people of the district who needed health care and government programs. As a pro-choice woman, Cisneros was very much against his votes that limited abortion rights and reproductive freedom. (NARAL, The National Abortion Rights Action League, gives Cuellar a rating of 15% for his votes from 2016-2018. By contrast Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, of Houston, has a 100% rating.)
“I told myself, ‘One day I’m going to run for Congress.’”
Today, Cisneros is doing just that. After being recruited by progressive political action committee Justice Democrats, she quit her job as an immigration lawyer, moved back to Texas, and began criss-crossing the state calling Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” She points out that since Trump’s election, Cuellar has voted in favor of the President’s policies 67% of the time, according to independent outlet CQ Vote Watch. He sided with Republicans to clamp down on “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants, and on legislation to quickly deport unaccompanied minors from Central America. He also holds an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association, and is close to Republicans, so much so that some felt he had betrayed the party when he supported incumbent GOP congress member John Carter against a Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar, a female helicopter pilot and decorated war hero, in a close race in Central Texas. She lost by only three points, denying the Texas delegation another Democratic seat in the House. On the hot button issue of impeachment, with more than half of Democrats pushing for action on what they say is President Trump’s abuse of office, Cuellar is among the more cautious members: “If investigations prove that impeachment is the necessary course of action, then I will be forced to act on impeachment proceedings,” he said. “This is not a process that should be taken lightly and any actions should follow the facts and the evidence.”
These actions are contrary to Cisneros’ worldview, and what she considers those of the border communities where they grew up. Now she’s offering Cuellar his first primary challenge since he won office in 2005. Cisneros is one of several progressive, young challengers taking on establishment Democrats across the country, partially galvanized by the success of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the Bronx Democrat who defeated the second most powerful Democrat in Congress back in 2018. If Cisneros wins, she’d replace AOC as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
But can she pull an AOC-style upset? When Ocasio-Cortez upended Democratic politics by ousting the second most powerful member of the House, Joe Crowley, it was a surprise. But it was also the Bronx, a safe liberal haven within a blue state. This is Texas, where Republicans have controlled the political landscape for decades. No Democrat has been elected to any of the more than two dozen offices that are elected statewide — such as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate, and agriculture commissioner — since 1994. Latinx voters still tend to cast their ballots for Republicans; Sen. Ted Cruz won 35% of the Latinx vote against Beto O’Rourke in 2018.
“The Latinos in Texas are a little more conservative than Latinos in other states,” said Victoria DeFrancisco Soto, a lecturer and director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. On such social issues as abortion rights, gay marriage, and gun ownership, Latinx voters in Texas are more mixed, especially among older voters. “However, young people tend to be more progressive. The Latinx demographic is growing. Seeing the desire for change is normal given the demographic.”
It’s that demographic that Cisneros is hoping to galvanize. The district is a mix of both progressive Democrats and more traditional Democrats in a region dependent on fossil fuel production and international trade. Laredo is the largest inland port in the nation. There are also large ranching interests in the rural areas where Latino Democrats are also gun rights advocates.
It’s clear that progressives are not shoe-ins there. Certainly, there’s something of a generational divide, but cultural influences from the Catholic church and established economic forces like the banking industry play influential roles. Laredo, founded in 1755, is one of Texas’ oldest cities and is geographically more isolated than other border cities like McAllen and Brownsville. It has been a more conservative enclave than other Hispanic cities, electing lawmakers at the local level who are pro-business.
Additionally, Laredo is not conventionally Latino. Even its main local event to celebrate its community feels different than its neighbors. In contrast to San Antonio, which is famous for its annual Fiesta San Antonio that honors its Tex-Mex culture, Laredo has a month-long celebration of George Washington’s birthday wherein residents dress in colonial garb. Cuellar played the role of the first President in 2014.
As an advocate for trade and establishing business ties with Mexico, Cuellar has drawn the suspicion of some party members who view him as too close to Republicans. But, he’s also financially supported the Democratic Party — all members of Congress have a certain amount of “dues” they must contribute to the party, and Cuellar is proud that he has already met his threshold of hundreds of thousands of dollars this year.
Cuellar is a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even though she’s on the liberal side and he’s on the conservative side of the party. She looks to him as her border expert. This August, Pelosi, Cuellar and other members of Congress traveled to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — countries at the center of the immigration debate — and toured a detention facility August 11 in McAllen, just outside Cuellar’s district.
The 28th district centered in Laredo appears to be a testing ground for what’s possible as demographic changes, especially in suburban areas, turn Texan cities increasingly purple. The district itself features a section of the border with Mexico, including 200 miles of border, and stretches more than 150 miles to the north into the suburbs of San Antonio. Texas districts are gerrymandered by the GOP legislature so that Republicans are favored in the majority of districts, although a certain number are structured for Latinos, which usually favors Democrats. The 28th district, created in 1993, has always been held by Latino Democrats — Cuellar won in 2004 by challenging a Latino Democrat in a divisive primary. (Other parts of the state like Houston and Dallas, for example, elected congressional Democrats in 2018 who ousted long-time Republicans.)
Progressive Democrats are hoping to push the 28th district left, driven by younger voters. Today, 32% of registered voters in Cisneros’s district are between the ages of 18-35, but only 21% of them voted in 2018. Whether or not Cisneros’ message wins will be an indication for how far left Texas’s Latinos are willing to go and that could have huge repercussions for the state.
Though there are still conservative threads in the Hispanic community, Matt Barreto, co-founder and Managing Partner of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, sees a shift to progressive ideas, especially brought on by the national divisions over immigration and health care.
“There’s a perpetuation of the myth that South Texas is very conservative,” Cisneros says. But she noticed that during her door-to-door campaigning in her first two months, she’s found receptive audiences to her calls for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college education, and not taking corporate campaign donations.
There has also been an El Paso effect that has galvanized other young Latinx politicians like Cisneros. Cristina Tzintzún is the founder and executive director of activist Hispanic group the Jolt Initiative, and just announced she’s running against long-time Republican incumbent Senator John Cornyn. Motivated by the targeting of Mexican Americans by a shooter in El Paso who killed 22 on August 3, Tzintzún is the first Latina to run in a Democratic field of four credible contenders.
“The mass shooting in El Paso targeting Mexicans will mobilize immigrants, new citizens, and US-born Latin people to organize and come out and vote in the next federal elections in unprecedented levels because they realize the stake of elections when openly anti-immigrant candidates are running,” said Ernesto Castañeda, sociology professor at American University.
Cisneros said she saw the reaction to the El Paso shootings right away. “We took it very hard. El Paso is very resonant with our cities,” she said of the border towns in her district. “We have this feeling that it could have happened here.” Cuellar’s refusal to return campaign contributions from the NRA even after the shooting appeared to further galvanize his progressive critics.
Since her announcement, Cisneros has raised $310,000 in the third quarter of 2019. This brings the campaign’s total to over $459,000 raised since her campaign launched in June, a respectable showing for a newcomer, all of which, she emphasizes, came from small-dollar donors. Compare that to Cuellar’s second quarter total of $721,900, over half of which came from political action committees. According to the nonpartisan website opensecrets.org, only $782 came from small donors with contributions under $200. Cuellar has over $3 million cash on hand.
Sergio Mora, a former Webb County Democratic Party chair in Laredo, said that the contest was slow to heat up, but recently, Cisneros got a huge jolt of energy via a surprise endorsement from Elizabeth Warren. “This is huge for Jessica,” Mora said. “It definitely pricked people’s ears up. Elizabeth pulling her on stage was a huge deal.”
“The people of Texas’ 28th district are ready for systematic change and deserve a Democrat that will be on the side of working people; not the side of big money and obstructionist Republicans,” said Warren in her endorsement, a sign that what’s happening in Laredo is relevant on a national scale, and may be indicative of a shift that’s happening more broadly across the country.
“It’s going to be a race,” said Mora about the match-up between the underdog Cisneros and established Cuellar. “She’s working it, and he’s not going to take her for granted.”
Being Latinx in America is no easy thing. Fighting pressures to abandon our culture, traditions, and heritage, we’re carving out a unique identity in America that’s all our own. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29’s #SomosLatinx, we’ll explore the unique issues that affect the community during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
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