The new AOC versus Trump’s favorite Democrat: That’s how one of 2020’s most high-profile congressional primaries, is being billed across media, and not without reason. In Texas’ 28th congressional district, Jessica Cisneros is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, a 15-year incumbent who has a track record of voting so conservatively, many openly question why he even calls himself a Democrat. The anti-choice candidate, who has been funded by the Koch brothers and big oil and gas lobbies and has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, voted 70% of the time with Republicans in the last congressional term, including to fund the president’s border wall. He’s even openly praised Donald Trump, despite the president’s consistent efforts to vilify the Latinx community Cueller comes from. His district, which extends from San Antonio to South Texas, has witnessed firsthand the horrors of Trump’s policies, with U.S. detention centers in their own backyard and the harrowing effects of border issues on their communities.
These are the issues that Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration and human rights lawyer, had in mind when she decided to challenge her representative in the March 3 Democratic primary. The child of Mexican immigrants, Cisneros grew up in Laredo, Texas, not far from the U.S. border, and has witnessed for more than half her life the impact Cuellar’s voting record has had on her community. Cisneros once worked for the Democratic representative, who she personally gave the catchy nickname of “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” but she has also worked at immigration detention centers in Texas. Once Cisneros graduated from law school, the young attorney moved East to take part in a one-year fellowship program that replicates the public defender model in immigration courts with hopes of someday importing it to her home state.
“I think the last thing that told me, ‘Yes, I need to do this,’” Cisneros told Teen Vogue about deciding to run for Congress in August, “was just bumping into a wall as an immigration attorney because of the Trump administration and its anti-immigrant rhetoric and hearing about the kids that are dying on the border in [Customs and Border Protection] custody.”
Her decision wasn’t just about Trump or even Cuellar, she further explained:
…[K]nowing that in my district, which has a big immigrant population, so many people have the same experience as me of being the child of Mexican immigrants or the grandchild. Everybody has a recent immigrant history and knowing that my congressman took [$14,700] from GEO Group [a PAC supporting the private prison company]. There were so many factors that were just like, OK I need to run for Congress. If people in my community want me to serve and they’re asking me to run then I need to step up. This is just another form of advocacy for the community that I love so much.”
While immigration is one of Cisneros’ clear priorities and passions, her grassroots campaign calls for many of the policies her fellow progressives in Congress and beyond are championing, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. These are proposals the immigration attorney says will help her South Texas border community, and which she believes are as popular there as they have proved to be in other districts.
Although Cuellar has been voting as if the constituents of his district are as conservative as his views, Cisneros argues it’s quite the opposite. She points to the 20-point margins both Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke won by in recent elections against famous Republicans as evidence that Texas’ 28th district is actually a “safely blue” seat. In other words, according to her, Cuellar is not in touch with the people he represents, a dynamic that’s been repeating itself quite a lot across the country in recent years.
The parallels between the primary race in which progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated Democratic sweetheart Joe Crowley are immediately apparent. Cisneros would even supplant the now-30-year-old Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest member of Congress in U.S. history. But the 26-year-old’s race against veteran Democrat Cuellar should not be reduced to a simple rehash. In fact, this congressional race is going even further to expose the ever-growing divide between the left and right of the Democratic Party. The most apparent way this has played out has been in the competing endorsements the two have received. Cuellar has received the support of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has even campaigned for him, recently telling his campaign staff and volunteers, “”We want this to be not only a victory, but a resounding victory for Henry Cuellar.”
Pelosi’s endorsement of anti-choice, Koch-funded candidate over that of a progressive pro-choice woman was called “utterly shameful” by Justice Democrats, the political action committee that was behind Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory and who has now backed Cisneros. Defying Pelosi and the Democratic leadership’s norms about primary challenges within the party, Ocasio-Cortez has not only thrown her support behind Cisneros, but has also endorsed six other progressive women running, supporting them with her own PAC, Courage to Change. Funding is one of the greatest obstacles that people face when wanting to run, and it’s something that, as Bridget Read points out in The Cut, AOC became painfully aware of during her own campaign against Crowley.
“Now that [Ocasio-Cortez] has her own clout and her own campaign money to spend,” writes Read, “she plans to build her own alternative apparatus for bringing other women like her into the halls of power.” Cisneros is exactly the kind of candidate the New York representative wants to join the group of progressive leaders known as “The Squad.” But AOC’s isn’t the only important endorsement the Texan has received. Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both endorsed her, as has the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Pramila Jayapal and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro.
— Jessica Cisneros (@JCisnerosTX) January 29, 2020
Beyond Washington, Cisneros’ campaign has also garnered the support of a number national organizations and their local chapters, including Texas AFL-CIO, J Street, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, the Working Families Party, EMILY’s List, NARAL and the Communications Workers of America District 6. Many of the organizations have thrown their money behind Cisneros, in addition to their clout. Although the immigration lawyer has nowhere near the millions in her campaign coffers that her opponent has been able to get, in both the last quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020, Cisneros was able to outraise Cuellar. As The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur points out, when one keeps in mind that AOC ran her entire primary challenge on about $60,000, Cisneros’ ability to outraise a well-known Democrat is pretty remarkable.
While Cisneros has repeatedly called for her opponent to debate her in a public forum since December, in a patronizing move, Cuellar’s campaign has insisted he won’t because it doesn’t view her challenge as “serious.” And yet, although the conservative Democrat has rarely voted for progressive policies, in recent months, he threw his support behind a federal $15 minimum wage. Cisneros bills this as a victory, indicating that had the South Texas representative not felt threatened by her challenge, he may not have moved left on the issue. Cuellar denies this, and while his campaign has continued to insist his primary challenger’s support only exists in the Twittersphere, it has started to run campaign ads against Cisneros.
On Tuesday, voters in Texas’ 28th congressional district will decide in what direction they want to lead their communities and to some extent the nation, as a growing left-wing movement in Congress may very well alter the nation’s current path. Regardless of the contest’s results, Cisneros has proved that there is a strong desire even in states largely considered conservative to move toward more progressive, collectivist politics powered by grassroots movements. Therefore, for daring to dream of a different America for her Texas community and challenging the damaging status quo, Jessica Cisneros is our Truthdigger of the Month.Print