When the US House of Representatives voted Friday for the Women’s Health Protection Act—in response to assaults on reproductive rights like the Texas law that bans abortion before many people know they are pregnant—the partisan divide was unmistakable. The bill passed 218-211, with every “yes” vote coming from Democrats and 210 “no” votes coming from Republicans.
But where did the 211th vote come from? Meet US Representative Henry Cuellar, the Texas political careerist who is a miserable excuse for a Democrat in the House.
Cuellar didn’t explain his vote. But the challenger who almost beat him in the 2020 primary, and who is running again in hopes of unseating the Texan next year, cut to the chase.
“Once again, Henry Cuellar has refused to stand up for South Texans’ reproductive freedom and he’s chosen to stand with his Republican allies and turn his back to South Texan families and our health care,” Jessica Cisneros said in a video statement on Twitter. “Even after our state’s Republican leaders just passed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban—almost ending all abortion access in Texas—our congressman refuses to defend our reproductive rights.”
In her 2020 primary challenge to the incumbent, the immigration and human rights lawyer won more than 48 percent of the vote. Cisneros came within 2,700 ballots of upsetting Cuellar, a fixture in South Texas politics who won his first election in 1986.
The primary contest two years ago in Texas’s historically Democratic 28th district was one of the most hotly contested of the many fights for the soul of the Democratic Party that have played out across the country in recent years. And the 2022 contest in the district that runs along the US-Mexican border promises to be even more intense.
Cuellar, a prodigious fundraiser from corporate-tied special interests who has banked more than $16.5 million during two decades of congressional campaigning, already has $1.7 million in cash on hand for the next race. As always, he’s raking in the cash from fossil fuel industries and lobbyists. He has even banked $5,000 from the Koch Industries Political Action Committee, which has long been a primary vehicle for political interventions by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Charles Koch and his late brother David became infamous for their support of right-wing Republicans, such as former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and other conservative foes of labor rights, civil rights, and reproductive rights. But why is a Democrat taking Koch money? Cuellar is not just a social conservative who breaks with his party to vote against measures like the Women’s Health Protection Act; he’s a full-spectrum corporatist who often sides with big business against the interests of working-class Texans.
As the Texas Observer noted several years ago, “Over the course of his nearly 35 years as a politician, Henry Cuellar has managed to piss off just about every part of the Democratic coalition. He’s a pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-union deficit hawk who has rarely met a regulation he wouldn’t gut or a Republican he wouldn’t work with.”
Sometimes referred to as “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” and remembered as the Democrat whom President George W. Bush warmly embraced after his 2006 State of the Union address, Cuellar got along so well with former Republican Governor (and eventual Trump administration energy secretary) Rick Perry that Perry once appointed Cuellar as Texas secretary of state.
For years, Democratic leaders in the House put up with Cuellar’s atrocious voting record, and even more insidious behind-the-scenes maneuvers on behalf of corporate donors, because they imagined he was unbeatable in a district that Texas Republican mapmakers had sculpted with him in mind. As recently as 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared at his side in Laredo ahead of the primary, calling on voters to deliver another “resounding victory for Henry Cuellar.”
Responding to Pelosi’s endorsement of her opponent, Cisneros told the Texas Tribune, “We know what she sees her role as, which is protecting incumbents and expanding the majority.”
Throughout her campaign, Cisneros challenged the conventional wisdom, as well as Democratic complacency, with her message declaring that a district in which roughly a quarter of families live in poverty was ill-served by a representative who voted against worker rights, environmental protections, and health care for all. While she collected national endorsements from Emily’s List, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cisneros remained focused on mounting a grassroots bid in a 9,000-square-mile district where many voters live in rural areas. She did not win, but she certainly proved Cuellar was vulnerable.
Indeed, said AOC, “she came closer than anyone imagined.”
Close contests and challenges often cause House members to change their tunes.
But anyone who thought Cuellar would alter course was disabused of the notion just days after the new Congress was seated. The Texan broke with his fellow Democrats in the House to vote against the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the top priority of organized labor. Why? Because he said he didn’t want to undermine anti-worker “right-to-work” laws, which historians have noted were first implemented by segregationists in states such as Texas in the 1940s.
In August, Cuellar was one of nine House Democrats who threatened to oppose the fiscal 2022 budget resolution until the House passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That move opened up a bitter dispute over legislative strategy that continues to divide the caucus, while undermining progress on the party’s efforts to tax the wealthy in order to expand Medicare, guarantee paid leave, and implement a range of popular programs.
Behind the scenes, Cuellar has been doing even more damage, using his position on the powerful House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the body that oversees committee assignments, to block an effort by Ocasio-Cortez to gain a place on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Despite the fact that AOC had support from key Democrats such as Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and despite the fact that her focus on climate issues argued for her inclusion on the committee, Cuellar succeeded in putting a centrist Democrat from New York, Kathleen Rice, in the seat AOC would have held. Rice promptly used that seat to cast a critical vote against the Democratic proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
Then came Cuellar’s vote against abortion rights, a hot-button issue in Texas and nationally.
South Texas has its share of socially conservative Democrats. But Cisneros is betting that the GOP’s assault on abortion rights in the state, and nationally, will energize voters, as she mounts her second race against Cuellar. As she said, “With the future of Roe v. Wade undoubtedly on the line, it’s unfathomable that Henry Cuellar would stand in the way of protecting and expanding access to health care. Now more than ever, we need representatives in Congress who will be unapologetically pro-choice.”
The question now is whether Pelosi and other top Democrats who have for too long covered for Cuellar will finally recognize that he is a Democrat in name only.