Jessica Cisneros, the 28-year-old human rights and immigration attorney who nearly defeated Representative Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th Congressional District in 2020, is running again. As a first-time candidate, Cisneros came within 4 percentage points of beating the right-wing Democrat, a margin of less than 2,700 votes, and believes that grassroots enthusiasm for her campaign has only grown since.
“I think that the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the policies that we’re running on and how popular they are in this district,” Cisneros told The Nation. “This time around we’re doing the same thing, we’re talking about health care and about jobs. And I think that the pandemic over these past couple of years has only served to exacerbate a lot of the issues.”
Cuellar is one of the last anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrats left in Congress. He’s held the seat, which represents a relatively safe blue district including Laredo, Rio Grande City, and Universal City, since 2005, but had already been involved in South Texas politics since the 1980s. Even among corporate Democrats, Cuellar stands out for his deference to big business and Republican interests. He’s the fourth-biggest recipient in the House of oil and gas campaign contributions in the 2022 cycle so far, according to OpenSecrets, and he is the biggest Democratic recipient of private prison campaign cash.
Though Cuellar ultimately voted for President Joe Biden’s social spending bill when it passed the House, he was part of the small group of Democrats threatening to kill their own party’s agenda. Cisneros is campaigning on the same progressive policies she ran on in 2020, but this time around, she’s also taking aim at Cuellar’s role in sabotaging the president’s more popular policy provisions.
“People are definitely paying more attention now,” Cisneros said. “The frustrating thing was how he has handled himself in terms of the negotiations between both bills, the fact that he was obstructing the agenda that earned Democrats the White House, how he was obstructing that and then turning around and telling the people of his district otherwise—that he was a champion, that he is taking credit for something that he was actually trying to stop or water down.”
On Monday, Cisneros’s campaign received its first endorsement from a sitting member of Congress, New York Representative Jamaal Bowman. In 2020, Cisneros received support from a broad coalition of progressive organizations, prominent politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as big labor groups. Many of those groups, like Sunrise Movement, NARAL, and the Working Families Party, are supporting her again.
Cuellar, meanwhile, has the power of entrenched political interests on his side, from the fossil fuel industry and conservative dark money groups to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest lobbying group representing corporate interests, has traditionally aligned itself with the GOP, but it went big on Cuellar, spending seriously on a Democrat for the first time in years. In the run-up to the primary, Pelosi found herself on the same side as the Koch network, as she traveled to Laredo to campaign for Cuellar with other party leaders in a last-ditch effort to try to get him over the finish line.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Koch network already spending money on his behalf,” Cisneros said. “I know the American Petroleum Institute has been doing some stuff in the district in terms of ads and mailers. It’s a bunch of dark money already pouring in because they know that we’re that much of a threat to him.”
Since her first primary challenge, Cisneros added, her opponent has doubled down on many of his most conservative positions. He was the only Democrat to vote against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a workers’ rights bill that would make it easier to unionize, and the lone member of his party to vote against a reproductive rights bill, which was passed in the House in an effort to counteract Texas’s abortion ban law. The issue is all the more urgent as the Supreme Court deliberates on abortion rights in Mississippi.
“I was listening to the oral arguments yesterday, as we were driving through the district, and it’s pretty terrifying,” Cisneros said. “You know, abortion rights are the first in the line of attack, but they’re not they’re not going to stop there. And It’s just incredibly upsetting to see Cuellar stand on the wrong side of all of these issues that directly have an impact on constituents here.”