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Anti-Labor Democrat Holds Off Challenge From ‘Texan AOC’

March 4, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

“This is just the beginning.” — Jessica Cisneros, came close to unseating Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas this week.

AREDO, Tex.—Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), who last month denounced “union bosses” after voting against landmark labor-rights legislation, narrowly survived a challenge in the Mar. 3 primary from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration lawyer often compared to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens.

Cuellar, 64, won by about 2,800 votes, taking 52% of the ballots, according to unofficial results from the state Elections Division. He has represented the overwhelmingly Latino district, which stretches from San Antonio’s southern suburbs to Laredo and then about 140 miles southeast along the Rio Grande, for 16 years. 

“This fight was an opportunity to prove that a brown girl from the border with a whole community behind her could take on the machine and bring hope to South Texans,” Cisneros said in a statement Mar. 4. “This is just the beginning. The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear—and our movement was victorious in proving we’re within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas.”

She was endorsed by most of the state’s main labor unions, including the Texas AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union Texas, and the Texas American Federation of Teachers, and Communications Workers of America District 6. She was also supported by the San Antonio Central Labor Council, the Rio Grande Valley Central Labor Council, National Nurses United, the American Federation of Government Employees, and several local unions.

Cuellar was one of the seven House Democrats who voted against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, an omnibus labor-rights bill passed in February that would have repealed the federal authorization for state “right to work” laws that ban union shops, prohibited permanent replacement of strikers, and made it easier for workers to organize unions. He said it would “take power from workers to union bosses, and further inserts the federal government into the private sector,” and that “Right-to-Work laws protect workers against being fired if they decline to pay union dues.” 

The national CWA asked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications to cut off support for those seven House members, but it refused. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaigned for Cuellar. He won endorsements from several police, firefighter, and border-patrol unions, from Laredo locals to the International Association of Fire Fighters. He also became the first Democrat to receive contributions from the Koch brothers’ network, through its Latino front group LIBRE Initiative Action.

Cuellar carried Laredo, the district’s biggest city, by 3,000 votes, and won the rural border counties of Zapata and Starr by a 2–1 margin, countering Cisneros’ similar lead in the San Antonio area. 

The campaign was bitter. Cisneros called Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” (He voted with Trump almost 70% of the time in the 2017-18 session, including supporting a bill to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That percentage fell to 10% in 2019-20, with his vote against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act a major exception.)

She said she would “proudly advocate for the power of workers to organize and bargain collectively,” supporting the PRO ACT and a national paid parental-leave law. She also backed Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

Cuellar attacked Medicare for All as a “plan that would raise taxes on the Middle Class” and “kill 2 million health-care jobs.” He told Texas Monthly in 2017 that his priority was “fixing the problems that we have with our current system before we look at different alternatives,” and that “with the right tweaks, [Obamacare] will provide the right combination of coverage, access, and affordability nationally.” 

He accused Cisneros of having “only moved from New York City to the district five months ago after being recruited by a special-interest PAC.” Cisneros, who grew up in Laredo, had spent a year in Brooklyn working as a public defender in immigration court, and interned in Cuellar’s Washington office in 2014, while she was a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Cisneros said that experience contributed to her decision to challenge the incumbent, telling Vice that “what stuck with me the most was the fact that I just didn’t see [him] meeting with people that look like me.”

March 4, 2020

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