Late in the afternoon on January 19, as a cold front began to creep in from the north, rumors began spreading through Laredo. Prominent Democrats in the city—a deep blue stronghold—texted and called one another about a potential FBI raid on the office of nine-term congressman Henry Cuellar. “The FBI at Henry’s office. Are u aware?” came a text on my phone as I was on my way to an interview with one well-known organizer. The official confirmation arrived a few minutes after I did: the organizer looked at her phone, ashen-faced and silent. Within minutes, the news spread. A colorful citizen journalist, Priscilla Villarreal (a.k.a. Lagordiloca), began livestreaming the scene as FBI vehicles congregated in front of Cuellar’s campaign headquarters. Elsewhere in Laredo, as the sun set on a well-heeled community of handsome limestone houses, agents raided the congressman’s home.
To say Cuellar is an “institution” in South Texas understates his power. A Democrat, Cuellar first won election to the state House of Representatives in 1987. After fourteen years in the seat, he served as Texas Secretary of State under Republican governor Rick Perry. Since then, he has spent nine terms representing Texas’s Twenty-eighth Congressional District, which curls along the Rio Grande and shoots up to the southern suburbs of San Antonio like a backwards J. In Washington, Cuellar’s record—especially on issues including abortion, border control, and energy—has made him one of the most conservative Democrats in the House and has earned him a reputation as a villain among the party’s left wing. His views, however, often reflect those of the generally more conservative Democrats he represents (“I’m doing what I think is right, listening to my folks,” Cuellar told me last year.) In Laredo, he’s known as a kingmaker and reliable provider of federal bacon. The congressman has brought significant public spending to his district through his role on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
When the FBI knocked on Cuellar’s door, the reverberations spread from the banks of the Rio Grande to skyscrapers in San Antonio. Now much of South Texas feels like an old-growth forest where a towering sequoia has suddenly begun to creak and sway. Townspeople are asking one another whether the mighty patriarch might fall—and who and what he could bring down with him.
There’s still a question of whether all the noise is just that—noise. As of press time, Cuellar has not been charged with any crime, and it remains possible that the raid is connected to wrongdoing suspected to have been committed by an associate. The FBI says its agents conducted a “court-authorized” search in Cuellar’s home and office, in connection with a grand jury investigation into several yet-unnamed U.S. businesspeople and activity in Azerbaijan. The grand jury has issued a bevy of subpoenas to U.S. companies with ties to the former Soviet republic, and has also subpoenaed Cuellar, his wife Imelda Cuellar, and at least one campaign staffer, according to ABC News. While Cuellar’s connection to the investigation is unknown, the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section is involved with the probe—a unit that investigates elected officials and their campaign financing. Cuellar has said he will “fully cooperate” with the investigation.
In his work as an elected official, Cuellar has promoted a relationship between Azerbaijan and South Texas, the Texas Tribune reports. “Given San Antonio’s role as a rapidly growing city with an unlimited export potential, there is a vast opportunity to strengthen South Texas’s relationship with Azerbaijan,” he said at a 2015 event with Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S. Cuellar also facilitated an annual two-week program for students from Texas A&M International University in Laredo to study in the former Soviet republic.
Commentators have noted the extraordinary nature of the FBI’s decision to raid the personal home of a sitting congressman during the last few weeks of a primary campaign. The timing—just 26 days before early voting for the primary begins—drew comparisons to then–FBI director James Comey’s announcement eleven days prior to the general election in 2016 about the probe into Hillary Clinton’s handling of sensitive emails. The San Antonio Report also noted that the raid would have likely gotten approval “from at least the deputy attorney general, if not from Attorney General Merrick Garland himself,” in order to conform with Justice Department guidelines regarding developments that could garner serious media or congressional attention.
Even before the FBI knocked on his door, Cuellar was engaged in a fierce political battle. He had never faced a serious challenger for his seat until 2020, when human-rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros launched an aggressive primary challenge from his left flank. Back then, Cuellar’s longtime supporters had quickly fallen into line: the Laredo Chamber of Commerce had backed Cuellar, as had the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Laredo’s mayor, most local officials, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Cuellar narrowly escaped, winning 52 percent of the vote to Cisneros’s 48. But Cisneros is again challenging him, and this time the congressman has drawn invigorated ire from many Democrats for his support of restrictions on abortion rights, his promotion of the oil and gas industry, his support for more-severe border enforcement, and his rejection of Biden’s infrastructure bill last year.
Nonetheless, after the raid, Cuellar’s campaign officials say the congressman is not worried about losing support—and the faith of prominent local officials may be well placed. “Congressman Henry Cuellar has been endorsed by 167 federal, state & local officials in Texas. Since last week, Congressman Cuellar has not received a single call from any federal, state, or local official rescinding their endorsement,” a campaign spokesman wrote in a statement to Texas Monthly. As of Thursday morning, it appeared no prominent Cuellar backers had withdrawn support—at least not publicly.
That Cuellar’s standing in South Texas could prove sturdy enough to weather the FBI raid is a testimony to his vast political network and immense power in the region. “We are hoping all goes well for Congressman Henry Cuellar and his family, and may truth and justice prevail,” Laredo mayor Pete Saenz wrote in a statement, noting that local police took no part in the raid. In a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat whose district runs parallel to Cuellar’s, had nothing negative to say about his colleague. “Certainly our prayers are with the congressman,” Gonzalez said. “I hope that [we can let] the legal process take its course, and see where this investigation takes us.”
If Cuellar succeeds in his primary, the Republican attack ads will write themselves. However, Cuellar’s seat is perhaps not in as much danger as others in South Texas, where Republicans made massive gains in 2020. To the east, Gonzalez’s Republican challenger came within points of defeating him in what had been considered an uncompetitive race; Cuellar trounced his GOP rival by almost twenty points, though Republicans significantly increased turnout over 2018. (Gonzalez, for his part, says that he’s not concerned about Cuellar’s legal troubles giving a boost to Republican challengers trying to flip the seat.)
But there have been rumblings of trouble. On January 20, the day after the raid, Texas Tribune journalist Patrick Svitek reported that Better Jobs Together, a group that has been filling TX-28 with pro-Cuellar TV spots, had quietly cut its ad buy for the rest of the month. And, in a remarkable reversal from 2020, the San Antonio Express-News endorsed Cisneros, after endorsing Cuellar’s multimillion-dollar reelection bid against her two years ago. The editorial board took pains to explain that it had made the decision to endorse Cisneros even before the FBI raided Cuellar’s home. “There should be no 10th term for Cuellar,” the editorial stated bluntly, praising Cisneros’s progressive and energetic vision for South Texas, criticizing the incumbent’s support for Trump-era border policies, and wondering about “how well Cuellar works with other border lawmakers.” (Cisneros has also earned a slate of new endorsements since the raid—including those of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro—though most of those had been long expected.)
Cisneros, for her part, was circumspect when first asked about the news on the night of the raid. “We are aware of the news regarding Congressman Cuellar and the active FBI investigation. We are closely watching as this develops,” a Cisneros campaign spokesman wrote. As the days went on, however, Cisneros grew more bold in her attacks. “For South Texans, the FBI investigation into Henry Cuellar is alarming and yet there were already serious concerns about the Congressman’s long history of corruption and close ties with his corporate donors over the voters of this district,” she said in a statement first given to Politico.
On Tuesday, Cuellar shared a video message addressing the raid for the first time. “I appreciate the many calls, texts, tweets, and messages of support. The outpouring of support from so many in our community is humbling, and I’d like to personally thank you for having my back,” he said, standing in front of his modest childhood home in Laredo, where his parents, who worked as migrant farmworkers, raised eight children. Cuellar said the investigation will prove that “there was no wrongdoing on my part,” and was adamant that he would not be leaving the race. “Let me be clear,” he said. “I intend to win.”