With every passing day, Elsa Hull can feel Trump’s wall getting closer. In recent months, her neighbors who live downstream from her three-acre homestead in San Ygnacio on the Rio Grande, south of Laredo, have been receiving letters from the federal government requesting access to their land in order to conduct surveys for the border wall. Hull is angry, of course, at Trump: like many in this hot strip of borderland in South Texas, she thinks the wall is pointless and a danger to the delicate desert ecosystem she’s called home for nearly twenty years. But she’s also upset with her congressman, Henry Cuellar, an eight-term “Blue Dog” Democrat who has played a pivotal role in negotiating border security matters for Nancy Pelosi.
Cuellar is ideologically opposed to the wall, but he’s also a self-described dealmaker willing to put together what he believes is the best bargain for the Twenty-eighth Congressional District. During the Trump administration, he has twice voted to fund the wall, once after negotiating protection for sites like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and again in 2019 to avoid a government shutdown. Despite Cuellar’s efforts to minimize the damage, a 69-mile stretch of proposed border wall from the Laredo–Colombia Solidarity International Bridge to just south of San Ygnacio is now threatening Hull’s property. She said she took the 45-minute trip to Laredo to protest outside Cuellar’s office twice last year, and also called his office in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to speak with him, all to no avail. (A spokesperson for the congressman said they have no record of her requests for a meeting.)
“I just have no faith in him whatsoever,” said Hull. “His reasoning never made any sense to me. It felt like he was throwing his constituents under the bus and turning his back on them.” That’s one reason why she’s thrown her support behind Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old progressive challenger to Cuellar. Cisneros has drawn a ton of buzz as the first candidate recruited for the 2020 primaries by the Justice Democrats, a group affiliated with New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has also personally endorsed her.
It’s hard not to see the Cuellar-Cisneros race as a showdown between the establishment old guard and the AOC/Bernie wing of the party. Pelosi has endorsed and campaigned for Cuellar, who has one of the most conservative voting records in the House Democratic Caucus. Cuellar’s spokesperson, Colin Strother, uses the handle “Democratic Establishment” on Twitter and has labeled Cisneros an “unemployed Socialist.” Cuellar argues that Cisneros and AOC have fundamentally misunderstood CD-28. His team argues that Laredoans are much more conservative than residents of AOC’s Bronx/Queens district and aren’t that friendly toward sweeping left-wing proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Cuellar, they say, is a hometown boy who works hard for his constituents.
Cisneros, on the other hand argues that the district isn’t as conservative as Cuellar’s making it out to be and she isn’t here to market herself as a younger, slightly more liberal Cuellar. She’s confronting their ideological differences head on and hoping that her push toward a much more liberal agenda is a breath of fresh air in South Texas.
But in talking to more than a dozen people in the district, the picture is a bit more complicated than either side is portraying it. Though Cuellar’s campaign repeatedly paints Cisneros’s progressive politics as out of step with CD-28, the mood in Laredo is not entirely friendly toward Cuellar. Some, like Hull, are frustrated by his dealmaking over the border wall, and others by his family’s outsized influence in local politics and his coziness with corporate donors. Many of his constituents also complain that he is frequently absent and hasn’t held an in-person town hall in years. On the other hand, some of Cisneros’s own supporters complain that the candidate isn’t launching an aggressive enough attack on Cuellar’s weaknesses and seemed to be running a prepackaged campaign of the sort that the left wing of the party might run in, say, Austin or New York.
One thing is clear, though: Cuellar is acting like he’s threatened. Since Cisneros announced her candidacy, she has repeatedly challenged Cuellar to a debate, a request that he’s refused. She has now outraised Cuellar in the last quarter of 2019 and the first six weeks of 2020, pulling in over $350,000 in the first six weeks of the year, primarily from out of state donors in metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles. (Cuellar’s campaign has much more cash on hand, and has spent $2.3 million compared with her $1 million.)
Since 2004, Cuellar has been relatively safe from primary challengers and Republican opponents in his district, which stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio down to Laredo and into the Rio Grande Valley. But over the last year, he’s been busy, flooding mailboxes with mailers, canvasing neighborhoods, and running bilingual attack ads. Although Webb County Democratic chair Alberto Torres cannot endorse candidates in primaries, he said the election has completely woken up the district: “We haven’t seen [Cuellar] get involved like this in many, many years.”
Walk the streets of Laredo and voters repeatedly bring up two main issues: immigration and health care. At a canvasing event for the Cisneros campaign in late January, multiple Democratic voters voiced their frustration at the lack of affordable health care options in South Texas, where many people cross the border into Mexico for cheaper medicine or sell plates of food to raise funds for medical procedures. More than a third of people in CD-28 are uninsured and Laredo’s poverty rate has hovered around 30 percent for the past two decades.
“It’s especially upsetting to know how much money is being allotted for the wall when you look at the colonias in South Texas that don’t have any infrastructure,” Cisneros told Texas Monthly, referencing unincorporated settlements along the border. “This is money that could be invested into our communities, our health care, education. And instead, it’s being used to erect a symbol of hatred toward the community that lives there.”
Cisneros has made Medicare for All a centerpiece of her campaign, while Cuellar has said he’s interested in “fixing the problems that we have with our current system before we look at different alternatives.”
Both Cuellar and Cisneros have drawn on their Laredo roots while campaigning. Cisneros was born to working-class Mexican immigrant parents in the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood of central Laredo. Her father, a truck driver, owned his own trucking company until trade slowdowns forced him to close his business in the early aughts. She finished first in her high school class in 2011 before moving to Austin, where she studied as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and later, like Cuellar, earned her law degree from the University of Texas School of Law.
Central to her candidate bio, something she repeatedly brings up with voters, is her own experience working with Cuellar as an intern in his Washington, D.C., office in 2014. For an opposition campaign, it’s a good story. Cisneros says that while Cuellar knew that she was a constituent, not once did he ask her about her experience living in his district. It made her wonder whether people back home felt left out too. And apparently quite a few do. Like Cisneros, Victoria Sandoval, a 23-year-old community organizer, said her experience interning for Cuellar’s Laredo office made her a Cisneros supporter.
“When I was there, people would walk in all the time and ask to speak with him and there was just no way,” Sandoval said of her 2017 internship. “Over the phone or in person it was almost impossible to talk to your congressperson. This race is the most communication I’ve ever had from him. It’s depressing that he has to be challenged in order for him to do his job.” Cuellar’s spokesperson Strother said that Cuellar used to hold in-person town halls, but due to poor attendance and the sheer size of his district, he shifted toward telephone town halls as well as neighborhood office hours throughout the district.
But if voters are cool on Cuellar and receptive to some of Cisneros’s policies, they are not always as excited about the messenger. In South Texas, politics can be a good ol’ boys club, and for a Latina, gaining entry isn’t as easy as running a campaign, as Cisneros has, for “la gente.” “It’s very patriarchal here,” said Ana Saenz, an active member of the Laredo Democratic Party. “She’s very young, which has raised some eyebrows. I’m not sure, but maybe [Justice Democrats] should have gone with a male candidate.”
Even a few of Cisneros’s supporters said that they felt she could sometimes come off as “flat,” especially when compared with the magnetism of AOC. Strother finds the comparison laughable. “AOC’s platform fit the Bronx very well,” he said. “This isn’t the Bronx, it’s the border, and we don’t think that an extremist socialist agenda fits the border.”
On his website Cuellar boasts more than two hundred endorsements from current and former local community leaders and elected officials, while Cisneros has been backed by big names like presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But in South Texas, support from a trusted local politician probably carries more weight than a marquee name.
Cuellar’s attack ads paint Cisneros as an interloper, someone who “moved to Laredo six months ago.” Cisneros left Laredo to attend college and pursue a law degree. Cuellar has also blasted his opponent for drawing so much financial support from out of state. In bold, blue block letters, Cuellar’s point in one video is clear: he’s “one of us,” Cisneros is not.
In the run-up to this election, the Cuellar name has been everywhere. His brother, Martin Cuellar, is running for reelection as Webb County sheriff, a powerful office that is the one of the largest employers in the county. His sister, Rosie Cuellar, is running for a second term as Webb County tax assessor-collector. Some intersections in Laredo feature signs for all three siblings.
Politics in South Texas is often a family affair, with dynasties stretching across generations. But for some Cisneros supporters, that’s part of the problem.
“Enough is enough,” said Saenz. “A lot of people are afraid to speak out against [Cuellar] because of his web of influence. It seems to me that the old guard is sticking with him, but others like me are more concerned that he has abandoned the Democratic Party completely.”
With just days to go ahead of the March 3 primary, Cisneros hasn’t let up, making space for herself in a race where her opponent has continued to assert that she isn’t a serious candidate. Just last weekend, during Laredo’s annual George Washington parade, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cisneros, who wasn’t allowed to formally participate in the event restricted to elected officials, stood on the sidelines of the parade route. As Cuellar drove past, she yelled, “The people of the district deserve a debate.”