FBI raid portends political and legal challenges for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is referred to as the lone Democrat who because of his inclination to cast votes against the rest of the party and his status as the only Democrat whom conservative groups have been willing to endorse. (Reuters/Veronica Cardenas, Reuters/Veronica Cardenas)

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U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar may be the most powerful Texas Democrat whom most Texans have never heard of. But with early voting to begin in a matter of weeks, he is in a world of political trouble.

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On Wednesday, the FBI raided the nine-term congressman’s home in Laredo. For now, government officials are keeping a tight lid on what spurred their actions. But it could not come at a worse time for Cuellar, who is in the fight of his political life ahead of the Democratic primary on March 1.

“Everybody in the business community [who] I’m talking to is in deep and total shock because the last person they expected to see this happen to is Henry,” said Eddie Aldrete, an independent public affairs consultant who’s known Cuellar for several decades.

Cuellar is a uniquely complicated figure in Texas politics: He’s both admired and reviled within his own party, and almost universally adored by Texas Republican members of Congress, because of his tendency to cross the aisle.

In representing the 28th Congressional District, which includes Laredo and San Antonio, he holds an elevated standing within the House Democratic caucus, serving on the Appropriations Committee, the most coveted assignment because it controls the federal government’s purse. He is also a deputy whip to U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn.

Back home in Laredo, he’s viewed as a native son, a self-made political powerhouse who represents an often-neglected region of Texas.

Cuellar’s stature back home is “huge,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“This would be earthquake-like proportions if this came to pass,” Taylor said of the investigation.

Cuellar told The Texas Tribune in 2014 that he will “die as a Democrat,” but progressives are on the march to purge him from Congress because he often takes a lonely road as a moderate on issues like abortion.

Cuellar has not been charged with a crime. But even before the damning optics of the federal raid, Cuellar was the top primary target this year among progressive groups playing in House races. That was expected because Laredo attorney Jessica Cisneros — a former intern in his congressional office who had Bernie Sanders’ backing — came within 4 percentage points of defeating him in the 2020 primary.

She’s back this year, with even more national support, like a Wednesday endorsement from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and backing from some high-profile Texas Democrats, including former state Sen. Wendy Davis.

The Cisneros camp released a measured statement Thursday.

“We are aware of the news regarding Congressman Cuellar and the active FBI investigation. We are closely watching as this develops,” she said. “In the meantime, we are focused on our campaign to deliver change to South Texas families and will not be making any additional comments at this time.”

At the same time, the campaign sent out a fundraising email highlighting the FBI search and the “trash bags full of items” carried out of his house by agents. She promised to send her supporters updates about Cuellar’s situation.

Justice Democrats, one of Cisneros’ top backers, was less restrained in a statement from its executive director, Alexandra Rojas.

“While we don’t know the specifics about the investigation, we do know that Cuellar … has been part of the corrupt culture in Washington for far too long,” Rojas said.

A third Democratic candidate, activist and educator Tannya Benavides, creates potential for a May runoff.

Republicans who hope to win the seat are rooting for Cisneros to beat the damaged incumbent this March, because they see her as an easier target to defeat in November. Cisneros is running further to the left than Cuellar, which some Democrats worry could make her more vulnerable in South Texas. Cuellar also enjoys tremendous name recognition, and his family is deeply connected to the district.

Republicans made shocking gains last year in the three congressional districts that represent the Rio Grande Valley. Cuellar won reelection by a double-digit margin, but President Joe Biden carried the district by only 5 points. In the new, redistricted version of the seat, the Republican-controlled Legislature actually improved Democrats’ chances of winning slightly; Biden would have carried the district last year by 7 points.

“There was a path for Republicans to win the newly-drawn 28th if the party was having a great year,” wrote political analyst Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections, a publication that rates the competitiveness of U.S. House races. “But they might not need an extra boost if Cuellar is damaged goods or it’s an open seat. Anytime the FBI is involved, it adds a level of uncertainty to a race.”

Currently, Gonzales predicts the winner of the race as “likely Democratic.”

Seven Republicans are running for the seat, including a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Cassy Garcia, whom Cruz has endorsed. Prior to the raid this week, Garcia won the support of the National Border Patrol Council, which backed Cuellar during the last election.

Another one of the GOP contenders, Steven Fowler, is an Air Force veteran from Universal City who refers to Cisneros as “AOC 2.0.” He said the FBI developments make it “way more likely” that Republicans will capture the seat — by increasing Cisneros’ already considerable odds of winning the primary and drawing more national attention to the general election.

“My message from the beginning is: She’s gonna win, you better pick a strong Republican” to stop her, Fowler said. “Now she’s really gonna win.”

Laredo’s native son

While many on the left and the right would like to see Cuellar lose this spring, his interpersonal political skills are why he has been able to win election cycle after cycle.

For one, the Cuellar name means something in Laredo.

Enrique Roberto “Henry” Cuellar was born in Laredo in 1955. He is one of eight siblings to migrant farm workers, and he’s appeared on a ballot in the region every cycle since 1986.

“My parents, born in Mexico, were taken out of elementary school to work in the fields,” he said in a campaign video released the day before the raid. “They were migrant workers who believed in hard work and family.”

There is a namesake public school — Dr. Henry Cuellar Elementary School — and his family is pervasive in Laredo politics. His brother, Martin, is the county sheriff, and his sister, Rosie, served a term as the Webb County tax assessor-collector. While the family brand is an asset, it’s not invincible. Rosie Cuellar narrowly lost her Democratic primary in 2020.

Locally, Henry Cuellar plays host to key political visitors including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, committee chairs and cabinet members. Pelosi even campaigned with Cuellar in the final days of his hotly contested 2020 primary. In 2015, a Cuellar spokesperson told the Tribune that Cuellar and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, have stayed in each other’s homes.

He also stands out as one of the most educated people to ever serve in Congress, holding no fewer than five degrees.

Beginning with an associate degree from Laredo Community College, Cuellar went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University. In his postgraduate studies, Cuellar earned a law degree and a doctorate in government from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s of business administration from Texas A&M International University.

He’s also a black belt in karate, a skill he featured in a campaign video earlier this week.

Before Congress, Cuellar was a longtime member of the Texas House of Representatives. That tenure came at a unique point in Texas politics, when conservative Democrats like Rick Perry migrated to the GOP. As a moderate Democrat, Cuellar played well with these Republicans on the ascent.

In one of his first acts as a governor, Perry appointed Cuellar as Texas secretary of state in December 2000.

A short time later, though, Cuellar resigned and ran for Congress. That 2002 race against then-U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Republican, for the Texas 23rd District, amounted to a rare defeat for Cuellar.

Two years later, he challenged then-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez for the Democratic nomination in the neighboring 28th Congressional District, and Cuellar narrowly prevailed in a bitter contest.

It is Cuellar’s post at the House Appropriations Committee that lends him his fundraising and political power.

Well-liked by his many of his committee colleagues, he is on the verge of serious clout within its structure should he win reelection this year. He is on track to likely become a subcommittee chair next term if Democrats hold on to control of the House, a post so regarded around the Capitol that members who hold these posts are referred to as “cardinals.”

He has earned this stature, also, by literally paying his dues.

In order to land a slot on a committee like appropriations, a member must raise hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars to help the House Democratic campaign arm run campaigns in competitive districts across the country.

The chore, known as “dues,” is one that most members despise and many others ignore outright. It’s impossible to calculate exact figures, but Cuellar has raised well into the millions on behalf of House Democrats over the last 17 years.

He’s pointed to that in defense of his standing within the party.

“The ones that yell the loudest are not the ones that do the most for the party. I’ll say this: I’m the first Democrat that pays my dues. … I pay more than anybody, any other Democrat, congressional member, in the state of Texas. I’ve done that for the last couple of years,” he told the Tribune’s Evan Smith in a 2014 interview.

“The lone Democrat who …”

Cuellar is referred to as “the lone Democrat who …” because of his inclination to cast votes against the rest of the party and his status as the only Democrat whom conservative groups have been willing to endorse.

The recurring point of contention is abortion. Cuellar is one of the last Democrats left who votes to oppose access to abortion. He continued that record in September, when House Democrats passed a bill that would codify the right to an abortion in response to Texas’ near-total ban on the procedure. Cuellar was the lone Democrat to vote against it.

“The people of his district deserve better,” said Davis, the former state senator who endorsed Cisneros.

He’s also had the support of groups that usually back Republicans. For much of his congressional career, Cuellar had an “A” rating with the National Rifle Association. In 2019, he refused calls to return donations from the group, but his voting record on gun issues has softened some in recent years.

Similarly, the anti-tax group Club for Growth endorsed Cuellar in 2006, “the first Democrat ever endorsed by that outfit,” Texas Weekly reported at the time. However, the club has not endorsed Cuellar in years.

It’s Republican affection for Cuellar that has created some of that ill will from the left, to the point that Texas members joke about it.

In interviews six years ago, the Tribune asked delegation members who their best friend was on the other side of the aisle. Repeatedly, Texas Republicans named Cuellar.

“I don’t want to get Henry Cuellar in trouble!” said then-U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a San Antonio Republican. “He’s equally liked on both sides of the aisle.”

After the National Republican Congressional Committee named Cuellar’s seat a target in early 2021, Texas’ senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, a Republican, said he thought there were “better targets than Congressman Cuellar.”

Cuellar reciprocated those friendships in ways that infuriated Democrats, like when he hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. John Carter in 2018. At the time, the Round Rock Republican was a top target for Democrats in their successful bid to take back control of the chamber that year.

“I built the relationships to be effective, no matter who is in power, to deliver results for my district,” he said on the new campaign video as photos ran of the congressman and the last five presidents except Donald Trump.

“... That’s why I’m always able to get to the table where the important decisions are being made,” he added.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state, Texas A&M International University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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