With indictment, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s deep South Texas ties will again be tested

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, speaks at a GOTV rally with former President Bill Clinton for Democratic congressional candidate Michelle Vallejo in Edinburg on Nov. 7, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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McALLEN — When federal agents raided the home and offices of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, just weeks before a competitive primary election in 2022, Democrats rallied behind him and he went on to secure another term in office. Now facing charges of bribery and money laundering, he might need them to do the same.

Friday’s indictment threw a wrench in Cuellar and his party’s South Texas plans for 2024, a year in which he had been expected to cruise to reelection. He immediately declared he’s still running for reelection. But now there are calls from Republicans for him to resign and expressions of frustration from progressives who felt Democratic Party leaders shouldn’t have stuck with him when the first hints of legal trouble emerged two years ago.

Meanwhile, allies in his South Texas district, including some top local leaders, remain stalwart in their support of Cuellar. Some are referring to a familiar refrain: "Innocent until proven guilty."

"Anyone can charge you with anything, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a fact," said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, who added that he didn't think the allegations would hurt Cuellar's chances at reelection in November.

Vera’s response highlights Cuellar’s deep roots in the district. In Laredo, his hometown, Cuellar's brother and sister have both held local elected office.

When federal investigators searched his home in 2022, it was only a few weeks before a hard-fought primary against progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros, a Laredo-based immigration attorney who lambasted Cuellar as “Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat.” Cisneros targeted Cuellar, known as one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress, for his opposition to abortion rights and fundraising he did for colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

But then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rallied to his side, and Cuellar ended up winning in the primary runoff by 0.6 percentage points. Months later, he won the general election by a surprisingly large 13-percentage-point margin.

On Friday, many of Cuellar’s progressive critics decried that establishment support, saying it put a Democratic seat — and the party’s hopes of a House majority — at risk two years later. And they argued it would make it harder to use Donald Trump’s criminal indictments against him if the party is maintaining its support of Cuellar.

Cuellar is accused of accepting almost $600,000 in bribes from the country of Azerbaijan and a Mexican bank in exchange for political favors in Congress.

[Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar indicted on charges of bribery, money laundering]

He maintained his innocence Friday, and Democratic leadership appeared to stick with him — at least for now. Because of party rules, Cuellar was temporarily stripped of his leadership role on the powerful Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee in the House. But Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries stressed in a statement on Friday that Cuellar “has admirably devoted his career to public service and is a valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus.”

“Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process,” Jeffries said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, immediately called for Cuellar to resign.

“If his colleagues truly believe in putting ‘people over politics,’ they will call on him to resign. If not – they are hypocrites whose statements about public service aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” NRCC spokesperson Delanie Bomar said in a statement.

Two Republican challengers will face off in a May 28 runoff for the chance to challenge Cuellar in the general election: Jay Furman and Lazaro Garza.

Furman issued a video statement shortly after the news of a potential indictment, blasting Cuellar as being part of an establishment that is "selling us to other nations."

"They're trading us for their deep pockets and their forever policies that are against the values of South Texas," Furman said. "Exciting that maybe one of them will get their due."

In a Facebook post on Friday, Garza said: "There is no place for corruption in Congress!"

But unseating Cuellar remains a big challenge. In nearly 20 years representing District 28 –– a district that stretches from the Texas-Mexico border from Webb County to Starr County, and then runs north to southeast San Antonio –– Cuellar has sowed deep ties. More often than most of the congressmen and women who serve the region, Cuellar has held press conferences with local officials to celebrate funding he helped secure for local projects.

Vera, the county judge, said Cuellar is conscientious about their needs and is available to them any time they call.

"He's delivered. I've got nothing but praise for that man," Vera said.

Webb County Democratic Party Chair Sylvia Bruni says there is no denying Cuellar has been influential and brought millions of dollars into the district.

"I think the record is going to show that he's historically been very, very valuable," Bruni said. "He's managed to work on both sides of the aisle which is something he takes great pride in."

Bruni said the party would continue advocating for every Democrat on the ballot, including Cuellar, though she acknowledged the indictment complicated their efforts.

"What is surfacing regarding Congressman Cuellar is certainly distressing, casting a dark cloud over all our sincerest efforts on behalf of our community," she said in a statement to Webb County Democrats. Still, she wrote, “our WCDP will remain quiet regarding the allegations, presuming innocence, and trusting the Justice System to work fairly."

In an interview, Bruni added that Webb County remained a Democratic stronghold and she would count on voters to vote Democrat during a time she described as "being on the brink of losing our democracy."

Heading into November, Cuellar appeared to be on secure footing before Friday, with Republicans focusing their efforts in South Texas on two other congressional seats: Flipping District 15, currently held by first-term U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg, and holding onto District 34 held by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.

However, Jack Byham, a political scientist at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, is not convinced Cuellar will weather the political storm.

"With something like this, it's the swing voters that are going to play a major role," he said. "His loyal supporters are going to vote for him anyway and his loyal critics are going to vote against him anyway."

His ability and willingness to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans could help explain why he's been in office for so long, said Byham.

"He's a good politician in terms of reading his constituency," Byham said, noting the constituency in South Texas is predominantly Hispanic and tends to hold socially conservative views.

Though she ultimately failed in her bids, Byham said his opponent Cisneros’ surprising performance in 2022 indicated Cuellar isn't as beloved as his supporters would like to believe.

"We were surprised at how well she did given her inexperience so I think that is a sign that he's acquiring a few more loyal critics," Byham said.

Reporting in the Rio Grande Valley is supported in part by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc.

Disclosure: Facebook and Texas A&M International University 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 Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, : An earlier version of this article misspelled Jack Byham's last name.

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