Special note: As a general practice, our Progressive Case Against… features will be subscriber only. Since this is the first week, we’ve decided to make this issue public to everyone. This will not be the case moving forward.
And now onto our main feature
The Progressive Case Against Henry Cuellar
By Opinion Haver
I’d like to preface our look at Cuellar with two percentages: Twenty and sixty-nine The first is how much Hillary Clinton won the district by against Donald Trump, about the same as the state of New York. That 20 percent means that only a Democrat could win this district, and all that follows should be viewed through that lens. 69 percent is for how often he voted with Donald Trump in the last Congress. Even the most reelection-minded squishes in red districts voted against Trump a majority of the time, and Cuellar is in a safe seat.
The State House Years
State House photo, 1987
Cuellar’s career began in 1986 when he was elected to the Texas State House from District 42, covering most of Webb County, including his home of Laredo. He fit in well with the conservative Democrats who were running the show then. One of those Democrats was Rick Perry. That’s not strictly relevant yet, but I’m doing a bit of foreshadowing here.
His record from the house during that era certainly is something. In a series of legislative actions first reported here by Primaries for Progress, Henry Cuellar sought a dramatic and unconstitutional expansion of the power of law enforcement. The 287(g) program is in the news now a lot. It pays local police to act like immigration agents. This both causes deportations of law-abiding residents and undermines local confidence in law enforcement, so it’s on the wane thanks to immigration activists and newly elected Democrats. Henry Cuellar proposed the inverse: giving Border Patrol and INS most of the powers of regular TX cops. That poses exactly the same problems as 287(g), but possibly worse. He tried to change the law to allow school resource officers search a student under probation whenever the hell they felt like it, which is of questionable constitutionality. Does that sound like he’s a fan of the police state? How about if I told you he attempted to make it a crime not to help a cop arrest someone if they ask?
When someone says Democrats used to be bad on criminal justice issues, they mean that they voted to increase prison sentences, or maybe that they tried to make it easier to privatize them. Cuellar did all of that of course. But that other stuff, that was certainly not typical of Democrats of the period. That’s not the party, not the era, not “mistakes were made”. That’s him.
It wasn’t just criminal justice-related issues that Cuellar hung with the conservatives on. For instance, he voted to make sex between under-17 gay couples a felony for both participants. And you know how Flint, Michigan drank poison for years because Rick Snyder passed a law to let corporates hacks run financially failing cities? It was often called the “emergency manager” law. Well years before that, Henry Cuellar wrote his own version with a bill that would have make it possible for the state to hand entire school districts over to private companies if the state deemed the school district “failing.” These bills are also first being reported here by Primaries for Progress
He was just overall a big supporter of school privatization, writing HB 318, which became a firestorm over its wide expansion of school vouchers. The bill, written by Cuellar, was a blatant giveaway to charters that could eventually include an unlimited number of vouchers. Even the state’s analysis said it would pump millions yearly from the state’s education into vouchers. It was co-authored by four Republicans and no Democrats, and introduced in the senate by Republicans. George W. Bush championed the bill, and during the fight to pass the bill, Cuellar decried “teacher groups and public education groups” for their “influence”. While some powerful committee Democrats did water it down somewhat, the final version of the bill passed with the opposition of a majority of the Democratic caucus.
The Unelected Years
From Cuellar’s campaign website, 2002
Remember how I mentioned Cuellar was friends with Rick Perry? Well, by 2000, Rick Perry was Lieutenant Governor, and the governor, George W., was running for president. What did Cuellar, who had at this point been an elected Democrat for 14 years, do? He endorsed George W. Bush for president. And I’m not being cute here. He looked at the field in 2000, and told people to vote Bush over Gore, Nader, or whatever other third party. And he campaigned for him.
George W. won that race. Well, he was declared the winner anyway, making Perry governor. Perry, in his first nomination as governor, tapped Cuellar for Secretary of State. Democrats, at that point a minority in the Texas Senate, went out on a limb to get him confirmed. He repaid them by resigning that same year to run for congress. He lost, but not without exposing a wider audience to some of his choice positions, like how he tried to run to the right of his Republican opponent by calling for more money to lock up border crossers.
He was in luck, however, because...well there are a few moving pieces here. In 2001, Texas government was split, so a compromise congressional map was passed, mostly a softer version of the 1990s Democratic gerrymander. For Cuellar in 2002, this meant he only had one option: running in the swingy TX-23, which then included his home of Laredo (and the rest of Webb County.) That was his only real option to run in, and he lost.
In 2003, Texas Republicans gained control of the entire government and they, under the guidance of Tom DeLay and Rick Perry, decided to redraw the entire congressional map to benefit themselves. The old congressional map contained that swingy 23rd, which bordered TX-28, a South Texas district held by staunch liberal Ciro Rodriguez. What they wound up doing was taking Laredo and putting it in the 28th, thereby making the 23rd safely Republican, while creating an opportunity for a Laredo based Democrat to primary out the San Antonio-based Rodriguez. Am I saying that during a power grab so unprecedented that Democratic Senators had literally fled the state to stop it, Cuellar was asking his Republican friends to draw him a district he could win, which would also help them by replacing a liberal Democrat with a more conservative one? Let’s hear from Phil King, an arch-conservative Republican state representative and Chair of the Redistricting Committee during the 2003 redistricting. The passage below comes from an archival transcript of King’s testimony during Session v Perry.
2 Q. Who is Henry Cuellar?
3 A. He used to be in the House and he was
4 Secretary of State.
5 Q. Did he call you throughout the entire
6 process or just when it was in the committee?
7 A. Henry called me on a number of occasions
8 throughout the entire process.
25 Q. And what were some of his suggestions?
1 A. To keep Laredo intact.
2 Q. And you could split Webb County as long as
3 you keep Laredo intact under some of his options?
4 A. Yeah, I think so.
5 Q. Okay.
6 A. I think so. Again, his -- his focus was my
7 political base is Laredo, and -- and if I'm going to
8 run for Congress, that's where I need to be. And
9 Henry is a friend, and I like him, and he knew I'd
10 listen to what he said.
And that’s exactly what Cuellar got: a safely Democratic district containing more Laredo-area primary voters that San Antonio-area. After a brutal campaign where the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) openly worried that Cuellar might switch parties, Cuellar won on a simple numbers game: There were more primary voters from Webb than from Bexar, and Cuellar got 58 votes more than Rodriguez did.
Early Years in Congress
Cuellar’s Congressional photo in 2005
Since the CHC worried about an actual party switch with this asshole, I can’t say that he confirmed all of Democrats’ worst fears, but he checked off most of them. He immediately got friendly with the Bush administration, siding with them over Democrats on issue after issue. Remember all that distinctly Bush-era bullshit that got trotted out in the second term that was just so pointedly terrible that it inspired the netroots and was immediately memory-holed after conservatives decided W never happened? Like, remember Terri Schiavo? Remember REAL ID? Remember tort reform? Yeah, Cuellar was with W for all that. I’m not going to relitigate all of that, though. I just want to leave you with an image.
In 2006, even knowing he had a primary challenger, Cuellar opted to sit on the Republican side of the aisle during the State of the Union, a decidedly weird move. And after he’d finished educating America about the state of our Union, W took a stop by someone who had endorsed him for president.
That is Henry Cuellar.
Ciro Rodriguez attempted to run against Cuellar in the primary in 2006. Rodriguez’s tact in the race changed to highlighting Cuellar getting so close to Bush. After all, even in 2004, the driest establishment liberals were picking up on him having “his finger too much in the GOP wind.” Who comes to Cuellar’s rescue? Club for Growth (CFG). If you’re unfamiliar, the Chamber of Commerce advocates for business interests and is pretty conservative. The Club for Growth is the hack comedy writer parody of the Chamber of Commerce. Club for Growth wants to get rid of over a quarter of the federal government, then privatize the vast majority of what’s left. Their efforts to toss out mere reliable Republican conservatives for absolute wackos helped part the Tea Party wave. Cuellar was their first ever Democratic endorsement, and he didn’t turn down their money.
He won that race with 53 percent of the vote. And he kept on his bullshit, because an important thing to remember about Cuellar is that he does. not. change.
The Obama Years
Cuellar’s Congressional photo in in 2009
After a brief warm-up with the passage of Dodd Frank, (something Cuellar opposed, of course), the Obama years really begin with a fight that in many ways created the modern political environment: The ACA battle. During that fight he refused to vote for the bill until the final stretch, even as Obama fruitlessly attempted ask him personally for his vote - Cuellar wouldn’t even pick up the phone. For much of that year you’d see online trackers of where how Congressmembers were going to vote on the ACA, and Cuellar’s name would simply be grayed out because he figured as a Congressman he didn’t need to be bothered with petty concerns like the country wanting to know his position on the biggest piece of legislation in years.
In 2012, he one-upped himself on redistricting. While the court was fighting Texas on minority discrimination in their congressional map (a fight which is ongoing to this day), Cuellar came out in support of his old friend Perry’s maps. Why? Because it kept his primary base intact. That’s not me speculating, his own press release talks about keeping San Antonio out of his district. That same year, still bitter that some people had called him out for openly supporting Bush, he announced that if Perry was the Republican presidential nominee he *merely* wouldn’t support Obama. So gracious of him.
As bad as that was, 2014 was the coup de grace of siding with Republicans over Obama. That election cycle, Republicans ginned up an immigration controversy. There was no border crisis, only a Republican-created media frenzy, and that was obvious to anyone looking at the facts. Like say, for instance, a someone with intimate, decades long knowledge of the border like Cuellar who had lived near the border his whole life and seen ebbs and flows in migration during his 28 years representing it.
You might be expecting me to say Cuellar refused to back Obama up during the final months of a campaign that stripped him of any legislative capability, and put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court instead of Merrick Garland. Well, no. That’s not what he did. “Not backing up Obama” implies neutrality, and he wasn’t. He sided with the Republicans. He called it a crisis, supported Republican border legislation, and went to the media to criticize Obama for not showing up during a border crisis that wasn’t real, and wouldn’t have been changed by a presidential visit even if it were. He even called it “Obama’s Katrina”, especially rich coming from a man who sided with the toothless Republican proposal to investigate Katrina while Democrats were calling for something substantive. To this day he believes that wanting to keep the ACA intact is “an extreme position”.
Henry Cuellar Congressional portrait
Let’s take a look at Cuellar on the issues.
I said he votes with Trump 69 percent of the time. What does that 69 percent look like in practice? It looks like repeated votes to kneecap federal oversight ability, undermine consumer protections and let Wall Street run free. It looks like a voting record so anti-choice that both Planned Parenthood and NARAL consistently have him as one of the three worst congressmen for choice, grouping him with Dan Lipinski, famous for his March for Life speeches and for needing Republican crossover votes to win his Democratic primary, and Collin Peterson, famous for representing a district so Republican that Trump won it 2:1. It looks like a deep refusal to align with Democratic values on issues big and small, from the surveillance state in the Bush era, to healthcare in the Obama era, to immigration in the Trump era. A Democratic representative of a majority-Hispanic district backing anti-immigrant scare legislation championed by Republicans and Trump that couldn’t even get all the Republicans backing it? Yep, that’s Cuellar.
Gay rights? Well there’s that whole “teenage gay sex should be felonious” thing (which, by the way, was not some formality-he joined with every Republican to vote yes on that while a majority of Democrats did not), but there’s more. It’s Cuellar. Of course there’s more. Let’s take a look at the most recent Human Rights Campaign Scorecard, and oh would you look at that - all Democrats, even the ones in brutally Republican districts, got at least an 80...except for Cuellar, who got a 64. Dan Lipinski actively tries to curry favor with anti-gay lobbying groups and still managed a higher score than Cuellar.
Cuellar represents an urban district with no “real America” gun fetishism- of course he’s at least decent on gun issues, right? Such an easy issue, but nope. He has had an A from the NRA his entire career, even as they’ve become an increasingly extremist partisan organization. Cuellar is one of only two Democrats still willing to take NRA money. The other represents a district Trump won by 32 percent. And what does that money get the NRA? In 2017, after a horrific and tragic mass shooting in his district, Cuellar went on TV to repeat the NRA talking point about how guns weren’t to blame since killer can find other ways to kill. Again, after a mass shooting.
Rapid fire now. The environment? League of Conservation Voters, the leading environmental group in Washington, considers him worse than multiple Republicans and better only than Peterson. Labor? The AFL-CIO considers him not only the worst Democrat in Congress, but worse than some Republicans. The safety net? He supports a balanced budget amendment, even when that would have meant deep and painful cuts. Marijuana? NORML gives him a grade worse than many Republicans and so bad that they feel the need to justify giving anyone something below it. Civil liberties? The ACLU ranks him worse than all but Peterson, and behind a Republican. General economic issues? The Chamber of Commerce has him as one of their three top Democrats, with a lifetime score higher than dozens of Republicans.
At this point, the fact that he held a fundraiser just last year for a Tea Party Republican who won one of the closest congressional races in the country barely registers in terms of the lengths Cuellar will go to to support Republicans. And of course he wasn’t doing it because of a go along get along attitude. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus doesn’t consider him a friend, to the point that CHC Chairman Ruben Hinojosa was willing to go on record that “Henry Cuellar does not represent the Congressional Hispanic Caucus... He’s a Blue Dog; he comes to the meetings once in a long time.” He’s also (allegedly) fired a staff member for getting pregnant, which not even Amy Klobuchar has been accused of.
If you’re a constituent who disagrees with him, he’ll dismiss you just as easily. When a group of constituents tried to lobby him to not sign a bill that would cut their pay to poverty wages, he refused to meet with them because they weren’t being “respectful” enough to him. He has most recently made news as part of the group that negotiated $1.7B in wall funding, or, sorry, "some sort of enhanced barrier". Again, despite border barriers not being popular along the border itself.
That’s Henry Cuellar. Top to bottom, side to side, he’s not in line with basic Democratic principles or the party itself. It’s been 32 years in office for him, and he hasn’t gotten better. He’s currently unopposed for 2020, but progressive groups have announced they’re taking him on. If you’d like to help poll the district to attract and equip a challenger, Data For Progress has a dedicated fund here. Once his challenger does emerge, the Justice Democrats have set up a fund for them, which you can donate to.
We just wrote about Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw on Wednesday, but we already found more awful stuff! In a truly bizarre speech on Sunday, alleged rapist Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax compared himself to lynching victims, a shameless move most famously taken by Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly. Why is that such a disgusting comparison to make? Here’s Vox’s P.R. Lockhart:
“…both of the accusations against [Fairfax came] from black women, a group whose claims had no bearing on lynchings, which were spurred by accusations made by white men and women.”
Primaries for Progress has recently obtained a video taken from the floor of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday, including Fairfax’s entire speech. Immediately after Fairfax completes his speech, Saslaw can be seen giving the lieutenant governor a vigorous thumbs-up. (The quality of the video isn’t the greatest, but we’ve confirmed from the Virginia Senate’s seating chart that Saslaw, who sits in the center of the first row, is the one giving the very animated thumbs-up. He has white hair, if you’re having trouble picking him out of the crowd.) Skip to about 7:30 if you don’t want to listen to the offensive rantings of an accused rapist. (Or, if you want to watch the entire 49-minute state senate session, watch the video from February 24, 2019 on the Virginia General Assembly’s website; if you prefer to watch the video there, you can skip to 38:00 and watch for 30 seconds to see the thumbs-up.)
Saslaw has a progressive opponent, human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, in the Democratic primary on June 11. Donate to her here.