Justice Democrats just announced their first 2020 candidate endorsement: Jessica Cisneros, a millennial Latina immigration lawyer from Laredo, Texas, hoping to unseat Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat and seven-term incumbent in Texas’s 28th Congressional District. After the grassroots PAC successfully helped boost Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office last year, one of four freshman congressional candidates Justice Dems endorsed who won their bids, the organization is hoping to replicate that success.
The parallels between AOC and Cisneros are hard to miss. Both are young women of color from working-class families with opponents who are or were (in the case of AOC, former representative Joe Crowley) establishment players in the Democratic Party, unchallenged by primary competitors for more than a decade. Cisneros is “the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, like many Texans here,” she told Vogue on Wednesday from Laredo. In a bilingual video released today, Cisneros references her father’s trucking business, which he built himself after working as a fruit picker but eventually shuttered when “trade slowdowns” hit Laredo: “My father sat us down, and he reminded us, ‘Vamos a echarle ganes. Tenemos que salir adelante,’ ” she says. “And that’s exactly what we did. We worked hard, and we kept at it.”
After attending law school at the University of Texas, Cisneros worked at Brooklyn Defender Services in New York, in a special fellowship program that established a public-defender model for immigration law. Working with families who had originally been detained at the southern border, Cisneros “kept seeing time and time again how broken our [immigration] system was.” She saw how many of these issues were “the direct consequences of the policies that come out of Washington,” and decided to run for office instead of fighting in court. “To have a judge tell you, ‘You know, I want to grant [asylum], but I just can’t because of the way the laws are right now,’ that’s heartbreaking....If the laws are the problem, then let’s go change the law.”
Cisneros, like Ocasio-Cortez did, is running on the progressive platforms that are central to Justice Democrats’s mission, including policies such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. She has refused money from corporate backers; meanwhile, less than 1 percent of Cuellar’s contributions came from small-dollar donors in 2017-18.
But if Joe Crowley was typical of the party machine, speaking critically of Donald Trump but toeing the line when it came to rifts between the center and left flanks, Cuellar is somewhat of an outlier. He has an A rating from the NRA, close relationships with oil and gas corporations, and has voted more than once to fund Trump’s border wall, part of which is in his district. He has received money from KochPAC, the political action committee connected to Koch Industries. Cuellar is considered among anti-choice Democrats and has voted in support of a 20-week abortion ban. Last year he voted in line with Trump’s positions 75% of the time.
So will Cisneros face the same opposition from Democratic Party heavyweights that Ocasio-Cortez did in her challenge against an incumbent Democrat? (Remember that Crowley was endorsed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Senator Chuck Schumer before he lost.) When Justice Democrats announced their “Primary Cuellar” campaign in January, executive director Alexandra Rojas pointed to the fact that Cuellar’s district went for Hillary Clinton by a margin of nearly 20 percent in the 2016 presidential election, arguing that his Trump-adjacent politics don’t reflect the concerns of his constituents.
Cisneros similarly argues that issues like poverty, health care, free public education, and climate change are what voters really care about and that Cuellar’s reputation as a successful fund-raiser from big-money donors hasn’t actually helped South Texans. “What is that funding being used for? It’s not being used to address the health care access issues that we see here on the border. It’s not being used to invest in our schools. It’s not being used to invest in our communities. Supporting Medicare for All, the $15 minimum wage, the Green New Deal—those are actually addressing directly the issues that we see here in South Texas.”
Still, the DCCC did not take kindly to the announcement of plans to primary a Democrat, even against one like Cuellar, stating in March that it “will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus.” Party operatives—hoping to build on the momentum from Beto O’Rourke’s close campaign against Ted Cruz for Senate and two flipped districts in 2018—want to try and flip six more in 2020, and think incumbent Blue Dogs should be left alone. There are also those who say that the landscapes of South Texas and the Bronx are far too different for a campaign like Ocasio-Cortez’s to work in a district that also contains moderate and conservative voters in places like San Antonio.
Cisneros doesn’t seem too worried about party pressure. “By being silent and by not supporting a true progressive, they’re doing a disservice to Democrats everywhere,” she said. “Wanting to push back against someone [who is] actually calling [Cuellar] out and speaking the truth about him acting as a Republican and not a Democrat, again, would be a disservice to the entire Democratic Party and the people supporting it.”
This article has been edited to clarify that Henry Cuellar has received donations from KochPAC.