The left’s South Texas star isn’t the progressive they warned you about


Asked about the most conservative House Democrat’s negative — and typically exaggerated — ads blasting her on the police, “open borders” and Border Patrol funding, Cisneros turned the focus back on him: “I think Cuellar is just trying to hit on these points to distract from the fact that he’s under an FBI investigation.”

The national progressive movement will eagerly embrace Cisneros if she can defeat Cuellar next week, and many liberals would greet a primary win as a new path to taking down more centrist Democratic incumbents. Still, her campaign is much more focused on kitchen table issues like jobs and health care costs than on the ambitious vision that high-profile progressives are pushing for on Capitol Hill.

To hear Cisneros tell it, she’s simply talking about the most critical issues in a sprawling border community where nearly one-third of people live below the poverty line.

“I think people have this preconceived notion of what it means to be running as a progressive,” Cisneros, an immigration attorney based in Laredo, said in an interview. “It’s health care and jobs. That’s literally our bread and butter, and what we’re talking about at the doors.”

If someone does bring up climate to her, Cisneros has a set response: “Yeah, it’s really important to me, too, but the way that we get people excited about addressing the climate crisis is, ‘This is a jobs program,’” she said.

Of course, she’s also prepared to knock Cuellar personally in a city where it seems most people are aware of last month’s FBI raid of the sitting congressman’s home and personal office.

Cuellar is also a classic villain for the left — a career politician who earns a top rating from the NRA, takes campaign checks from oil and gas and is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. But it’s still a South Texas seat, and Cisneros and her team know she’ll likely need to win over voters who back him on at least some of those more conservative positions.

While the newly redrawn district will be slightly better for Democrats in 2022, President Joe Biden would only have won it by 7 points — making it much more competitive than the solid blue districts of the so-called Squad.

Cisneros’ overriding campaign message is straightforward: Cuellar has been in power too long. It’s a populist, anti-establishment energy that clearly resonates with some voters in a city dominated by his family’s politics. The bigger question is whether they can be convinced to vote for her.

One of her campaign’s volunteers, David Villalobos, often tells the same story to people when he’s door-knocking around the city. He says he remembers when Cuellar used to visit his elementary school, but now, as he said to one mom at her front gate, “I feel like he’s forgotten where he’s came from.”

“A lot of people don’t believe in voting but we’re trying to change that narrative,” he said to another mom, who was appalled by the FBI cloud hanging over Cuellar. But she said she hasn’t voted in past elections.

“What’s the point?” the woman said, before adding of Cisneros: “Maybe we do need her.”

Knocking on nearly 100 doors last Saturday, Villalobos spoke about two main problems facing the community: prescription drugs costing so much that people have to go to Mexico to afford them and the need for more jobs in Laredo, so young people don’t have to leave for bigger cities like San Antonio.

But while Cisneros and her team rarely lean into her most progressive positions, Cuellar tries to steer her into them whenever he can. He believes that Cisneros’ celebrity visitors like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) benefit him far more than her.

“They’re out of touch with my district. I think that actually helps me,” Cuellar said, scoffing at what he called the “out of town” endorsements from Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressive groups, plus her donations from New York and California.

And he and his team are quick to cite Cisneros’ most polarizing statements over the last two years, including a 2019 candidate questionnaire in which she suggested that the U.S. should “split” Immigration and Customs Enforcement in half and “re-assign enforcement functions” to other agencies.

Cuellar ads — which heavily blanket the TV and radio airwaves in the district — go after Cisneros for that exact line, while linking her to the “defund police movement” and “open borders.”

He knows it’s a dangerous attack: The GOP has used it to hammer his own party for years, nearly costing Democrats their majority in 2020. It’s particularly potent in a border community like Laredo, where law enforcement, including border patrol, are critical to survival.

Sylvia Bruni, chair of the Webb County Democratic Party — who does not endorse in primaries — said Cuellar’s attacks have been misleading but acknowledges they could be effective.

“I’ve never seen an outright strategy to defund police,” Bruni said, adding: “They pick that up and they run with it, and it’s very scary … When you spin that, and you’re knocking on doors, it’s scary.”

In one of her ads, Cisneros does reiterate her support for “Medicare para todos,” explaining how her aunt fought cancer without insurance — part of her strategy to unpack her platform by explaining how it’s all “rooted in economics and job security,” as she later described it.

But four of the five recent ads from her and her supporters are almost entirely focused on Cuellar. The ads highlight the questions surrounding his FBI raid, his donations from drug companies and his rides on donors’ private jets.

Cisneros herself says she’s not concerned whether her campaign can become a blueprint for national liberals or not. The bigger point she wants to make is that with the right mix of progressive policies: “You can even topple an 18-year incumbent.”

In her first campaign two years ago, Cisneros said she and her team would knock on doors and find voters who’d never been directly approached by a politician for their support. As national Democrats fretted anxiously in 2020 that they were losing ground in South Texas, Cisneros said the simple solution was showing up for people.

“I want people to know this is what happens when you don’t take people for granted, and you actually ask for their input, have them volunteer, be a part of this campaign.”



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