Rep. Henry Cuellar (D)
Texas 28th District
Hard by the Mexican border is the place where singer Johnny Cash, in “Streets of Laredo,” summoned up images of lonely cowboys on dusty streets outside a row of saloons in a tiny town. But this is not the Laredo of today. On the Rio Grande River 150 miles south of San Antonio, Laredo is the busiest border crossing for U.S.-Mexico trade. Some 14,000 trucks and 1,200 railcars cross its three bridges every day, with relatively light inspection of merchandise worth upward of $100 billion a year—more than that of all the other Mexican border crossings combined. (Frustrated law-enforcement agents contend that tons of cocaine slip through with the legitimate traffic, often hidden on commercial buses.) Laredo was America’s second-fastest-growing city in the 1990s, with more warehouse space than San Antonio and Austin combined. Its old downtown streets, with their bargain stores, are filled with Mexicans who cross the border on foot; those with cars head up the freeway to the Wal-Mart. Incomes and housing prices in greater Laredo, pop. 237,000, are low by U.S. standards but far above those of Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande, and there is money to be made here. Laredo’s Tony Sanchez, proprietor of a family oil-and-gas business and owner of International Bank of Commerce, became rich enough here to spend $60 million on his unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The border country along the Rio Grande is in some ways a region all its own, a mixture of the United States and Mexico, where many people have roots on both sides of the border. As former Laredo Mayor Betty Flores has said, “The river for us is more like some street that we cross. It’s really not a border.” Laredo’s Webb County had a 95% Hispanic population in 2007. Local fast-food restaurants feature enchiladas more often than hamburgers. Years ago, movements like La Raza Unida—which had its beginnings here in 1969 when Hispanic youngsters pushed to be allowed to elect high school cheerleaders in Crystal City—wanted the border country to become more like Mexico, with its union and party apparatchiks. More recently, Mexico, with its economic reforms and the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been trying to become more like the United States, and particularly like Texas, with its open markets and privatized companies and limited control by political or labor bosses. The region has its problems, including a high crime rate from the trade in illegal immigration and illegal drugs.
The 28th Congressional District of Texas is centered in Laredo and Webb County and extends in two directions. South along the Rio Grande, it crosses Starr County, one of the poorest counties in Texas and home of many blatant and wealthy drug smugglers. It reaches Mission in a slice of the southwest corner of Hidalgo County. These border counties make up more than two-thirds of the district. It also includes thinly settled ranch and oil-well country and a small piece of Bexar County. The redistricting plan imposed by a three-judge federal court in August 2006 made major changes in the district. Historically, the 28th was based in Bexar County, anchored by the Hispanic community on the south side of San Antonio, but those neighborhoods were needed to ensure a sufficient number of Hispanic voters in the 23rd District. Yet the 28th is still 79% Hispanic. Its per capita income of $14,500 is just 55% of the national average. In the 2008 presidential contest, Democrat Barack Obama won the district 56%-44%, quite a change from Republican George W. Bush’s 54%-46% win with the same district boundaries in 2004.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: Sept. 19, 1955, Laredo .
Education: Georgetown U., B.S. 1976, U. of TX, J.D. 1981, Ph.D. 1998, TX A&M U., M.A. 1982.
Family: Married (Imelda); 2 children.
Elected office: TX House of Reps., 1986-2000; TX secy. of state, 2001.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1981-2004.
The congressman from the 28th District is Henry Cuellar, a Democrat elected in 2004. Cuellar (KWAY ar) was the oldest of eight children of migrant workers who had only elementary school educations. He graduated from Georgetown University and the University of Texas law school, and he later got a Ph.D. in government from UT. From his base in Laredo, he served in the Texas House from 1986 to 2000, where he helped to author the Texas Grant college-aid program. In 2001, Republican Gov. Rick Perry appointed him secretary of State even though he is a Democrat. Cuellar resigned in 2002 to run against veteran Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla in the old 23rd District. He was helped when Bonilla said he didn’t need Laredo to win. In response, the Webb County Republican chairman endorsed Cuellar. Cuellar attacked Bonilla for his votes against funding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and funding for Pell grants. He also accused Bonilla of being insufficiently Hispanic. Bonilla had the money advantage. Cuellar carried Webb County 84%-15%, but only when the Bexar County votes were counted a few days later was it clear that Bonilla had won 52%-47%.
|Henry Cuellar (D)||123,494||(69%)||($1,181,840)|
|Jim Fish (R)||52,524||(29%)||($7,028)|
|Ross Leone (Lib)||3,722||(2%)|
|Henry Cuellar (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (68%), 2004 (59%)
Redistricting in 2003 strengthened Bonilla in the 23rd District, but it also gave Cuellar an opportunity to run in the 28th against incumbent Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, who had the most liberal voting record of Texas’s Hispanic Democrats in Congress and was chairman of the Hispanic Caucus. When Cuellar announced he was running, Rodriguez said he had a hard time believing that a friend and former legislative colleague for whom he had raised money in 2002 would run against him. The ambitious Cuellar explained that primary bids like his were a common political occurrence in South Texas. Besides, he told a local reporter, “Nobody died and made him king. . . . Democrats run against Democrats all the time, and that’s what it’s all about.” Rodriguez had little time to get acquainted with the new district, since the March primary took place just five months after passage of the map. He had the support of the Hispanic Caucus in Washington, but that delivered few votes in Texas. Cuellar criticized Rodriguez for voting against the GOP’s 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill. Rodriguez said that Cuellar had sided with Republicans as secretary of State. The initial vote count showed Rodriguez ahead by 145 votes, but Cuellar demanded a recount. When officials in Zapata County, the border county just south of Webb, found 177 additional votes for Cuellar and none for Rodriguez, Cuellar was ahead by 203 votes. After a lawsuit, a second recount, and a state appellate court ruling in July, Cuellar was declared the Democratic nominee by 58 votes out of 49,000 cast. He went on to win in November 59%-39%. Later, in September 2007, the Federal Election Commission fined Cuellar $28,500 for failing to disclose a $200,000 bank loan in his 2004 campaign.
In the House, Cuellar’s voting record is the most conservative of the Hispanic Democrats from Texas, putting him near the center of the House as a whole. He has kept his distance from Democratic leaders, voting for tax cuts and opposing a move to close tax loopholes for energy companies. He likes to tout the Wall Street Journal’s description of him as “a pro-growth member (of Congress) in the John F. Kennedy mold.”
On the Agriculture Committee, he backed the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement, which he called an opportunity for “real transformation and progress” in the region, and he was among the handful of House Democrats who supported the Bush administration’s trade deal with Colombia. He backed sending drug-fighting aid to Mexico but disagreed with Republicans in their call for a fence along the border.
As the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response Subcommittee, Cuellar in July 2008 complained that Bush administration officials continued to “drag their feet” on a plan for national emergency-communications standards. And in early 2009, he sponsored a bill to improve law-enforcement coordination in border communities. He has emphasized a bipartisan approach and has shown a knack for getting legislation passed. With Republican help, he won passage of legislation to create a national gang-intelligence center at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and to toughen penalties on sex offenders who break the terms of their release.
In Cuellar’s first re-election bid in 2006, Rodriguez was back to challenge him in the primary, but struggled to match him in fundraising, bringing in $750,000 to Cuellar’s $1.1 million. Cuellar won the endorsement of the national anti-tax group Club for Growth, but it was of little political value in his district. Rodriguez said that Cuellar’s votes in Washington had “sold out” the district. Cuellar said that voters were tired of the usual partisanship. The San Antonio Express-News endorsed Cuellar for his “independent non-partisan mindset” and said that his willingness to place the district ahead of his party was “refreshing.” Cuellar won the primary comfortably this time, 53% to 40%. (With the court-ordered redistricting changes, Rodriguez had another opportunity later in the year, when he ran and won against Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla in the 23rd District.) In 2008, Cuellar easily won re-election.