MISSION — Jessica Cisneros is just a few weeks away from finding out whether she will pull off one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory.
She’s had a good year with endorsements from presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and from Texas ALF-CIO, the state chapter of a large union federation. Another presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also endorsed Cisneros in September.
Between talking to prospective voters at a local pulga and knocking on doors last Friday, she sat down with The Monitor at Jitterz Coffee Bar to talk about the final stretch before the March 3 primary.
Since launching her campaign in June, Cisneros said she thinks prospective voters have been responsive to her.
“They’re excited to have another option,” she said. “For the first time in 13 years, really, this is the first serious primary challenge and also it’s the first kind of race like this that we’ve seen in over 10 years.”
Cisneros, an immigration lawyer, is challenging U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who was first elected to the office in 2004 and for whom she previously interned in 2014.
She said her campaign has focused on making sure people actually know who is going to be on the ballot.
“Obviously that takes resources and, for us, we’re really proud of the broad coalition that we have behind our campaign,” she said, referring to the endorsements she’s received from the progressive wing of the party, but also from a more institutional group like Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice women candidates.
“We’ve been able to really be a bridge between all these people that truly believe that we need to have true representation in South Texas,” she said.
Cisneros said she was also excited that getting the attention from national groups and people in national candidates meant people were looking at South Texas.
“I think it’s very important because when we’re talking about turning Texas blue, when we’re talking about electing a Democrat into the White House, people tend to forget South Texas,” she said. “I think a lot of the focus is on those red to blue areas of the state which, yes, are important but then there’s areas like ours where it’s so blue but the turnout isn’t high, it’s very low.”
So getting people in the area hyped about this congressional race, she said, could lead to higher turnout in November.
“Knowing that this is a race that comes down to the primary and this is a safe blue seat — what are we going to do from March to November to be able to turnout the vote and make sure that we have Democrat in the White House,” she asked rhetorically.
However, Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign manager, dismissed the idea that Cisneros’ campaign was garnering a lot of energy from voters and said the only attention she was really receiving was national.
“In the district, she doesn’t really have a footprint or a presence,” Strother said over the phone.
“Her campaign is made for TV,” he said. “They take all the right pictures and they post all the right buzzwords but they’re not actually doing the work on the ground.”
Cuellar’s campaign, Strother said, was focused internally in the district.
“We’ve got over 225 local elected officials across the district that have endorsed Henry and she has zero,” he said. “… The endorsements of local sheriffs and mayors and county commissioners and school board members — we think that’s going to be a lot more helpful to our get-out-the-vote efforts than the endorsement of some D.C. liberal group.”
Cisneros, though, said she didn’t see the lack of endorsements from local officials as a big hurdle.
“You have to keep in mind the context of this race, I’m the challenger,” she said. “We were expecting that, and for us, a win would be someone (who) just stays out of it because we know the way politics works.”
It was their responsibility, she said, to translate the national attention into local momentum.
“So that people are excited about it and can see that this is possible,” she said about achieving a victory in March, a huge upset if accomplished.
The message she wanted to get across to the community was that this is their shot and that they needed to be a part of it.
She also noted, “an elected official accounts for the same vote as an average person who doesn’t have an office.”
Strother criticized her policy positions to eliminate oil and gas jobs, favoring the adoption of Medicare For All plan, and her opposition to USMCA, the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
He also accused her of not knowing the district, noting she previously lived in Brooklyn, New York.
“I think the politics and the policy positions that make sense in Brooklyn and the Bronx don’t necessarily fit with the border and I think they’re finding that out the hard way,” Strother said.
Cisneros, who is from Laredo, said that while some might try to make the race about a progressive Democratic versus a conservative Democrat, she said she felt people from the area tended to shy away from those labels.
For her campaign, she said, it was more about true representation and unpacking the policies.
“For example, Medicare For All — that’s a brand new idea for a lot of people because they have never heard the conversation about it and it’s not like Congressman Cuellar’s been talking about it,” Cisneros said, adding they’ve been able to talk about that issue in a way that resonated with people.
“Like the premise of health care as a right,” she said. “This is what it means — you won’t have to go to Mexico, we won’t have to have loterias to fundraise … all these things that are very personal to people.
“That’s why for us, we know that we can’t put things in a box — like this is a progressive box so all these policies fall here, this is a conservative box so all these policies fall here — because it just doesn’t work that way here,” she said. “It’s more about explaining things and what it means to people and engaging with them.”
Cisneros said she felt vindicated in talking to people in the community about the issues that most concern them, saying she knew health care was going to be a big issue, as well as immigration, especially in context of the border wall.
“There’s a lot of people in this district that are already facing their lands being taken away and it’s upsetting to them because they lived on there for six generations through their family,” she said.
She criticized Cuellar for voting to fund sections of a border wall twice — in March 2018 and February 2019.
Strother pushed back against the characterization of Cuellar’s votes, saying the congressman voted in favor of re-opening and keeping the federal government open, which also included funding for border wall.
“Ultimately, that vote was to reopen the government and at that point we had thousands of families throughout his congressional district and tens of thousands nationally that hadn’t been paid in weeks,” Strother said.
He argued that Cuellar negotiated the best deal he could, cutting down the number of miles that Republicans and the White House wanted to fund and built in protections for the National Butterfly Center and the La Lomita Chapel.
“Yes, there was some wall funding included in that,” Strother said. “He’s also voted against spending bills that had wall funding.”
Strother said it would be dishonest to say Cuellar supported a border wall and said he has been the congressman most vocal against the wall.
Regarding their campaign, Strother said they were focused on talking to the community about Cuellar’s record.
“We’re just really focused on talking to everybody we can talk to and reminding everyone about the work the congressman has done and his plans for the future and we’re content to leave it up to the voters of the district to decide who they want to represent them,” he said.
Cisneros said their campaign is doing the same, but focusing on selling voters on what she can accomplish for them.
“Canvassing is important because I think, for me, there’s nothing more valuable than that one-on-one time that people get with our campaign,” she said. “That is direct feedback that we’re getting as to what are the issues that are important to voters and what people are thinking heading into the next election cycle.”
Past the March Primary, Cisneros said she was confident her campaign would still be going strong.
“I’ve thought about what’s going to happen between March and November and it’s going to be our campaign because we’re really confident that we’re going to win,” she said.
“From March to November, what our role as someone coming from a deep, blue seat with a national platform — because that’s going to come with it — and a lot of resources, what (are) we going to do to make sure that we register all the people that we need to register in Texas-28 and how we’re going to get out the vote.”