Jun 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Cuellar to Democrats: "Let me be me"

Photo illustration of Henry Cuellar pointing his finger at a tiny donkey.
Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a south Texas Democrat who narrowly survived a bruising primary challenge this month, lashed out at AOC and other progressives in an exclusive interview — insisting it's time for his party to "let me be me."

Why it matters: Cuellar's nail-biter primary against Jessica Cisneros reflects a broader fight between moderates and progressives about the direction of the Democratic Party.

  • Cuellar said progressives' demands for the party to move left on immigration, gun rights and other issues risk big losses in November and beyond — and that Democrats must leave room for lawmakers representing centrist or conservative districts to take positions that diverge from the new party orthodoxy.
  • He also said he's worried that Democrats may lose the open seat in south Texas — currently held by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D), who is running in a neighboring district — to a Republican in November.

What they're saying: "Of course I have a place in the Democratic Party. The question is, do those people have a place in the Democratic Party," Cuellar said of progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who championed Cuellar’s challenger.

  • “AOC and those people don't know what the definition of ‘progressive’ means," he said. "Somewhere down the line, somebody came up with a standard that if you don't agree with me, then you're against me."
  • "Go and open up a dictionary and see what the word ‘progressive’ means: Open to new ideas — not only their ideas."

Behind the scenes: As one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, Cuellar has broken with colleagues on issues ranging from abortion to immigration to gun rights — opening him up to criticism from both the left and right.

  • Despite Democrats' adoption of more progressive positions in recent years, Cuellar is confident of his place in the party, citing his endorsements from House Democratic leadership.
  • He boasted that for years he was the first Democrat to pay his dues to the House Democratic campaign arm, while "these people that are 'real Democrats,' they don't even pay their dues."

The big picture: Cuellar believes national Democrats need to better understand potential voters in places like South Texas, and too often take a one-size-fits-all approach to try to win over Latino voters in particular.

  • "The national Democrats need to understand that we all have our own issues that we understand better, and, like I told some people, 'Hey, let me be me and I'll keep this seat as a Democrat.'"
  • Cuellar pushed back against the idea that there's been sweeping political realignment among Latino voters starting in South Texas. "But have we lost some of those people? Heck yeah," he acknowledged.

Zoom in: Cuellar said Hispanic voters, especially those in rural areas, need to know "we believe in immigration reform, but we don't believe in open borders."

  • “We believe in keeping ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] jobs, Border Patrol jobs, oil and gas jobs."
  • "When it comes to Hispanics," Cuellar added, "You cannot use the same cookie cutter that a lot of people think we should be using."

Between the lines: Cuellar's narrow runoff win came despite an FBI raid of his home in January, a fundraising disadvantage and a leaked Supreme Court opinion putting a spotlight on Cuellar's anti-abortion stance — he is the lone congressional Democrat to embrace that view.

  • Cuellar declined to discuss the FBI investigation, pointing to his previous statements. Cuellar's attorney said in April that the Justice Department informed them the congressman was not the subject of the investigation.
  • Abortion’s prominence as a campaign issue likely helped Cisneros during the primary in the northern, urban part of the district near San Antonio, Cuellar admitted.
  • Cuellar said championing abortion rights can help Democrats in urban areas but that the party needs "to understand that there has to be a hybrid type of message."
  • The emphasis on abortion "worked in the urban areas, but it did not work in the rural areas," he stressed.
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