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Cuellar Victorious; Rodriguez Aims for ‘06

Bowing to political reality, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) signaled Tuesday that he would no longer pursue legal challenges to his contested primary defeat of four months earlier.

But Rodriguez — who lost the 28th district Democratic primary to former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar by just 58 votes out of 48,000 cast — announced that he would run for the seat in 2006.

“Starting right now, I’m preparing for the 2006 elections,” the four-term Congressman said in a statement.

Rodriguez did not formally concede, nor did he endorse Cuellar, who is now the heavy favorite in the general election to win the seat that runs from San Antonio to the Mexico border.

But Rodriguez’s move acknowledges the fatal blow he was dealt by a Texas appeals court late Monday in his challenge to the primary results. “We believe we’ve exhausted the legal avenues” for overturning Cuellar’s narrow primary victory, said Rodriguez campaign manager John Puder.

Rodriguez’s decision ends a contentious and confusing primary that featured contradictory election results, recounts and expensive legal challenges. And it is sweet relief for Cuellar, who two years ago lost a challenge to Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in an adjacent district by just 6,500 votes out of 150,000 cast.

“It was a long ride,” said T.J. Connolly, a consultant for Cuellar.

Rodriguez becomes the second House Democratic incumbent to fall victim so far to the re-redistricting plan pushed through the Texas Legislature last fall by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The first was freshman Rep. Chris Bell, who lost the March 9 primary to former Justice of the Peace Al Green in a Houston-area district that was significantly altered by the redrawn lines. Five other Democratic incumbents are considered endangered in the general election.

Initially, Rodriguez appeared to emerge victorious — by a slim 145 votes — in the March 9 primary. But a recount turned up missing ballot boxes in two counties on Cuellar’s home turf, resulting in a 203-vote lead for the challenger.

Rodriguez immediately cried foul, arguing that the ballots had been tampered with, and he went to court to overturn the result. A judge ordered a recount, producing Cuellar’s 58-vote margin.

Rodriguez then took his case to a panel of state appeals court judges, who at first ordered it back to the trial judge. But Cuellar asked the full appeals court to hear the case, and on Monday, that court ruled 5-2 on a procedural matter that prevented Rodriguez’s challenge from proceeding.

Rodriguez said he was “dismayed” that the court would not hear his arguments.

“I never got to present the evidence we’ve put together of illegal voting and ballot tampering,” Rodriguez said. “The evidence is there. I take comfort in knowing that if only legal votes were counted, I’d be the winner.”

The resolution of the legal dispute is certain to worsen an already nasty conflict between the two Democrats.

Rodriguez’s camp noted bitterly that the appeals court ruled along party lines, with only the two Democratic judges siding with the Congressman. Rodriguez’s camp cited Cuellar’s occasional alliance with Texas Republicans: He was appointed secretary of state by Republican Gov. Rick Perry and endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.

“It was very clear that Republicans wanted to get behind Cuellar,” Puder said.

But Cuellar, who served in the Texas Legislature before he became secretary of state, insisted throughout the primary campaign that he was a loyal Democrat, and Connolly said Tuesday that Cuellar is endorsing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for president this year, though he still considers Bush a friend.

“He was born a Democrat. He has served in office as a Democrat. And he will die a Democrat,” Connolly said, adding that Cuellar plans to join the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition if he is elected.

“Henry enjoys relationships on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Whether Congressional Democrats rally around Cuellar, however, remains to be seen. Rodriguez is the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and he helped raise doubts in some of his colleagues’ minds about Cuellar’s loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), who is slated to take over the Hispanic caucus in the 109th Congress, could not be reached by press time Tuesday to discuss how Latino Members viewed Rodriguez’s defeat.

Either Democrat would have been the heavy favorite in November against the Republican nominee, tax attorney Jim Hopson.

But Puder predicted that Democratic voters in the northern part of the district, where Rodriguez ran strongest, would not rally around Cuellar despite the area’s Democratic leanings.

“Because of all the publicity up here, Henry Cuellar is now associated with voter fraud,” he said.

Puder said Rodriguez would spend the time from now to November working to elect Kerry and Democrats throughout the state, and preparing for his 2006 campaign.

Connolly said Cuellar is not worrying about a rematch with Rodriguez right now.

“It’s a whole lot easier being re-elected than being a candidate who’s been defeated,” he said.

But Connolly said that Cuellar will campaign vigorously in the general election, despite being favored.

“When you come out 58 votes ahead, you take nothing for granted,” he said.

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