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Cuellar Visits Hill to Mend Fences

Just one week after formally securing the Democratic nomination in the 28th district of Texas, Henry Cuellar on Wednesday made his first visit to Washington, hoping to mend fences after his primary defeat of — and long legal battle against — Rep. Ciro Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, the current chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had been strongly backed by his fellow Members in what became an extraordinarily contentious primary.

Although the two men initially squared off in a primary March 9, a series of recounts and legal challenges led to a July 13 decision by the 4th District Court of Appeals that effectively ended Rodriguez’s challenge and left Cuellar with a 58-vote margin of victory.

Cuellar told Roll Call on Wednesday that he is well aware of the whispers about him in some Washington circles — namely, that his history of working on some issues with Texas Republicans suggests that he may switch parties after he joins the House.

But he flatly denied that possibility, and blamed Rodriguez for attempting “to poison the well here for me.”

“I am a Democrat,” Cuellar said. “I will remain a Democrat. I have always been a Democrat. Do I work with Republicans on issues? Yes I do.” But Rodriguez, Cuellar said, is “misread[ing] the spirit of bipartisanship. He feels that if you work with Republicans, you must be a Republican.”

Cuellar, the former Texas secretary of state, said he reached out to Rodriguez following the appeals court decision but the Congressman “was not available,” said Cuellar.

Cuellar added that while he “understands the relationship that Ciro has with his colleagues,” he believes that once he gets a chance to show “that I will be a good Democrat,” their opinions will change.

“I feel confident that through time and actions I will be able to develop a good working relationship with those Members,” he added.

Judging from reactions on the Hill, however, Cuellar’s decision to challenge Rodriguez in a primary following the redrawing of Texas’ Congressional districts still strikes a raw nerve among some Members.

One Rodriguez ally in the House said that “the chances of Ciro putting out the welcome mat for Cuellar are about as high as President Bush calling you up and saying he wanted to be a Democrat.”

“To have [Rodriguez] challenged that way leaves a very bad taste as to whether I can trust [Cuellar] or not,” added Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), who is expected to take over the CHC in the 109th Congress.

Napolitano said that she, along with many other members of the CHC, donated — at Rodriguez’s behest — to Cuellar’s 2002 challenge to Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in the 23rd district.

In that race, Cuellar came up 6,500 votes short out of more than 150,000 cast.

“What makes it hard is that I even put money into the gentleman’s race because of Ciro,” said Napolitano. “It leaves a question in my mind on whether I can trust him.”

Rodriguez has already announced that he will run to reclaim his old seat in 2006. He is also contemplating a long-shot legal appeal with the Texas Supreme Court by week’s end that aims to overturn the lower court’s ruling.

After leading on primary night by 145 votes, a recount found hundreds of missing ballots in the Laredo area — Cuellar’s base — nearly all of which went for the challenger, handing him a 203-vote margin.

Rodriguez, whose political base is in the northern portion of the San Antonio-based district, filed suit challenging the results, alleging that Cuellar’s margin was the result of voter fraud and ballot tampering.

A judge-ordered recount narrowed Cuellar’s margin to 58 votes, which wound up being the final margin.

Cuellar’s past elective history has provided some evidence for those who suspect he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

After serving seven full terms representing Laredo in the Texas House, Cuellar was appointed secretary of state by Republican Gov. Rick Perry (R) following the 2000 election. He resigned from that post shortly afterward to pursue his race against Bonilla.

A well-placed Democratic leadership aide said that concern about Cuellar switching to the GOP has died down considerably in recent weeks.

“There was some concern about him flipping, but he has been pretty adamant about not flipping,” said the aide.

The aide added that hard feelings among colleagues after a tight loss by one of their own is nothing new. In the current Congress, Reps. Denise Majette (Ga.) and Artur Davis (Ala.), both of whom defeated Democratic members in primaries last cycle, had to deal with that problem.

While Rodriguez was more “well-liked” than either of the two defeated incumbents last cycle, the source said, Members recognize that “politics ain’t beanbag” and will soon adjust to Cuellar in the caucus.

Cuellar said he is keenly focused on showing voters a “different style of representation” in the hope of setting down roots in the district before he runs in this fall’s general election against tax attorney Jim Hopson (R) — and, more importantly, in the rematch against Rodriguez comes 2006.

“Between now and November and for 2006, I intend to work the northern part” of the district, Cuellar said. “Once [voters] see me and see that I produce, we will be able to win the northern part of the district.”

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