Five years ago, Jessica Cisneros was a 20-year-old intern in Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar’s Washington office.
Now, two bachelor’s degrees and a law degree later, she’s running against him in the 2020 Democratic primary for Texas’ 28th District with backing from the group that helped New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sweep out longtime Democratic leader Joseph Crowley in a primary last year.
Even in 2014, when Cisneros was grinding away as an intern in Cuellar’s office by day and cramming into a row house two blocks east of the Supreme Court with 16 other fellows from the University of Texas by night, her colleagues could recognize her political ambition.
A full-time staffer for Cuellar at the time frequently referred to her as “Congresswoman Jess” because, she told Cisneros at the time, “it’s going to be you running for office one day.”
Once that spring, when Cisneros and Cuellar were walking back to the office from one of his TV interviews, the congressman overheard the staffer refer to Cisneros by her nickname. He was not amused.
“Congressman Cuellar heard that, and he turned around and looked at me and kind of said something along the lines of, ‘Start at the bottom, start at a lower office, not Congress,’” Cisneros told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “I can’t remember exactly what the phrase was, but it was something to that effect.”
At the time, Cisneros nodded along in agreement. “Oh, OK. Sure,” she thought.
But Cisneros doesn’t think that way anymore. It’s a new political era where youth, energy and womanhood can be assets on the campaign trail, especially in a Democratic Party that’s made gender equality and female representation in politics and in the workplace trademark issues.
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Following in their footsteps
Two female freshman Democrats — Ocasio-Cortez and Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer — were 29 years old when they won election to the House last fall. Finkenauer turned 30 in December. Ocasio-Cortez is still 29. Cisneros will be 27 when the Texas primaries roll around next year.
“People think there’s this set pathway to Congress, that you have to have this political experience or something like that — and that’s not true,” Cisneros said. “As a south Texan, somebody who was born and raised here, especially as a woman, knowing what the experience is down here, [that’s] the best experience you can bring to Congress.”
Cisneros said she learned early on during her Capitol Hill internship that she did not see eye-to-eye with Cuellar on a number of issues.
As a candidate, Cisneros has pledged not to take any corporate PAC money. She has endorsed a progressive slate of policies, including a $15 minimum wage, “Medicare for All” and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal that proposes to revolutionize the U.S. economy’s energy apparatus by shifting it away from gas to sustainable sources.
South Texas is one of the most oil-rich areas in the U.S., and Cuellar has enthusiastically supported continued drilling in his district to prevent job losses. Property taxes on oil-rich land parcels that dot the district buttress the public school system and support thousands of families with jobs, Cuellar has argued. In 2015, he voted to lift the federal ban on crude oil exports, a measure that divided Democrats at the time.
Stretching along the southern border with Mexico and reaching north into San Antonio, the 28th District has been in Democratic hands since it was first drawn in 1993. Cuellar has held the seat since 2005.
The right fit
Cuellar, a former chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, is staking his political survival on internal polling that he says shows the district is still comprised mostly of “more moderate, conservative Democrats.”
He voted with Democratic leadership 76 percent of the time in the last Congress, the third-lowest score among Democrats in President Donald Trump’s first term, according to CQ’s Party Unity analysis. He voted with Trump 67 percent of the time in the 115th Congress, the second-highest score for a House Democrat, according to CQ Vote Watch. Cuellar is also one of the few remaining Democrats in Congress backed by the National Rifle Association.
Cisneros is betting that her former boss is wrong about the ideological makeup of the district — that Cuellar is, to dust off a worn-out political cliché, out of touch.
“I was in Cuellar’s office every single day … and never once did he ask me as a constituent — because he knew I was from Laredo, he knew I was his constituent — what I thought the office should work on or what I think about how he’s doing as a congressman,” Cisneros said.
“And if that was me, somebody that was in his office every single day, easily accessible, then what was he doing for the people of south Texas?”
Cuellar campaign spokesman Colin Strother dismissed Cisneros’ claims that the congressman is out of touch with voters in his district.
Cuellar has never lived in Washington, and he spends 20 hours a week traveling to D.C. and back to Texas on the weekends.
“During district work periods, he travels from one side of the district to the other,” Strother said. “He’s the only member of Congress that we are aware of with a multi-county district who holds neighborhood office hours on a monthly basis in every single town.”
For the staffers
As a former Capitol Hill intern, Cisneros has some changes in mind to improve conditions for low-level staffers and remove the influence of money on politics. She is quick to highlight that Cuellar is one of the few sitting Democrats who has consistently received donations from the billionaire Koch brothers; ExxonMobil; Marathon Petroleum; and GEO Group, a Florida-based company that operates privately owned prisons.
But Strother countered that, if anything, it’s Cisneros who’s being manipulated by an outside interest group: Justice Democrats, the New York-based progressive organizing outfit that recruited her to run this cycle after helping orchestrate Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory last year.
“This isn’t the Bronx, this is the border,” Strother said. “She’s going to find that out really quickly.”
Another of Cisneros’ concerns for Capitol Hill staffers is even more basic: access to cheap food for interns.
“I’d probably address the fact that there are no real food places near Capitol Hill,” Cisneros said, laughing. For years, the neighborhood surrounding the Capitol was devoid of any supermarkets where college students and permanent residents could find cheap groceries.
She’ll be heartened to know that interns living in Capitol Hill have more options than when she lived there in 2014: A Trader Joe’s opened earlier this year smack in the middle of Capitol Hill, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Eighth Avenue Southeast.