Why Aren’t Democrats Supporting This Pro-Choice Candidate in Texas?

A Q&A with Jessica Cisneros, who will face one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in the House in a runoff this month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday that the leaked draft opinion of a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade is “a sweeping and severe restriction of Americans’ rights,” one that if issued, “would pave the way for Republicans to obliterate even more of our freedoms.”

But in a crucial Democratic primary runoff in South Texas, Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders are backing anti-abortion Rep. Henry Cuellar as he tries to fight off 28-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros’ second challenge from the left. 

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A longtime abortion opponent, Cuellar was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, a Democratic bill passed last year in the House to enshrine the protections of Roe v. Wade into federal law, spurred by the passage of what is effectively a ban on abortion in Texas. Cuellar’s district includes Starr County, where the district attorney charged 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera with second-degree murder and forced her to spend three days in jail last month for allegedly self-inducing an abortion, before dropping the charge.

And while Cuellar said Tuesday that he wouldn’t support the decision as written because it lacks exemptions for medical reasons and rape and incest, he reiterated that he opposes abortion, saying it should be “rare and safe” and that his Catholic faith “does not allow me to support extreme positions such as late-term or partial-birth abortions.”

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Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn have all endorsed Cuellar. Pelosi donated $4,000 to Cuellar’s campaign in December and reiterated her support for him following the March 1 primary, and Clyburn is set to campaign with Cuellar at an event in San Antonio on Wednesday. A Clyburn spokesperson told VICE News in an email that Clyburn “is still planning to be with Cuellar” Wednesday. 

Cisneros, who finished roughly 1,000 votes behind Cuellar in the primary out of nearly 50,000 cast, told VICE News that it’s been “frustrating” seeing the Democratic leadership stand behind Cuellar—even as he’s opposed Democratic agenda items such as the bill to make Roe’s protections a federal law, as well as the PRO Act, a monumental package of labor law reforms to empower workers.

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In contrast to the conservative Cuellar, Cisneros is backed by progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Warren participated in an online fundraiser for Cisneros Tuesday night and tweeted that supporting Cisneros “is something we can do right now to fight for abortion rights.”

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“It’s just a lot of cognitive dissonance,” Cisneros told VICE News of the Democratic leadership’s support for Cuellar Monday afternoon. “It’s confusing a lot of people, because their words aren’t matching their actions.”

[The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.]

VICE NEWS: What are your initial thoughts after reading the draft opinion that was leaked last night?

JESSICA CISNEROS: I'm still trying to process it. I have been bracing myself for this for quite some time, because I have a lot of friends and colleagues that I’ve met over the years who are [working for] reproductive rights. And talking to them, of course, I knew that this was the most likely scenario. But it’s one thing knowing that it’s going to happen and then reading the opinion from last night.

The people who are going to be the most affected by this are poor communities and people of color and immigrants, people who can’t afford their healthcare already. And that’s the demographics and the makeup of people in this district. It really hits close to home, because a few weeks ago there was a woman in Starr County who was arrested and prosecuted for trying to seek healthcare. Especially if Roe gets overturned, we're going to be seeing a lot more of that.

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Part of the argument Henry Cuellar and his supporters have made is that these are more conservative Democratic voters in your district. What have your conversations been like with your would-be constituents about what the end of abortion access in Texas is doing and will do to them?

In the March 1 primary, a majority of voters in Texas’ 28th voted for a pro-choice candidate. And when we talk to people here in this district one-on-one about the issue, just like most Americans, they overwhelmingly support Roe. Our district believes healthcare decisions should be left up to patients and their doctors and family or whomever else they wish to consult on such a personal decision.

And I’ve seen so much organizing across the district regarding choice. I’ve gone to rallies for Bans Off Our Bodies in San Antonio, I’ve gone to several events happening at campuses and protests outside of City Hall here in Laredo, then the rapid-response organizing that happened when Lizelle Herrera got arrested in Starr County. So this is definitely important to them.

We had a phone bank a few days after [the Women’s Health Protection Act] vote, and the first calls I made where I got people on the phone were women telling me they were very upset with Cuellar for voting with Republicans against codifying Roe. So I know these are issues that are really important to people because access to healthcare is really important to folks in this district, and that includes abortion.

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Why do you think House Democratic leaders are backing your opponent in this race?

I’m not the one making that decision, of course, so I can’t tell you why. But I can tell you it’s frustrating to see House leadership support Cuellar when we’re seeing him obstruct key Democratic priorities like the PRO Act and codifying Roe v. Wade. I think it’s especially upsetting to see them support him when we’re seeing the fall of Roe right before our eyes. 

The only reason I can think of is that he’s an incumbent. He doesn’t support Democratic priorities, and all I know is that when I’m elected, I’m going to be a much better partner in delivering those Democratic priorities for the people of Texas’ 28th and this country.

What do you make of the response of President Biden and other Democratic leaders to the opinion?

It just highlights how much our platform and the values of this campaign align with other Democratic elected officials. We all agree that abortion is a human right, that we need to act and wield the three branches of government to protect the rights of Americans across the country. This campaign very much aligns much more with Democratic priorities that we’re hoping to deliver, not just for the people of this district but across the country as well.

What are your thoughts on suggestions from some Democrats like ending the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court, and do you think those things can change the current situation?

This would be a House seat, so I won’t have a direct say on both of those issues. (Editor’s note: 50 House Democrats have signed on to a bill that would add four Justices to the Supreme Court.) But for me, it’s just really important to pull out all the stops and do everything we can do, because the stakes could not be higher right now. 

What do you think the House leadership’s endorsement of Rep. Cuellar says to people who care about the right to an abortion in Texas and elsewhere right now?

I think it’s just a lot of cognitive dissonance. It’s confusing a lot of people, because their words aren’t matching their actions.

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Tagged:

texas, roe v. wade, nancy pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, jim clyburn, Henry Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros

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