Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has always been an unusual Democrat.
Representing a district that Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, Cuellar increasingly has sided with Republicans and business groups on workplace policy, not to mention on guns and abortion.
That approach has served Cuellar well. He’s represented the district that encompasses Laredo and San Antonio’s suburbs, stretching to the Mexican border, since 2005, at times without a primary challenger. But as the eight-term lawmaker heads into his latest re-election bid, his voting record is pushing away much of his already scant union support, as organized labor insists that politicians back legislation it wants or suffer the consequences.
Only three of the seven unions that had donated to Cuellar’s campaign at this point in the last election cycle have given him money this time, Federal Election Commission records show. Around 2% of the $580,940 he’s received this cycle has come from unions. Last cycle, he raised more than $1 million from PACs and other campaign committees. Unions and Democratic contributions accounted for 3% of that. The majority of Cuellar’s contributors are from businesses like oil and gas companies and private prison operators.
While political action committees tied to unions including the National Education Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have contributed to Cuellar, the Communications of Workers of America District 6, which covers Texas and several other states, on Oct. 23 endorsed Cuellar’s primary opponent—Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old human rights lawyer.
“It’s time for Congressman Cuellar, who has sided with Donald Trump 67% of the time and earned the nickname ‘Trump’s favorite Democrat’, to go,” CWA Local 6143 Legislative-Political Director Charles Fuentes said in a statement announcing its endorsement for Cisneros.
In 2017, the most recent year available, the AFL-CIO’s rating on Cuellar, based on the labor federation’s endorsed policies, fell to 55% from from 75% the previous year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Cuellar a 92% favorable rating in 2017 and 93% in 2016.
Cisneros is backed by the Justice Democrats, which supported the successful 2018 primary campaign in New York City for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Cisneros has also received endorsements from Democratic presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ocasio-Cortez and Emily’s List, giving her campaign a boost in publicity and resources — though she has sworn off corporate PAC and lobbyist donations.
She supports a major legislative priority for unions: the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474), which proposes massive changes to federal labor law. It’s a bill unions have said will serve as a litmus test for 2020 candidates. CWA District 6 cited Cisneros’ support for the PRO Act in endorsing her.
Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign spokesman, referred to the PRO Act as a “Christmas tree bill filled with provisions.”
“If they want to make one particular vote a litmus test then that’s their prerogative. We don’t make decisions on how to vote based on who will support us. That’s two separate things,” he said.
“Super progressive policies” like the PRO Act are unwise and could ultimately hurt the Democratic Party in its effort to take over the Senate, and White House, Strother said.
Several attempts to speak to Cuellar directly were unsuccessful.
District Colors Votes
The Democratic Party has embraced a platform over the past two years that includes giving unions more power to bargain, raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and banning forced arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes. Congressional Democrats are also racing to finish work on the PRO Act. The House Education and Labor Committee approved the bill in September and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) the bill’s lead sponsor and the committee chairman, said he’s still optimistic the bill will receive a floor vote by the end of the year.
A majority of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.), and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) have adopted platforms that would strengthen unions and embrace California’s new law forcing gig and other businesses to reclassify independent contractors to employees. Moderate Democrats and incumbents like Cuellar are facing pressure to align with the progressive wing, James Henson, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project, said. That goes for the party in Texas, which has increasingly been in play for Democrats.
Strother points to Cuellar’s district as the reason he votes the way he does. Small business as well as energy and oil-drilling are the biggest industries in Cuellar’s district, he said. He said Cuellar has support from public safety unions, though the congressman’s campaign finance records didn’t reflect any monetary support from those groups.
“The congressman represents his district. That’s never going to be uncomfortable for him,” Strother said. “That’s what each member is sent there to do. If we had more members focusing on their district rather than party we wouldn’t be in the position of not being able to pass legislation.”
Energy and oil-drilling company political action committees are frequent donors, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Hess Corp., which have donated $2,500 and $1,500 respectively in the most recent campaign finance disclosures. The Valero Energy political action committee donated $10,000 so far this year to Cuellar’s primary and general election campaigns.
He has consistently supported legislation that boosts those industries and helps invest in worker safety programs, Strother said. Cuellar supported the House fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill that bolstered several worker protection agency programs as well as various worker safety and training programs, according to a breakdown of his labor voting record for this year provided by his office.
Support in Business
Businesses view Cuellar as a reliable supporter who is “pragmatic,” two lobbyists from business associations said.
“With 1,100 locally-owned franchise businesses in his district, why wouldn’t Rep. Cuellar want them to succeed? He’s been an effective advocate for small businesses and their employees because he’s willing and able to work across the aisle in a thoughtful, constructive way,” said Suzanne Beall, with the International Franchise Association.
The IFA favors a bill supported by Cuellar that would use trademark legislation to protect franchises from responsibility for wage-and-hour violations against franchisee employees and shield them from having to collectively bargain with those workers. Cuellar’s endorsement of the Trademark Licensing Protection Act of 2019 (H.R. 4164), directly opposes a critical piece of the PRO Act’s mission of making it easier for employers to be considered a joint employer.
Although Cuellar has voted with the Democrats 89% of the time in the 116th Congress, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis, he has broken with them on a number of bills.
This year, Cuellar voted against the House bill (H.R. 1423) that would ban forced arbitration in various situations including employment. He has also yet to back the FAMILY Act (H.R.1185 , S. 463), which would create a federal paid family and medical leave social insurance program, funded through a payroll tax.
Cuellar voted for measures designed to fight pay discrimination (H.R. 7), prevent on the job bias against LGBT workers (H.R. 5), and to raise the federal minimum wage to a $15 an hour (H.R. 582) this year. He’s also a cosponsor of the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (H.R. 1230), which would make it easier for workers to prove discrimination or retaliation claims.
The way Cisneros tells it, Cuellar only voted for the Raise the Wage Act because of the pressure from her campaign.
“I think this campaign is reflective of a push to policies like these” within the national Democratic party, Cisneros said in an interview of her election effort. “The people’s views are progressive. I believe the Democratic Party is the party of the working people. Cuellar’s stances are not reflective of that.”
Strother is quick to dispel that idea. He notes she supports the Green New Deal, a climate change initiative backed by progressives that some energy sector and building trades unions view as a threat to jobs, and one that he said could negatively impact the district.
Where is the Party Going?
Unions may be hesitant to back Cuellar, but he still has the support of the most powerful Democrat in federal government: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(Calif.), who recently endorsed him.
While Ocasio-Cortez gets attention as a leader of a new generation of progressives, the number of Democrats considered moderate increased in the House with the 2018 midterm wave, which was fueled by moderates flipping seats from red to blue. Cuellar is member of Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, the more centrist Democratic caucuses.
Despite this, Montserrat Garibay, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, said Texas is changing and Cuellar should consider changing as well. The Texas AFL-CIO hasn’t released its endorsement lists yet.
“Unfortunately, Congressman Cuellar has sometimes adopted the rhetoric and policies of big business special interests who do not want working people to speak up together,” Garibay said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg Law. “Texas is changing, and we hope Congressman Cuellar will listen to the voices of working families who make up the large majority of his district.”
—Data Editor Christina Brady contributed to this article.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org