When a federal bill that would safeguard abortion access from state-level bans and restrictions passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September, it was a historic day in its own right, but especially so given what had happened in Texas just a few weeks prior. The Lone Star State had passed the most draconian abortion restriction in U.S. history. The country was also staring down a Supreme Court case threatening to overturn federal protections to abortion care.
The bill passed along party lines except for one Democrat who voted against the landmark legislation: congressman Henry Cuellar, from Texas’ 28th district.
This wasn’t the first time Cuellar had voted against the reproductive health of millions of American women. Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent, has a long history of voting against pro-choice legislation, and now stands as the last anti-abortion rights Democrat in the House. He regularly supported former President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Title X family planning program and was the only Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee in 2021 to support the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal health insurance programs like Medicaid from covering abortions.
But Jessica Cisneros hopes to make anti-abortion Democratic members of Congress an extinct species. The 28-year-old human rights attorney and daughter of Mexican immigrants nearly beat Cuellar in the 2020 primary, losing by less than 3,000 votes, or 4 percentage points, and is challenging him again in the March 1 primary.
“Henry Cuellar was an anti-choice Democrat [in 2020], he had taken bad votes and was out of step with his constituents then,” said Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America. “While there was a lot at stake then, nothing compares to how much is at stake now. Particularly in Texas, where we have this bounty-hunting abortion ban that has been in place since Sept. 1, and particularly in the 28th congressional district. It’s a really dramatic landscape this time in terms of abortion access and that’s a pretty significant development since the last time.”
Texas’ 28th congressional district stretches from San Antonio down to Laredo and encompasses part of the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 80% of the population is Hispanic.
“We’ve been saying it from the very start that we are providing a message of, ‘A vote for us is a vote to go against the status quo and provide an alternative, a different vision for south Texas,’” Cisneros told HuffPost. “Cuellar has been influenced by ... corporate PACs and other influences that are not necessarily like people from within this district. He has been throwing our community under the bus.”
Since 2020, abortion and reproductive rights are being threatened like never before, especially in Texas. Since a six-week abortion ban went into effect in September, abortions in the Lone Star State dropped by at least 50%, with many traveling across state lines to get care. Texas also implemented restrictions on medication abortion. At the same time, the country is staring down a future in which Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that protects the right to abortion, is either overturned or gutted, allowing anti-choice state legislatures to pass abortion restrictions more extreme than Texas’.
Cisneros remembers the day the House voted on the Women’s Health Protection Act because her campaign immediately saw an uptick in volunteers and donations as a result of Cuellar’s vote against the pro-choice bill.
“One of the biggest differences between me and Cuellar is that if I had been in Congress when that vote was brought to the House floor, I would have voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act,” said Cisneros. “I would have done whatever I could to get that bill passed.”
The consequences of the six-week abortion ban are acute in Texas, but especially in South Texas. The Rio Grande Valley, which makes up part of the district Cisneros is vying for, is an “abortion clinic desert,” advocates told HuffPost in October. The region only has one abortion clinic and contains nearly 20 internal immigration checkpoints, effectively barring undocumented people in the Valley from traveling to the clinic without fear of deportation.
The Rio Grande Valley has its own history with dangerous anti-abortion measures. Rosie Jimenez, a native of the Valley, was the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment which restricts federal health insurance from covering abortion procedures. Jimenez attempted to get an abortion in 1977 but couldn’t afford the procedure because Medicaid no longer covered it. Jimenez later died after going to an unlicensed midwife who offered to do the procedure for less money.
“When we talk about having Medicare for all and recognizing that health care is a human right, not a privilege — that covers abortion care as well.”
Despite being from a town just outside of the Valley, Cuellar has routinely supported the Hyde Amendment. Cisneros said she will do whatever she can to repeal the amendment if elected.
“Especially in a region like this, where we do have border patrol checkpoints as you try to leave border towns, a lot of issues are very intersectional and [abortion care] is one of them,” she said. “When we talk about having Medicare for all and recognizing that health care is a human right, not a privilege — that covers abortion care as well. It’s really important for us to be able to have the medical infrastructure here and the resources to invest in our community.”
If Cuellar’s anti-choice track record wasn’t enough help to Cisnero’s campaign, the incumbent’s home was raided by the FBI last month as part of a federal probe into the former Soviet nation of Azerbaijan. Cuellar currently holds a seat on the House Appropriations Committee and served as the co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus in recent years.
Cuellar denies any wrongdoing and has said he welcomes the investigation. No charges have been filed against him.
Another notable change is the blue backing Cuellar got last time around. Although some establishment Democrats are still supporting Cuellar — like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — other big names who backed him in 2020 have been relatively quiet, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Progressive Democrats, on the other hand, are out in full force for Cisneros. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) have all backed the progressive favorite, with Ocasio-Cortez and Warren traveling to Texas to campaign for the primary challenger.
“Every Democrat, every candidate, every member has the right to support who they wish to support, but I know that I’m here to support a candidate that’s gonna fight for women’s rights,” Ocasio-Cortez told HuffPost when asked what she makes of establishment Democrats who are still backing Cuellar. “I know that I’m here to fight for a candidate that’s gonna protect everyone’s right to choose and plan their family.”
Ford, from NARAL, believes that reproductive rights will be the deciding factor in the highly-anticipated primary.
“Jessica Cisneros is a champion for reproductive freedom and will stand up for people’s right to make their own decision about pregnancy and parenthood. Henry Cuellar has made it really clear that he won’t do that, and in fact he will work to dismantle the right to abortion,” she said. “Voters see that, they understand that.”
Early voting in the Democratic primary started Feb. 14 and the primary will be held March 1, 2022.