When moderate House Democrats lined up behind an impeachment inquiry, it looked as if those among them facing primary challenges from the left would be depriving their competitors of a powerful talking point.
But the emergence of Energy Secretary Rick Perry as a figure of interest in the impeachment hearings has complicated that calculation in one of the country’s most contentious Democratic primary races.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, an eight-term incumbent whose 28th Congressional District covers parts of South Texas, is a longtime friend of Perry’s ― shortly after the latter began his lengthy tenure as Texas’ governor, Cuellar served as his secretary of state, an appointed position. Now, the 64-year-old Cuellar faces a 2020 primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, 26, an immigration and human rights attorney who has sought to make an issue out of Cuellar’s ties to Republicans ― including Perry.
She has taken to calling Cuellar, who has broken with Democratic Party orthodoxy on gun regulations, immigration enforcement and abortion rights, “Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat.” And on Thursday, Cisneros demanded that Perry testify before the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry. She didn’t name Cuellar, but the implication was clear.
“We continue to hear credible testimony from witnesses appearing in the impeachment inquiry that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was both ‘in the loop’ and may have played a role in Donald Trump’s corrupt attempted bribery of Ukraine for his personal political benefit — and yet Secretary Perry has refused to do his duty and honor the Congressional subpoena to testify about what he knows,” she said in a statement. “When I serve in Congress, honoring our Democracy and upholding the Constitution will be among my highest obligations, but I know those outcomes rely on public servants like Secretary Perry to be willing to put country ahead of political party.”
Perry has refused to testify in closed-door impeachment hearings.
Pressure on him to testify is likely to grow stronger following this week’s explosive round of public testimony. U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that Perry was part of an instrumental group of Trump administration officials tasked with creating a backchannel to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the purpose of pursuing political investigations to benefit Trump. (Perry has denied Sondland’s version of events, through a spokesperson.)
Asked whether he would echo Cisneros’ call for Perry to testify, Cuellar appeared to endorse the idea without mentioning Perry by name.
“My position is unchanged: anyone with information should appear before the committee and answer questions under oath,” Cuellar told HuffPost in a statement.
Cisneros said she does not believe that Cuellar’s statement amounts to a request that Perry testify.
“Secretary Perry has refused to do his duty and honor the congressional subpoena to testify and produce any relevant documents,” she said on Friday. “As a longtime friend of Perry, I urge Congressman Cuellar to join me in calling on Secretary Perry to testify about what he knows.”
Cuellar, who is an attorney, served under Perry only briefly as Texas’ secretary of state, leaving office in October 2001 after just six months in the post. Cuellar went on to run for Congress in 2002, winning on his second go-round in 2004.
During his time in Congress, Cuellar has maintained warm relations with Perry. He was the only House Democrat to vote against a 2012 resolution condemning the name of Perry’s family ranch, which includes a racial slur for African Americans. That same year, he broke with his Democratic colleagues in the state when he declined to oppose the then-governor’s partisan redistricting plan. And according to Andrew Kreighbaum, who was a local reporter at the time, Cuellar even spoke about the possibility of feeling conflicted if Perry were the GOP nominee against then-President Barack Obama in 2012.
When Trump nominated Perry to his Cabinet, Cuellar spoke up on his behalf and urged his colleagues in the Senate to vote yes on his confirmation.
Cisneros was raised in the 28th district and moved back to it from New York to run for Congress. Backed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cisneros’ campaign is based on the premise that a solidly Democratic district deserves a more progressive representative in Washington.
She is running on a progressive platform of fighting for “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and a more humane immigration policy. But she has also raised eyebrows by picking up the backing of more mainstream Democratic validators, including some local labor unions and the deep-pocketed, pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List.
Cuellar maintains that his bipartisan approach is in keeping with the heavily Latino, low-income district’s preferences. He has the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
This story has been updated with additional comments by Cisneros.