POLITICS

Green New Dealers Name Oil-Friendly Texas Democrat As First 2020 Primary Target

Sunrise Movement is betting on an upset, à la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to swell the ranks of Green New Dealers in Congress. But this time, it’s in Texas.

The campaigners behind the Green New Deal named Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the eight-term congressman dubbed “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat,” as their first primary target of 2020.

Sunrise Movement, the youth-led nonprofit whose protests last year popularized the Green New Deal slogan, endorsed Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old immigration attorney mounting a progressive primary challenge against a conservative Democrat whose reelection campaign is heavily funded by the oil industry. 

The endorsement marks a return to its roots for Sunrise Movement, which cut its teeth in the 2018 election campaigning for a slate of green populists, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). 

The group surged to national fame last fall when it staged sit-ins in then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding that the ascendant House Democrats make a Green New Deal a top priority. Since then, Sunrise Movement has made itself a potent player in Democratic politics, most recently waging war with the Democratic National Committee over its refusal to schedule a climate-only presidential primary debate. The effort failed, but the pressure campaign convinced two major networks to host detailed, hourslong forums with the candidates. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. 
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. 

The endorsement in Texas’ 28th congressional district, which fans out southwestwardly from San Antonio to the Mexico border, is no surprise. Cisneros began raising money nationally in June when Justice Democrats, the left-leaning group behind Ocasio-Cortez’s David and Goliath primary run in 2018. Cisneros’ allies hope to depict her as the next Ocasio-Cortez, a youthful Latina champion of the working class and a climate change realist. Elizabeth Warren, a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, endorsed Cisneros earlier this month. 

The oil and gas industry was Cuellar’s top donor in 2018. While that’s predictable in a district where the industry is a top employer, $143,500 of the $165,900 haul during that cycle came from industry political action committees, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Cuellar, whom FiveThirtyEight pegged as voting in President Donald Trump’s favor 69% of the time, boasts a 42% lifetime “F” score from the League of Conservation Voters.

Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old Texas progressive challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, speaks at a Green New Deal rally in June.
Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old Texas progressive challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, speaks at a Green New Deal rally in June.

Yet, Cuellar is what Texas Monthly called a “long-entrenched figure in South Texas politics.” A proud Blue Dog Democrat and “fiscally conservative deficit hawk with a mixed record on abortion rights,” Cuellar is heavily favored to win in a district where he carried more than 84% of the vote in the last election. The mostly Hispanic district could deliver an early test of whether the Green New Deal’s promise of good-paying transition jobs for fossil fuel workers persuades reliably Democratic voters in oil country. 

“Henry Cuellar represents all that’s wrong with Washington,” Varshini Prakash, Sunrise Movement’s executive director, said in a statement shared first with HuffPost. “Even though he calls himself a Democrat, he rakes in campaign contributions from fossil fuel CEOs and Wall Street and joins with Trump to do their bidding in Congress. Young people like Jessica Cisneros have seen the impacts of these failed policies for our entire lives.”

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