As runoff elections approach Tuesday, Senators Bernie Sanders joined other high-profile politicians in San Antonio in endorsing Laredo-native Jessica Cisneros in the Democratic primary in Texas’ District 28.
“This country is moving toward an oligarchic form of society in which a small handful of people who have unlimited amounts of money are exercising their power to determine the legislation that is passed in Washington and who gets elected to Congress,” Sanders said.
“[Cisneros] is a candidate by the people and for the people,” he added. “You should vote for her to tell these billionaires that they cannot buy elections.”
Cisneros is facing off against incumbent U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Legislature. Known as “The King of Ladero” for his nine terms as a representative, Cuellar has been weakened after an FBI raided his house, which his lawyers say was not to investigate him directly.
Senator Sanders railed against income inequality and the billionaire class at the rally. Wealthy donors, he said, have poured money into Texas politics to influence the outcomes of elections. In endorsing Cisneros, he contrasted Cisneros to her opponents, who received large sums from wealthy donors while Cisneros has run a grassroots campaign.
“It took me having to go to Washington to actually figure out what type of representation we were actually receiving in this district,” Cisneros said, referring to Democrats’ flight to Washington, D.C., in July last year to break quorum in the Legislature to prevent the GOP from passing anti-voting rights legislation.
Cisneros missed beating Cuellar outright in the March Democratic primary, coming just over 1,000 votes short of unseating Cuellar. Runoff elections generally turn out fewer voters than the general election. Cisneros has a true underdog story—she interned for Cuellar in 2014, where she said she discovered what he really thought of the people and issues in her district.
“It took me actually having to be in his office to find out that Congressman Cuellar was anti-labor, to find out he was anti-choice, to find out he had lobbyist after lobbyist go through his office and never really host[ed] families that looked like mine,” Cisneros said.
Speakers lambasted Cuellar as an anti-working class candidate because he voted against legislation that would have strengthened the right to unionize and has several high-dollar donors. Cuellar openly opposes abortion rights, which have been thrust to the center of the state’s political discourse in the wake of Senate Bill 8, which banned abortion after six weeks, and a recently leaked Supreme Court opinion from Associate Justice Samuel Alito that would repeal Roe v. Wade.
Leonard Aguilar, Treasurer of Texas’ chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said Cisneros had his organization’s endorsement.
“This is our chance to elect someone who will work for the working-class people of San Antonio,” Aguilar said. “Cuellar had the opportunity to help working-class people. The biggest reason why labor is not supporting Cuellar is because he voted against the PRO Act; he voted against the fundamental right to organize.”
The PRO Act, which passed the state House in March, died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
However, Cuellar’s unique brand of Democratic representation has reminded political operatives that Latinx families like Cieneros’ are not a voting monolith. Democrats were stunned when former President Donald Trump carried Zapata County—a 94 percent-Hispanic county with a population of less than 15,000 in South Texas—in the 2020 election.
After the primary, either Cuellar or Cisneros will face off against Republican candidates Sandra Whitten or Cassy Garcia. Whitten was the 2020 Republican nominee for the seat and Garcia is a former staffer for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Both the Republican candidates are also seeking to appeal to the Latino community.
Sanders and Cisneros took different tacts when trying to appeal to the crowd. Cisneros drew on her identity. She recalled her parents’ dreams when they came to the country and her experiences as an immigration lawyer. Sanders cast a wider net, saying that a more progressive Democratic Party would bring all together.
“We need a progressive movement that brings together the working families of this country together, Black and White, and Latino, Native American, Gay or Straight,” Sanders said. “We need representatives in Congress that are from the working class that knows the pain people are experiencing and are prepared to go to Washington and fight for the working class.